Living 4’33”

I haven’t experienced Mute’s STUMM433 release yet, it’s not due out until May. The proceeds from its sale go to charities, so that’s a big huge plus for it already. Pulling big names like Depeche Mode and Moby will hopefully make for good sales.

This is also not the first time 4’33” has been “recorded” for the purpose of a record release and not as part of a live performance. Frank Zappa has done it, Pauline Oliveros and the Deep Listening Band plus others, and some even got sued for it. However, this tweet from the John Cage Trust, of all places, put me on guard:

Immediately, I think… “cover”? How? What is this photo?

So once I start looking into this, I learn about the accompanying videos. The Laibach one featured on the Mute website (which cleverly includes a shot of the Cramps Caged/Uncaged homage from 2000) is a kind of short silent film. I imagine many (if not all) of the other videos will be similar. So it’s telling that they refer to it as a “cover” and use words like “interpolation” to describe this collection.

The terminology now makes sense to me. These are not performances of the original score, but takes on Cage’s own expansion of the idea that it could be performed as anything, at any time, for any duration (like the versions of 0’00” from Song Books). Presenting an alternative action during the “silence” of a representative version of 4’33” is not so much a reading of the score as it is an interpenetration of events. Which is fine, even enjoyable. Nevertheless, the very idea of 4’33” in the popular eye is surrounded in jokes and doubt, so it is ironically funny to think that a recording imparts the same sort of wonder that a live experience of it does.

Spoiler: it doesn’t.

In addition to witnessing it several times, I performed 4’33” at my undergraduate recital (on classical guitar!). Let me tell you… it is much more than just the sounds around you and what leaks in. It is a visceral experience that isn’t captured in a recording, where the very best of intentions can only pay tribute to the surreal actuality of sitting there, enduring the seconds as nothing happens. The tension in the audience is very VERY real. Sometimes funny, sometimes raucous, but regardless the performer must stay focussed. There is simply nothing that gives the work the heft that Mute describes without experiencing it firsthand.

As a kind of funny postscript… when I was near the end of my time in grad school, where I rigorously studied voice and Cage’s music, I was asked to participate in a production of Theater Piece, a work of simultaneous but unrelated events. Somehow, CF Peters (the sole publishers of Cage’s scores) heard of this production, that I was involved, and assuming me responsible tracked me down to demand royalties be paid for staging the piece. Except – for once – I wasn’t staging it, I was merely performing, and explained as much. I wonder… had I said we weren’t performing Theater Piece, only doing a cover of it, if they would have left us alone. 😉

Finally, I recommend No Such Thing As Silence: John Cage’s 4’33” by Kyle Gann if you’re curious about the mythology around this composition. It is far from my “favorite” piece of Cage’s but is assuredly the most important in American musical culture.

Musical Intuition meet Technology and Chaos

Today I read through the InfoQ eMag on Chaos Engineering, and was struck by John Allspaw’s (@allspaw) contribution because it reminded me of something I jotted down on a sticky at my desk a few days ago:

Intuition is valid because it is learned like jazz changes.

I’m pretty stubborn and refuse to accept that music is merely a hobby of mine. When people ask me if electronic music or singing is my “hobby”, I am wincing inside. So a question often on my mind is: how does the intuition I have when performing and composing music connect with the work I do as a technologist?

Some musicological background might help. One concept in learning how to improvise (jazz or otherwise) is that you have developed an intuition built around internalizing the materials and form of the piece (or genre) – like scales, chord changes, or rhythm structures. This is different from the more lizard-brainy concept of instinct. Think about a blues progression, the foundation of music you hear every day, everywhere. You know intuitively the chord progression and timing is “right”, even so much that anomalies and departures come across as emotionally significant. The rest is pop history.

But you, homo sapiens, do not have this chord sequence pre-programed in your DNA, it isn’t something that is instinctual. By the same token, great technology leaders develop good intuition (expertise over hundreds of interviews) when hiring engineers but never rely on instinct (oh I just have a good “gut feeling”). The best DBAs have an intuitive understanding of their platform (you want to do X, but did you think of Y+Z?), but there’s nothing instinctual about it.

It is not a stretch, then, to recognize that intuition in improvised music can be directly compared to how Allspaw writes about the “mental map” that engineers develop. They each have their own subjective view on relevant (but overlapping) parts of the system and are challenged when relating each substrate to theirs. For instance, a phenomenon known as “fundamental common-ground breakdown” (Woods & Klein: Common Ground and Coordination in Joint Activity) happens when what I describe as intuitions (accumulated individual learnings about the system) are assumed knowledge among participants, good or bad. Part of the game is learning how to harmonize these separate threads of experience, avoiding costly coordination surprise and re-synchronization… and trust me, I have been in plenty of rehearsals and narrowly saved performances that fit this description!

The important point here is that a system becomes more complex as it grows dimensions, shrinking the capacity of any one person to comprehend the whole thing. Therefore we rely on shared and discovered knowledge to fully grok these fascinating systems. Take any ensemble of musicians: as it grows in membership, individuals gradually lose the ability to contain its myriad relationships in their mental map, so coordination and integration become a matter of listening and rehearsal experience (both modes of communication). Oh and it characterizes the music, too. Building intuition about how to play a part in an opera is much different than in a free improv vocal trio. Orchestrating ten thousand linux containers in a cloud provider doesn’t compare to managing two rows of server racks at the datacenter downtown.

Technologists grapple with the task of building and sharing intuitions about a system because understanding an entire system contributes to what we know about making it more resilient. Communication is key in either musical or engineering teams, collaboration on understanding the whole is no exception. Our mental maps should be adaptable to constant updates, and practices like Chaos Engineering that make discoveries in complex system behavior are supported by this kind of cross-pollination and proliferation of our combined understanding.

A quote from Allspaw’s article highlights it well:

Maybe the process of designing a chaos experiment is just as valuable as the actual performance of the experiment.

– John Allspaw, Recalibrating Mental Models through Design of Chaos Experiments

The use of the term “performance” is apt. We’re familiar with this concept: practice makes perfect. Taken further, the experience of practice is necessary such that the result is merely an extension of practice. It takes meticulous work to understand a piece of music to the level of having an intuition about how it operates, and the same goes for building experimentation that challenges what you think you know about complex software. The results of the “performance” can be enhanced by a focus on understanding the system’s design and steady state (i.e. nominal condition), what we would call the language of the musical work. It is as if the performance of the event naturally evolves from learnings gained preparing for it.

Imagine you are a jazz musician, you have gone through years of studying scales and changes and charts and recordings of a particular artist, and have built a capability for understanding how the language of their music works. One evening at a local club, your dreams are fulfilled, you’re in the audience and invited up for a set with them. You intuitively know how this person plays their music, as it has been a guide for your own. But when you’re jamming together, they do something indeterminately that informs your intuition in a way you would have never discovered yourself. Not only has the process of designing your inevitable collaboration been valuable to understand what you thought you needed to know to play like your biggest influence, but it also served as the basis for learning something new and unexpected.

Whether it is free improvisation or interpreting a through-composed piece of music (and everything in between), there is a certain amount of experience and training informing the performance. Eventually, when we’ve practiced enough, the music itself steps out of the way and intuition takes over. I think this is where my musical performance connection with technology starts: once you understand the fundamentals of the system, let the presentation of the system get out of the way, and you’re in a better place to evolve your mental map and gain further intuition through disciplines like Chaos Engineering.

LA Phil graces Cage’s Europeras 1 & 2

John Cage liked to borrow. Whether in musical style or approach to theatre, the materials themselves are often not his. Musical scores evolved into graphic iconography or instruction governed by brackets of time and/or duration. Written pieces were amalgamations, mesostics “written through” other authors’ work, or more “cut-up” style constructions of various texts.

It applied to his philosophies, too. He is known to take bits and pieces of Eastern practice and weave their concepts into his worldview and compositional process. Concepts like the Huayan Buddhist “interpenetration” of all things were slightly bent by Cage, who found them useful for composing, but maybe slightly ignoring (or denying) any inherent interconnectedness.

Such synergy is often attributed to improvisation, like a jazz combo. On the contrary, Cage was very much about the accidental interpenetration of elements by downplaying any relationship importance between them at all. The idea of “playing off each other” as if playing jazz was not allowed, simply because it wasn’t scored that way.

These were simply concurrent events that coincided in layers against each other, necessarily connected by nothing but the experience, indeterminate and interpenetrating. It seems to imply chaos, and that is precisely how my wife described the LA Phil west coast premiere of Europeras 1 & 2 to me afterward: “too much going on for your brain to comprehend” and “the weirdest thing you’ve taken me to yet.”

Now that’s saying something! We’ve participated in Long Beach SoundWalk multiple years, we’ve seen some outrageous installations and concerts. Even my music is pretty damn strange. Whether or not this actually hit the tip of the Weirdometer, there was one thing we agreed upon: nothing was happening, and everything was happening.

My wife and I have never been to a movie studio lot, so it was a new experience just arriving and finding our way back through the closely stacked identical warehouses to Studio 23. The Sunday matinee crowd fascinated us. We guessed the throng held Cage fans, opera fans, music students, season ticket pass holders and supporters of LA Phil, friends of the cast and orchestra, and even scattered fashionistas.

Inside was a simple proscenium stage configuration, the audience rising up and back, fly loft and everything built into this huge soundstage. On each side of the main stage were three columns of orchestra, with most major instruments represented at least once. The stage itself was an 8×8 grid, marked with numbers 1-64 to represent hexagrams of the I Ching, which itself is used to drive the chance operations required for creating the performance based on Cage’s score.

The distinction of 1 & 2 is a programmatic one, they have always been performed together as a 90 + 45 minute show. So we settled in for a good bit of nothing we ever expected. Although I have never seen the Europera scores first hand, I have performed many other Cage pieces that revolve around the same concept: time brackets of performed material according to decisions arrived through chance operations. Many of his scores like this were performed simultaneously, so that not only did each individual composition interpenetrate with itself, it also did with the other piece.

The Europeras are a culmination of this approach by Cage, and not only because they are among the last works he composed before his death in 1992. Chance procedures determine every aspect of the production, from costuming and scenery to blocking and the placement of arias selected from the standard repertoire. In the midst, selections from Truckera (a tape of 101 layered European opera fragments) were broadcast stereoscopically across loudspeakers above the audience, giving the sonic illusion a “truck of opera” was rattling by the performance and drowning everything out.

The entire work becomes a brilliant collage of sight, sound, dimension, and movement. There are entirely mind-bending Fluxus moments of absurdity, subtle sequences of sublime beauty, and a good amount of unintended comedy.

The LA Phil performance mostly held true to Cage’s intent. There were dancers moving independently of both scrim- and prop-based scenery (also sequenced with chance operations), but also acting as stagehands and crew to move things around. Very seldom it starts to drift, as when these same dancers become engaged with the opera singers in their individual scenes.

I have to hand it to the singers in this production. It is not hyperbole to state that seeing this performed is at the top of my bucket list. These folks were charged with non-traditional blocking, ignoring every other musical cue they hear around them while staying in-tune as possible, having to watch the large count-up clocks posted on each precipice of the stage, navigate indeterminately moving scenery and other actors, all while performing a fully committed aria wearing costuming and performing blocking both separately derived by chance operations and completely unrelated to the entire way they were taught to interpret an aria.

Some did this better than others. One of the more successful sang “Oh du, mein holder Abendstern” from Wagner’s Tannhäuser, outfitted in full astronaut garb (minus helmet), the entire time both lying and moving around a hospital bed, while any number of other arias, scene changes, and lighting queues happened around him. I found it masterfully performed against a magnificent bed of chaos.

Many of the singers’ performances were like this. As was the orchestra. There was an incredible amount of commitment in this show that is absolutely vital to Cage’s music. The entire ensemble – from stage crew and props to performers and designers – dialed in on this aspect of performing Cage and it comes through.

Lighting queues and design were scored completely separately as well, often focussing on the audience, into the ceiling of the warehouse, across the back of the building behind the open stage area. Scrim backgrounds, some looking quite ancient, dropped at various elevations, frequently covering an entire “scene” behind it due to the chance operations involved. Sometimes individually numbered squares onstage were illuminated, amorphous areas of color appeared, and more than once a strange ladder descended made entirely of what appeared to be fluorescent rods.

Sopranos galloping on life-size fake horses carried by dancers, a baritone singing (Mozart?) while preparing a steak on a hot plate with chopped vegetables, a tenor in drag performing what I think was from Rake’s Progress (Stravinsky), the Toreador Song (from Carmen) staged to a commercial being filmed for hair products. Some scenes had no singing at all, like the baritone who sunbathed in 70s garb for what seemed like an eternity before he finally got up and sang a short aria. Or the girl backward in a running belt vibration machine drinking a coke with a straw in a full Wizard-of-Oz Dorothy outfit (complete with ruby slippers) and maybe sang, but maybe didn’t. Or the soprano auctioning off small statues to members of the orchestra, complete with gavel banging. Yoga and Queen of the Night, I think it was?

Except in one rare case where a tuba belted out Flight of the Valkyries, the orchestral parts were not as immediately recognizable as the arias, but equally enjoyable in the mix of it all. I especially loved interjections from percussion, like sudden cybals and tympani. The effect of this differentiated musical tissue was like an extended meditation on simultaneous sound against a landscape that was constantly in motion.

Overall, Europera 1 was more recognizable for me and felt like it breathed with long sequences, wonderful moments of silence where the HVAC in the huge studio warehouse took its solos, combinations of the orchestra that did not feel at all chance-derived, and I felt drawn in the entire time. Europera 2 felt more compressed, more frenetic, maybe more immediately interesting but definitely more chaotic. Nevertheless, it ultimately wasn’t as memorable as the first, and yet felt more voluminous and energetic. Even the chance-derived synopses (related to nothing) reflect this telescopic pattern:

1

He falls deeply in love with a beautiful streetsinger who staggers into the hut. He buys a love potion. Her candle goes out and impressed by his wealth she decides to marry him on the spot. The would reveals that after three years he will have himself crowned Emperor with the evil one’s help in exchange for his love. At first she flees; whereupon he gathers all his strength, she becomes passionately attached and begs a hermit’s refuge.

2

She sells his soul to her father with the aim of improving his impaired finances. Even her loving relatives are shocked. They rescue him. He retires. She agrees. Torn, they, in shame, pardon all conspirators. He agrees to marry her. She kills herself. He is chosen the victor.

After the final curtain dropped at precisely the correct time, we left the soundstage, the sun barely setting as we found our way out of Culver City. I reflected on how difficult it is to convey the real power in this category of Cage’s compositions without experiencing them firsthand, live and in person. In addition to the power of simply listening and seeing, his works of this kind express a sort of pandemonium that is at the same time masterfully controlled and undoubtedly a “work by Cage”: meticulously crafted experiences in anarchy.

Fullerton Art Walk Menagerie

Here’s my own collection of aural glass animals for you to enjoy… a mix of groovy and beaty dreamscapes (3:38 @ 256K cbr mp3), recorded live for the Fullerton Art Walk on Friday (April 6), accompanying tattoo artist Jon Kelly (known for Olde Tyme Tattoo) as he applies his latest in biomechanical fashion.

=== e d  i   t ===

…by the way a vinyl mix…

 

120 Hours For John Cage

As you may or may not know, 2012 is the Centennial of John Cage’s birth, and among its many celebrants (including myself, details to come…) is “transmission arts” collective Free103point9, who work in conjunction with WGXC 90.7-FM in upstate New York to present works specifically designed for air-borne electro-magnetic transmission – Radio, that is.

As you also may or may not know, John Cage wrote an abundance of pieces that called for either radios as instruments or as the listening medium (i.e. works designed specifically for radio play). Many of these are some of the first electro-acoustic works ever, predating most electronic music, and an inspiration to countless followers.

In fact I plan on submitting my own radio-accompanied piece (in graphical notation no less) influenced by Cage, written over a decade ago while still studying his music in grad school, called Riverbroadening. I have two really nice recordings by Comma in both DC and NYC, and will be putting together a 2012 version with (hopefully) some, all, or slightly more than the original folks involved.

Ubuweb posts Greenaway’s 4 American Composers

Back in the mid 90’s before I ever got into techno music, I owned the original VHS copy of Peter Greenaway’s 1983 release 4merican Composers (natch, “Four American Composers”) and watched it constantly while in music school; I think I probably saw the Cage movie no less than 10 times.

As a honorable musicologist is want to do, I lent my copy out to a friend who had never heard of any of them, but then never got it back because of moving across the country. So I’ve been searching high and low for higher quality versions of these videos.

It is way out of print, but you can still find the VHS version… they’ve been released on DVD in Europe, but only in PAL format. In the digital age, this is unacceptable for me, so I finally came across someone who ripped the videos and I now have – albeit in relatively lowres VHS-sourced AVI files – all four on my iPod. The quality is what you’d expect from a 30-year old VHS tape, but it’s not horrible.

I’ve been struggling about whether to post them myself, but today Ubuweb has answered my prayers and posted all of them for me (lo and behold, the quality is no better than my collected AVI files, I suspect they may have procured them from the same source).

So here they are, I highly recommend… they are the greatest films about avant garde music you’ll ever find anywhere:

SoundWalk 2011 is coming

Just in case you missed it, SoundWalk Long Beach 2011 is just around the corner! Check out the newly posted set of mp3’s from last year’s event at craque.net (or download a zip file of flac files directly).

Here’s a couple of pix from last year’s event…

Craque performing at SoundWalk 2010 in Long Beach, CA

Dave doubles as stagehand and soundmaker improvisor

Later in the evening, up close with participants