Minimalist Dessert

Read a review of this program in the New Haven Independent
Minimalist Dessert
August 15, 2007

Under the C and My Indeterminate Joy
works conceived by Richard Gard
“In the nature of the use of chance operations is the belief that all answers answer all questions.” – John Cage

Three Ideas
While John Cage was not the first composer to work with randomness and chance operations in music (chance operates in some medieval music and Mozart created a Dice Music Game in 1787), he was a defining creative force in twentieth century aesthetics of chance and a direct provocateur of the current vestiges of chance and randomness in music. After his contact with Zen Buddhism, Cage composed music that moved but had no goal or tonal direction: music without climax or purpose. He declared that all sounds could be considered music, and that sounds should be allowed to “be” for their own acoustic sake. He pared his artistic materials down to the minimum (or nothing at all in one piece) and worked to create forms with exact proportions and rule-based relationships. In his ideal composition the structural design was determined but the actual sounds at any given time might be subject to the toss of I Ching coins.

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Serial techniques of composition generated a dense polyphony that, while being exactly determined or calculated in every dimension, often sounded as if it was random. Iannis Xenakis rejected both serialism and Cage’s idea of chance, but embraced the implications of Bernoulli’s Law of Large Numbers. For instance, while you can flip a coin and get heads three times in a row, if you flip the coin a large number of times heads or tails would tend to appear equally. He and Karlheinz Stockhausen sought to create music with an embedded stochastic process that, while sounding random at any given point, actually has a statistically determinable boundary or endpoint.

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Cage’s encounter with Zen also influenced some American composers who adopted his aesthetic of simplicity and “be here now” timelessness. The Minimalists (Young, Reich, Riley, Glass) focused on minute cyclic changes occurring over many iterations. They used tape recorders or other mechanical/ electronic devices to introduce chance or phase operations in slowly evolving kaleidoscopes of sound.

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Tonight’s program is a synthesis of the above competing and complimentary ideas. Under the C is an homage to Terry Riley’s groundbreaking minimalist work “In C.” Richard’s version is more compact yet offers a greater degree of individual expression. There are 22 synchronized melodic fragments set in a progressive form. The pulse, form and fragments are rigidly controlled but the specific fragments, dynamics, and phrasing are the choice of the players in a constantly evolving and emotional work. Riley’s “In C” has 53 fragments, and the players are instructed to stay within three fragments of each other, while Under the C utilizes a conductor who gives cues at specific elapsed times; the players use these cues to gauge their progress through the fragments, thereby creating a framework of fixed proportions and a work that lasts approximately 16 minutes instead of the far longer performances of “In C.”
My Indeterminate Joy is an aleatory on Bach’s “Jesu meine Freude” chorale. The chorale is sectionalized and performers enter on cue, but what happens inside each section is the domain of the individual musicians. The pitch material sung is limited to the modal linear content of Bach’s harmonization, and Bach definitely sought to create tonal direction. Chance is introduced within My Indeterminate Joy because the rhythmic content is determined by a large number of performers trying to sing independently of each other. An overall form is produced by a conductor’s cues at specific elapsed times.

Jesu, meine Freude,
Meines Herzens Weide,
Jesu, meine Zier,
Ach wie lang, ach lange
Ist dem Herzen bange
Und verlangt nach dir!
Gottes Lamm, mein Bräutigam,
Außer dir soll mir auf Erden
Nichts sonst Liebers werden.

Jesus, my joy,
My heart’s feast,
Jesus, my crown,
Ah how long, how long
Is my heart impatiently anxious
And longing for you!
Lamb of God, my bridegroom,
Other than you, nothing on earth
Should be more treasured.
– R. Gard