This Past Week, 3: Music for Merce

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

This past week started with an amazing set of concerts: the Music for Merce CD release celebration. On Sunday, March 20, at Roulette, there were two concerts celebrating the music culture that grew up around the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. To paraphrase John King, “you could do concerts of experimental music where 200 or 300 people would show up (if you’re lucky), but playing with the Cunningham Company, you would be playing for well over 1000 each evening.” It was, of course, thanks to John Cage that Merce had such amazing music. But the company’s music did take on a life of it’s own, with these two concerts including works by Jon Gibson, Annea Lockwood, David Tudor, Pauline Oliveros, and Stuart Dempster, to name only a few.

Having worked with MCDC in 2007, a year or so before Merce passed, I was honored to have been asked to participate in this event. In both concerts there was a quartet of musicians randomly chosen to play together. (I later noticed that the random process resulted in straight alphabetical groupings, yet another example that randomness is much more accepting of order than we human’s like to think.) I was asked to play in a group that included three of my favorite musicians: Ikue Mori, Marina Rosenfeld, and Alvin Curran (whom I had not seen for at least ten years!). The instructions for these groups were simple: come up with our own unique timeline using at most 12 minutes of the 15 minute time slot. In pure Cageian fashion, we were to perform our timeline without being influenced by what the other were doing. Our quartet started off the packed 8:30 show. In these sorts of situations I let my sub-conscious, lizard-brain, composer take over and, as such, don’t consciously remember much of what happens. But I do remember one particularly interesting moment. I had just picked up a glass rod-mallet in order to play a repeated rhythm on two glass half-globes filled with glass shards. As soon as I started playing, a drum rhythm started sounding, an audio clip from one of the laptops (I think it was Ikue). Not only did we unexpectedly start together, but we were almost exactly in the same tempo. Since I was the human, it was up to me to decide whether or not to adjust my tempo to match the recorded loop. The decision was a no-brainer, given the situation, and I hunkered down with my internal clock and let the two tempi go separate ways. (I did, after all, study with phasing-masters Bob Becker and Russ Hartenberger many years ago.)

There was so much amazing music in these two concerts, it’s hard to know what to write about. But there was something…, and it’s odd, because after all these ear-opening timbres and other-worldly structures, what was a real revelation for me were a set of simple piano solos. Of course they were composed and performed by one of the most masterful sound explorers and a true pioneer of live-electronic music, Gordon Mumma. These simple yet compelling compositions made equal-temperament make total sense! There was something about his choice of dissonances, and his combination of melodies and pitch clusters that made more sense and spoke more directly to me than any conventional use of harmony ever has. Here was a master musician who had emerged from the world of pure sound to give the supreme instrument of the industrial revolution a new and eloquent voice. I was totally blown away.

Then of course there was “Da Committee,” aka the MCDC Music Committee: David Behrman, John King, Christian Wolff, and Takehisa Kosugi. As a whole and in other groupings, they played music like no others. I’m sure Merce, Cage, and David Tudor were very happy that day, from whichever form or non-form they were experiencing it. I left that evening knowing their legacy is as strong and everlasting as pure vibration itself.

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