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Simeon Bellison – his
arrangements for clarinet
Simeon Bellison (clarinet) and various other artists - see review
SUMMIT RECORDS DCD503 [71:08][JW]
idiomatic, engaging and vital ... see Full
for alphabetical listings by composer:
1 New] [Part
2 A-B] [Part 3 C-L]
[Part 4 M-R] [Part
[Part 6 Misc A-L] [Part
7 Misc M-Z]
[last 5 days] [Recommended
Over a period of three years from
December 2003, I have spent a lot of time in the company of Harry Partch
– not literally, of course, as he died in 1974, but working my way though
an article and some eight reviews that can all be found on MusicWeb. Then,
at the MusicWeb annual lunch (January 2007), the name of John Cage caught
my ear. For reasons that my subconscious was not prepared to divulge,
my curiosity was tickled. Partch and Cage have on occasion been paired
off, as a sort of American "Debussy and Ravel" – was there any
real connection between them?
This may come as a bit of an anticlimax
but, other than them both being American originals with "far-out"
ideas, I can’t really think of one. In fact, they are more on the lines
of diametric opposites: with my tongue ever-so-slightly in my cheek, I
could say that Partch was a seminal genius who got branded as a crackpot,
and Cage was a crackpot who got branded as a seminal genius.
John Cage (1912-92) was nothing
if not controversial. With his rise to prominence, an obliging World split
into two opposing camps. His supporters saw him as a prime mover in the
fields of experimental and electronic music, with abiding interests in
"chance music", new ways of using traditional instruments, and
practical application of his Zen Buddhist beliefs.
His detractors, the more radical
of whom would have preferred the "nothing" option, complained
that he just made a lot of silly noise, did unspeakable things to the
private parts of otherwise perfectly respectable musical instruments,
and came up with a load of airy-fairy claptrap to justify his bizarre
Partch, who was renowned for his
considered and candid conclusions, didn’t have too high an opinion of
Cage: "When he was younger, I found him rather charming, albeit shallow.
Then later, when he was famed for the opening of doors to musical insight,
I found myself obliged to use the word ‘charlatan’ . . . Pretty sounds
do not necessarily make significant music, and serious words frequently
cloak hokum . . . I’m all for common sounds as valid materials [but] one
has to have control, so that his common sounds will mean something.
. . I feel that anyone who brackets me with Cage is bracketing actual
music with metaphysical theories, and what I think is a serious effort
with exhibitionism." [Letter to Ben Johnston, 1952, reproduced in
Innova Enclosure 3]
Who is right – the "pro"
camp or the "anti"? You tell me. The only opinions I can voice
with any certainty are that Cage was not really a crackpot – even if he
did give that impression to his detractors – and in all probability he
caused the expenditure of as much hot air as all the other Twentieth Century
composers put together.
For instance, during the late 1960s,
when I was a university student, Cage was a hot topic for many an informal
debate over a pint or six of a Saturday night in the pub. It’s true,
I swear! Granted, we also debated rather coarser matters, interspersed
with lots of "rugby songs", but there was no two ways about
it – in those heady days, Cage was about as "right on" and as
"far out, man" as you could get.
It was even possible – but only
just – for intense arguments over Four Minutes and Thirty-Three Seconds
to distract our juvenile minds from contemplating the aesthetics of passing
bits of mini-skirt! Yet, no matter how much the said work of art – if
that’s how you choose to define it – resonated with the mood of the Sixties,
it’s as well to remember that it was written quite a while earlier, in
1952, while the hippy generation was just learning to manage without nappies!
4’33", as much as anything,
fuelled the long-running furore over the definition of "music",
a lot of the argument being similar to a much earlier debate amongst mathematicians,
over whether "0", being "nothing", could be counted
as a number. For those odd few who don’t already know, 4’33"
is the work where the pianist lifts the keyboard lid, sits perfectly still
for a while, then shuts the lid – the cue, I presume, for a storm of applause.
Apparently, the idea for the piece
resulted from a visit to an anechoic chamber. Cage, never particularly
conventional in his approach to music, explained that he wanted to hear
what silence "sounded" like. Really? And here am I, expecting
that he was at the very least hoping to establish conclusively, "What
is the sound of one hand clapping?" Mind you, that’s always struck
me a daft question – shouldn’t you first ask, "Is it possible
for one hand to clap?"
Anyway, Cage was surprised to find
that he didn’t hear "nothing". Instead he heard the real sound
of his blood pumping and the virtual sounds generated by his own auditory
system. Thus, having realised the impossibility of complete silence, at
least in the ears of the perceiver, he fashioned 4’33" supposedly
to demonstrate that fact to the rest of us. Presumably, he wasn’t aware
that Smetana, to the ultimate cost of his sanity, had already answered
What surprises me is that he found
this surprising. What doesn’t surprise me, not one bit, is that
in 2002 Cage’s publishers sued composer Mike Batt – he of "Wombles
of Wimbledon Common" fame – for plagiarism! Batt, you see, had included
in his album Classical Graffiti a silent track. It wasn’t, as you
might expect, Batt’s "One Minute Silence" that got their danders
up, but the fact that he’d credited the track to "Cage/Batt".
Unbelievable? Well, it was reported by the BBC, so it must be true, mustn’t
Another surprise, to me anyway,
is that 4’33" exists in at least two versions. The one most
commonly played – and I use that term reservedly – is the "Tacet"
version. This had three movements, which are usually played attacca,
so as to save time messing about with the keyboard lid, and each is marked
simply tacet but is of course otherwise blank.
However, Cage insisted that he
originally composed a much more complex piece in "small units of
silent rhythmic durations which, when summed, equal the duration of the
title". He also thought that he might have made a mistake in the
summation. I harbour doubts about this, because originally the work had
no specified duration – the first performance happened to take 4’33",
and that stuck. I also doubt whether it matters – would all this "complexity"
have had any significant effect on the work as perceived by its audience?
There is also a somewhat apocryphal
theory that the title refers to the "absolute zero" of temperature,
-273° C, on the grounds that 4’33’’ = 273 seconds. This is, at best, a
specious connection, particularly as it conveniently sweeps under the
carpet both the minus sign, a small matter of 0.15 C°, and the
fact that the duration of 4’33" was completely accidental.
Nevertheless, it persists in attracting
certain people – presumably those who, for reasons best known to themselves,
not only insist on ignoring the fact but also perceive a relationship
between 1 second of time and -1 degree of the Celsius temperature scale.
I have a feeling that these same folk would look at you daft – and completely
miss your point – if you asked them how many furlongs equal one apple
pi plus 3.1418 nutty fruitcakes.
Nonsensical as this "theory"
is, ironically it does suggest a connection between 4’33"
and another piano work of Cage’s, ASLSP (1985). The title stands
for "As SLow aS Possible" – I’ll leave you to ponder on why
ASLSP was preferred over the straightforward acronym ASAP, and why it
camouflages an otherwise obvious grammatical error. I gather that a typical
performance takes about 20 minutes and, because it’s very slow,
the piano notes have plenty of time to die away completely.
If you stretch your fancy a bit,
you could imagine a decaying note being akin to the decline of thermal
activity as absolute zero is approached. So, when the note reaches its
"absolute zero", what do you hear? Simple – an "excerpt"
from 4’33"! Neat, eh? Personally, I find myself torn between smug
satisfaction at the plausibility of what I’ve just said, and embarrassment
at how easy it was to pull philosophical wool over my own eyes, never
To get back to the tale: in 1987,
Cage adapted ASLSP for the organ, to bestow upon the World his Organ²/ASLSP
(As SLow aS Possible). Whilst this improved the continuity
of what must have seemed a fairly disjointed piece, it substantially undermined
the entire "absolute zero" argument (boo!). Life is full of
surprises, for I have so far found no mention of any subsequent storms
in academic teacups over whether an indefinitely-sustained, constant sound
is really a sound at all, or merely a recalibration of "zero".
As inevitably as day follows night,
these works – or rather their tempo marking – provoked profound musicological
cerebration. At rock bottom, it boiled down to this: no matter how long
the performer takes, he cannot help but fail to observe the most important
marking in the entire score – that of the basic tempo. With time stretching
from Now to Plus Infinity, 20 minutes has got to be way too fast. I wonder,
why do people always have to rush everything these days? Well,
it turns out that they don’t, not always. Read on.
Unbelievably, five years after
Cage’s death, it got really "heavy, man". In 1997 a conference
of musicologists and philosophers was convened, almost exclusively to
indulge in an orgy of in-depth discussion of the implications of this
tempo marking, particularly in view of the fact that an organ theoretically
imposes no time limits.
Broadly speaking, the conference
concluded that ASLSP could actually be quite a lot slower than that 20
minutes. Having cracked this singularly knotty philosophical nut, the
wielders of the weighty sledgehammer moved on – to address, with commensurate
delicacy, a burden of proof lying beaten and bruised amongst the shattered
I’ll bet that Cage – by all accounts
a genial, charming and fun-loving chap who regarded his life’s work as
"purposeful play" – would have been laughing his socks off in
his grave when the conference solemnly decided to establish a "practical"
project. To prove how much more slowly the piece could be played, they
planned a performance of Organ²/ASLSP that would last for, not
an hour, not a day, not even a week, but 639 years. No, that is not
a typographical error. Roll it around your brain: six hundred and thirty-nine
years. [Health and Safety warning: if you feel your brain starting
to melt, stop thinking immediately, flush the inside of your head with
plenty of cold water, and seek immediate medical advice]
At this juncture, I start to wish
that Cage had scored the work for a phial containing a radioactive isotope,
which could then have been buried in a time-capsule to mark the commencement
of the performance. This would have had the added advantage that nobody
would have had to listen to any of it. Sadly, he didn’t, because if he
had it would have saved an awful lot of bother.
The choice of playing time is easily
explained, as it is intended to reflect the age of the instrument on which
it is performed. Hence, subtract the year in which the first church organ
seems to have been built, 1361, from the year that the "performance"
was scheduled to start, 2000. From this simple bit of arithmetic the planners
extrapolated a mystical arch, stretching from the time that the organ
was invented, and symmetrically straddling what – you may recall – we
used to call "the Millennium".
Obviously, planning a performance
of such gargantuan span required a fair bit of time and effort. For starters,
someone had to calculate a timetable, detailing the dates on which the
notes are started and stopped. This isn’t as simple as it sounds because,
for example, leap years and double-leap years have to be taken into account.
Then, they needed somewhere to play it. The location chosen was St. Burchardi’s
Church in Halberstadt, Germany. This was a nice, even sentimental touch,
because St. Burchardi’s is where the very first proper church organ was
Here we get another connection,
albeit tenuous, to Harry Partch. One of the reasons that this organ was
"proper" was that its keyboard was the first with twelve keys
to the octave. Partch famously called the inauguration of this organ "the
fatal day of Halberstadt" because – as far as he was concerned
– it marked the start of Man’s slide down the slippery slope into the
Desolation of Twelve-tone Equal Temperament.
The sentimental touch was also
an expensive touch because, over the last 190 years, the said church had
been variously used as "a barn, a hovel, a distillery and a sty".
Disused and dilapidated, it first needed extensive restoration – and a
new organ! However, because it would be fully booked for the first 639
years of its life, this new organ was designed and built specifically
for this performance. Actually, that’s not quite correct: rather, it is
being built. Taking advantage of the very broad basic tempo, the planners
have gained a certain "efficiency" by phasing the building work
to proceed in parallel with the performance.
The performance itself is a bit
of a cheat, because at any given time the notes currently sounding are
held down mechanically by the "autonomous" organ. So,
unless a key is scheduled for depression or release, there’s nobody actually
playing the music. Alright, maybe I’m being a bit unrealistic but
I’m no more picky here, about the definition of "performance",
than many members of the Cage camp are about the definition of "music"
I’ll leave you to wonder about
"routine" matters such as arrangements for the "heredity"
of performing personnel, or securing the "performance" against
mechanical or electrical failures, acts of God, war or insurrection, or
any of the other myriad contingencies under which your house insurer refuses
to shell out. Instead, let’s look briefly at the progress of the music.
Kick-off was on 5 September 2001,
Cage’s 90th. birthday. This was a year late, but in the long
run I don’t suppose it’ll make much difference, except to astrologers
and sundry other mystics. In the 17 months required to "play"
the first bar’s opening rest, the organ of course emitted no sound. In
other words, we started with 163,938 consecutive complete performances
of 4’33", give or take the odd one or two.
The first sound, which emerged
on 5 February 2003, continued unchanged – apart from the addition of the
octave doubling of one note on 5 July 2004 – for fully two years and five
months. And so it dragged on. Currently (April 2007), the chord A3-C4-F
sharp4 is sounding, and will continue so to do until it completes its
six-and-a-half year run on 5 July 2012. Thereafter, though, things start
to get really exciting, so watch this space.
Lest the anti-Cage camp be inspired
to seize their quill pens and write letters of complaint to the Times,
or even the Radio Times, we must get one thing absolutely clear. John
Cage had no part whatsoever in this project. For one thing, the planning
and management of the project, which must meticulously detail every last
jot and tittle, would have run contrary to his aleatoric principles. For
another, I doubt that this lovable and fun-loving man would have found
much fun in the wall-to-wall deadly seriousness of it all. The discussions
of his tempo marking, and the project spawned by them, all arose only
after his death – so please don’t go blaming Cage for any of it.
Even so, it almost goes without
saying that Cage would have hugely enjoyed all the controversy. More than
anything in the history of music this – what Cage would have called a
"happening" if it had been played for laughs – has polarised
opinion, if not quite to the extent of "pistols at dawn", then
not far short of that. It is either an awe-inspiring enterprise or a preposterous
waste of time and effort. There is no middle ground, so if you’re still
sitting on the fence, get off it at once.
I’ve weighed many of the arguments
pro and con. However, the reason that I’ve come down on the "anti"
side of the fence has nothing to do with any of these. In my opinion,
and to the best of my current knowledge, the entire exercise is based
on a seriously flawed premise.
I suspect that the deliberations
of that learned conference were blinkered by the mechanics of going
"as slowly as possible". Yet, Cage wrote a piece of music.
It is pretty well axiomatic that the entire raison d’être
of music is to be performed. Regardless of whether the performers
are people or machines, the sole purpose of performance is to create
an object of human perception. Indeed, Cage’s Zen beliefs might well
have prompted him to ask, "Does music really exist if there’s no-one
there to hear it?" Certainly, unless you’re a follower of Descartes,
sound exists independently of any observer, but for music to exist there
must be an observer – a listener – who implicitly understands that
it is music.
In the science of mechanics, the
motion of an object can be arbitrarily slow. However, because music is
an object of human perception, it can be said to be "moving"
only if its observers can perceive its motion. Even the mandarins of the
BBC in the 1950s understood this – it was the principle underlying Music
and Movement, a sort of primer of ballet and mime which in those days
was broadcast to schools, thereby inflicting eternal, squirming embarrassment
on hapless real "small boys" such as myself.
Although there can be an accidental
"logic" in mechanical sounds, logic is one of the defining characteristics
of music. You could even say that perception of this logic is the key
to the door on all the wonderful things music does to our minds and hearts.
In particular, the speed of music is not "the number of notes per
unit time", but the rate of progression of the logic – a distinction
that Ligeti, for one, explored to stunning effect.
We’ve one more step to take. If
we progressively slow down a piece of music, the events that define the
music’s logic get further apart. Is there a point beyond which we can
no longer sense the logical flow? This depends on memory. As long as we
can remember "the story so far" – or at the very least the previous
logical step – then we stand a chance of making sense of the current one.
This limiting interval between logical events is, I suspect, shorter than
we might imagine – taking an educated guess, I’d say it lies somewhere
in the region of the listener’s attention span. Go much beyond
that with nothing new coming in, and the average mind, bored out of its
skull, will conclude that nothing is happening and turn its attention
For similar reasons, there is a
corresponding limitation on performers: if they go too slowly, they will
lose track of the measure of the music. Hence, Cage’s title-cum-tempo-marking
ought to read something like "As Slow(ly) as is Humanly Possible".
We may argue over exactly how slow this might be, but I doubt that anyone
could come up with a convincing argument that the tempo chosen for the
ASLSP Project is anywhere near the right ball-park. I suspect that even
Treebeard would fail to find it "hasty".
If I were to be blunt, I’d say
that a piece of music that takes going on for ten standard lifetimes to
perform is about as useful to us as a chocolate fireguard. The whole thing
could have been achieved with much less hassle and a sight more cheaply,
but with every bit as much "meaning", if 4’33" had been
stretched to fill 639 years. All it needed was a large "egg-timer"
stopwatch – powered, of course, by thoroughly "green" solar
panels – and situated in (say) Tibet. As far as I’m concerned, this is
all just a wee bit over the top, just to get an entry in the 2641 edition
of The Guinness Book of Records.
Still, for better or for worse,
the project’s up and running, at least until such time as the last person
who is interested in keeping it going gets bored with it. To quench your
thirst for excitement, you can go to the web-site and eavesdrop on the
"current sound". If you doubt the validity of my arguments,
I can almost guarantee that 20 seconds of this will change your mind.
However, if you gamely persist for a further 10 seconds or so, you may
get a bit of a surprise. I did.
Diligently pursuing my duty as
a reviewer, I girded my loins, gritted my teeth, and soldiered on through
the pain barrier. After a while I noticed some "noises off".
My mind gratefully clutched at these straws, which would have seemed meagre
had I not been so desperate. Could I make sense of them? Might I catch
a snatch of conversation (such as, "Where’s the bloody ‘off’ switch?")?
A little while later – though it seemed like an eternity – I heard a "catch"
in the sound, rather like the glitches you get in streamed audio, quickly
followed by what seemed to be the same "noises off".
My attention now riveted, my pain
put on hold, I listened on. Guess what? That’s right; after about the
same interval, it happened all over again. This wasn’t "the
current sound", but a sample of the current sound played in
a loop. I felt a bit cheated, not of the experience of a lifetime but
mostly of five minutes in which I could have been doing something much
more interesting, like watching paint drying, or grass growing, or a DVD
of a teenager waking up on a Monday morning. Heck, even the sound quality
isn’t up to much. Take a tip from me: if you want to experience a fair
reflection of the "current sound", in decent-quality audio,
induce some mains hum in your amplifier and listen to that.
There will, of course, be a major
celebration to mark the conclusion of the project. However, as planning
is still in the very early stages, as yet no details are available. Nevertheless,
it is generally expected that the occasion will be marked by the release
of a complete recording in a special, de-luxe commemorative edition.
For practical reasons, it is unlikely
that this will take the form of a 4,201,107-CD boxed set. Even
shoe-horning it into a low-grade MP3 "song" would require a
file size of somewhere in the region of 200 terabytes. Obviously, this
would make even the fanciest of today’s MP3 players gip, but there is
every reason to be confident that technological advances during the project’s
course will result in much more efficient and compact storage systems.
In the meantime, for those cats
whose curiosity is already getting the better of them there is this CD,
warmly recorded in 24-bit, high-definition sound. This compresses the
entire work into a time-frame of around 72 minutes, which is some 4,667,895
times faster than the projected performance. Yet, even at this comparatively
breakneck speed, it still manages to prove my point.
After a few minutes of my undivided
attention, and in spite of my best efforts at due diligence, I found those
images of wet paint, short grass and somnolescent teenager starting to
beckon seductively. My mind slowly drifted into dreamy contemplation of
the word "somnolescent", becoming lulled by its lazy liquidity
. . . I awoke with a start, and re-joined the performance. It seemed very
quiet. Shortly thereafter, I noticed the CD player, displaying an admonishing
"stopped." But don’t let me put you off – if your attention
span is more robust than mine, you may well find it a deeply affecting
Performances of the original piano
version gallop by in typically just over a quarter of the time. Regardless
of any help from things like sophisticated – and silent – electronic metronomes,
that says much for the intense concentration and immaculate control exhibited
by the organists, Bossert and Ericsson. I wish I had their stamina.