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Two Humans and one Robot – or Why you should be listening to radio while practicing

So I decided to write this little anecdotal post about an interpretation of Cornelius Cardew’s Treatise that I once made together with a friend and a robot (yes) – mainly to get into the reason of why I think it can be extremely fruitful to practice piano (or whatever instrument) with a radio (or something similar) turned on in front of you. This, and how I think we can all learn from the legacy of the great David Tudor.

David Tudor by the piano and transistor-radio

The post is divided into the following three parts: 1. Introduction on Treatise: a brief perspective on the composition 2. Our use of electronics in our realization: how we used our “robot” and one problem that did arise 3. Practicing with radio: what, why and how it helped me perform the piece

1. Introduction on Treatise

So, some years ago I was making a realization of Cardews famous graphic-score Treatise, for a course in experimental notation. I worked on this together with a friend and co-student who was studying electronic music composition.

For those of you not familiar with Treatise, it’s probably one of, if not the, most historically important piece of graphic notation in the 20-century. What makes it so interesting, I think, is its vastness (193 pages composed between 1963-67) which goes hand in hand with the intricacy of how the notational langue develop and transform syntactically throughout the work. This also reflects the influence of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which is said to have been Cardew’s main inspiration when writing the score.

Cornelius Cardew

While on the surface it might look as “just another graphic score”, once you go deeper into it it is so much more than that – a whole world to be discovered. Even though there are no instructions for how to interpret it, there is a lovely text called Treatise – A Handbook written by Cardew which deals with his own thought and reflections about the score.

Very often the piece has been, and I think still is, performed more or less spontaneously by various ensembles. In my view, this is somewhat of a shame, since I think that in order to really let the score have an impact on the sounding result it requires a lot of study, analysis and thoughtful innovation in how to systematize its decoding.

I also think that the way its notated is perhaps not the most suitable for that kind of spontaneous-response performance-practice, and that there are plenty of other scores that probably fits this purpose better (Sylvano Bussoti’s for example).

While always being strict about not telling performers what to do or not, Cardew actually suggests in his handbook that rules are made for interpretation. All the pages are also accompanied by two empty music-staves at the bottom, suggesting that the performer could use them to notate down his/hers intended material.

Thinking about the time and cultural context in which the piece was written, this “rule-making” may have meant something more extensive than one might initially think – just considering David Tudor’s performances of Cage’s works, such as Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, where he would notate down his interpretation after careful consideration and transcription (so far that he actually took help from mathematicians in how to measure and translate different geometric shapes etc.).

David Tudors realisation on Cages Concerto for piano and orchestra

Closing up on Treatise, the piece would really require its own post for giving justice to its innovative and intelligent design, something I might write more about someday in the future.

2. Our use of electronics in the realization

As it were, our school had available a “Disklavier”, i.e. a digital “player-piano”; a piano playing itself but by programming instead of a piano-roll. So we decided to use this opportunity to create and perform our realization for a trio of two humans (piano & modular synth) and one robot (the Disklavier).

A digital player-piano

In short, the Disklavier was set up to be “listening” to what I was playing, processing it through specific chaotic algorithms, and then play it back at specific timepoints (controlled by an on and off-switch, which I had a pretty stressful time maneuvering while playing and reading the score).

A yamaha infrared keyboard-sensor

Listening to the Disklavier playing “my” piano-playing in this way (and yes it also had some solos in there), turned out to be a very interesting and thought-provocative experience. One of the aspects this came down to was how strongly the “human” sense of phrasing manifested itself, both when listening to the robot and when playing together with it. And most of all: how hard it is to get rid of that even if you try…  Let me explain…

2.1 One problem that did arise

In our interpretation of the score, we had divided up what we found to be the groups and fragments on each page (as I would guess most people do). Our idea was to turn this into a kind of rapid moment-form, where we would shift (both polyphonically or at the same time) from very differentiated musical events that would each bear its own musical identity.

Now, the Disklavier in our realization obviously had a deconstructive function and was intentionally meant to be a somewhat more computerized and unpredictable element in relation to me and the modular-synthist.

Being so, what though struck me when rehearsing the piece was how hard it was to get my own voice out of this robot since in the way it was programmed it was still keeping my original phrasing, as explained earlier. This became especially evident in a section where we had the Disklavierier run solo for a longer amount of time, basing its material on a section I’ve played earlier that were slow, with longer pauses between the events.

No matter what I initially tried, these pauses (which was, of course, kept exactly to the milli-second by the robot) would show to bring a sense of longer phrases in between the events, forming them into musical lines rather than the collages of mixed moments that we had in mind. When sitting still during the Disklavier-solo, listening to the algorithms making all kinds of quirky stuff with the pitches yet maintaining this very human-alike narrative-feel – the problem became embarrassingly clear.

3. Practicing with radio

Rather than to change the algorithms, adding more aspects displacing the timing of attacks and so on, we looked for ways of how I could change the way I played so that the Disklavier would act differently during its later solo.

Tudor and Cage

The situation made me remember this quote about David Tudor (I think from Cage and Feldman’s radio-conversations?), explaining how he would put into habit of practicing piano with a radio turned on. Contradictory to what could be expected from an outside perspective, Tudors point of doing so was not to be able to focus more deeply on the piano, shutting out the surrounding disturbances, but kind of the opposite.

The quote describes how he would play a small section of whatever piece he was practicing, and then abruptly shift his own mental focus to the radio for a brief time, before going on playing the next fragment.

This would turn into a way of getting rid of (or at least working against) his own memory – being able to focus intensively on the present moment rather than its place in relation to how it was preceded or expected to be followed.

What comes out musically of this mode of mentality is just the sort of extremely focused presence that one finds in Tudors playing, but that unlike most other musicians constantly seems to be renewed each time he’s touching the keys – as if he was constantly playing the music for the first time.

3.1 Endnotes and links

As it turned out; being able to both practice the piece this way and to perform it with the whole idea in mind actually made a big difference in the way I and, as a direct consequence, the Disklavier played. It brought a sense of “newness” to each event and gave the silences in between a character of “gaps” rather “pauses”.

While I’m not trying to advocate some kind of supremacy of the American experimentalist philosophy (including the zen-buddism influences) I still do think that having this idea and method in mind makes a great tool in the box for practicing other music as well. Both when it comes down to different esthetics of choice and style (e.g. the sense of timelessness often associated with Satie, Messiaen, early Feldman etc.) but also when facing certain technical difficulties that might require much brain capacity, that maybe otherwise would be reserved for narrative, form and rethoric.

Including outer sound sources into ones focus when playing of course also tend to bring out an awareness of the instruments timbral qualities itself (which naturally includes the resonances of the room etc.) that at least in my experience I find it easier to lose when playing for longer durations of time.

Some nice related links

Hope someone will find this text inspirational in whatever way; and if you have anything to add please leave a comment below – Ill gladly discuss these topics further with you!

// Nils Henriksson

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