Accessibility: Is It Music’s First Order Of Business?

Mike Silverton

[March 1998. Originally appeared in La Folia 1:1.]

When Franz Joseph Haydn arrived in London from remote Esterháza in 1791, he did so as a celebrity on the strength of published works. His second visit to England was an even greater success. It does to bear in mind, however, with regard to that city’s entertainment consumership, Haydn’s appeal was to a relatively small circle of cognoscenti. Those whom Haydn set out to please – for dazzle he surely intended to do- understood the context within which his savory innovations deployed. Scintillate, yes; delight, surprise, amuse, certainly. However, the thought of dumbing-down his art would have struck the master as absurd. Relative to later, fragmented times, Haydn and his public dwelt within a flexible, albeit contiguous, context. The idea, most assuredly, was not to flummox one’s public. Like the Serpent into Eden, enters, alas, the vexatious question of degrees of separation. Our reptilian antagonist appears in Haydn’s departure from aristocratic patronage, under which he operated as a kind of master craftsman – as, if you will, a top-drawer domestic – for the catch-as-catch-can of free-market survival. Mozart’s story in this regard is all the more poignant.

To be sure, creative genius happens, but never asunder from events. The divine right of monarchs gave way in Europe to the quasi-divinity of the creator, for our narrow purpose, of music. It was with the irascible Beethoven that the Romantic movement’s vision of the artist’s divine apartness – the composer as inner-directed genius – really took hold. And soon after, flight. (Never mind Stockhausen – many listeners still find Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations tough going.) The schism between the “serious” artist and his middle-class public has continued to widen over the course of two centuries of Western art music, the sub-Olympian needs of which have long been serviced by journeymen best remembered as forgettable. Crowd pleasers of talent – the Donizettis and Gounods of our choice little world – one’s brief overlooks. We speak rather of the art-for-art’s-sakers-&-shakers who’ve pushed the leading edge to the point, for many, of no return.

Whom or what to blame? Or should that be cherish? The bourgeoisie’s triumph over church, gown and crown? Chopin perhaps, or the old, experimental Liszt? Is Berlioz the one? Wagner certainly! And most particularly Wagner’s heirs, Mahler and Schönberg, and out of Schönberg, Berg and Webern … . One’s list is short and blinkered: A respected European commentator has observed, for example, that had Bruckner lived at a later time, he’d have written music very much like that of the late Giacinto Scelsi. In other words, and as a general principle, matters move forward, develop, evolve, or degrade. I believe this to be true. (As usual, real-world developments swamp ivory-tower givens. Intellectuals – Theodor Adorno among the philosophers and Pierre Boulez among the creative artists – asserted not long ago that music had no choice but to continue along the trail blazed by the School of Second Vienna. The position’s frail hold on events suggests ingesting absolutes with generous grains of salt. I speak therefore and only as a music lover eager to share his interests with those who are willing to try something new.)

I further believe that, however removed from the median, music exists to be enjoyed. If codes there are to be broken, this is play for cryptographers. It must never be a question of “Eat your kelp, it’s good for you.” (As a matter of last resort, one can discipline himself to contemplate traffic as an audio-visual event possessed of esthetic gravitas. As a young and reckless fellow, I spent many a peyote-launched moment doing just that. Oh those yellow cabs!) Conversely, music above ear-candy’s station requires of the listener a degree of active interest. This is as true of Gesualdo as it is of Morton Feldman. God and Satan may share in the details, but passivity is most assuredly Sloth’s domain. A “difficult” American composer, Charles Wuorinen, has been banging away at this requirement for years.

I’d like to join in this Anvil Chorus from what I hope is a helpful position. A New York museum exhibits (as I write) the last works of the late Willem de Kooning. The painter was well along in senility when he did them, if indeed he “did” them at all. It’s been suggested that “assistants” moved canvases against de Kooning’s brush. Be that as it may, the work, which passes well enough for decoration, is by comparison to the masterpieces of the ’50s and ’60s dull and empty stuff. Were these trifles anyone else’s, we’d not give them another glance. They really belong over an Italian-leather sectional in a furniture-showroom window. One need not be a curator to see the deficiencies; the eye understands and perhaps enjoys the vagaries of mid-to-late twentieth-century art to the degree where one is capable of sorting superior from pedestrian fare. The astonishing energies of Jackson Pollock’s “drip” paintings are apparent to all but the most obdurate of viewers. Only knuckle-walkers any longer say, “My kid could do that.”

And yet, as comfortable as museum and gallery visitors have become with past and recent vanguard idioms, unease remains the watchword with regard to aural art that takes a roughly parallel direction. Painting’s abandonment of the illusion of three-dimensions for two-dimensional immediacy is one thing, whereas music’s protracted distancing from eighteenth-century tonality is quite another, less widely accepted matter. My suggestion is simply this: When the listener shelves his need for the comfortably familiar, he will perhaps begin to sense music’s uniquely abstract nature – its occupation of time with event representative of naught but itself. And pay attention to that.

Certain harmonic and rhythmic manipulations do indeed invoke the spirits of exuberance, melancholy, eros, angst, silliness, etc. And others, not. But anything we hear, if we so will it, impresses the mind (which the French better call esprit) as an aspect of coherence. My own indelible validation occurred while reviewing a succession of CDs of the aleatory music of John Cage. By whatever manipulation of chance the work in question came into being, it bore for me the Cagean stamp. Most interesting. But! - that I heard cohesive musical discourse is what really gave me pause. I think I understand: I’d become so adapted to Cage’s overview and modus operandi that I succeeded in providing an adhesive to aural events – a necessary linkage – that someone less accepting might well shrug off as Brownian randomness. Let’s be careful here: I do not claim that Cage’s four books of Freeman Etudes for solo violin will call flowerbeds to mind (for which, Irvine Arditti’s he-sold-his-soul-to-the-devil performances on two Mode CDs, 32 and 33).

I believe that a touch of self-discipline helps in removing what for some listeners is the necessity of a visual accompaniment. I am saying as emphatically as I can that we cannot but hear music as a linear occupation of time, and that anything thus constituted impresses the mind as an entity of related parts. Further, the executants themselves assist in this perception through their need to phrase notation, however unorthodox, in such a way as to satisfy, perhaps unconsciously, their own sense of continuity and craft.

I recognize in my remarks the suggestion of critical abdication. Unintentional, I assure you. One need not check his judgment with his hat for a Night at the Anti-Pops. It is, as with all things, a question of adaptation, to be followed at a respectful distance by acceptance or rejection. The listener is, as always, the soloist of last resort.

As he’s already in the picture, let’s begin with a disc entitled Daughters of the Lonesome Isle [New Albion NA070CD], consisting of music John Cage wrote for conventional, prepared, and toy piano, performed most elegantly by Margaret Leng Tan. Excepting Music for Piano #2 of 1953, the program features work that predates Cage’s discovery of the I Ching, the Chinese Book of Changes, and the chance operations relating thereto. (Zen Buddhism also figures in this critical shift in attitude. Cage’s prepared piano, the strings of which host an inserted motley – rubber washers, bolts, screws, weather stripping, bits of wood, bamboo – is a one-performer percussion ensemble capable of great delicacy. See also Margaret Leng Tan’s handsomely recorded toy-piano program, The Art of the Toy Piano, on a Philips Point CD, 456 345-2.) Leng Tan’s New Albion program, which begins chronologically with Bacchanale of 1940, reveals in the final work a revolutionary change of heart and procedure: The aleatory serenity of Music for Piano #2 addresses, as tellingly as anything can, the composer’s flight from disquietude. The interesting thing here is that a seemingly soulless methodology in no way finds confirmation in this luminous performance. We have been transposed from worldly urgency and fuss to a kind of exalted indifference consistent with so much of Cage’s aleatory work. Engineer Tom Lazarus’s recording is a match to MLT’s insights. (She performs the fourth of seven works, the 1947 ballet score, The Seasons, on a conventional piano. A BMG Catalyst release [09026-69751-2], Music for Merce, features the Eos Ensemble, Jonathan Sheffer conducting, in performances of a most unCagean orchestration. According to Sheffer’s notes, ” … some suspect that Cage was not fully responsible … .” Indeed. Roy Harrison and Virgil Thomson lent a homogenizing hand.)

On then to volume 12 of Mode’s ongoing Cage project. Mode’s main man, Brian Brandt, sorts by category. The Number Pieces I [Mode 44] features Four3, for violin, piano, and a dozen rainsticks; One5, for piano; and Two6, for violin and piano, all recording premieres and among Cage’s final works. The spelled-out four of Four3 (1991) refers to the number of performers. The superscript tells us that this is Cage’s third discrete essay for a combination of four – in the event, a violinist and two pianists, each of whom operates rainsticks, and one performer on rainsticks alone. Since we’re on the subject, the unsuperscripted Four of 1989 is for string quartet, for which see Mode 27, with the redoubtable Arditti.) Philanthropists and those among you with $10,000 speaker cables could do worse than help bankroll a worthy enterprise. Like everyone in the kulcha dodge, Brandt is looking for funding. Normally, he produces his own stuff. The Number Pieces I is the very good work of Radio France, Michel Bernard, producer, Madeleine Sola, engineer. The rainstick is a sealed tube – originally the dried-out stalk of a desert bush – studded top to bottom with in-facing thorns or nails for engaging a batch of cascading seeds. Imagine shifting fields of hail on a distant sheetmetal roof. Imagine for this release a spirit of detached serenity.

But Cage proves as hostile to consistency as he was to the ego’s need for expression, which he attempted to obliterate by means of a system that operates beyond the composer’s will. Well, almost. For a taste of unstrung, lunatic energy, see hatART Now Series CD 2-6095 [two discs]. Eberhard Blum, flutist and steadfast new-music partisan, here vocalizes Sixty-Two Mesostics Re Merce Cunningham of 1971. (A mesostic is a kind of typographic lark. In Cage’s examples, a name occurs vertically at the center of a column of words.) Blum sounds out, ever so brilliantly, twisty columns of extravagant graphics printed in its entirety in Cage’s M, Writings ’67-’72, Wesleyan University Press, 1973. The CD’s notes provide four perfectly adequate reproductions of the original typography and the text in its incomprehensible entirety in straightforward typescript. The trip, need one say, is Blum’s performance, the precedent for which stems to some degree from dadaist Kurt Schwitters’ voice piece, Ursonate, for which see Blum again on hatART CD 6109.

As to production values, I’ve yet to year a shabby-sounding hatART release. The encomium includes David Tudor’s “historic” and mind-bending readings (’58-’59) of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s diabolically frisky Klavierstücke I-VIII and XI, as among the planet’s more brilliant examples of music whose last care is for the listener’s comfort [hatART CD 6142]. David Tudor’s mention in a Stockhausen context is apt enough: the then young German became aware of the American’s preternatural digits in European performances of works by Cage. Perhaps the outer-edgiest of Blum’s performances is Stockhausen’s Spiral [hatART CD 6132], for voice, flute and shortwave receiver, which sputtery device Blum accompanies entirely off the cuff. “Off the dream wall” says it as well.

To return to Cage: For two remarkably well done large-scale conceptions, see Wergo CD WER 6212-2 / 286 216-2, Concert for Piano and Orchestra and Atlas Eclipticalis, with pianist Joseph Kubera and the Orchestra of the S.E.M. Ensemble, Petr Kotik conducting. Kotik is an old Cage hand, and Kubera stands at the forefront of new-music advocacy. The recording, engineered by Tom Lazarus, is a model of dynamic detail. The choice of concert over concerto is purposeful: In the normal course of concerto events, the soloist engages with the orchestra here as competitor, there for boon companionship, there again for solace. The quite independent piano part in Concert for Piano and Orchestra has been used in the tape-piece Fontana Mix and as accompaniment to a lecture. And yet, to return to a stubborn need, one hears an interplay between Kubera’s quite independent piano line and Kotik’s ensemble. Certain enigmas are all the more fetching for remaining just that. This large-ensemble version of Atlas Eclipticalis takes its title from the star charts Cage used to determine note placement. (I’m listening as I write to an attractive Delos CD [DE 3194, a John Eargle recording] of the chamber music of Carl Maria von Weber, performed by clarinetist David Shifrin and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. Irreconcilable tastes? Elastic rather.)

Yet of everything here discussed, these next for me work as distillates of magic. We’ve now a live festival performance of Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra, with David Tudor and the Ensemble Modern, under Ingo Metzmacher’s direction [Mode CD 57, volume 16 of that label’s Cage series], recorded by Hessian Radio in 1992. Given the strictly prescribed latitudes its executants enjoy, the work plays in effect as another entirely vis-à-vis Kotik and Kubera. This gorgeously recorded Mode performance is the more muscular. The soundstage’s precise localization, which figures as an important component, cannot be bettered. As to what we hear, I find it particularly interesting that personality – other, that is, than the composer’s – succeeds in coloring a conception ostensibly remote from emotion or the suggestion of a narrative. As a new-music virtuoso, the late David Tudor stood alone; in keeping with Tudor’s panache, the Ensemble Modern, on disc and in concert, performs where required well beyond the call of duty. The remaining two works, Concerto for Prepared Piano and Orchestra (1951) and Fourteen (1990), a bowed piano among its fourteen instruments, each in its way equally engaging, features pianist Stephen Drury and his Callithumpian Consort of the New England Conservatory, recorded respectively and very well indeed by Frank Cunningham and Joel Gordon in ’92 and ’94.

And when the sun sets for good and all, the virtuous hie them to heaven, where the music’s by Morton Feldman. ALM is the love-creation of recording engineer Yukio Kojima, and O.O. Discs is the Japanese label’s American distributor. Like Tudor, Aki Takahashi stands with one foot in legend. Better still, she’s alive. Triadic Memories of 1981 is for piano alone [ALM ALCD 33]. For John Cage of 1982, in which Yasushi Toyoshima, concertmaster of the New Japan Philharmonic, joins Takahashi, is for violin and piano [ALM ALCD 41, two discs]. Either recording is a marvel of transparency, and again it matters profoundly, for the music’s effect, as it passes before the enchanted mind, is that of gossamer. Henri-Pierre Roché says in a memoir of his friend Marcel Duchamp, “His finest work is his use of time.” I can think of no observation better suited to Feldman. The composer’s blithe assumptions with regard to the listener’s patience and stamina is easily confused with anti-art chutzpah. To transcend a superficiality, one goes to recording, where the etiquette of concert attendance is happily shelved. When the recording is this good – intimate, exquisitely detailed, transparent – the enchantment takes you by the ears.

Is accessibility music’s first order of business? The response, I suppose, depends on one’s requirements and temperament. Happy listening.