“European conductors enjoy performing it…”


From London Review of Books:

Before the Second World War, American composers went to Europe. That was the way of the ‘boulangerie’, the group including Aaron Copland who studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. After the war, though, they began to take seriously Charles Ives’s declaration that ‘we have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe.’ They started taking liberties. In Music 109, his winsome new book on the postwar American avant-garde, Alvin Lucier writes of his first encounter with the music of John Cage in Venice in 1960. David Tudor played the underside of a piano while Cage, Merce Cunningham and Carolyn Brown danced round the theatre reading instructions for actions out loud from cue cards. Cage tuned a radio to a broadcast of the pope pleading for world peace. At the end of the concert a courtly-looking gent strode angrily down the aisle, hit the piano with his cane and proclaimed: ‘Now I am a composer!’

Much of the work of the American avant-garde was about coincidence – the pitting against each other of unrelated elements, and the accidental synchronies that ensue. This is most obviously true of Cage, whose presence dominates the first half of Lucier’s book: in Indeterminacy, for instance, recently revived by the pianists Tania Chen and Steve Beresford, and the comedian Stewart Lee, an actor reads short stories while a pianist improvises in a separate room, accompanying the reader though he can’t hear what he’s saying. But it’s also true of many of Morton Feldman, Earle Brown, Christian Wolff and Lucier’s own compositions. In Feldman’s The Swallows of Salangan, for chorus and orchestra, the players choose what speed to play their parts at. Lucier compares the moments of fluke when everyone comes together to ‘oases scattered across a desert landscape’.

Spontaneity and improvisation became important compositional strategies. This was partly down to Cage’s influence – he believed that more of the responsibility for music-making needed to be transferred from the composer to the player – and partly to jazz’s. In From Here, Brown, who had worked as a jazz musician, allows the conductor to improvise the structure of the piece on the fly. The score describes 14 ‘events’ that can be played by the instrumentalists: if the conductor wants them to play the first event, he holds up one finger; if he wants a mixture of events one and two he holds up one finger with one hand and two fingers with the other, and so on. ‘European conductors’ – notorious egotists – ‘enjoy performing it,’ Lucier says.

“Whizz with a Circuit Board”, Nick Richardson, London Review of Books