Laugh or Listen?
The school of thought predominant Wednesday night can best be termed the school of spontaneity. It feels that traditional notation has little to do with the actual experience of music. Instead, it searches for music's intangible spark in improvisation and random organization.
John Cage's a Cartridge Music hooted at the traditional techniques: the piano was struck, plucked, hammered, loaded with paper and blankets--all within a minutely-timed schedule whose details were as ironically pointless as incomprehensible.
Despite the commitment to improvisation, both Cage and Christian Wolff do limit the performer's freedom. In his Atlas Eclipticalis Cage lays out alternative paths between groups of notes whose duration and number, though not order, are specified; Wolff, in his Duo for piano and violin, details no paths but indicates specific cues to follow. The performers did not display any of the intense fascination or variation of common patterns which mark jazz and are essential to improvisation in general. Even if the performance of the Cage piece had been good--and it certainly was not--no compelling seriousness would have silenced the laughter with which the audience received it.
This is not to say that the works had no appeal. In the Atlas contact microphones mounted on each instrument added an ominous depth to the sound: melody leaped tantalizingly among sharp, bare rad, violin, generated an awesome tension when notes and percussive punctuation until engulfed by electronic bellowings. A fine performance of the Duo by Wolff at the piano and Anthony Condelicate stabs of sound and momentary eruptions broke the frequent stretches of silence. The style grasped my attention because its bareness provoked a wary expectancy of what would be thrust out next.
But while striking instrumental entrances proclaimed a self-conscious profundity, there was no groundwork of conventions whose variation might tell just what the profundity was about. The music did not demand the concentration essential to divining the deepest beauty in other romantics, say Bruckner or Wagner; its sound initially excited me because of its claim to deepness, but then left me unmoved because it never sketched out a subtle emotional message. When the announcer said that Morton Feldman's Piano (Three Hands) was "infinite personal experience," he parodied just that pretentiousness of style.
What most separates this music from traditional art is its faith in happenstance. For however much the spontaneous school circumscribes chance and improvisation, it believes that artistic aspiration does not need direction to achieve beauty. How optimistic!
It was refreshing, then to hear a more disciplined piece: Louis Cohen's Formats, a 12-tone piece for violin, clarinet and piano. It began by shrugging its shoulders, then moved through flippancy and somberness before closing with a final shrug. But unfortunately several sustained unions jarred the style, as did a rasping clarinet and a generally crude performance.
Also in contract to the school of spontaneity was Alan Kemler's pointlessly disciplined see the pearl of night. Kemler has superimposed on tape six readings of a poem of his own and has carefully controlled sound qualities and interplay of voices. Whispers hissed above brisk utterances, and the sound swelled to an offensive cacophony which subsided with "love's a pool of blood/and death a soaring sparrow." The jerky rhythms were tedious and the sounds at times quite unpleasant. Use of total control in so artless a fashion shows just why the school of spontaneity has rebelled from fixed musical organization.
The evening was indeed a catch-all. In David Behrman's Whistling Six, six unusual flutes and whistles cooed and chortled flirtatiously, and two even used bubbles to make sounds. Such a diversion is certainly a delight, but we laughed at it less for its real humor than for its juxtaposition with the serious pieces on the program. Here was a piece that was supposed to be funny.
That the audience laughed at so much else on the program casts doubt on the seriousness of newer innovating composers. If they wish to be really listened to and considered musicians and not curios, they must eliminate from programs the laughable and eccentric works which confuse the evening's purpose. The music has fallen between humor and seriousness, and the composers have not yet convinced the audience that their interest is in either.