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.
Beyond Notation: An Earle Brown Symposium
January 18 & 19, 2013
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
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.
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an unpublished game piece reliant upon a series of cues, but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.
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
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
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)