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A few reflections on Beyond Notation: An Earle Brown Symposium

Note: If you attend a symposium or conference in New England, please consider submitting a short report for publication on this blog. You may send your submission to rebecca dot marchand at gmail dot com.
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Beyond Notation: An Earle Brown Symposium
January 18 & 19, 2013
Northeastern University

I'm glad to say it was teaching that kept me from attending the first day of Beyond Notation: An Earle Brown Symposium at Northeastern University, rather than some less noble excuse. I did attend many of the events on Saturday, however, and the day concluded with an extraordinary concert by the Callithumpian Consort. I offer a few reflections here, but this is by no means an exhaustive report on all events of the symposium, nor even all the events I attended.

 Richard Toop's keynote offerings (introduced via an audio recording of Toop and then read by Rebecca Kim) on lyricism in Brown's "Centering" (1973) gave me a deep appreciation for Ethan Wood's stunning performance with the Callithumpian later that night. Volker Straebel's paper, "Interdependence of Composition and Technology in Earle Brown's Tape Compositions Octet I/II (1953/54) highlighted some important distinctions between Cage's thoughts about sound versus Brown's view of sound durations--particularly Cage's more contrapuntal approach and Brown's "sound events that may or may not overlap." Brown's remark regarding the "kaleidoscopic abstraction of the library of sounds" invites me to spend more time incorpating Brown into my Feldman seminar. One of the biggest treats of the day was hearing Straebel's realization of Octet II, as the work was never realized in Brown's lifetime. I was struck by the sonic effect of looping the source material, as opposed to Octet I. As a musical work, the looping really did provide glue, particularly for a multi-channel piece. The lack of decay, as well, made Octet II a far different listening experience than Octet I. A question from the audience remarked on the irony of Brown's skepticism toward musique concrète, but the point was made (and I think rightly so) that the goals of musique concrète were more narrative, and that the use of chance operations negotiate Brown's issues with the art form.

Another highlight of yesterday's sessions was Stephen Drury, who led members of the Callithumpian Consort in a performance of John Zorn's Cobra, an unpublished game piece reliant upon a series of cues, but spontaneous in its musical material. Zorn describes these works as "tying together loose strings left dangling by composers such as Earle Brown, Cornelius Cardew, John Cage and Stockhausen...".(1) Drury provided just enough explanation of how the piece worked, but then let the work speak for itself, which seems to be largely the point. The presentation questioned conventional definitions of improvisation and composition, and Drury's abstract summarized beautifully the crux of the matter: "We learn/understand by traveling backwards through history; the recent past informs the less recent past; performers ain't what they used to be." (2) Drury mused that listening to Cobra without watching it made the experience both better and worse, and this stemmed from a question from the audience regarding the role of personality in improvised and open form works. One audience member offered that Cage strove to remove personality & performer's ego from his music, whereas Zorn seemed to thrive on it. I'm not ready to say that Cage and Zorn represent two polarities, because I think the whole "ego-less" mantra surrounding Cage's music is easily problematized, but positing Brown's open form works as a sort of "middle-ground" was intriguing. Another valuable insight stemming from this presentation was the idea that, although these game pieces can "sound like anything," they must sound good. Perhaps therein lies the real labor in performing a piece like this. Zorn's "community of players" have an aesthetic responsibility to themselves and the audience.

After this performance-demonstration, Stephen Drury conversed with Christian Wolff, which generated some interesting discussion regarding ideas of "perfection" in performance, the contemporary context for the rekindled popularity of this music, and the caveats brought about by recordings and access to previous performances of open form and improvisational works.

After lunch, Louis Pine offered a workshop on "Aspects of Earle Brown's Use of the Schillinger System of Composition" with a focus on Brown's 1992 work Tracking Pierrot. I only caught the last fifteen minutes of the workshop, but it did seem to be a worthwhile examination of Brown's pre-compositional plans and an attempt to more fully articulate the impact of Brown's study at the Schillinger House in Boston from 1945-1950. Jason Cady, of the Earle Brown Music Foundation, followed Pine's presentation with a generally helpful overview of Brown's compositional ideas and methods. I think all specialized symposia should open with a presentation of this type, inviting those less familiar with the subject to be more engaged. Particularly since one of the goals of these events is musical advocacy, expanding the conversation toward those outside of the niche should be a consideration.

It was Frederick Gifford's paper, "Imagining an Ever-Changing Entity: Compositional Process in Earle Brown's Cross Sections and Color Fields," that I found most engaging from the perspective of sketch and manuscript studies. In a beautifully organized presentation, drawn from an exhaustive examination of the sketches, Gifford proposed a five-step compositional process that perhaps most importantly put Brown's thoughts about open form as a later step, if not the last.

I did not attend the last session, but returned for the fantastic concert by the Callithumpian Consort, which beautifully contextualized Brown's Corroboree (1964), Centering (1973), Available Forms I (1961) and Sign Sounds (1972), in reference to two works not by Brown: Boulez's Constellation-Miroir (1957) and Zorn's For Your Eyes Only (1989). Steffen Schleiermacher was the guest soloist for the Boulez, and beautifully rendered the composer's materials. In his program note on the work, Richard Toop remarked on the irony in performing this work as part of this symposium: "Sure, it represents Boulez's work at precisely the point where he started to advocate Brown's music. Yet in other respects it seems to represent the opposite of Brown's pragmatism. In Cage's Notations, Brown writes: 'Good notation is what works.' But apropos Constellation-Miroir, Boulez might rather have written: 'Good notation is what mythologises'." (3) All the performances of the night were inspired and visionary, but Ethan Wood's performance in Centering was particularly profound, embodying the "otherworldly" aspect that ends the piece with a quotation of Maderna's first oboe concerto.

Bravo to the organizers and participants for such a wonderful symposium.

(1) John Zorn, "The Game Pieces" in Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music, eds. Christoph Cox and Daniel Warner (New York: Continuum, 2009), 196.
(2) Beyond Notation: An Earle Brown Symposium, program, 18.
(3) Beyond Notation: An Earle Brown Symposium, program, 27.

(Cross-posted at Musically Miscellaneous Mayhem)

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