Monday, August 27, 2007

Assumed possibilities

John Cage, Burkhard Schlothauer - For Seven Players

Well I'm sure you'll be relieved to hear that this recent Wandwelweiser release doesn't appear to be dedicated to, or heavily influenced by, any visual artists at all ;)
This CD features two compositions, the first being John Cage's Seven, written in 1988, and the second Burkhard Schlothauer's 2002 work 15 similar events - septet. Both compositions were recorded on the same occasion by Ulrich Krieger (clarinet) Normisa Pereira da Silva (alto flute), Burkhard Schlothauer (violin), Julia Eckhardt (viola), Marcus Kaiser (cello), Guy Vandromme (piano), and Tobias Liebezeit (percussion).

Its probably no surprise to learn that both compositions are played in a quiet, studied manner and that both exude a gentle and beautiful charm. There are clear links to be drawn between the New York School of thought from the 50's and the work of the Wandelweiser collective today. These two works compliment each other well, both concerned with the balance of indeterminacy and prescribed composition. Each composition presents the musicians with a set of timings and restrictions on what they can or cannot play during these timeframes.

I have not managed to hear any recorded versions of Seven, before this one. Like all of Cage's late 'numbers' pieces the title merely refers to the number of players, who are then presented with time brackets within which they must play a prescribed set of sounds in order. Mostly the musicians are given precise pitches to play, (their selection made by Cage using chance operations) their freedom being where in a particular timeframe they place them (though always in order). The three stringed instruments are mainly instructed to play col legno, (with the wooden reverse of the bow rather than, or possibly with, the hair) and single sustained notes are most common from those instruments able to produce them. By composing in this manner Cage kept a reasonable control over the likely outcome of the music, with particular sounds and some of their textures defined, but enough uncertainty remains, to be resolved by the individual musician's choices and sensibilities.

So how does it sound? Well very nice indeed. The music has a restful calm about it, not falling into complete silence very often, but moving at a slow pace and with a softness not untypical of a Wandelweiser release. The events unfold steadily with elongated notes overlapping, punctuated by individual piano notes mainly formed from separate keys played simultaneously. With Seven Cage mainly replaces choice with chance, prescribing the vast majority of the musician's sounds, but arranging their realisation in such a way that those sounds come together differently with each performance. The sensitivity of the musicians remains a key factor however and all of these elements conbine here to produce a quietly beautiful work.

Schlothauer's piece is composed using a similar degree of freedom for the musicians, but without the use of chance operations to decide on pitches and timings. The seven musicians are given a list of five sounds that they should play within fifteen time brackets. Of the five sounds each musician chooses to use one of them five times, another four times, another three times and so on, thus allowing the musicians to decide to some degree which sounds will be heard more often. A complicated system of timings and instructions regarding who may play when causes the music to form into fifteen short clusters, with long periods of sound between them.

Again, the music is brought to life with great poise and the result is a work of real beauty. A much more sparse, empty performance results from Schlothauer's piece than did with the Cage. The two works sound different to each other, the blank space written into the more recent composition adding a sense of tension to the music, though it also lacks some of the progression formed throughout the music of the Cage piece.

So what is the role of the musicians in this music? They have a limited opportunity to shape how the music may sound in each of the compositions. yet are restricted the freedom of an all out improvisation. They are still given much more of a role in the music than a fully notated work however. Whereas the performers of a traditionally notated composition are able to impact a performance through their passion and emotional presence in the music, here the players are allowed a little further into the creative process, playing music that is distinctly the composer's, (or defined by the composer through the use of chance) yet allows a more social development to refine its form. In his sleeve notes Schlothauer draws an analogy with 21st century life in a time of great change; having lost certainties, should issues of probability and possibility now be addressed? Whilst it could be argued that Cage was investigating these areas decades ago there is still plenty of scope for interesting music in this area, as this lovely CD proves.

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