Exhibition: Experimental Scores from 1950s New York

cabinet-2One of the things that strikes me about the music of John Cage, Morton Feldman, Christian Wolff and Earle Brown in the 1950s is how uneasily it might sit in the library of a conservatoire of music. It represents attitudes to sound, composition and value-judgements like skill, quality, or success and failure which seem to me to be at odds with those of the mainstream of western classical music history. And this seemed to me a good reason to drag it out and examine it under the lights of the library display cabinets.

But first things first – why does this music tend to be grouped together and described as ‘experimental’? Attempts at naming and defining a musical movement seem to me to be doomed to exceptions and over-simplifications, intended as they are to take in the work done by a range of different personalities over a vaguely-defined period of time. Yet, they have their uses. Something new really did seem to happen in the way people were creating and thinking about music in New York City, beginning in the 1950s, and calling this new music ‘experimental’ seems reasonable. At least, John Cage seemed to think so:

“The word ‘experimental’ is apt, providing it is understood not as descriptive of an act to be later judged in terms of success and failure, but simply as of an act the outcome of which is unknown.”  [written in 1955][1]

Cage is the composer most associated with the inception of this new music, but the work of all four men has a further attitude in common; they were all writing music which was at one remove from the person who made it, and thus somewhat distanced from their own tastes and prejudices in favour of a more objective approach to sound. Michael Nyman, in his book on experimental music, also adds that it is music which is somehow distinct from the ‘well-trodden but sanctified path of the post-Renaissance tradition’ of avant-garde composers such as Boulez, Xenakis, Kagel, Berio, Stockhausen, Birtwistle, Bussotti.[2] I’ll come back to that.

John Cage’s famous ‘silent’ piece 4’33’’ was composed and premiered in 1952 and is often the place to start off any discussion about experimental music. Consequently, I almost cringe talking about this piece. It seems to have been picked over again and again, endlessly. However, one of the reasons this is the case is that it’s just such a good example in the way in encapsulates many aspects of the new attitude towards music that began to emerge in the work of a number of composers around the same time in the same place.

cage

John Cage at a drinks reception at the Cage/Cunningham Residency at the Laban Centre, July 1980.  Photo by Peter Sayers (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Cage’s piece grew directly out of his realisation that sounds surround us always, even in the quietest of places, and if we attend to them, and accept both intended and unintended sounds into composition, a new attitude to making and listening to music is born – ‘Happy new ears!’, as he put it.[3] His move was to simply provide a time-frame (the duration of which was generated by chance) in which an audience could attend to all the sounds that surround them. And although 4’33’’ is the idea taken to its logical extreme, the emphasis in this new attitude was not the traditional one of prescribing a defined time-object, the materials and structuring of which were calculated and specified in advance. Instead, these composers were more interested in outlining a certain situation in which sounds then occur. It was an attitude of acceptance rather than craftsmanship; an effort to distance one’s self from the composition; and an attempt to bring art and life closer together:[4]

“When a composer feels a responsibility to make, rather than accept, he eliminates from the area of possibility all those events that do not suggest at that point in time vogue of profundity. For he takes himself seriously, wishes to be considered great, and he thereby diminishes his love and increases his fear and concern about what people will think.

 

There are many serious problems confronting such an individual. He must do it better, more impressively, more beautifully, etc. than anybody else. And what, precisely, does this, this beautiful profound object, this masterpiece, have to do with Life? It has this to do with Life: that it is separate from it. Now we see it and now we don’t. When we see it we feel better, and when we are away from it, we don’t feel so good. Life seems shabby and chaotic and disordered, ugly in contrast.”[5]

Describing pieces like the graph pieces of Morton Feldman, in which only the number and relative placement of pitches (high, middle, low) are specified within a time-grid, Cage said that ‘the composer resembles the maker of a camera who allows someone else to take the picture.’[6]

“What is, or seems to be, new in this music? One finds a concern for a kind of objectivity, almost anonymity – sound come into its own. The ‘music’ is resultant existing simply in the sounds we hear, given no impulse by expression of self or personality” [7]

It should already seem quite clear how this attitude is very different from that of the European-classical canon, including the work of the avant-garde at the time. In that tradition the responsibility for managing and calculating all of the musical parameters is laid squarely at the feet of the composer. The emphasis there is on integration, organisation and control as opposed to the impersonal techniques used for merely ‘setting sounds in motion’, in which any possibility of drawing events into some kind of pre-calculated image is impossible because so much is left open until the moment of performance. And indeed, it was the uniqueness of the moment, rather than the uniqueness of something preserved, that interested the experimental composers.

So this brings me to the place experimental music might occupy in a conservatoire of music. After all, it’s here that performance students come to hone an extraordinarily refined skill-set over a period of at least 4 years, with the emphasis being on replicating certain unique and preserved master-pieces. It’s hard-work, and success and failure are very real categories. So it seems understandable that the presence of this different attitude to music-making might sit a little uneasily here – who needs a degree when all you’re doing is ‘projecting sounds in time’? How do you accurately rate the performance of a piece that sounds completely different every time it’s performed?

However, my feeling, for what it’s worth, is that music is not just one thing, and students should be able, if so inclined, to take advantage of their time here to explore it in all its variety. Surely, this is one of the main things the library is here to facilitate. Whether this music seems exciting to one person or empty to another depends ultimately on their temperament, but either way, having it in the collection increases its scope. After all, let’s not forget that this music is hardly ‘new’. In fact, it’s now just about old enough to qualify for a free bus pass.

It’s refreshing that people tend to find the arch-modernist style-police amusing for the vitriol with which they denounced anyone who didn’t plow their particular furrow in the mid-twentieth-century, and this opening-up and moving away from an unhealthy obsession with style can only be a good thing. I know that when I learnt about what was happening in 1950s New York for the first time it opened my ears to new ways of thinking about and listening to music. It didn’t stop me practicing my scales, but it did give me a different take on listening to all the sounds that we normally do our best to ignore; or wondering whether we can, or why we might want to, remove our tastes and prejudices from the things we make. Being exposed to a diversity of values and approaches to music only enriches things.

However, as a final thought, I’ll leave Morton Feldman to muddy the waters. For all this talk of a diversity of approaches, perhaps this supposedly brand-new attitude wasn’t really all that separate from the mainstream avant-garde after all? It seems a good example of how parts of a culture that seem unconnected at the time, when seen in perspective can shed light on each other in interesting ways. All the more reason to welcome this kind of music into the conservatoire library, I’d say.

“What rhapsodizes in today’s ‘cool’ language is its own construction. The fact that men like Boulez and Cage represent opposite extremes of modern mythology is not what is interesting. What is interesting is their similarity. In the music of both men, things are exactly what they are  – no more, no less. In the music of both men, what is heard is indistinguishable from its process. In fact, process itself might be called the zeitgeist of our age.”[8]

 


 

[1] John Cage, Silence (London: Marion Boyars, 1978), 13

[2] Michael Nyman, Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 1

[3] John Cage, A Year From Monday: Lectures and Writings (Marion Boyars: London, 1968), 30

[4] Michael Nyman, Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 4

[5] John Cage, Silence (London: Marion Boyars, 1978), 130

[6] John Cage, Silence (London: Marion Boyars, 1978), 11

[7] Christian Wolff, quoted in Michael Nyman, Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 30

[8] Morton Feldman, Give my Regards to Eighth Street: Collected Writings of Morton Feldman ed. B.H.Friedman (Cambridge, MA: Exact Change, 2000), 109

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New music for singers

The third phase of the library’s printed music strategy got underway this year. Having built up our collection of jazz, full scores, and opera, it was time to focus our attention on solo songs and collections. Look out for new works by contemporary composers such as Michael Finnissy, Giacinto Scelsi, Robin Holloway, Thomas Ades, Piers Hellawell, Tansy Davies, Roxanna Panufnik, Joanna Lee, Lynne Plowman, and Sally Beamish, as well as new additions from the Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and modern repertoires.

This year we are looking to develop our collection of music for violinists (solo music and accompanied), so if you have any recommendations please let us know. Requests for specific pieces – in any category – can be made by completing a purchase request form, available at the enquiry desk or on Moodle.

The library’s most recent printed music acquisitions are listed here, please keep checking for updates!

Cover images are reproduced with the kind permission of Boosey & Hawkes and Hal Leonard.

New sheet music in the library – more jazz, more full scores and more opera!

South LibraryYou may recall that last year we endeavoured to strengthen our holdings of contemporary music; over 100 contemporary works were added to the collection.This year we’ve turned our attention to jazz, opera and full scores.

Our jazz section has been enhanced with new music by composers such as Oliver Nelson, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Bob Brookmeyer, Kenny Wheeler and Herbie Hancock, as well as a host of anthologies, instruction manuals and transcription books.

Over 100 full scores, study scores & miniature scores have been added to the collection. Look out for new music by composers such as Toru Takemitsu, Nicholas Maw, Rodion Shchedrin, Harrison Birtwistle, Harry Partch, Steve Reich, Iannis Xenakis, and Bernd Alois Zimmermann, as well as newly published editions of standard repertoire.

We hope our singing students will benefit from the many new vocal scores in the library. These range from 19th and early 20th century operas – composers such as Massenet (“Sapho”), Rouselle, (“La Testement de la tante Caroline”), Ibert (“Angelique”) and Verdi (“Oberto”) – through to contemporary works by Peter Eotvos (“Love & Other Demons”), John Adams (“Doctor Atomic”) and Dominick Argento (“Christopher Sly” & “Postcard from Morocco”).

We will be furthering the development of our vocal section in the coming year. This time the focus will shift to smaller scale works, in particular the library’s collection of solo songs & collections.

Keep checking the Library Info section of the catalogue for our most recently added titles

As always, we welcome your comments and feedback.

Exciting new library donations

​​​​​​​We have been fortunate in recent weeks to have received a number of generous donations of printed music. The library office is definitely filling up with boxes!  The first of the recent donations was mostly cello music belonging to the late Brian Meddemmen which had been stored for a number of years in a garage in Australia! I was slightly apprehensive that we might find a surprise in the form of some Australian wildlife in amongst the boxes, but, to our relief, nothing has crawled/jumped/slithered out yet! Also luckily for us, this donation had already been partially sorted into categories, e.g. ‘standard/more well-known cello repertoire’, ‘more obscure cello repertoire’ and ‘chamber music including cello(s)’. Using most of the library office floor, I’ve sorted through one of the boxes so far, putting the music into alphabetical order by composer so we can quickly see what’s there. This is especially useful if someone puts in a request for a piece of cello music which we don’t have, as we can quickly check if it’s in the donation.

Just a couple of boxes of the recent cello donation - full of hidden gems!

Just a couple of boxes of the recent cello donation – full of hidden gems!

The next step is for us to check each item against our library catalogue. We will then make a note of whether we have it in stock. If we do already have a copy, we’ll also note whether it’s a different edition, how many copies we have and how many times the item has been out on loan. One of the librarians (usually Helen!) will then make a decision based on this and the condition of the item as to whether we will add it to the collection, or whether we will pass it on to students and staff for a nominal sum. This money would then be used to buy new items for the library.

Take for example the Dvorak Cello Concerto edited by Janos Starker. We already have one copy of this particular edition of the Dvorak Cello Concerto but as this is such a popular piece and has been borrowed from the library on over 50 occasions, we would probably choose to add a second copy to the collection so there are more copies to go round.

Exciting finds

Lied pour Violoncelle et Orchestre par Vincent D'Indy, Op. 19

Lied pour Violoncelle et Orchestre par Vincent D’Indy, Op. 19

On first inspection there looks to be lots of interesting cello repertoire which we don’t already have in the collection, for example cello sonatas by Grozlez, Tcherepnin, Dietrich and cello concertos by Vanhal, Romberg, Reicha, Borghi and Danzi, to name but a few! Lied by Vincent D’Indy (pictured) was published in 1885 but was only recorded for the first time in 1991 by Julian Lloyd Webber and the English Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Yan Pascal Tortelier. We have also discovered an extremely rare piece of music for cello and piano: keep an eye on the Jerwood Library blog to find out more about our exciting find!

Other recent donations include lots of choral music/part songs from a Choral Society in Plumstead, and another generous donation of vocal music which belonged to leading operatic bass, Richard Angas, who died last year.

The library catalogue contains a list of the most recent printed music additions to the library collection.

The Alan Cave collection of chamber music for wind instruments – latest news

Alan Cave store - picture 1 resizedWe are excited to announce that the catalogue records for the amazing collection of wind chamber music (known here at Trinity Laban Faculty of Music as the Alan Cave Collection) have now been incorporated into our main online catalogue. This means information about this collection is now easily searchable online via the Jerwood Library catalogue.

This extensive collection of chamber sets was collected by the late Alan Cave, who was for many years’ bassoonist and contrabassoonist in the London Symphony Orchestra. Over his lifetime he amassed an enormous library of performance materials – including this collection of some 2000 pieces of chamber music held here at the Jerwood Library, and some wind band sets, which are part of the loan collection held by the CYM library.

One of the oldest sets in the collection here is Onslow’s Wind Octet, op. 81, published by Kistner in 1852, the year before the composer’s death. [AC 6247]; one of the more recent is Malcolm Arnold’s Trevelyan Suite, op. 96, published by Faber in 1970. [AC 5047 [1]].

Alan Cave store - picture 2 resizedThe collection is wide-ranging and contains music by many unusual and lesser-known composers ripe for re-discovery.

The range of repertoire and ensembles covered is impressive. There are for example

  • a Scherzino by Fisher Aubrey Tull (1934-1994) for an octet of piccolo, three flutes, three B-flat clarinets and bass clarinet, published by Boosey & Hawkes, 1973 [757 TUL],
  • an Octet [2]. by the Dutch serial composer, Peter Schat (1935-2003), published by Donemus in 1958 for flute, doubling piccolo, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, two trumpets and trombone [AC 6497],
  • Racconto by Jorgen Bentzon (1897-1951) for flute, alto saxophone, bassoon and double bass, published by Skandinavisk, 1935 [AC 5145],

as well as a vast array of wind quintets for unusual wind instrument combinations, Silvestre Revueltas’ (1899-1940) Little serious pieces, 1 & 2 [AC 6407, AC 6408] arranged for piccolo, oboe, clarinet, trumpet and baritone saxophone, being just one example.

The collection includes music for ensembles ranging in size from duets to large wind bands of up to 19 instruments. Naturally enough, given Alan Cave’s bassoon-playing background, the collection contains much music involving the bassoon. There are, for example, 20 bassoon duets and another 30 for bassoon with another wind instrument, 12 trios for bassoons and around 100 other trios for bassoon in combination with other wind instruments.

Alan Cave catalogueAnyone wishing to search the catalogue for a particular ensemble combination should type the required instrument names into the SUBJECT search box together with the size of ensemble term (e.g. Trios, Quintets) and select TYPE ‘sheet music/score’.

Alan Cave store - picture 3 resizedThe sets currently reside in our closed shelving stacks, but work has already begun on making them ready to be transferred to our open shelves. (This picture gives an idea of the scale of the project!)

Alan Cave folders - picture 4 resizedWe have, however, purchased some splendid folders which will help borrowers keep the sets and parts together and safe when taken out of the library, until the sets have been properly bound.

 

All we need now are some inquisitive musicians keen to explore the hidden depths of this remarkable library of chamber music.

[1] In this blog post, codes in [ ] refer to Jerwood Library’s shelf numbers.

[2] The musical construction of this Octet receives particular mention in Rokus de Groot’s article in Grove Music Online,

‘But his lessons with Boulez led him to a more radical, strict form of serial thought, and even before that he was regarded in the Netherlands as one of the leading members of the avant-garde of his generation. In the fourth part of the Octet (1958), dedicated to van Baaren, it is the players who determine the order of its 12 segments, while in the final part there is occasion for individual improvisation’

Building the library’s sheet music collection

Photo of Janacek scores in the Jerwood Library

The library has established a new acquisitions policy on the basis of research recently undertaken in which we compared our collection with the holdings of four other conservatoire libraries in the UK, including the Royal Academy of Music. This showed us clearly where we were well provided and also where we were less well provided. We supplemented this research with feedback from the teaching staff at the Faculty of Music concerning their ideas about deficiencies in our provision.

Our findings have been published in the library’s printed music strategy on Moodle. This year we have been building our collection of vocal music and contemporary music, as the findings of our research indicate that these are two areas to prioritise. Works by Julian Anderson, Frank Zappa, György Kurtág, Harrison Birtwistle, Heinz Holliger, Mark-Anthony Turnage, Elliot Carter, and Jonathan Dove have been added to the collection and there is much more to come. Please see the library info section on the catalogue for the most recent acquisitions.

We are always interested in staff and student feedback so please let us know if there is anything else you would like to see. Should you have a specific piece in mind, purchase recommendation forms are kept at the library enquiry desk and on Moodle. If you’re a student, please get your teacher or another member of Trinity Laban staff to sign the form.