Discussion between Alvin Lucier, Christian Wolff, Bryn Harrison, Steve Lehman, Tim Parkinson, James Saunders, and Justin Yang. Ostrava New Music Days, 28th August 2001


Ostrava New Music Days 2001, Czech Republic
Discussion between Alvin Lucier (AL), Christian Wolff (CW),
and Bryn Harrison (BH), Steven Lehman (SL), Tim Parkinson (TP), James Saunders (JS), and Justin Yang (JY) following the previous evening?s concert of music for three orchestras, featuring new pieces by Alvin Lucier and Christian Wolff and Justin Yang.

28th August 2001

(Pre discussion - recording devices and microphones are being set up)
CW: -actually it was- it worked from the beginning, I mean that was ok right from the start.
BH: Yeah.
CW: No, it was more in the last parts where there's orchestra unisons where you just could not get the brass...
BH: yeah, yeah...
CW: just ensure that the minimum dynamic level and so forth.
BH: It's surprising I would have thought dynamics are easy.
CW: I know, I know. It's um... Yeah, I'll probably run on about this later... (laughs) I'll shut up.
I did have this one notion during the performance afterwards that er, I should make one more piece which would be an exercise for the brass playing quietly and they wouldn't even have to use that in performance but I would insist that all brass be required (laughs) just so- just so they could hear each other, you know, realise how much racket they're making, and then see if that makes them more aware.
BH: That's really interesting to write a study but not a compositional study but actually a study for performance practice.
CW: Mmm, yeah yeah actually it?s an idea I got- it's - Brecht does this. And he does it for the performance of classical plays. This- If you ever want to amuse yourselves, he's done- there are little scenes which are meant to be sort of interleaved, he's done it for Hamlet I think and for Romeo and Juliet
BH: Right
CW: where you suddenly see the really underside of (laughs) what's going on, and they're not meant to be performed, they're just meant- the actors are just meant to learn them
JS: Go through
CW: so they get a sort of pre-different perspective on what they're gonna be doing.
JS: That's very interesting.
CW: Which is a very nice idea.
BH: So are they exercises in what the characterisation
CW: They're just little scenes, er, in which you suddenly see, you know, the kind of- well, it's pretty predictable, I it's in a um, I?m trying to remember the Romeo and Juliet one... It's Romeo and I think one of his family members talking about the economics of the family and the implications of getting involved with this woman and the other family (laughs) and weighing the pros and cons... this is a business deal (laughs) Very hard-nosed. But almost Shakespearean too, I mean Shakespeare could could have done that in a way ...
JY: session we did
AL: Is your machine on?
CW: ...I mean he does it from the point of view of Mercutio is this foul mouthed guy, talks about sex in a really nasty way, sort of, two scenes before they do that balcony bit. (laughs) So it's already there... adds this kind of social perspective.
AL: I think that we should start.
JS: Ok.
AL: Let's just start.
JS: So does that mean we turn the microphones on?
AL: That's the way we start...
JS: That's starting.
AL : ...in the twenty first century.
JS: And...
TP: Action.
CW: And we all fall silent.
CW: So when did you make- who made- somebody said- you made the announcement?
JY: I made the announcement to people at breakfast and there were three people still
Leyre Aguirre: Good morning.
(Everyone talks at once)
CW: you see we have to kind of reorganise the
LA: Yes yes I see.
AL: You're supposed to ask us questions.
TP: well
AL: Ok if there are no further questions...
AL: ..I think we can go- go and have tea!
CW: Class is dismissed.
BH: I didn't realise we were gonna be the interviewers.
JS: We'd have come prepared.
TP: It is a press conference.
BH: Ok.
TP: I have one
BH: How did you feel about your piece?
AL: I thought my piece was wonderful. (laughing) I don't know how I could have made such a (laughing) magnificent monument to human endeavour. (laughs)
BH: How did the string players cope with the difficult
AL: I'm not clear. I'm not clear because it seemed to me it was a different orchestra than had played it before. I think a lot of players were there that were not there in the orchestra. It's been played in Prague and in Warsaw and I saw a lot of faces, of new faces, and I saw several students, and I even saw somebody - should I say this? - yeah, it's sort of a negative, but not really, I saw somebody playing who had not been at the rehearsal. So, what could I say, so, I guess er some people there were sight reading also. And er when we did it in Prague and Warsaw we had a core of American players, young New York players, whose attitudes are very er very focussed on this kind of music, particularly the violinist, the lead violinist and she was the role model for all the other violinists who saw her really focussing in on those glissandi, particularly the high high high notes, er, where she was getting into it in a kind of a Zen-like way, not just as a chore to move up to the high pitch, but really um over time er getting into a different consciousness. And er I think that was a surprise to these other players, and they were watching her. And as a result I think that she got them into a mode of playing. And that didn't occur this time. But I was in the recording booth when we recorded it in the afternoon and it sounded it sounded good to me... when we heard it as it was being made. So that leads me to believe that it's kind of a fool-proof piece in some ways, if if string players can do that with a minimum of- a minimum of practicing. I'm not sure, maybe I'm dreaming about this... (inaudible comment from someone) yeah yeah... So I'm not sure what I think, and I I think it worked. Pretty well you don't ever never get enough time to do acoustical testing on where the players should be. And I don't know where they should be. I've done this for so many years and it's still a mystery to me. Where- where the winds and brass should be in relation to the strings to cause this effect. Um, so I just place them for recording purposes. I isolated as much as I could the winds and brass from the strings, against which they interfere so that the microphone can pick that up. And in a mix, then I can adjust... balances... um. What was I gonna say there was another thing... On the other hand, er, at a certain point I don't care if the if those audible beats occur, I mean I don't base the piece solely on on that cause and effect. Something else is happening and it's- the sweeps are the formal structure of the piece, and if there is beating one should er- Well, if the beating were absolutely perfect, um, you should get beating within each orchestra and among the orchestras, so that when some of the beats are slowing down to to make the unison, they would be speeding up with the other string section because the strings are going at a different speed. So there there should be this enormously interesting and complex er slowing down and hitting a point where there isn't any, and speeding up on the other side and if the three orchestras interfere then that should be very complicated. So I've gotta make the piece very simple in the structure because er I want you to focus in on that. And if it were ideal if you could get everything to interfere, then that simple- simplicity would engender something very complicated. But I thought it was ok and I'll have to see what the- I don't think it can be terribly- I don't think it could improve that much.
JS: With that in mind, how do you feel about the pieces where you've used just an oscillator sweep, instead of strings, I mean is that...
AL: Well the oscillator makes a clearer result because there's no overtones, but then again when you have a- This was fun for me because I could think of orchestration very very differently. That the strings don't do what they normally do. Or what they might normally do, but they are the the oscillators. And I'm wondering if the er (laughs. Petr Kotik puts his head around the door) He's just checking! (laughter) He checks meal times, and swimming in the-
PK: Are you recording?
JY: Yeah they have- they brought their minidiscs.
PK: Ok.
JY: They're recording.
PK: Ok see you.
AL: One- I'll talk a lot and then I'll shut up. And then you can talk.
CW: Can I just insert something?
AL: Yeah.
CW: Where you said the pieces were more or less fool-proof. It seems to me it's very often the mark of a good piece.
AL: Oh.
CW: A really good piece will sustain a certain amount of damage and still (laughter)
AL: (sings) Ba-ba-ba b-b-Bah... (sings start of Beethoven?s 5th in rhythm as if the orchestra were not playing together) (laughter)
CW: ...say that there are a few pieces that, you know, that... The other distinction somebody once made which always struck me was of pieces that play themselves. And pieces that you, you have to make a great deal of effort to make go. And that's not saying that the latter are not good pieces, but- but on the other hand there is- it's wonderful when you can occasionally get lucky and get one of those pieces that has a certain amount of of give to it. It's like those old American cars that used to be overbuilt so that half the clutch could go and they still ran perfectly well. (laughs)
AL: I'm a little embarrassed to give players those things to play because they- the oboe player plays only so many measures and then stops. I've sometimes thought what kind of music is that? They don't play more often and more interesting things, but er, if they were really focussed on the phenomena that occurred then that should be enough, I mean enough to play a long tone very beautifully.
BH: So, were the players sort of coached- were they asked to kind of listen for the beats?
AL: Well, you announce it at the beginning you know. (laughs) It's like these announcements here; "there'll be a beating at ten o'clock (laughter) of composers" and nobody comes...Er, one player last time said she didn't like to see just the round notes, just open notes without any expression marks. Um, "what should we do with those notes, should we shape them?" Er, I said no they're just supposed to be ... And when, for example, three trombones are playing together, there's a crescendo that occurs in the natural spatial...
TP: I think we've all learnt that though, it seems to be a general resistance to simply playing a note with no particular expression or shape or anything.
AL: Well, that gets into the whole issue of performance which we could certainly speak about, how players feel they should improve what you've written. When they think they should improve it it means imposing a previous aesthetic on to this. That's all that means. And we could get into that for a long time cos there are certain pieces certain works of Christian's that are often played wrong.
SL: I remember talking to Zsolt- to Zsolt Nagy er a week ago or something looking through my score and he was sort of giving me er suggestions about articulation almost as a defence mechanism thing, like, well, players are gonna play this in this way, or they're lazy, they're gonna not play this all the way through, stuff like that, so you'd better do this otherwise it won't be necessarily the way you want it. Lots of times they were isolated interjections, stuff like that.
JY: How about vibrato, did you- just like the piccolo there for example, there was quite a bit of vibrato there and I felt- I kind of-
AL: Mmm, it says that in the part I think. There was really?
JY: Yeah. Well maybe it was beating but I thought it was vibrato.
AL: We never got to that point I guess. I don't think I ever said, I just assumed that they would not play with vibrato. I don't- In the- I don't know if in the parts it says that.
JY: Ok.
CW: There's a whole performance practice for certain kinds of music which simply hasn't established itself. And people come with a practice which they have learnt for all kinds of music as Alvin says, and that's what they do. It's really an issue of notation isn't it. The implication is that the notation has to be supplemented by the performance, no matter what. Of course, and what we wanted supplemented and what we want it to mean is not that clear.
JS: I think it's interesting as you say you're still working with players who know- they're coming from the same point of view as well, that-
CW: Then it should be no problem.
JS: This is it.
CW: But it gets because they play a lot of music that they are into that kind of-
JS: Yeah yeah , I think one of the things we felt is that we have- we've had that assumption that we've worked with people who, when I write this, that's what happens, and you have that idea and then something entirely different happens, it's quite a learning experience.
CW: But I mean what the hope is, it's almost you know crazy... is that the music itself will make clear how to play it. Again, with something like Alvin's music, it's a mystery- I mean you know it's ridiculous to think that you're playing Brahms, you're playing Lucier! (laughs) How could you possibly think such a thing. Er (laughter) I mean, I haven't said anything, this is not- any judgments are implied here... (laughs) But er you'd think at the very least they'd say ok this isn't Brahms, so what is it? Instead of immediately jumping to this habit, this habit. We need it to survive but at the same time the music (laughs) it's a very dangerous idea...
TP: I've- I've used that before where I've- I've written music and I have put phrasing and expression in certain places but then I also consider absence of...
CW: Right, to imply a certain
TP: To be an implication as well, but it seems to more imply a free... a free-for-all in terms of expression.
CW: I think people should play much more early music then they can kind of... where you have- where actually you are confronted- especially unedited early music... And I, you know, Bach will do.
TP: Mmm, well exactly.
CW: Because there's nothing there except notes and you have to figure out well what am I gonna do with these notes? It's a similar- it's exactly the same issue that we're having with this music.
SL: There's also on on the flip side I've encountered when you do work with players who maybe come with a more er erm contemporary point of view will just play what's on the page, don't try to supplement it like we've been talking about, um, sometimes I've run into on the other side, there's a figure that they can't play or that they can't quite make, I'd say well just play the gesture, and then that seems like a foreign con- "but that's not what's on the page", you know "I've gotta do it perfectly or otherwise it doesn't make sense."
AL: There's something else which I dunno how to explain, in New York, some players from the New York Philharmonic played "In C", by Terry Riley, and um, first of all they moved the pulse around between the piano and vibraphone and this and that; they couldn't they couldn't help the idea that the pulse would go throughout the piece with the two Cs on piano throughout, that would be a constant. They couldn't accept the idea that that would be a constant. So this pulse had to go bing bing bing (gestures) then the vibraphone or whatever.. mallet instrument would pick it up. Then the other thing they couldn't understand was that there wouldn't be crescendos. So the piece was wavy. (laughter) Wavy. It was a wavy piece. (Sings) (laughter) It was the most God-awful thing! I went to them afterward, I said you guys are just- you don't understand, it was just awful. They- they- it's an aesthetic thing, they can't focus. They had no idea of focussing in on one thing and then after a certain period of time your consciousness changes toward it. They have to change it for you. Instead of the focussing. And I've played that piece, and I'm not a pianist or anything but I played that piece and you do it for a long period of time and things begin begin to happen, and if you leave everything on a certain plane things pop out at you. You know, there's this acoustical thing. They don't under- They don't know that that exists. They have to do it for you.
CW: I remember a story, cos I also played "In C" once in performance and the rehearsal ran about forty minutes and I just about managed to... you know, a plausible way to keep your hands from exhausting, and then at the performance, forty minutes, forty five minutes, fifty minutes, you know, this was gonna be a lot longer (laughs) and I was getting really very- And I just played along and then suddenly I noticed that the players were [kind of looking at me strangely] and I looked at what I was doing, I was only hitting every other beat. (laughter) Completely unconsciously! It just sort of clicked in, I realised that was the only way I could finish the piece, I could not physically have gone on doing all of them, so I just did every other one, completely unconscious.
AL: I... yeah.... I think there's a formal- there are formal changes that are taking place, er, in ways I don't think we understand, um... There was a genre of piece that we used to make where one thing would happen. Just one thing. But the something unexpected happens along that way, which you think is one thing, is not one thing at all. It's one thing when very explosive things happen. And er I think that that's something that we- certain composers learnt in the 1960s. Does that make sense? It's a question of- I think it's focus. I think you just have to focus in- I was in Aspen and they did a Tenney piece, Jim Tenney's arrangement of the violin piece for string quartet, and er, it started and the first violinist just does a trill, dee-dee-dee-dee-dee-dee, and then brings up the low G to a D over a long period of time, and I was just fascinated, I was just listening. But other people in the audience were totally mystified, pretending that this was some kind of a joke, or a sham, and there was a famous composer in the audience who was looking around, pretending "what's happening?" and spoiling- not to mention spoiling the performance, I mean, think about that for a minute, would you ever do that in a concert. And I was just totally interested in that piece. Then they played a piece by another famous composer that have everything you ever learned about string playing. Everything. It went here, it stopped, it started, it was loud, it was soft, pizzicato... every the beat was, you know, perfectly made, beautifully made, and and they were listening to it, and I was (laughs) (laughter) my mind was wandering! Why should I pay attention to this, it's gonna change every every minute, there's no reason for me to listen to it! And I I just thought- what causes this that I should like this and they would hate it, and they would like what I hated, what's- Where did that happen? And when? (laughs)
JY: Kind of concerning the issue of performance- question in terms of is there- I dunno how to phrase the question exactly - is there a certain- do we have a certain job as composers in re-educaton of performance practice, or does it just just come out of our pieces or does it.. In terms of performance practice, this idea of focus is something in the future that I hope would be more abundant in performers in this kind of music...
CW: Well you would hope so.
JY: Right right
CW: It's um... Yeah. I presume if you want a decent performance of your music then you have to do whatever it takes to make that happen... Just keep working away and... thing have changed, I mean thirty or forty years ago maybe one person had some idea of what Alvin and I were up to.
AL: And I was four. (laughter)
CW: Occasionally I used to worry about that, now it must have stopped, because I think about, well, think about earlier music. Because we're so dominated by that nineteenth century image of what music is about, socially as well, and it's only in the nineteenth century that they started thinking in terms of big audiences. I mean all music before- I mean all of Bach's keyboard music is written for private performance, it's written for this performance, it?s not to be done at Carnegie Hall or whatever, it's for yourself and maybe if there's a couple of other people in the house at the time they get to listen, and that's it. You never had anything else. And Renaissance music, all those masses, they're for some court, you know, some, you know where maybe twenty people show, the entourage of whatever prince it was was paying the bill, and that was it, that's all who ever heard the piece. And then you know other musicians would hear about it and so "did you hear this great thing Ockeyghem's just done, wow!" sort of, it got tried out somewhere else, but that's it. It was this- this certain kind of music operating in a very restricted world. And I think the trouble is that everything else in our world and culture always demands that everything be broadcast as far and wide as possible... It's nice to make a living but the fact is that most music is not like that, unless you do the pop music or folk music or something along that that has a broad base and it's a whole other scene which- I mean it would be lovely to do that, you know, if I could write really good rock and roll music I'd be very happy (laughs) but it just not my thing. The reason why I do and what we do, you know, we just do it and then hope for, you know, um... The complexity of course is that we're trying to operate in a combination of worlds, and then suddenly you're dealing with a symphony orchestra [and with] the other kind of music so what do you do there, and then you get into difficulties.
TP: I think that's a problem I have with a lot of er contemporary music is that it it seems to be written for- with the expectation
CW: That it's gonna be a big splash.
AL: Yes.
TP: It has that sort of posturing quality about it
JS: Yeah
TP: That "look at me". You know. It's just one sided. No-one's writing just for themselves or something I find that different...
CW: I mean you can overdo it, you can get ridiculously private about what you're doing, but I think there must be this middle ground. Not making it big with the next BBC concert or whatever. But it's hard because there are those institutions set up that wanna be fed this kind of music.
TP: It's a very interesting question: Who do you write for? When you're writing a piece, who are you writing it for?
AL: I started thinking about writing for friends. For friends and students. And whoever's around where I am. I think that John Cage was wonderful at that. Er and the New York school of poets, John Ashbury and Frank O'Hara. I read somewhere - I might be wrong - that they had a kind of a rule they followed that they would write their poems for special occasions. Or for somebody. If it was a party, they would write a poem for it. So their works had a very special character, not a large issue- issue character, but very special and after thirty years, twenty thirty years, those poems become... And when you think of early early poetry, Andrew Ardell (?) they seem to be very special. To certain people. And they've got this personal quality. I remember Charlie Mingus, I went to see him when I was a college student in a bar somewhere in New York, and there were only about six people in the bar. And he was playing and that was good. There were six people and he was doing his thing and he's very famous, but er in certain instances they were very small audiences.
JS: I think I think the question Justin- Justin was making was particularly important with orchestra though because largely you're working with people that you don't know and you don't have that personal contact with, whereas even in terms of relatively small or relatively large er chamber group, you'll know probably enough of them to have an idea of what you're doing, but with an orchestra it's just a close your eyes, cross your fingers and see what happens.
JY: Also I was thinking in terms of you have like the two of you (inaudible) writing orchestral music I'm wondering if that'll inform the- inform the consciousness of the way orchestras play. A different- maybe you guys are inventing a different a different way of playing, you know.
CW: I keep hoping but I'm not optimistic. And I think ultimately it's a social question. The orchestras are just so embedded in this kind of um...um...it's no quite- they're not corporates exactly but to exist at all they're totally dependent on basically corporate money or state money or some combination. (inaudible) And so long as you have that structure you're gonna have these kind of issues to deal with.
SL: We were talking er during our session about- I don't know, it's very political, I mean I don't know if it's capitalist mentality or what, I think like we were thinking picture the second trumpet player or the third trumpet player or the second oboist, the second bassoonist, there's a guy who wants to be the first trumpet player, the first bassoonist, and is working to to get everything together to maybe he's a young guy and the first trumpet player's been there longer so he has seniority so you picture these guys as wanting to move ahead, wanting to
TP: Seeking promotion?
SL: Yeah or at least wanting to develop even just for themselves, to be able to do everything on the instrument that's been established in history or... and the psychology that you come against is exactly the opposite, I mean partly maybe because er you know like you said you know that you're dependent on the government and they're putting out the money in a certain way maybe you don't have that impetus to- to get better you know.
AL: This may be not interesting but when they were taking their bows last night I was sitting in the front row, and when the three conductors were taking their bows, I scanned the orchestra and they looked sour.
JY: I got the same.
AL: The players were sort of "why are they applauding this music" well, "maybe we should know but maybe we don't care." They looked sour to me. Not that they're supposed to smile, but they're- you know what I mean?
JS: I think it's a general situation though with orchestras.
(Inaudible comment from someone in agreement)
CW: ...that they're employees.
JY: Yeah, right.
CW: I mean, from their point of view, to get that it's a very demeaning kind of work, and if you think of a- we're musicians and we get to do all these different things and they may not be very successful but at least we're doing what we wanna do. And they just have to show up, you know, and the way they always are and do whatever it is people tell them to do. And if you see- if you do that over a lifetime you can see how that would...
AL: I felt sad when I saw them lined up to get their pay-checks for the taping we did. For- they each got paid a certain amount, this huge line of eight four people, it reminded me of the miners, or factory workers who line up every Friday afternoon and get their paycheck.
JS: I think- i think that situation of playing music but not necessarily being interested in it is- is- it happens everywhere. I was at a concert last year with the BBC Symphony Orchestra who are a good British orchestra who do a lot of new music relatively, and they were doing a performance of Lachenmann's "Ausklang" for piano and orch- large orchestra and I had a view I could see a lot of the players and certainly a lot of them were sitting there laughing openly as they were playing, and it was astonishing, you know, that really surprised me.
AL: I was a choral director and I used to do er things at Christmas, you know, Oratorios and so forth, and the higher brass group that were very specialised in that kind of music, there were trumpets in D and so forth, and when they were playing I noticed one of the players had a magazine open. (laughter) Which- that happens in Broadway and opera, all the time. They played it so much-

(End of recording. Batteries ran out.)