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Published 22 October 2008, doi:10

Music 109: Notes on Experimental Music

by Alvin Lucier
Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, Connecticut, 2012
216 pp., 10 musical examples. Trade, $24.95; e-book, $19.99
ISBN: 978-0-8195-7297-4; 978-0-8195-7298-1.

Reviewed by Richard Kade
Ubiquitous Iconoclast
Sunnyvale, CA


There is no there there.
-- Gertrude Stein

That depends on what is is.
-- William Jefferson Clinton

This newest book by Alvin Lucier purports to be a clarification of "groundbreaking musical works" and an "invaluable guide to late twentieth century composition" requiring "no previous musical knowledge" on the part of the reader. Clearly, the flip-side of that requirement would be that even the slightest knowledge of music would make any reader too acutely aware of the failure of this "experiment" (unless the term "groundbreaking" is used in the sense of some object -- a meteor or satellite -- crashing at high velocity).

The typical rap on any such work is that the author, pictured on the cover with John Cage [1] and Christian Wolff, is probably too close to the vortex for objectivity. The cheap shot would be that the vortex has the acoustical resonance of that proverbial porcelain phone used for calling "Ralph".

To the charge of judging a book by its cover, the more accurate assessment would be that the indictment is predicated upon guilt by association (e.g. Cage, Cunningham [2], et al.) and, before leaving this judicial metaphor completely, one should stipulate that various "unindicted coconspirators" (due to their influence in insipid inspiration -- including such vacuous loony-luminaries as Jackson Pollock, Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern, Pierre Boulez [3], et al.) abound.

The first chapter, Symphony No. 4, starts off logically enough by explaining how the music of Charles Ives (with its multiple divisions of forces requiring several conductors performing from different locations in various tempi simultaneously) was rooted in such standards as the ballroom scene from Mozart's Don Giovanni. (A slightly more concise and hence a better example than Ives' Symphony No. 4 and one which probably would resonate better with most auditors might have been his Unanswered Question, but that is trivial quibbling over minutiae.) A later example that could also have been cited was the end of the second act of Puccini's La Boehme where the tapering off of "Musetta's Waltz" is drowned out by the street band.

To establish a further progression of what would later be termed "chance music," the author could even have cited the "raindrop cadenzas" (the background pizzacatti) of the clarinet and bassoon solos in the second movement of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade that gave rise, some decades later, to the work of Alan Hovhaness (whose And God Created Great Whales was an early instance of combining pre-recorded tape recordings of the "songs" of the hump-backs with original orchestral writing) and an antecedent to Music Walk with Dancers, a 1960 performance in Venice of a work by Cage and David Tudor collaborating with Merce Cunningham and Carolyn Brown, which begins the second chapter of this book. The best retort to any claim of this work having anything to do with art or music was dutifully included by the author who reported that an elderly Italian gentleman came out of the audience and, hitting the piano with his cane, proclaimed, "There! I am a composer, too!"

This chapter, "Studio Fonologico", is where things start to fall apart, at least in terms of logic as far as it might be applied to the trajectory of where this form of art (or as it is termed in the book's subtitle, "Experimental Music") veers so far astray of common sense. Credit the enthusiasm (irrational exuberance?) of the author. Think of Arnold Schoenberg's attempts at rooting the twelve-tone serial system in (okay, blaming it on) Fugue XXIV of the first book of Well-Tempered Clavichord. It is, at best, a stretch of credulity. Even the use of such phraseology, "filling the acoustical space" prompts recall of the classic Saturday Night Live skit where Christopher Walken plays a recording executive who craves "filling the space" with "more cowbell!"

Chapter 5, "Town Hall," takes Schoenberg's scam to a higher (lower) level when the discussion of Earle Brown's From Here (1963) is sidetracked into a brief run-down of Debussy's Afternoon of a Faun and, at that, one that claims the piece "almost defies analysis" in terms of tonality. In much the same way that Wagner's Prelude to Tristan is far from tough to analyze, so too does the Faun conform to easy pivotal modulations (and faux-modulations) adding to the layers of ambiguity that make for such pleasurable listening.

Other "actors" in this drama (or disjointed set of fragmentary figments) making cameo appearances interwoven into the fabric of what Macbeth might term the "tale ... full of sound and fury ..." which Hamlet would hope "the rest is silence" (or, blissfully, "4:33" of it: tacet) include Bartok, Bernstein Boulanger, Calder, Cocteau and even LMJ's own Nicholas Collins (for his Pea Soup) to name but the smallest sampling of a very few folks in alphabetical order.

Face it! The only real measure of success of any form of art is its durability. Thus, any exercise in estimating what will be remembered in the future is really one of conjecture with little more than instinct to guide. Indeed, Cicero is credited with having told the Roman Senate that legislation ought to be enacted whereby no two soothsayers be allowed to greet one another publicly without first laughing hysterically.

In compiling the content for which composers and works merited mention in this book and, specifically, what significance these selections held for the artists involved as well as audiences then in attendance, benefit of some 20/20 hindsight helps in terms of what an audience of 2012 finds memorable although, obviously, less clarity (through that fabled "fog of reality") is available in terms of what music-lovers of 2032 or 2052 will feel ... especially in terms of "voting with their wallets".

The term "classical" (think of Aristotle, Shakespeare or Bach) tends to connote endurance of the appeal that propelled the work to prominence in the first place. While the term "popular" has a more ephemeral, transitory feel, some works that were initially popular (Michelangelo's David) remain (as of this writing) classics all these centuries later.

And yet, roughly a decade ago, a young intern at a Silicon Valley corporation, then in her late teens and dubbed "Bubble-Head" by several cohorts, was going on about how her toddler nieces and nephews found her ideas of what music was "hot" (or not) as those of an old f••• [euphemism for flatulence]. Since, at the time, I was a little over twice her age, I could not resist asking about various "popular" artists whose names were not totally unknown, or forgotten, to me although I would be hard-pressed (then or today) to name many of the hits which propelled them to popularity (and large sums of money). "Bubble-Head" had two posters of "faves" in her cubicle. One was Britney Spears and the other was Justin Timberlake. When I asked about Michael Jackson (this was before the criminal complaint had been filed that ultimately resulted a couple years later in his acquittal) she merely said he was "retro". When I asked about Madonna, she (in near reverential tones) proclaimed, "Madonna is forever!" Today, of course, if one mentions only the name "Justin", most youngsters probably think of Bieber. (Even Johnny Depp was recently amused that his pre-teen daughter was only impressed by his press clippings after he had a brief, unanticipated, joint appearance with Bieber in Berlin.)

Will anyone reading the above, however many decades from now, draw a blank at the names Bach or Shakespeare? (Or, perhaps, Depp or Bieber?) Will anyone actually buy into the idiocy of rapper, "Common" (real name, Lonnie Rashid Lynn, Jr.), as some form of "poet"? If so, Marshall McLuhan might have been far more adumbrative than apocryphal in proclaiming, "Art is anything you can get away with."

My reason for dwelling, no doubt excessively, on endurance is to provide some degree of context in terms of "classical music" (alternatively, in my youth, called "serious music" and, even on occasion, "long-hair music").

The question of how lasting symphony orchestra concerts, recordings and broadcasts are, at least in late 2012 as these words are being strung together, is harder to answer in any meaningful way. For most of the 20th Century, the Philadelphia Orchestra was considered (along with the Boston, [Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit] Symphony and the New York Philharmonic) one of the best in the United States and, possibly, the world. Recently the Philadelphia Orchestra filed for bankruptcy protection. Whether or not they will emerge successfully (as have some other business enterprises, e.g., Delta Airlines) is anyone's guess. Adjusted for inflation, the lifetime earnings of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Shakespeare, Michelangelo -- combined -- probably pale into insignificance compared to those (thus far) of Madonna or Bieber. Is Lady Gaga already passé? Given my ignorance in matters of "pop culture", that question is better answered by someone else. Were that not the case and I somehow attained some degree of "expertise", one should remember that experts have been famously wrong.

Edison predicted that, if George Westinghouse ever installed any system of home delivery of electricity using alternating current, massive numbers of accidental deaths from electrocution would result. He also sold all his shares of what would become General Electric when his name as dropped from the name of the company and, most noteworthy, foresaw (within his own lifetime, based upon "obvious axioms" of economics) almost all furniture in homes and offices being made out of concrete. Baseball Hall of Famer, Tris Speaker of the Boston Red Sox, predicted Babe Ruth was making a big mistake by deciding to give up pitching in favor of concentrating upon batting.

Perhaps the best answer to this question of what will endure or fade from the scene is the extent to which the item (work of art, or even an artifact such as an iMac, iPod, iPhone, iPad, etc.) appeals to the individual (or enough people) on a visceral, emotional, level and whether or not it withstands repetition without becoming tiresome-to-annoying. Paraphrasing "Honest Abe" seems on target in summarizing the dramatis personae of Music 109: "The world will little note nor long remember what they said or did, here or anywhere else!"


[1] Harle, Rob [Review of] John Cage by Julia Robinson, Editor -- posted at: leonardo.info/reviews/may2012/robinson-harle.php. See also John F. Barber, [Review of] Silence: Lectures and Writings by John Cage -- posted at: leonardo.info/reviews/may2012/cage-barber.php
[2] Kade, Richard [Review of] Encounter: Merce -- 2005 Stanford Web Event -- posted at: leonardo.info/reviews/aug2005/encounter_kade.html
[3] Boulez, Pierre (translated by Susan Bradshaw and Richard Rodney Bennett) Boulez on Music Today, (Cambidge, MS, Harvard University Press, 1971) The book's front cover (right inside flap) blurb begins, "'Imagination,' writes Pierre Boulez, 'must stimulate intelligence and intelligence must anchor imagination.'" QED!

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