Posts Tagged ‘John Cage’

Robert Ashley’s Perfect Life Ends

March 4, 2014


ashley-at-WTC2.1975Well, it may not have been so perfect, but Perfect Lives, Private Parts was the name of Robert Ashley’s multi-part meditation on life.  It was loosely called an opera, in the way that his contemporary, Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach was an opera, but less so.  Robert Ashley was ambient before Eno, composed avant-garde opera’s years before Philip Glass and did a form of rapping before rapping.  Check out Perfect Lives, Private Parts: The Bar below.  Ashley is from that post-John Cage generation that included David Behrman, Alvin Lucier and LaMonte YoungPerfectLivesBookAshley worked in the regions of the subconscious, those inner murmurings that bubble to the surface between sleep and waking.  Pieces like Automatic Writing created an ambient scrawl of his spoken word, including his uncontrolled murmurings from his Tourette’s Syndrome.  I interviewed Robert Ashley in the late 1980s for the radio series, Totally Wired.  You can hear it here: (Ignore the playlist and address spiel at the end)

Here’s a couple of Ashley’s signature tune.  My favorite remains Perfect Lives, Private Parts: The Bar with it’s psychotic boogie woogie piano from Blue Gene Tyranny and drunken ruminations making brilliant connections.  Unlike a lot of avant-garde composers, Ashley had a wry sense of humor in his work.  Robert Ashley was an American maverick’s who musicians and art cognoscenti knew, but who never rose about the avant-garde surface.  Explore his body of work and you might wonder why.  Robert Ashley had been diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver and died on 3 March at approximately 1:30pm.

John Diliberto (((echoes)))

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Cage: Beyond Silence

November 9, 2012

Pianist Margaret Leng Tan and Producer Dustin Hurt on the Legacy of John Cage.

John Cage – Tape’s Rolling

Hear the Echoes Podcast about John Cage.

There are icons of modern music and then there are gods.  John Cage was a god.  Few composers have turned music on its head the way Cage did with compositions like “4’33”, his silent piece,  his music for prepared piano and compositions that employed electronics long before synthesizers.  John Cage would probably blanche or laugh that infectious laugh at being called a god.   He died in 1992, but on the centenary of his birth, people are looking back at his influence.  Among them is a festival called Cage: Beyond Silence and pianist Margaret Leng Tan.

“Cage’s legacy is huge,” claims Leng Tan.  “You wouldn’t have heavy metal, you know, white noise passing for music, if it wasn’t for Cage and his broadening of the definition of music to include silence and noise.  Cage made all this possible.”

Margaret Leng Tan & John Cage

“I think the thing that he certainly did was open up the music world to sounds that were previously considered unmusical sounds of ambient sounds,” concurs Dustin Hurt.  “Even if you’re not a fan of Cage’s music, the way in which this sort of permeates music today, the use of all sorts of sounds of the everyday world is pretty profound.”

Dustin Hurt is the director of the Philadelphia experimental music promoter Bowerbird and the director of a 3 month John Cage festival called, Cage: Beyond Silence.  Wearing glasses and black t-shirt, he occupies a small corner of an anonymous loft office space in center city Philadelphia.  Hurt was only twelve years old when Cage died.  His introduction to the composer was like many, a piece called “4’33”.” It’s the iconic Cage work where a musician, often a pianist, and sits for 4’33 seconds of silence.  If people know one piece by John Cage, it’s this one.

“I think it does have the unfortunate quality of overshadowing his output and definitely I think supports a lot of the mad scientist or prankster even conclusions people have of him,’ confesses Hurt.

Dustin Hurt of Bowerbird

But Cage’s composition wasn’t a joke.  Margaret Leng Tan has been a leading interpreter of Cage since she met him in 1981. Now in her late 60s, she’s is a delicate, slender woman,  wearing a blue Chinese tunic with her signature black page boy haircut.  She says that Cage was articulating concepts of silence, sound and music.

“John Cage said there is no such thing as an absolute silence,” she explains.  “There is always something to see, something to hear…try as we may to make silence, we cannot, sounds occur whether intended or not.”

Leng Tan played “4’33” at the inaugural performance of Cage: Beyond Silence.

“It was in the grand stair hall of the Philadelphia Museum of Art,” she says. “They’re serving drinks while we play, and food, you know, it’s a very informal setting.  And someone in the bar I think broke a glass or something, it was wonderful, it just shattered. So that was marvelous.  You know, there was all this ambient noise and most performances of 4’33 taking place in concert halls are rather boring.  All you hear is the hum of the air conditioner and occasional cough, you know, but this was wonderful.

She even told people to leave their cell phones on.

The Cage: Beyond Silence Festival continues thru January 2013

You can hear more about John Cage, including his compositions for chance operations and prepared piano in the podcast of our interview with Margaret Leng Tan and Dustin Hurt.

~© 2012 John Diliberto ((( echoes )))

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Sign up forEchoes CD of the Month Club and you will not only receive the November CD pick, Jeff Johnson & Phil Keaggy’s WaterSky, but Tangents as well.  With the Echoes CD of the Month Club, you get great CDs like  WaterSky coming to you each month.  Join now and you’ll get Watersky plus Tangents. Follow the link to the Echoes CD of the Month Club  and see what you’ve been missing.

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Hilary Hahn & Hauschka : Classical & Crazy

September 14, 2012

Hilary Hahn & Haushka on Echoes

We recently had classical violinist Hilary Hahn and German pianist Hauschka on Echoes talking about their collaboration, Silfra.  It’s a work of ethereal atmospheres, frozen fragments and deep spaces redolent of the location where they recorded it, Iceland.  They played live on the show and this past week we ran an interview with the two artists talking about their collaboration.  You can hear the interview now as a a free iTunes Podcast.

Here’s a snippet from their interview which begins with Haushka explaining his prepared piano preparations.

Hauschka: There are chopsticks that I use for drum sounds, and there is an EBow that creates a sustained note.  There is a cheap necklace from $1 shop that is very light, but it is the object that I like the most because it has a very nice harpsichord sound.  And then there is a chicken egg on the lowest F on the piano that creates a kind of like off beat, like tambourine or shake on the note.

It’s called a prepared piano, a technique made famous by John Cage in the 1940s.  With his objects muting the strings, creating odd vibrations, un-piano like overtones and acoustic glitches, Hauschka turns his instrument into one-man orchestra from Bizarro World.  It’s an otherworldly and haunting sound that Hauschka makes and it’s just what Hilary Hahn was looking for.

Hilary Hahn:  I was really trying to get away from the assumptions about violin because I think violin can do a lot of different things.  I had tried preparing the violin because Hauschka prepares the piano, but I, I found in combination with the piano the violin’s preparations just faded to almost inaudible.  And what I concluded was the best way to interact aurally was just to create these different sound worlds with what the violin can already do with just various techniques that I’ve learned over the years.

You can hear Hilary Hahn & Hauschka talking about their collaboration in a podcast of their interview up now on iTunes.

~© 2012 John Diliberto ((( echoes )))

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Sshhhhhhh. John Cage at 100.

September 5, 2012

John Cage – Always Laughing

John Cage would’ve been 100 today.  He died in 1992, but his influence continues to echo through music.  Many of the musicians on Echoes still cite Cage as an inspiration.  As recently as yesterday on Echoes, Franco Falsini of Sensations Fix recalled hearing Cage in the early 1970s.

John Cage had this concept, “I wanted to put something on the piano so that when I hit the note that is different.”  Okay, I figured that well I could do the same thing, but instead of modifying the piano, I could just put a distortion box, you know, and I’ve done the same. – Franco Falsini

Early this year, Hilary Hahn & Hauschka collaborated on the album, Silfra with Hauschka inserting everything from bottle caps and duct tape to chopsticks and vibrators into his piano strings. (You can hear their Echoes interview on September 10.)

You can’t listen to electronic music without thinking John Cage, whether it’s Brian Eno or Skrillex. And Eno, famously, recorded a Cage composition on his Obscure Music label.

Silence First Edition

Reading John Cage’s 1961 book, Silence, is one of those life changing experiences.  You never hear sound the same way again.  Cage realized you don’t need a piano, an orchestra or a rock band to make music.  You just have to open your ears to the symphony of sound around you whether it’s the quiet of a zen garden or the cacophony of Times Square.  I always loved a story I remember singer Joan La Barbara telling.  When she was a young singer, she went to a Cage concert and she was so appalled by the cacophony that she confronted the composer at a post-concert reception.

You know, I was really young. There was so much going on; there were thousands of people in this place. I went up to Cage and I said, “With all the chaos in the world, why do you make more?” He was surrounded by all these people who just gasped. So I turned on my heel and marched back out into the melee. A few minutes later I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around and it was John. He was smiling and he said, “Perhaps when you go out into the world it won’t seem so chaotic.” -Joan La Barbara

LaBarbara went on to become a lifelong Cage devotee and recorded several of his works.

Silence is cited by composer John Adams as the turning point of his career. Steve Reich and Philip Glass cite it as a work that gave them permission to do anything, including the right to be repetitive and tonal. Brian Eno once called Cage “the most influential theorist … a completely liberating factor. ” Eno’s Oblique Strategy cards were his own adaptation of Cage’s I Ching chance operations.

Here’s an audio piece I produced as part of the Thoughts in Sound series.

I was fortunate to be able to interview John Cage back in 1988 for Totally Wired.  It was subsequently published in Electronic Musician magazine where you can still find it on-line as Conversations with Cage.

Celebrate John Cage’s birthday today.  Roll the I Ching.  Turn off the iPod and open the window.  Sit in the silence that is never silent.

There’s a few Cage videos at the end.

~© 2012 John Diliberto ((( echoes )))

Echoes On LineYou get great CDs like Dead Can Dance’s  Anastasis  by becoming a member of the Echoes CD of the Month Club.  Follow the link and see what you’ve been missing.

Now you can go Mobile with Echoes On-Line.  Find out how you can listen to Echoes 24/7 wherever you are on your iPhone, iPad or Droid.

Join us on Facebook where you’ll get all the Echoes news so you won’t be left behind Dead Can Dance appear on the show, Tangerine Dream tours, or Brian Eno releases a new CD.

John Cage on YouTube

John Cage on What’s My Secret? This is a riot for several reasons, includng a union dispute over who can plug in the radios.

One of Cage’s most melodically beautiful, and oft recorded works, including an electronic version by William Orbit.

David Tudor performing Cage’s 4’33”

John Cage’s “Sonata V”

Stereolab’s “John Cage Bubblegum”

Thoughts in Sound: Cage, Eno, Jarrett, Riley

August 20, 2008

Thoughts in Sound from musicians at the bleeding edges of music including John Cage, Brian Eno, Terry Riley and Keith Jarrett.

You can also hear an Audio Version of this blog, with music.

Every musician plays notes, but some of them think about the nature of sound a lot more than others. For them, music isn’t just a conveyor of melody and rhythm, but a pathway into sound itself. No one captured the meaning of sound better than avant-garde iconoclast, John Cage. John Cage died 1992, but in the spring of 1987, he was still enjoying the sounds of the city permeating his Chelsea home. In a Landscape Lectures and Writings

John Cage: I have a friend, Paul Zukofsky, the violinist, who used to come and stay where I lived in New York when I left and when Merce Cunningham left because it was so quiet but he no longer comes because this is so noisy. For me it’s a great pleasure though, to hear all the sounds. I find it very, just plain musical.

John Cage finds his concepts reborn in the work of ambient music pioneer and pop music producer, Brian Eno.

Music for Airports His Music And The Vertical Color Of Sound

Brian Eno: Music has become part of the tapestry of your life like lighting is or like the environmental sound that you here anyways…. Anyway I was excited by the idea of making music that acknowledged that and said “Here’s a music that is especially for that. Here’s a music that is intended to merge into the environment. “

Eno’s concepts were inspired by Cage and by minimalist composers who wanted to bring out sonic details and focus through repetition.  Rainbow in Curved Air Persian Surgery DeRvishes                                                                                 
Terry Riley:
Tape loop creates a stasis in the sound and you can watch something as if it were stopped in a camera frame and it repeats over and over again. And You start to notice the real deep details that can draw the mind in   also.

Surprisingly, pianist Keith Jarrett, who is anti-electronic, and far from minimalist, still reflects a similar desire to get to the essence of sound.
The Köln Concert Spirits 1 & 2Keith Jarrett: As long ago as when I was at Slugs with Charles Lloyd I had this feeling that I might quit music because all I had to play was one note, you know, and that recurs in different guises now and then. But what it suggests is that I don’t really need all that big an instrument to justify what I want to hear.

Keith Jarrett, Terry Riley, Brian Eno and John Cage. They are musicians who have gone into the microcosms of sound, often returning to produce some of the most influential, and even popular music of the last 50 years. They are among ten artists we’ll hear next week on a special Echoes series called Thoughts in Sound. This has been an Echo Location, Soundings for New Music.

You can also hear an Audio Version of this blog, with music.

Thoughts in Sound is a series we produced through a grant from the Public Radio Exchange.  It includes interviews with Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage, Brian Eno, Philip Glass, LaMonte Young, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, John Adams and Keith Jarrett.  You can read a more extensive article about this and hear each complete 5 minute audio piece here.

John Diliberto ((( echoes )))

A Meeting of Icons: Klaus Schulze & Lisa Gerrard

July 22, 2008

It’s difficult when you fall out of love with an artist. We all have musicians whose work has been central to our lives, who we’ve followed from the beginning of their careers and absorbed everything they’ve released as if it were a gift from heaven. Klaus Schulze and Lisa Gerrard are like that for me. I’ve followed Klaus since Dan Kelly played me Picture Music in 1975. I remember the phone lines lit solid for all 25 minutes of “Mindphaser” when I played the Moondawn album on WXPN‘s Diaspar in 1976. MoondawnMirage and X  remain among my favorite albums. But since the mid-1980s, Klaus’s music has seemed less important, less relevant and often, just not very well crafted. In an era of tighter time constraints and shorter attention spans, he persists in creating epic works spanning 30 minutes to hours, often improvising aimlessly and endlessly on relentless sequencer patterns or glacial chords.  Klaus does not subscribe to the “less is more” concept.

  The Silver Tree Lisa Gerrard has been a true love since the second Dead an Dance album, Spleen & Ideal.  Her singing remains singular and transcendent, despite so many imitators. I’ve written reams of praises to her, but in recent years, Gerrard has become more turgid as well. As early as The Mirror Pool and as recently as The Silver Tree  there are many transcendent moments, but I often feel like I’m sitting in church dusty and musty litanies shrouded in suffocating portent.   Lisa has abandoned the dramatic arc that marks her best work, often devolving into mood and mysticism that is often, but not always salvaged by her supralingua dialects and siren angel of a voice.


 When I heard these two musicians were getting together on a double CD called Farscape, I hoped they’d bring out the best in each other.  The opening 22 minute opus, “Liquid Coincidence (1)” drops you into the space cathedral of their sound with Klaus laying down those big sweeping synth chords while Lisa channels Abbess Hildegard von Bingen.   It’s an auspicious start, but the gambit gets tiring at about 30 minutes into the CD,  when I realized that Klaus and Lisa were reinforcing each other’s worst tendencies, heading down the rabbit hole of unfocussed abstraction that has sucked the life out of them both in recent years. As it wears on,  Farscape begins sounding less like inspired collaboration and more like a John Cagian Indeterminacy experiment, with both musicians playing in separate rooms,  rather than a holy communion of sound.   According to Klaus’s liner notes, he created the basic tracks and Lisa came in and sang for several days.  Her performances were all reputedly one-take improvisations which isn’t necessarily bad, except they sound like it.  His synth tracks are sometimes gorgeous, occasionally rhythmic, always sweeping, yet never quite ascending to a compositional level, more like soundscapes that ebb and flow. Lisa sings across them, sending out chants and incantations, and though I can hear she’s dialed into the moment, there’s no sense of construction or flow, only a string of isolated, unmediated, unedited fragments.  Klaus lays down the big synth chords to nowhere while Lisa deploys her Gothic muse.

I could make a case for this being an enveloping soundscape that takes you deep into an immersive world of sound where Klaus Schulze navigates a roadmap of the inner mind while Lisa Gerrard negotiates the darkest reaches of the soul, each staring into the abyss and jumping in head first. But the portentousness of it all is as lugubrious as Jabba the Hutt on Quaaludes, just prettier.

I feel like I’ve just turned my back on the church, but the fact is, I remain a loyal fan, because I can still hear the elements of genius and soul that attracted me to both artists, I’ll be trying to edit out some choice chunks to play on Echoes, because they are there.  Meanwhile, Klaus’s early catalog has been reissued in beautiful packaging, although the decision to not remaster the recordings was Ill-advised.

You can hear a profile of Lisa Gerrard here.

John Diliberto (((echoes)))

The First Lady of Electronic Music Passes: Bebe Barron

April 21, 2008

One of the original pioneers of the electronic frontier has passed. Bebe Barron’s work goes back to the Conestoga days of electronic music when everything was DIY. She and her then husband and partner, Louis Barron, worked with John Cage on one of his earliest tapes pieces, “Williams Mix.” Their best know work remains their controversial score to Forbidden Planet.

Original MGM Soundtrack

At the time, they couldn’t submit it for an Academy Award and they couldn’t even get a film credit as composers because electronic music and instruments weren’t recognized. We were fortunate to interview Bebe and Louis in the mid-1980s for our Totally Wired series. Louis died in 1989. I was notified of Bebe’s passing by electronic composer Barry Schrader and he gave me permission to reproduce his fine obituary below.
John Diliberto

Bebe Barron (1925 – 2008)

It is with great sadness that I report the death of Bebe Barron on April 20, 2008 at the age of 82, of natural auses. Bebe was the last of the pioneering composers of classical studio electronic music. She was a close friend, an enthusiastic colleague, and a most gracious lady.

Bebe Barron was born Charlotte Wind in Minneapolis, on June 16, 1925. She received an MA in political science from the University of Minnesota, where she studied composition with Roque Cordero, and she also spent a year studying composition and ethnomusicology at the University of Mexico. In 1947 she moved to New York and, while working as a researcher for Time-Life, studied composition with Wallingford Reigger and Henry Cowell. That same year, she met and married Louis Barron (1920 – 1989). Shortly thereafter, the Barrons began their experiments with the recording and manipulation of sound material by means of a tape recorder that they received as a wedding gift. They created a private studio in New York and, in 1955, composed the first electronic music score for a commercial film, Forbidden Planet. In 1962 the Barrons moved to Los Angeles; they divorced in 1970. In 1973, Bebe married Leonard Neubauer, a screen writer. Bebe became the first Secretary of the Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States (SEAMUS) in 1985, and also served on the Board of Directors. In 1997 Bebe was presented the SEAMUS Award for the Barrons life work in the field of electro-acoustic music. She is survived by her husband, Leonard, and her son, Adam.

Bebe’s last public appearance was on January 12, 2008, at an event held at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, celebrating the work of her good friend, Anais Nin. Bebe was too ill to speak in public at this point, but she agreed to be interviewed for a video piece that was shown at the event. This is her final interview, and you can see it on YouTube.

Bebe’s final composition, Mixed Emotions (2000) was composed in the CREATE studios of the University of California at Santa Barbara.

I first met Bebe Barron in the middle 1970s; I don’t remember exactly when, but I think it was around 1975. I had asked Bebe and her former husband and composing partner Louis to attend a showing of Forbidden Planet that I had arranged as part of a class at CalArts. They agreed to do it, and I quickly became good friends with Bebe and we remained close over the years.

In writing about Bebe Barron, it’s impossible not to focus on the pioneering work that she and Louis did in electronic music. They began their experiments in 1948, shortly after they were married. This early
work was done using a tape recorder, preceding the work of Luening and Ussachevsky and the switch from disks to tape by Pierre Schaeffer and the GRM. But, to my knowledge, the Barrons’ early experiments did not result in any completed works, a state of affairs not uncommon with early pioneers in the field. In 1949 they set up one of the earliest private electro-acoustic music studios and began their experiments with electronically generated sounds. They built their own circuits which they viewed as cybernetic organisms, having been influenced by Norbert Weiner’s work on cybernetics. The circuits, built with vacuum tubes, would exhibit characteristic qualities of pitch, timbre, and rhythm, and had a sort of life cycle from their beginnings until they burned out.

The Barrons recorded the sounds from the amplification of these circuits and this formed the basis of their working library. They also employed tape manipulation techniques as part of their compositional procedures.
The sound qualities of these various amplified tube circuits and the tape manipulations that they underwent formed the musical language that the Barrons created in their studio. Unlike some of the work being done
elsewhere, the Barrons’ music reveals long phrases, often stated in tape-delayed rhythms, with the stark finesse of the tube circuit timbres. They created a style that was uniquely their own yet married to the
technology they were using.

The Barrons earliest finished work, Heavenly Menagerie (1951) does not seem to have survived in a complete form. But their score for Ian Hugo’s film Bells of Atlantis (1952), based on a poem by Anais Nin, who appears
on screen, does exist on the film sound track. This may be the earliest extant work of the Barrons and presages what was to come with Forbidden Planet, the music for which was composed in 1955, the film being released
next year.

The music for Forbidden Planet is truly a landmark in electro-acoustic music. This was the first commercial film to use only electronic music, and the score for the movie displays an attitude towards film scoring that was different from anything that had happened before. In Forbidden Planet, while there are themes for characters and events in the film, as was traditional in the scoring of that day, the themes are composed and
perceived as gestalts, rather than as melodies in traditional movie music. Even more important is the fact that the scoring of Forbidden Planet breaks down the traditional line between music and sound effects since the Barrons’ electronic material is used for both. This not only creates a new type of unity in the film sound world, but also allows for a continuum between these two areas that the Barrons exploit in various ways. At some points it’s actually impossible to say whether or not what you’re hearing is music, sound effect, or both. In doing this, they foreshadowed by decades the now common role of the sound designer in modern film and video.

The Barrons composed many other works for tape, film, and the theater in the 1950s. Their studio became the home for John Cage’s Project of Music for Magnetic Tape, and they assisted in the creation of Cage’s first chance piece Williams Mix (1951-52), as well as works by other members of the group such as Earle Brown and Morton Feldman. As a studio for the creation of their own and other composers’ works, the Barrons’ studio
served as a functioning center for electro-acoustic music at a time when there was no institutional support of the medium in the United States. It’s curious, then, that, for many years, the Barrons, their studio, and their works were largely overlooked by composers and historians in the field. Fortunately, that injustice has since been corrected, and, in 1997, it was my great honor to present to Bebe and, posthumously, to Louis, the SEAMUS Lifetime Achievement Award. Bebe was involved with SEAMUS from the very beginning of the organization. She was one of the ten original members who responded to my organizational call and met at CalArts in November of 1984 to form the group, and she was SEAMUS’s first secretary. There may have been a little strong-arming on my part to get her to be involved so actively, but Bebe was always ready to support the
cause of electro-acoustic music in whatever way she could.

Bebe created a firm legacy in her music. If the importance of one’s work is to be judged in any regard by it’s influence, acceptance, longevity, and innovative qualities, then the score for Forbidden Planet is an
enormous success. It remains the most widely known electro-acoustic music work on this planet. For me, Bebe Barron will always be the First Lady of electronic music.


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