notes for my performances, the closing events of the two sections of the conference Crosscurrents: American and European Music in Interaction, 1900-2000, at Harvard University and in Munich
“Life never does more than imitate the book, and the book itself is only a tissue of signs, an imitation that is lost, infinitely deferred.”
—Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author”, 1967 (translated Stephen Heath)
We performers read (misread) the signs of written music. The sounds we make, and that listeners hear, may represent a text—may ensue from text—but they are sounds, fleeting and not repeatable.
In Harvard’s Sanders Theatre, in the fall of 1988, I played in a performance of Earle Brown’s chamber ensemble piece Syntagm III, led by Brown. The score represents possible musical gestures with dashes and variously curved and slanted lines. At one point, more specific pitch materials are given for each player. Before the concert, I practiced Syntagm III, and there were rehearsals. I practiced these controlled improvisations allowing individual iterations of a passage to vary considerably. And they seemed to “improve.” An actor might rehearse specific line readings, or welcome momentary, varying inflection—as sounds are formed, transmitted, and received.
During the period of rehearsals with Brown, I was also preparing Seven, a new septet by John Cage. The score of Seven uses conventional notation, with staves and note heads; some pitches are written ambiguously. Sometimes it was difficult for me to figure out what notes to play. I asked Cage about one chord. His answer: “Just listen, and you’ll know what to do.”
There are varying balances of power in the performance of written music. For any piece we might wonder: what is the nature and extent of the composer’s authority? of the performer’s authority? the listener’s? All written music, even if scripted in great detail, leads human performers to controlled—sometimes highly controlled—improvisation.
The twenty-five physical pages that make up the score for Earle Brown’s Twentyfive Pages can be used in many ways: ordered variously, played by a single pianist, divided among many players, overlapped. Each page is printed with staves and note heads and dynamic indications. The duration of the music is variable. Philip Glass wrote Two Pages, Charles Ives three. Twentyfive Pages could have a quite specific place in Borges’ library.
The long, long pedal markings in the score of Alvin Curran’s piano piece Hope Street Tunnel Blues III invite the sounds of a room—a “tunnel.” We’re in there with the sounds and they bounce around. The text is detailed. In it, none of the hundreds of highly repetitive eighth-notes is abbreviated. In the piece, a bent A-flat major-minor chord extends for about ten minutes. Eventually, the harmony changes and that change is an event of strong impact! The physical action necessary to make the music is significant. Hope Street Tunnel Blues III might be allied to the late twentieth-century interest in “extreme sports.” For the performer, playing this very fast, repetitive music may cause considerable physical pain. It’s like running a marathon. Perhaps physical actions are the music, as much as the sounds? It’s struggle and it’s ritual. Intense awareness of an ongoing physical task comprised of many quick gestures in time, is juxtaposed with harmonic material that for long periods seems not to move.
Sylvanno Bussotti’s Piano Piece for David Tudor 4 began as a drawing. Bussotti made an “adozione pianistica” a decade later. Now, these intricately messy squiggles yield piano music. Bussotti has indicated that the words “for David Tudor” can be taken as something other than a dedication. Perhaps David Tudor was an “instrument,” Bussotti suggests. Then, these are piano pieces written for “a David Tudor.” In these performances, I’m making a transcription.