Third Angle New Music review: Music as meditation

Portland ensemble's showcase of music and radio conversations between John Cage and Morton Feldman reveals parallels between pioneering 20th century American composers

by MATT MARBLE

American composers John Cage (1912-1992) and Morton Feldman (1926-1987) met at a New York Philharmonic performance of Anton von Webern’s Symphony Op 20 in 1950. After the concert, the then-24-year-old Feldman came up to Cage—a stranger, despite Feldman recognizing his face—and said, “wasn’t that beautiful?”

For both composers Webern offered a model for a new music, a new way of thinking, which was non-linear, abstract, unpredictable—a fusion of intuition and discipline.

Feldman and Cage.

Feldman and Cage.

Webern’s Movement for String Trio, Op. posth (1945), the composer’s final work, began Third Angle New Music’s March 11 concert at Portland’s Zoomtopia. Reflecting on Cage and Feldman’s first acquaintance, Webern’s distilled dissonances echoed throughout the evening. Interpolated with excerpts from Cage and Feldman’s recorded conversations from the 1960s, Third Angle’s concert offered a mosaic of the composers’ music. As Cage and Feldman noted in their conversations, to be a composer was to be “deep in thought.” This meditative abstraction is established in Webern’s opening act and is reiterated in Cage’s and Feldman’s works at key points in their lives. This concert, involving spoken dialogues and cross-historical compositions placed our attention upon the underlying forces of the composers’ creative process. And it highlighted—personally, artistically, and historically—how these two unique artists intimately overlap.

John Cage’s music began through an integrated experience of the senses. Deeply inspired by the poetry of Walt Whitman, as well as Greek architecture, painting, and the surreal art of Marcel Duchamp, Cage began composing his first musical works while traveling throughout Europe during the early 1930s. His music at this time was an idiosyncratic, occasionally tonal interpretation of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone techniques—Cage, for example, developed a 25 pitch tone row. He came to think of himself more as an “inventor” or “experimenter” of sound—with allusions to science—rather than a “composer” of music.

Cage became infatuated with the music of Webern during the 1940s, when he said that he was “hardly able to contain myself for the excitement that a performance of Webern’s music would give me.” He went on to study composition with Webern’s mentor, Arnold Schoenberg. Cage’s compositional process in the 1940s involved mathematics, tone rows, rhythmic cells, “aggregates,” and other generative devices. His first significant works in this regard are a series of Constructions (1941), for appropriated percussion instruments, like clay pots, anvils, and percussion instruments from various Eastern cultures.

Later in the 1940s, through his study of Hinduism, and especially the writings of Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, Cage focused on the rasa or mood of a musical work, while also incorporating symbolic correspondences with the four seasons. He championed a music that “sobered and quieted the mind, thus rendering it susceptible to divine influences,” and he began experimenting with instrumentation, using found sounds, and applying conceptual ideas to his works.

We can hear these influences at work in pieces like Sonatas and Interludes (1946-1948), a series of pieces for “prepared” piano, a ballet called The Seasons (1947), the Six Melodies, which Third Angle performed at Zoomtopia, and the more dynamic String Quartet in Four Parts (1950). Cage was making direct connections between his compositional process, symbolic forms, the four seasons, magic squares, and other extra-musical concepts.

In the late forties I found out by experiment (I went into the anechoic chamber at Harvard University) that silence is not acoustic. It is a change of mind, a turning around. I devoted my music to it. My work became an exploration of non‑intention. To carry it out faithfully I have developed a complicated composing means using I Ching chance operations, making my responsibility that of asking questions instead of making choices. — John Cage: An Autobiographical Statement, 1990.

Taking Chances

Cage discovered Zen Buddhism in the late 1940s through the writings of D.T. Suzuki. But when Christian Wolff gave him a copy of the I Ching in 1951, Cage would never again put that book down. The I Ching, an ancient Chinese folk oracle, provided Cage with a chance discipline that he could apply to composition, one that removed the creative autonomy of the composer, Cage himself. “I had a goal,” Cage said, “that of erasing all will and the very idea of success.”

cage_printout2 copyMeanwhile, he began embracing all sounds, from the musical to the pedestrian, and questioning the nature of listening through his compositions. Zen philosophy led Cage to use chance operations in his Imaginary Landscape No. 4 (1951), whose score called for the strategic playing of AM/FM radios. Cage used the I Ching to determine the superimpositions, tempi, durations, sounds, and dynamics of the work. He obtained this, generally, by asking questions related to composition, casting a lot, and consulting the corresponding interpretation of the I-Ching.

It was also during 1951 that Cage composed his solo piano piece Music of Changes, which like nearly every Cage composition that followed used the I Ching. His now infamous “silent” piece, 4:33, was composed the following year, as was his Williams Mix, Music for Piano. By the end of the 1950s, Cage was applying indeterminacy at multiple levels of the compositional process and to performance practice as well, which usually involved experimental pianist and electronic musician David Tudor. While Cage’s music evolved radically over the next several decades, these works from 1951 and 1952 are great examples of Cage’s oracular “chance” music. The essentials of all his later works are found in these works.

In Imaginary Landscape, No. 5, Cage was literally welcoming non-musical environmental sound into his compositions. This was generally an effort to guide the ear of the audience to their immediate surroundings, and to open the ear to all sound. The score calls for five players to operate the knobs of a radio according to an I-Ching derived score. This creates the situation for a given performance, that the sounds “performed” are unique to that time and place.

Third Angle New Music performed John Cage's 'Imaginary Landscape #4.' Photo: Jacob Wade.

Third Angle New Music performed John Cage’s ‘Imaginary Landscape #5.’ Photo: Jacob Wade.

Third Angle opted to alter the score by adding a conductor. Though a compelling performance—ending with a fade out of a song by the pop/rock band, Wings—I felt the ensemble’s added role of conductor (Blessinger) distracted from the piece. Caricaturing the work in this way seemed to undermine the whole point of this and other “listening-based” works that Cage composed during this time. Or, perhaps this addition offered a theatricality and sense of humor that might have helped more skeptical ears to enter such a work.

Abstract Expressions

While Cage began experimenting in the early 1950s with chance operations, graphic scores, and other alternative methods of composition largely rooted in a spiritual disposition and an art of esoteric abstraction, his new friend Feldman was also changing musical direction, as shown in Third Angle’s performance of Feldman’s Projection 4 (1951) . So, we return to the 1950s and that fateful night at Carnegie Hall. Let’s start again from Feldman’s perspective this time.

Feldman’s early work, during the 1940s, was also deeply rooted in Webern’s sound. He once even claimed he was the “illegitimate son of Webern.” He embraced chance operations via graphic scores, as one can see in the scored grid of numbers that he used to compose his Projection series. Here Feldman allows performers to choose from a variety of pitches within self-determined regions (high, medium, and low). This was an early technique he derived to abstract his material, while ensuring a different rendering with every performance, including Third Angle’s sensitive interpretation of  Projection 4 (1950) by Susan Dewitt Smith (piano) and Blessinger (violin).

Blessinger and Smith played Feldman. Photo; Jacob Wade.

Blessinger and Smith played Feldman. Photo; Jacob Wade.

But as Feldman discovered the abstract expressionist paintings of Mondrian, Rothko, De Kooning, and others—many of whom he would become close friends with—Feldman saw the path for a “new” music, or at least “his” music. During the 1950s, Feldman’s use of graphic scores would give way to other compositional methods, inspired by concepts borrowed from painting, which we can hear in a number of serial works like Projections, Structures, Intermissions, and Extensions—all begun in 1951. He began through-composing his works, while incorporating chance operations. He spoke of “chiaroscuro” and “stasis,” of projecting sounds into time [as a “canvas”], free from a compositional rhetoric that had no place here.”

Subverting Expectations

While Cage was inspired by Hinduism and Zen, Feldman was drawing from the Medieval “art of memory” and Jewish Kabbala. Both composers’ musical processes were nothing less than experimental disciplines of musical intuition. Abstraction provided a means for both composers to engage their intuition and imagination–it actively encouraged experimentalism. Through such abstraction logical thought is derailed and listeners are opened to all thoughts, all sounds, all colors. One lets everything in and finds insight through the din of it all, as it arises. In this spark of insight, we then transcend or tap into the infinite, what some call Universal Mind, pure consciousness, or God.

Feldman's score for 'Projection #4.'

Feldman’s score for ‘Projection #4.’

Cage and Feldman both directly addressed the spiritually liberating quality of abstraction in their music, though in very different ways. Cage applied a disciplined randomness, rooted in the I-Ching, in which the autonomy of the creator was subservient to chance and in which all input, all sound was welcome. Feldman devised a meditative and incantatory compositional process, involving a constant evasion of memory, as audible in his Piano, Violin, Viola and Cello (1987).

Both composers defied that most critical of musical drives: expectation. It becomes impossible to predict what will happen in these pieces, they complicate and deconstruct the nature of our own auditory desires and habits of attention. Given attention, however, they fundamentally alter how we listen. Constantly shifting and mutating, they encourage us to focus our attention holistically and be present in the ephemeral moment—not in any predetermined logical or cultural construct. This is music as meditation, or meditation as music. So, though you might not have expected it, while listening to the works of these composers, you might just find yourself meditating.

Pointillistic Paintings

The first half of the concert felt a bit out of tune at points, but everything was finely honed by the second half. Cage’s Six Melodies called for “no vibrato,” seeking a raw and uninflected tone from the violin. The performance of Christian Wolff’s late work, Violist Pieces (1997), brought our attention to the lone sound of Charles Noble’s viola. Wolff’s harmonies in this work are at once sensually accessible and precisely strange. They feel like puzzles, hymns, or snapshots from a dream. And Noble vividly brought these short pieces to life.

Charles Noble performed Christian Wolff's 'Violist Pieces' at Zoomtopia. Photo: Jacob Wade.

Charles Noble performed Christian Wolff’s ‘Violist Pieces’ at Zoomtopia. Photo: Jacob Wade.

Several decades before, in 1966, Wolff had assisted Feldman in composing a work for solo guitar, The Possibility of a New Work for Electric Guitar. Feldman utilized the unique sounds of the electric guitar—its harmonics, pitch-bending, and vibrato, its open and sustained strings. With Wolff trying out different positions on the guitar, Feldman recomposed these sounds into a work that abstracts the guitar itself.

The only copy of the score was stolen (along with Wolff’s guitar case) a few months after the initial performances. But the work was recently resurrected by guitarist Seth Josel, who reconstructed the score from a performance recording in 2009. The performance by Portland composer and guitarist Jay Derderian at Zoomtopia was quietly immersive and attentive to the nuances of the guitar’s sounds. It is so nice to see this work, nearly lost, coming to life again now.

Throughout the 1960s Feldman experimented with various “chance operations” both in his creative process as well as in his notation. He used “proportional notation,” in which there is no fixed meter or tempo. The duration of each tone is judged, by the performer, according to its visually proportionate relationship to other tones on the page of the score. This gave rise to micro-temporal rhythmic relations between the parts, ultimately an untethered “floating” sensibility, which would come to characterize Feldman’s mature style. Painting still greatly informed his work, as explicitly notable in his ode to William de Kooning, De Kooning (1963). By the end of the 1960s Feldman was returning to more conventional notation, while his creative process became one of pure process. While Cage asked questions and heeded the answers of the I-Ching, Feldman composed like a pointillistic painter, constantly altering each point by various gradations. Between his Durations (1960-61) and The Viola in My Life (1970), Feldman’s mature style had begun to emerge.

During the 1970s Feldman was deeply influenced by Persian rugs and the intricate inconsistencies of its colors, patterns, and forms. He applied rug-making concepts like abrash, which concerns the wild variability of vegetable-dyed hues irradiating across a Teppich rug. “So when you look at it,” Feldman describes abrash, “it has that kind of marvelous shimmer which is that slight gradation.” His music reflected these inconsistencies, or subtle differences and transformations, by his constant alterations of meter, rhythm, registration, timbre, pitch, volume, and pattern. Borrowing a quote from artist Jasper Johns, Feldman summed up his process as “doing it one way, and doing it another way… do it with four notes, do it with three notes, do it slower, put it here, put it there—this can go on for a long time.”

By the 1980s Feldman’s influences and aims seemed to resonate strongly through his engagement with Jewish Kabbalah and the writings of Renaissance friar and esoteric philosopher Giordano Bruno, who had devised an intricate method to aid one’s memory and make contact with the infinite, Universal Mind, using long lists of words and signs, interrelated through geometrical structures, and re-combined in diverse ways through a meditative process. Like Bruno, Feldman was interested in this restructuring of information in order to deconstruct logic and ascend to a higher state of consciousness. During this time Feldman talked a lot about the role of memory and amnesia in his creative process—pitches are repeated, but as if in a hazy memory. Meanwhile, his compositions grew massive in scale, lasting for hours, and often voiced at the edge of audibility.

Feldman once said his musical process was similar to practices of Jewish Kabbalah. He must have been referring to medieval Kabbalist Abraham Abulafia, who would permute the letters of the Divine Name (Y.H.W.H.) into an endless series of incantations. Feldman came to meditatively compose not unlike how Abulafia practiced Kabbalah. Rather than focusing on the four letters of the Divine Name, Feldman focused on the 88 pitches of the piano (and their microtonal hues). Feldman’s later works sound out these affinities. There is a kind of pulse, but it seems tied to the elastic rhythm of the breath, to respiration rather than to any metrical beat. Each has the air of a slowly churning mystery, which leans as much toward awe as to horror; and yet there is something so serene and comforting about the sonic space that he creates. Feldman worked pervasively with a sideways spirituality. He rarely spoke of God. Like many esotericists, he spoke of mystery, illusion, enigma, infinity, and self-transcendent “amnesia.” His writings and lectures on the role of memory (and forgetting) in his work came to be associated, again, with esoteric Judaism.

One of the compositional quirks I’m most lucky about is the almost total state of amnesia immediately after completing a composition. I write that I’m fortunate about this—the Talmud refers to an Angel of Forgetfulness—what I mean to say is that this broken memory makes possible the never ending stopping of my pen. It is that you repeat not from memory but from lack of it which is the “substance” that interests me most.

Nowhere is all of this more audible than in Feldman’s later works, such as his String Quartet II (1983), Piano and String Quartet (1985), and his final composition, Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello (1987). Third Angle offered up an excerpt of Feldman’s swan song, originally an hour-long performance, and played it with delicate devotion. Here one could hear the elastic breath-rhythm and th ominous moods that Feldman had honed with such refinement in his final years. This incantatory work evolves at a slow and steady pace, always changing, always revealing something hidden and obscuring something recalled. It is immersive and, like any ritual, a little intense. The music is at once a heavenly serenade and a horror movie soundtrack—Serenity and Anxiety was a dualistic puzzle that Feldman left us with. One can surrender to it or be stolen by it, but giving it some good attention pays off ten-fold. This performance was by far the highlight of the concert.

Radio Days

I found the historical perspectives of Cage and Feldman’s 1950 encounter and their 1967 radio conversation to be an inspiring pairing. We hear them as they find their way as artists, and we listen to them reflect upon all this as they develop their mature styles. Third Angle offered truly special and less-performed works by these composers, all of which blended well and reflected upon one another in various ways. This was reinforced by the inclusion of recordings from Cage and Feldman’s Radio Happenings, a series of recorded conversations for radio between the two composers in 1966 and 1967. These conversations served as the context and the M.C. for the evening. The concert offered the paired audition of two artistic personas, as well as their music, through which they sought to transcend selfhood.

JC: No, no, no. I don’t know any longer what—I really don’t know what being an artist is. I have difficulty with the notion of playing roles. In other words, I don’t want to have to be, so to speak, what I am. If I am playing a role, I’m playing it all the time. If not playing a role, I don’t want to play a role. Hmm?

But what it was to be a composer doesn’t seem to me any longer to be what it is not to be a composer. And I don’t know what it is to be a composer now. Unless…

MF: I don’t even know what it was to be a composer.

JC: Well, you said earlier—and I’m agreeing with you—and I remember doing it. It was being… “deep in thought.” [Laughter]

MF: [Laughter] Yes, that’s all I’m left with.

There is no better way to get to know the personalities behind such esoteric music than through these conversations; excerpts were played before and after each Third Angle performance. As I re-listened to all six hours of Radio Happenings in preparation for this review, the conversations between these two close friends felt like sitting by a warm fire. You are made to feel welcome, comfortable, drawn in. While their topics traverse intellectual and philosophical territory, the dialogue is consistently cozy, filled with gentle laughter, personal reflections, pregnant pauses, and the soft rhythm of Cage’s hummed inquiries, “hmm?” The arc of their thoughts is long and gradual, while the form it takes is open enough to allow the listener’s mind to wander off along its own arc. The listener then gets drawn into this thoughtful, relaxed atmosphere and risks participating. The thoughtfully curated quotations helped give an informed intimacy to each of the works performed. The audience maintained a rhythmic alternation of laughter and awe. This was a special concert.

Third Angle’s next performance, April 21-22, features music by American composers David Lang, Steve Reich, Frank Zappa and more.

Matt Marble (1979, MS, Scorpio) lives in Portland, Oregon. He works with text, image, sound, and spirit. Matt received his B.A. in Speech & Hearing Sciences from Portland State University, and he recently received his Ph.D. in music composition from Princeton University. His doctoral dissertation focuses on the role of esoteric Buddhism in the creative process of Arthur Russell. Matt’s writings have been published by Abraxas Journal, The Open Space, Leonardo Music Journal, Ear|Wave|Event, and FOARM Magazine, the last of which he also served as co-editor. For more info, please visit: www.mattmarblemusic.com.

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