Cartridge Music was composed in 1960 and is one of Cage's earliest attempts to produce live electronic music, here realized at a live performance at the Audiograft Festival in Oxford in February 2012.
Cage, John (Cornford / Monteiro / Curgenven / Fages / Farmer / ...)
Label: Another Timbre
Released in: UK
"Cartridge Music was composed in 1960 and is one of Cage's earliest attempts to produce live electronic music, here realized at a live performance at the Audiograft Festival in Oxford in February 2012.
Cartridge Music was composed in 1960 and is one of Cage's earliest attempts to produce live electronic music.
Sounds are produced using cartridges from record players. Performers insert different objects into the opening of a cartridge, and manipulate them in a variety of ways (scraping, touching, striking etc) so that the sound of the object is picked up by the cartridge and then fed to an amplifier and speaker. The choice of objects and means of manipulation are left entirely to the musicians, the score providing only the means to determine a time structure for each performer. The score consists of a number of transparent sheets on which patterns are drawn. Each musician superimposes the transparencies and works out their particular time structure by observing the ways in which the drawn lines and patterns on the sheets intersect.
The realisation on this CD was recorded at a live performance at the Audiograft Festival in Oxford in February 2012."-Another Timbre
Another Timbre Interview with Stephen Cornford::
Why were you interested in realising Cartridge Music?
It's certainly a favourite piece of mine among Cage's compositions. I remember spending one evening when I lived in Devon listening to three realisations of it back to back, the Cage & Tudor LP, the recent Wandelweiser CD, and the under-appreciated one by Mario Bertoncini on Edition RZ. So as a piece I've been fascinated with it for a while. It's a composition whose character is defined by its unique instrumentation (like Christian Wolff's Stones or Cage's own Branches), which now seems like a somewhat dated idea, but the instrumentation is also very contemporary - it's very relevant to the approach of a lot of contemporary electronic improvisers even though not many people actually use cartridges. Listening to the realisations that are available, some of which are horrible (the Mode CD, for example) and some of which are astounding, I actually thought there was a lot of potential for a group of contemporary players to bring something new to the piece. I'm not sure whether that has completely materialised on this CD, but in places I think it has.
For me your realisation does 'bring something new' to the piece, but - paradoxically - by returning to the spirit and technology of some of the earliest realisations. I see it as a fundamentalist interpretation: going back to using actual record cartridges (as opposed to piezo discs, which many recent realisations do), and also through its uncompromising, almost brutalist soundworld, which refuses any kind of narrative or unity of mood. Were you consciously trying to reconnect with the original spirit of the piece?
From my perspective using piezos for this piece is both crazy and lazy. They have a completely different, and much less appealing, frequency response to cartridges and they give you a consistent and reliable output, whereas cartridges are actually quite difficult to use in the manner that Cage intended, which adds a layer of unpredictably even from the perspective of the performer. As minute adjustments in the position of the amplified object make a massive difference to the volume and clarity of the sound, it becomes hard to predict the sound that each gesture will make and, as I see it, this is what makes it Cartridge Music and not Piezo Music.
But having said that, personally no, I wasn't interested in re-connecting with the original spirit. I thought we should be rigorous about our interpretation of the score, but I was hoping that by choosing players who are known for their inventive approaches to amplification and electronics we would be able to extend the language of the piece away from the predominantly friction based gestures that people have used in the past.
Can you spell out what 'being rigorous' about interpreting the score meant?
When I wrote 'rigorous' I'd actually forgotten just how thorny an issue this is with this particular score. Obviously interpretation is always an issue with indeterminate works, but here before you even get to interpretation you have to untangle Cage's description of the rules which, while it is meticulous, is still not entirely clear on first reading. So rigour in this case was at times more about trusting in your understanding of the score and then applying your interpretation of Cage's words unflinchingly. I think the trick for me personally was to clearly delineate between the decisions I am making and those that are made for me, and in this case the player should be making almost all the decisions about content but the framework should entirely be derived from the score.
You spent a weekend with six of the musicians rehearsing a couple of months prior to the performance at the Audiograft Festival. What did you learn from the rehearsal weekend?
I think the most important thing that I learnt was that when you make a decision while playing this piece to stick with it. Having worked with sound in predominantly improvisational contexts I had become used to working with sounds in relation to other players, to thinking about performance as relational. The structure of this piece both suggests that this approach is applicable but simultaneously expels the possibility of it really working. The vast majority of gestures are well under a minute long and with seven players the sound world can spin abruptly in unknown directions, so a quiet sound imagined in a moment of subtlety can suddenly become lost and vice versa. But over the course of the weekend this became the defining character of the piece and something that I increasingly embraced, and I even began to take some pleasure in trying to throw sounds into the piece which were out of place if it seemed too aesthetically coherent.
Yes, challenging 'aesthetic coherence' does seem to be part of the piece. It makes it fascinating to listen to, but also quite hard work over an extended period. I was struck by the musicians' decision to reduce the length of the realisation from 45 to 37 minutes between the time of the rehearsals and the performance.
I think this is all a matter of how you listen to it. If you go in with expectations of traditional musical relationships between players and a discernible structure then of course you will find it challenging, because Cage has made damn sure that achieving this is impossible. And I think as time has passed this has actually become a bigger problem. When it was composed the very idea of music sourced from toothpicks and springs was likely so novel that it did something to shift expectations, but in the last 20 years this approach to amplification has become so heavily codified (some of which by musicians on this disc, and releases on Another Timbre) that now there is an expected language in the mind of many listeners when they see the instrumentation and players, which makes me sympathise with Cage's famous dislike of improvisation, because it leads to a certain conservatism and what you hear on this disc (and even more so in some of the recordings from the December session) is one of the possibilities created by removing the players' notions of structure and replacing it with seven subjective readings of a score which is as legible as tea leaves. And then you find that even if the instrumentation has become fairly mundane the piece is still radical.
But all that said, none of us wanted it to become an endurance test for the audience, and having listened back to the previous versions we were all aware that just those eight minutes makes quite a beneficial difference to the perceived length of the piece as a live performance.
Related Categories of Interest:
European Improv, Free Jazz & Related
lowercase, micro-improv, sound improv
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Recorded by Simon Reynell on February 29th, 2012 at the Audiograft Festival.
Alfredo Costa Monteiro
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1. Cartridge Music 36:50