Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Spin-17: John Cage's "Aria with Variations II" Sept 23 2006

Spin-17 at the 2006 NYC John Cage festival.
On the downtown Contemporary Classical circuit...

Ed Chang: Electronics
Motoko Shimizu: Voice

     In the Fall of 2006, Spin-17 (a duo comprised of myself and vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Motoko Shimizu) were invited to perform a John Cage piece as part of a Cage festival in downtown Manhattan. John Cage is, of course, the famous avant-garde composer noted for his playful use of chance and randomicity to generate unpredictable events in his compositions. Although probably most notorious for his "silent piece" ("4'33"), to me his individuality was probably best expressed by his unselfconscious and playful approach to trying new things. In contrast to the European avant-gardists, Cage always seemed to be more mischievous and "tongue-in-cheek", and less concerned with measuring up to some kind of musical legacy (such as the one established by revered giants like Bach, Beethoven, Debussy, and Schönberg). Oftentimes his music can also be characterized by a Zen-like disregard for purposeful continuity (or narrative), and is punctuated by blocks of silences (or rather, silences are punctuated by dabs of sound).

     Anyways, Motoko and I had recorded a version of Cage's "Aria" (for solo voice) on our 1999 eponymous debut CD, in that case coupling Motoko's performance with a semi-improvised 4-channel tape collage (one of my musique-concrete-based "Compos'T" pieces, as briefly described in an earlier entry). This idea was an homage to the premiere recording of "Aria" by Cathy Berberian (Time Records, 1962) which, for that record, was coupled with Cage's jump-cut tape collage piece "Fontana Mix". Since 1999 we had performed "Aria" with improvised electronics dozens of times (such as at the Knitting Factory), but for this Cage festival event I decided to actually learn and perform a "real" Cage piece instead of just improvising (Cage actually frowned upon free improvisation). Ultimately, I decided to do a rendition of Cage's contemporaneous "Variations II" piece using my homemade "Noise Machine" electronics set up. The premiere recording of "Variations II" by David Tudor was performed with the use of contact-miked piano innards (strings and coils), and so I felt that my guitar-pickup-based contact mike methodology was an appropriate analogue.   

Ed Chang during a performance of "Cartridge Music".
     The live performance went off without a hitch, and I was also fortunate enough to participate in a rendition of Cage's "Cartridge Music" with John McDonough, Paul Spencer and Kurt Gottschalk. Sadly, I never got any recordings from this gig, but I do have rehearsal recordings, which are featured below. In brief, these performances can be described as fast-changing, isolated vocal fragments (employing various "characters" and languages), in dialogue with a stream of amplified and distorted "junkyard sound effects". 

     In the playlist below, the first track is the 2nd take of "Aria & Variations II" using a "24-event version" of "Variations II" (this is the arrangement that Motoko and I ended up using at the Cage concert). Following this are "bonus tracks" featuring additional vocal and Noise Machine takes with differing levels of density (55 events being the most dense). I must have used a mixture of miking and direct signal, since I can hear police sirens in parts...(somehow I don't think Cage would have minded).


     This track below is a "meta-coupling" using two takes, in effect having 2 "Arias" and 2 "Variation IIs" going at the same time. A similar multi-tracking strategy was used on the premiere recording for Cage and David Tudor's "Cartridge Music". I kind of like this "meta-collage" mash-up version, although admittedly it's not as Cage-ian anymore.

     What follows are closer looks at Cage's compositions and the performer choices Motoko and I made in realizing them (preparing for them).

"Aria", Page 6. Each color or line style indicates a pre-assigned vocal style to be used.
© C. F. Peters Corporation
"Aria" (and "Fontana Mix")
     "Aria" is performed by a solo vocalist from a 20-page score, with each page having graphic notation describing pitch curves, timing and vocal "character". The sung text is in 5 different languages: Armenian, Russian, Italian, French and English (why no German?). During preparations, the performer chooses 10 vocal styles to use in the performance (mapped to the 10 line styles/colors). Motoko chose the below approaches for her 10 different vocal styles:
  • Dramatic
  • Sprechgesang (speak-singing)
  • Chest voice
  • Operatic (coloratura)
  • Screaming
  • Coquettish (Betty Boop)
  • Nasal
  • Whispered
  • Chant with chest vibrato (religious)
  • Inverse breathing
     There are also 16 auxiliary "noise" markings interspersed (also based on performer preference). Some of the auxiliary noises Motoko used include a stomp, a lip smack, a hand clap, a lip trill, inverse gasping, a growl, croaking, etc.

     Cage created the composition itself from measurements taken from the realization of his piece "Fontana Mix". Essentially, through the use of various arbitrarily-placed transparencies with shapes and lines on them (see sample "draw" below), measurements are made between various specified points - in effect generating "unpredictable" numbers. These numbers determine the various musical parameters for every sound in a "version". In "Aria", the "Fontana Mix" measurements were used to organize a semi-random sequence of changing language texts and vocal styles. The timing, rhythmic values and pitches of the graphic notation curves were also probably derived in the same manner. 
(Example of a "Fontana Mix" draw (result))
Variations II
     Similar in many ways to "Fontana Mix", "Variations II" also uses arbitrarily-placed transparencies with dots and lines to generate a semi-random string of numbers, which are then used to "program" musical events in a performing score. In "Variations II", the values obtained from measurements are used to assign the following parameters for each "note event":
  • Frequency (pitch)
  • Amplitude (volume)
  • Timbre (tone)
  • Duration (length)
  • Point of occurrence in an established period of time (timing)
  • Structure of an event (the number of sounds at the same time, or bunched together)
     The actual "sound-producing instrument" is left open, as well as the number of players (Cage doesn't mention how a multiple-player version works, but I assume each player creates and plays their own realization of "Variations II" and they all play independently of one another - or alternatively, I suppose they could distribute the Events of a single sequence to multiple  players based on readings from the transparencies).

     Following the instructions of the score, I did several "transparency draws", took pictures of them, and then arbitrarily assigned parameters and numbers to lines and dots. After measuring the prescribed distances, I used the obtained numbers to assign the 6 parameter values for each Event in the performance score. Since the actual number of Events and the time-scale for "Variations II" is left open in the score, I at first tried to fit 55 events into 8 minutes (the approximate length of Motoko's "Aria" version). This seemed a bit busy for a Cage piece, so I redid the score for just 24 events, allowing for a more "patient" flow. 
Transparency sheets with dots and lines were haphazardly dropped into a pile.
The distances from the dots to lines (using a perpendicular angle) was measured for each "draw".
Above are four "draws".
For each of 12 drawings, I measured 30 dot-line distances, and categorized them as Short, Medium or Long
(except for the timing parameter). These were listed in Event rows with the assigned line parameter (Frequency, Amplitude, Timbre, Duration, Timing, Structure).
At the top right of this worksheet is an early concept "infographic" to visually show the parameters for one row/Event. This was ultimately replaced by the "box" notation shown below.

The Noise Machine
The Noise Machine (circa 1999).
The "machine" itself is the guitar pickup mounted in the watch case,
and arranged around it are some of the implements used on it
(you could say that, instead of bringing the contact mike to the piano,
I brought the piano to the contact mike).

     The Noise Machine is essentially a used humbucker guitar pickup pulled out of the back of a drawer at a guitar store, and mounted in a plastic watch case. This pickup "sans-guitar" is processed with the SansAmp amplifier simulator. The Noise Machine is "played" by hitting/rubbing/scraping things on the pickup in various ways, and adjusting the control knobs and switches on the SansAmp pedal to adjust tone and volume. An "overdrive" setting on the SansAmp can deliver Merzbow-like textures, while a "clean" setting approximates a Cage "Cartridge Music"-like sound.

     In order to perform "Variations II" live, I created a visual shorthand score designed to work more intuitively with the Noise Machine (David Tudor did a similar series of "nomographs" for his performances). Below is Page 1 of the final performance score I used. Read chronologically as two columns, I tried to "portray" the knobs of my SansAmp pedal in my notation. The top left 1st event has markings indicating what each line means (t = duration, fr = pitch, dist. = distortion (timbre), vol. = volume, right hand "o"'s indicate the density of the event).
John Cage's "Variations II" as a performance score (Ed Chang).

     In retrospect, I wonder why I didn't do a guitar version of "Fontana Mix" (following Cornelius Cardew's example). The score for "Aria" specifically names "Fontana Mix" and parts from the "Concert for Piano and Orchestra" as possible accompaniments. Oh well, just being "mischievous", I guess...

The Last Variation
      In contrast to my own free-improvised performances using the Noise Machine, I found that a rendition of Cage's "Variations II" forced me to isolate distinct sounds within long silences. Typically in an improvisation, ideas organically develop as an uninterrupted sequence of sound textures, with a few impulsive jump-cuts/non-sequiturs here and there. The textures usually evolve through the gradual shifting of one or more parameters. "Variations II" was quite different in that no event was purposely related to the previous one, and silences separated each of these short sound event fragments. I suppose this description of unrelated sounds separated by long and short silences is applicable to many of Cage's pieces (including "Aria", of course). Although "Aria" was a favorite of Motoko's to perform, I have to admit I never did "Variations II" again, preferring instead to concentrate on more textural explorations than structural ones.

     It's interesting to note that David Tudor's piano-string recording (see YouTube video below) is drenched in feedback, due to the loud monitor speakers interacting with the piano strings. This "unintentional" feedback element actually provides a background "sea" upon which his isolated Events float (or submerge under). In this regard, my version is technically closer to what Cage intended in the score, but Tudor's version sounds better to me because this "accidental" feedback element gives his performance a more organic flow, based on "cause and effect" (for example, attack and feedback). Nonetheless, Cage was perfectly happy with Tudor's rendition. I don't know, there seems to be some tongue-in-cheek sentiment here, if you ask me...

More info:
"David Tudor's realization of John Cage's Variations II" (essay by James Pritchett)
"The Shapes of Indeterminacy: John Cage's Variations I and Variations II" (David P. Miller)
David Tudor's original version of "Variations II" (YouTube)
Cathy Berberian's performance of "Aria with Fontana Mix" (1958)
"Aria", Page 4.
© C. F. Peters Corporation

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