|In some respects, Earle Brown’s chamber music is music that, although written with no eye to the future, much less stylized for a vaguely futuristic age in which culture IS furniture, is tailor-made – pre-fabricated, almost – to serve as soundtrack to an arty science fiction film.
Think of Tarkovsky’s Solaris or Kubrick’s 2001, or even Speilberg’s Close Encounters, in which sound is often neither strictly diegetic or non-diegetic. “Noise” or what under hyper-circumstantial conditions could be interpreted as music may, in fact, be an extra-terrestrial language; our own transmissions beamed back at us, encoded with new objectives; light; the music of the spheres… Who knows? As alien and chill as it sometimes can be, what is perhaps more engrossing about this music – and more discomfiting about it in pure emotional terms – is that little bit of familiarity it does possess. It is “uncanny” music.
This “uncanniness” wants to support the idea that music can flow and exist independent of its Self, scrutiny be damned, as if sounds are ultimately unintentional with no other purpose than to defy the concepts of “right” and “wrong”. If that is so, then why can a sequence of seemingly random notes and phrases stir such positive emotion in one listener while stirring in another the heaves and shudders that accompany a putrid smell in a damp room? It is not the responsibility of music to answer such questions, but to raise them. Brown’s incongruously sensual yet frugal rhapsodies effectively do exactly that.
“A house is built with solid walls; the nothingness of window and door alone renders is useable. That which exists may be transformed, what is non-existent has boundless uses.” So wrote Lao Tse. What makes Brown’s music uncanny or un-home-like (think of the dining room astronaut David Bowman discovers just beyond the Jovian horizon) is that he removes entire structural mechanics from his design. In none of the scores essayed on this release are instrumentation, tempo and simple note duration specified.
In fact, all of these pieces, the great bulk of them from the “Folio” of 1952 / 1953, are pioneering works in the application of a personal system of notation developed by Brown and perhaps only perfectly interpretable by him. What this means is that while these performances are not “improvised” in the classic sense, the actual coherence of any given instance of the music, reproducible like tract homes from certain modular elements, is the collective responsibility of the musicians, even the impressive ad-hoc ensembles gathered here by David Ryan (Dal Niente Projects), endeavoring to inhabit it.
Perhaps one of the great ironies or injustices to this “difficult” (to perform, to commit to as a listener) contemporary music is that it is meant to be performed. It is constructed so as to be almost completely dependent upon the vagaries of performance. It is collaborative – a designation preferred to “aleatoric”, which still emphasizes chance operations as inserted, intended by the composer, and not the individual will and judgment of the musicians who, against many odds, choose to play this music. This is music that lives for variations, if not a meticulous progress.
Being that music and all of its cerebral components are real-time, it can be concluded that improvised music resulting from translation is instantaneous. Put another way, the immediate metamorphosis of tangible stimuli, such as graphic art, into notes, bars, strains, etc. involuntarily isolates the listener from the origin of inspiration. As we may inquire of architectural plans and blueprints, so we can also ask whether Brown’s graphical scores are works of visual art.
Brown was inspired in part by the gesturalism of the Abstract Expressionist painters he knew and in whose company he witnessed the anxieties of the 20th Century. But one does not interact with a score the way one does with, say, a painting. The score has a function and serves a purpose, even if the music it records does not. Then again, Brown’s scores seem to call for a literal reading. What if one could hear these performances without regard for the syntax that is, in any event, only partially provided for? We must depend solely upon our own catalogs of mental imagery and intellectual experience for those fleeting aspects of the work to achieve fullness. When listening to Brown’s music, or, more appropriately, various performances of Brown’s music, one sometimes feels that if one were to remove the silences – which perhaps should not and cannot be achieved – between pitches… if those silent passages could be extracted, one might have a memorable melody cupped like water in the hands, slowly dribbling away, aching cold and clear on the palms. The tonally- and melodically- conditioned brain can accept this image unblinking into its aesthetic, classifying it as a metaphor. But other critics can just as easily understand that the music is atonal, utterly; the fluctuating, sometimes rush / hustle / stall dynamics make the individual pitches seem less robust, more remote from each other, less internally active, and “cooler” than they really are.
As a further example, Brown’s three-piano piece – “Corroboree” – refers overtly to dancing, or “music as social activity no programmatic effusion” and, as played here, it does possess some jazz-like clustering of motifs. At few points do the individual instruments interweave or become aligned in a single scope. For the most part, they remain independent of a common density, their situation a product of avoidance until a section where all three pianists make use of their sustain pedals, pending notes residing in the same liquid stratum. A fragrance impregnates the air, but no one can say just from where it emanates.
Perhaps it is because John Tilbury is so identifiable here, despite the ensemble’s aim to render the individual sounds as “sourceless” as possible. Likewise, on the “Folio” interpretations that employ a vocalist (two versions of “November 1952”, and “December 1952”), Lore Lixenberg chooses to actually sing her contributions, and the sound of her voice – quavering, contralto, unmistakably human – wafts into the music’s enclosed garden through shuttered windows looking down the fire escape and out across the airshaft. Even if this effect was not the composer’s intention, surely he must have desired, hoped for, some – better, ANY – effect such as this.
“Four Systems 1954” can be described as a simultaneous resuscitation and exorcism of the spirit of Varese, as electronic sounds and emphatic percussion turn the piece into a haunted boiler room. But is Brown confronting the elder composer here, or are these particular musicians picking the bones of their own homage to him? The easy answer is to respond that we all are, as the music only unleashes forces that are already latent in the listener’s inner ear. Whether these forces have the lifespan of a match struck in a drafty hallway or oil lamp that burns until the listener has visited every nook and cranny and pulled down every corner cobweb is another story.
There is an “arc” on this release, moving as it does towards the most recent compositions. But the disc also builds up from miniatures to larger works. Larger in Brown’s universe does not mean “more meditative”, as it did for his friend Morton Feldman, who enlarged more than actually worked according to a strictly massive scale. Rather it means what it says: more silence and more space to scurry around in, more ground to explore, so that the larger works begin to sound like Elliot Carter, another great ecologist of sound, sampled – tone arm drop here, there, lending a slightly different connotation to the title of “Tracking Pierrot” – in the claustrophobic surroundings of a listening booth.
In listening to Earle Brown’s compositions, one may be reminded that music does not exist so much to serve the individu