Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Cut Time

Since every time I blog about John Cage I get lots of, uh, feedback, I'm going to try and get something useful out of that. So let's take a look at Williams Mix, Cage's epochal eight-channel tape piece from 1952. You can listen to it at the previous link, and here is the one little excerpt of the score that is widely known:

Although premiered in Illinois in 1953, most people first heard it thanks to its performance at his twenty-fifth anniversary retrospective concert in 1958, which was released on LP. Funny story: the LP was based on a live recording of the concert, so when you hear Williams Mix you also then get to hear the audience cheering and jeering afterwards. Douglas Kahn has noted that some textbook accounts of Williams Mix mistakenly think the applause was part of the piece!

For the uninitiated, Williams Mix is for eight-tracks of standard quarter-inch magnetic tape. The original sources of sounds are recorded previously, in six categories: city sounds, country sounds, electronic sounds, manually produced sounds, wind sounds, and amplified "small" sounds. Then using an elaborate score that Cage produced with almost a year of incessant I ching coin tossing, you cut and splice your source sounds along the patterns provided.

Texan composer Larry Austin has delved into Williams Mix probably more than any other human being. Working with digital copies of the original tape reels provided by the John Cage Trust, he has not only restored the original realization but also attempted his one realization based on his own sounds, Williams [re]mix[ed].

There is tons to be said about the piece. I, for one, have yet to go look at the full score that is kept at the New York Public Library, and which I hope will answer some of my questions. But one question that strikes me initially, as it strikes most people, is the following: was it ever possible to truly do a manual realization of this piece?

In the stories told by Cage and others who worked on the project (including Carolyn Brown's recent memoirs), the score was fiendishly difficult to follow. I mean, they spent months intricately cutting tiny little bits of plastic that would often float on the floor and get lost. There is that amusing story in Silence where they realize some ways in that Cage and Earle Brown were measuring differently because they were sighting their rulers differently. Most legendarily, there is one moment in the score that supposedly calls for three inches of tape to be cut into 1,097 different pieces and then spliced back together. Now again, I haven't yet seen the full score, so I have no idea if that is true or not, but it is a widely repeated story. And when pressed on this very point in interviews, Cage was quite clear that he indeed followed the score exactly at this moment.

But...really? If you were wondering, the width of an average razor blade is .009 inches, and so in theory you could only make about 333 razor-blade width cuts in three inches of tape without basically going over previous cuts. Which obviously must have happened. But...really? I'm certainly not one to take Cage the mythmaker at his word about everything, so maybe he was exaggerating for effect in his memories. But Cage circa 1952 was a pretty OCD guy, and I have the sinking feeling that he really did do it, probably to the detriment of his eyesight and mental health.

But how, exactly, is the question. My next step: acquire some old-fashioned magnetic tape, a razor blade, and some scotch tape.

[Editorial Note: In the interests of scholarly productivity, I am now only allowed to blog about topics related to my research. maybe teaching. and maybe Gossip Girl. Hey, they're off at college this season, so there's relevance. Speaking of which, what is up with Dan's new haircut, I ask you?!]


Daniel Wolf said...

The "1097" was a number that Cage drew out of the air as an illustration for a conjectural example from a Feldman score. IIRC, there are no such extreme cuts required in Williams Mix.

I'm sure that the WM score can be realized quite accurately. It is far from the extremes of etching-the-lord's-prayer-on-a-pinhead territory. The greater problem for future realizations — digital simulations excepted — will simply be obtaining the proper materials and equipment.

The method we used at Wesleyan (under Chris Schiff's spirited leadership) in '88 for the realization of Rozart Mix (in which the splices may use all orientations) was to lay down a stretch of splicing tape (NOT scotch tape), sticky side up and then — with tweezers as needed — place the spices on the tape, working playing-side up the whole time (traditional splicing is done from the back side).

Since we paced the work well and accompanied it with frequent spaghetti evenings at Alvin Lucier's, we didn't find the work particularly taxing on eyes or nerves. What we did discover, however, in mostly male circles of experimental music students, was the value of the quilting bee as a social and economic institution. I like to think of this as our "Dr. Chicago meets Judy Chicago moment."

Daniel Wolf said...

The Cage quote can be found in a 1984 interview with Bill Shoemaker (page 168 in Conversing with Cage).

PMG said...

See, this is fabulous: were it not for blogging, I would have probably spent hours at the NYPL this fall trying to find this stupid mythical moment in the score. Thank you Daniel!

PMG said...

I also meant to say, the musical implications of doing computer realizations is quite interesting. I was at Wesleyan a bit later than you, and one of my assignments for a class with Ron Kuivila was to do a realization of Imaginary Landscape No. 5 on the computer. A much simpler piece, to be sure, but still amazing that it only took about an hour to do it (I think in SoundEdit, rest in peace). One of the good things, about it, however, was that it did make you think about the musical implications in perhaps a more subtle way. Certainly made it easier to experiment with the "mobility-->immobility" instruction in ways that helped us understand it much more than I think we would have if limited by real-reel tape.

But, also no substitute for wading in with scissors.