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Sunday, December 15

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Concert Wed Sep 28 2011

Take a Chance (Operation) on Me (and ICE)

chancebanner.jpg

As the first half of the 20th century drew to a close, it was looking like the big innovation defining the century would be Arnold Schoenberg's concept of Serialism. The mathematically precise 12-tone compositional approach turned classical music into something like composing by mathematical algorithm, something better analyzed like architecture than felt. But as the post-war years progressed, it became clear that other, more exciting forces were gathering momentum.

The 1950s, contrary to pop culture's depiction of it as a sterile, Leave It To Beaver-styled cultural wasteland, supported a thriving community of radical thinkers and artists, working in relative obscurity and pushing further outward despite the general disdain of the post-war public toward anything avant-garde. For a time, art was progressing faster than critics could dissect and compartmentalize it: as Morton Feldman put it, "there was a period [in the early '50s], maybe six weeks at most, where nobody understood art." Jazz musicians showed that compositions could be melodically and harmonically rich, yet also spontaneous. The Abstract Expressionists pushed themselves into difficult artistic corners, reducing and refining their emotional and aesthetic urges into movements and gestures, personal rhythms and "happy accidents" that moved even beyond abstract movements like Cubism. And, during the intermission of a concert featuring the music of Anton Webern, two complete strangers met for the first time...

John Cage and Morton Feldman, as the story goes, both ducked out of the second half of a performance at Carnegie Hall at the same time, hoping to keep the memory of the Webern piece pure and untainted by the Rachmaninoff that was to come in the second half. Cage was an eccentric, ascetic man transplanted to New York from the west coast. Feldman, by comparison, was a chain-smoking, loud-talking, 250-pound "Noo Yawker," the son of a children's clothing magnate just beginning to consider composition as a life's calling. Their unlikely friendship and collaboration (along with Christian Wolff and Earle Brown) created what is now known as "The New York School," a clutch of audacious composers that harnessed the most truly exciting and enduring mover of 20th century music: the power of chance.

Cage, in particular, popularized the term "Chance Operations." From early on, his study of Zen liberated him to create compositions that left certain key decisions (whether in creation or performance) to be decided randomly. Cage would toss the I Ching to determine the answer to certain compositional problems in the writing stage. In others, the parameters of a piece (volume, dynamics, duration) might be left partially to chance, or the decisions of the performer. In still others, composition and performer were strictly regimented (often with a stopwatch determining the exact moment when action needed to be taken) but utilized unstable soundmakers, like transistor radios or conch shells. Yet despite all of the freedom, there was always a guiding hand behind the pieces that made them uniquely Cagean in sound and construction.

Morton Feldman started his career with heavy doses of chance: his pieces were often drawn graphically rather than notated, with numbered boxes giving the performer a vague sense of progression up or down the scale, but not always fixed pitches or durations. A Feldman interpreter is a special type of musician indeed -- playing his pieces requires four-dimensional concentration, lightning-quick decision making skills, exceptional control (especially when playing softly and slowly, a constant for any Feldman piece), and unlimited stamina. (Later works, though conventionally notated, would often last more than an hour; one notorious piece, String Quartet No. II, clocks in at over five hours!)

As a tribute to this legendary, endlessly influential meeting, the Chicago/New York-based International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) presents an evening of chance-based compositions (and even a little Serialism) at the Museum of Contemporary Art (220 E. Chicago) on Wednesday, October 5 at 7:30 p.m. A performance of Anton Webern's Concerto for Nine Instruments pays homage to the Cage/Feldman meetup; works by Pauline Oliveros (Double X for eight instruments) and Iannis Xenakis (Thallein) present other views, while Cage fans will be treated to renditions of Imaginary Landscape #4 (for 12 transistor radios and 24 players) and 8'10" (arranged by ICE), while Feldmaniacs will thrill to a performance of Routine Investigations, a rare piece last formally recorded in 1994 by the Ensemble Recherche.

For more on the program, here's ICE Executive Director Claire Chase:

Claire Chase discusses "Chance Encounters" from ICE on Vimeo.

Also, check DigitICE (ICE's blog) for more "Chance Encounters" with Chicago artists, and join the ICE Facebook page, where you can share a chance encounter you've had that has changed your life. For doing so, you'll win new friends, the admiration of your peers, and a free Morton Feldman button.

I hope to bump into you at the show, ideally at the end and not sneaking out in the middle!

The International Contemporary Ensemble presents: Chance Operations
October 5 at 7:30pm at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Tickets are $22 (members), $28 (nonmembers), $10 (students). The MCA is located at 22 E. Chicago Ave.

 
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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

Our Final Transmission Days

By The Gapers Block Transmission Staff

Transmission staffers share their most cherished memories and moments while writing for Gapers Block.

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