Various Artists \ Par Hasard: Chance Composition 1913-1951 [LTMCD 2583]
Par Hasard is a unique collection of avant-garde music by Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia, Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes and John Cage, all composed during the first half of the 20th century using chance techniques and operations.
All selections are performed on piano. Iconic French conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp conceived both of his Musical errata in 1913. One consists of notes drawn at random from a hat; for the second, balls are dropped through a funnel into wagons drawn by a toy train. "Execution," Duchamp confided, "is rather pointless in any event." In fact both pieces are strangely beautiful.
The remarkable pieces by artists Francis Picabia and Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes were first performed at the Festival Dada in Paris on 26 May 1920. Consisting of three notes repeated to infinity, prankster Picabia described The American Nurse as 'musique sodomiste', while Ribemont-Dessaignes worked with "a sort of pocket roulette wheel that had a dial on which notes were written instead of numbers. By noting the results of the spins of the wheel, I had my melody and the necessary duration. It could have gone on forever." This, then, is the true soundtrack of Paris Dada.
Several decades later radical American composer John Cage took a similarly iconoclastic approach to music. A friend of Duchamp since 1942, Cage conceived Music of Changes with the aid of the I Ching; the piece is presented here in its complete form. "The Music of Changes is an object more inhuman than human since chance operations brought it into being," Cage wrote later. "Sounds come together to control a human being and give the work an alarming aspect of a Frankenstein monster."
1. Marcel Duchamp Musical Erratum (1913)
2. Ribemont-Dessaignes Le nombril interlope (1920)
3. Ribemont-Dessaignes Pas de la chicorée frisée (1920)
4. Francis Picabia La nourrice américaine (1920)
5. John Cage Music of Changes Book I (1951)
6. John Cage Music of Changes Book II (1951)
7. John Cage Music of Changes Book III (1951)
8. John Cage Music of Changes Book IV (1951)
70 minutes of music. CD booklet features archive images and detailed historical notes. Also available on digital download.
"Duchamp's century-old flight of conceptual fancy provides the cornerstone of this collection of music generated by chance proceedures, and the ten minute realisation by Persson and Scholz makes this compilation worth hearing. Dutch pianist Peter Beijersbergen van Henegouwen then puts through their paces two Dadaist compositions by Ribemont-Dessaignes that sound as though they were produced by a machine programmed to imitate Satie, as well as a provocative exercise in tedium by Francis Picabia. The set concludes with a vigorous recording of Cage's Music of Changes - further proof that the end may sometimes, although by no means always, justify the means" (The Wire, 10/2014)
"Very good work. Good sound with nice visuals, and interesting documentation" (Radio France Culture, 10/2014)
On March 5th 1968, Marcel Duchamp and John Cage appeared together on the stage of the Ryerson Theatre, Toronto. Although these two giants of the 20th century avant-garde had ostensibly convened to play a game of chess, this would be a match like no other. By means of a series of photoelectric cells installed beneath the chessboard, each move triggered - or cut off - a battery of sounds produced live by a small ensemble of musicians. Duchamp won the first game quickly; the second (between Cage and Duchamp's wife Teeny) dragged on more than four hours. The participants played on until the room emptied.
Asked whether any music had been created, Duchamp replied: "Oh yes, there was a tremendous noise."
Billed as Reunion, this unique performance remains one of the best known examples of aleatory or indeterminate music - that is to say, music composed in part or wholly by chance. While the concept seemed uncompromisingly modernist in 1968, however, the concept of creating music par hasard was by no means novel for Duchamp and a small group of French artists who, a half century earlier, had enthusiastically endorsed chance as a part of the creative process, while closely associated with the Dada and Surrealist avant-garde.
Born near Blainville, France, Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) ranks among the leading artists and theorists of the 20th Century. After early experiments with traditional and Cubist styles Duchamp chose to abandon orthodox techniques, and in 1915 relocated to New York. There he worked on provocative 'readymade' artworks such as Fountain (1917), a porcelain urinal signed R. Mutt, and promoted avant-gardism and Dada along with Man Ray and fellow expatriate Francis Picabia. Duchamp produced relatively few orthodox paintings, the best known of these being Nu descendant un éscalier (Nude Descending a Staircase) from 1912. The large glass, La Mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même (The bride stripped bare by her batchelors, even) gradually evolved between 1915 and 1923. Other notable works include 3 Standard Stoppages (1913-14), L.H.O.O.Q (1919) and latterly the unsettling installation Etant Donnés (1946-66).
Much of Duchamp's work - and his influence as a theorist - lies in the sphere of the abstract and conceptual. Arguably his greatest achievement was to identify the important of context and "appointment" for the evaluation (and marketing) of a work of art. "The creative act is not performed by the artist alone," Duchamp wrote. "The spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution... Art is not about itself but the attention we bring to it."
While not a composer in any conventional sense, Duchamp conceived two pieces of music. Both are titled Erratum Musical (or Musical Erratum), and both are thought to have been written in 1913. The first took the form of a short vocal piece, to be sung by Duchamp and his younger sisters Yvonne and Magdeleine, composed par hasard. A facsimile of the single-page score was included in The Green Box (1934), Duchamp describing the creative act thus: "Each one of us drew as many notes out of a hat as there were syllables in the dictionary definition of the word: imprimer, picked by chance." Given that the title Musical Erratum may be construed to mean 'correction to a printed musical text', the choice of the verb imprimer (to print) appears to represent a typically flippant pun. The version included on this CD (track 4) is performed on piano by Pieter Beijersbergen van Henegouwen, and is based on the Green Box score rather than a random draw. The four component parts are: (1) Yvonne; (2) Magdeleine; (3) Marcel; (4) all three together.
Sub-titled La Mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même, Duchamp's second erratum of 1913 was a far more complex and open-ended work. Indeed in his marginal notes Duchamp variously described the piece as "inachevable" (inachievable / impossible to finish), and the component sections as "interchangeable". Furthermore the artist actively discouraged any attempt at virtuoso performance, suggesting instead that the piece might be played on a mechanical piano or organ, or some other type of novel instrument. Tempo would "probably" be constant within each one of the eight sections, but might vary from one to another.
On one interpretation, La Mariée... consists of two completely different 'scores', neither of which uses conventional notes or keys. Instead Duchamp numbered the individual piano keys from 1 to 89, starting from the left (ie the lowest note). The first score consists of 8 parts (marked in Roman numerals I to VIII, but also sub-divided into 16 parts marked A to Q), in which the numbers (ie notes) are written out in order across two sheets of music paper. Parts of this score are indeed inachevable, not least because the Duchamp's intent is occasionally ambiguous (part J in particular), while in parts N to Q inclusive the notes omitted seem more important than the notes actually played.
These ambiguities have tended to discourage performance or recording of the first "score" in favour of the second, which occupies the bottom half of the second page. This is composition by pure chance, using a vase (or funnel) and toy train set. "An apparatus for the automatic recording of fragmented musical periods. Vase containing the 89 notes (or more: ? tone), numbers written on each ball. Opening A allows the balls to drop into a series of small wagons B, C, D, E, F etc. Wagons moving at variable speed, each one receiving one or more balls. When the vase is empty, the period of 89 notes (in so many) wagons is written and may be performed by the designated instrument."
Duchamp added: "Another vase = another period - the result of the equivalence of the periods and their comparison a kind of new musical alphabet, allowing model descriptions. (To be developed)." In other words, a work in progress.
Ultimately La Mariée... is an exercise in pure theory that defies definitive interpretation, or even repetition. The version included on this a CD (track 1) is performed by Mats Persson and Kristine Scholz on a modified piano, on which the ordinary action with a small electric motor with a rotary disc, which moves against the strings to produce the tones heard. In this respect the performance reflects something of the form of Duchamp's Precision Optics and spiral Rotoreliefs, created between 1920 and 1935.
Born in Paris, artist, poet and theorist Francis Picabia (1879-1953) is also recognized as a key figure in the development of abstract art. Influenced at first by Fauvism and Cubism, Picabia became acquainted with Marcel Duchamp and Guillaume Apollinaire in 1911, afterwards making several visits to New York and taking part in the Armory Show of 1913. Four years later Picabia published his first volume of poetry and founded the celebrated avant-garde periodical 391, which ran for 19 (irregular) issues until 1924. Other contributors to 391 included Duchamp, Tristan Tzara, Max Ernst, Hans Arp, Robert Desnos, René Magritte, Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes, Edgard Varése and Max Jacob.
Picabia's involvement with Dada continued through 1919, both in Zurich and Paris, where he produced numerous machine drawings as well as two issues of Cannibale (1920). So far as is known Picabia composed just one piece of music, an antagonistic piece performed for the first - and last - time at the Festival Dada, a landmark event staged at the prestigious Salle Gaveau in Paris on the afternoon of Wednesday 26 May 1920. The two-part programme offered plays, poems and music from a veritable who's who of Paris Dada, including Tzara, Picabia, Ribemont-Dessaignes, André Breton, Paul Eluard and Philippe Soupault. According to Picabia's then-partner Germaine Everling, his musical offering La Nourrice Américaine (The American Nurse) consisted simply of "three notes repeated to infinity". In reality the motif was probably played by pianist Marguerite Buffet for a few minutes only. Indeed The American Nurse was not mentioned in any contemporary review of the event, despite the presence of numerous reporters.
Very probably, Picabia selected these three notes by chance, and may have been inspired by his friend and future collaborator, Erik Satie. Picabia was among the first to co-opt Satie into Dada, and may well have been aware of Vexations, his remarkable composition from 1893, which consists of three lines of music repeated 840 times. However Vexations remained obscure until 1963, when the omniscient John Cage organized the first widely-known complete performance, and if Picabia knew of the piece at all before the Festival Dada in 1920, he may not actually have heard it. Nevertheless, playful Satie-esque inspiration may also be inferred from Picabia's unsubtle subtitle Musique sodomiste ('sodomist music'), applied just a few weeks after Picabia praised Satie as the originator of Musique d'ameublement ('furniture music') in issue #3 of Der Dada, published in Berlin in April 1920.
Another likely inspiration was Duchamp, a close friend of Picabia since 1911. Inevitably, Picabia must also have discussed music theory with Paris Dada confederate Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes, and perhaps with another French expatriate in New York, Edgard Varése. Certainly The American Nurse was intended to provoke rather than to entertain, although whether Picabia's artistic intent was truly serious is more difficult to determine. He seems not to have referred to the piece in subsequent writings or interviews, and the suspicion remains that the piece was more in the nature of an instantanéiste prank. Nonetheless, it remains a rare example of Dada music properly so called, and serves as an aural counterpart to Picabia's oft-quoted Manifeste Cannibale Dada, published in Dadaphone (#7, March 1920).
Although better known as a writer and artist, Montpellier-born Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes (1884-1975) experimented far more seriously with music, and his compositions Le Nombril interlope and Danse frontière would both be performed at the Salle Gaveau event in 1920. A friend of both Picabia and Duchamp, Ribemont-Dessaignes produced broadly similar "mechanomorphic" artworks, as well as contributing to 391, and composed several music scores based on chance. The creation of the first, Pas de la chicorée frisée was influenced by conversations with Duchamp, and described thus by Ribemont-Dessaignes. "Somewhat later on, I was led to make a sort of pocket roulette wheel that had a dial on which notes, semitone by semitone, were written instead of numbers. By noting the results of the spins of the wheel, I had my melody and the necessary duration. It could have gone on forever. So much for the horizontal direction. For the vertical, the very same method determined the choice of the chords."
Pas de la chicorée frisée (the title may be read either as No Curly Chicory or March of the Curly Chicory) was performed for the first time on 27 March 1920 at a Manifestation Dada staged at the Théâtre de l'Oeuvre, with Margueritte Buffet at the piano. Ribemont-Dessaignes stood by her side as page-turner, and later recalled being "overwhelmed by the unprecedented din that was made up of this terribly dissonant music, and the restlessness, shouts and whistling of the audience, all of which united with a crash of broken glass to give a truly most curious effect."
At the Salle Gaveau Festival Dada two months later Ribemont-Dessaignes unveiled two new pieces: Le Nombril interlope (which translates as The Shady Navel), and Danse frontière. "The public's horror was a joy to behold," the composer recalled a decade later. "During an intermission some young people in the audience went to a butcher shop and bought some veal cutlets, which they later hurled at the performers. Tomatoes splashed down on a big cardboard funnel in which the author of these lines, executing a Danse frontière of his own invention, was hidden. But they also fell elsewhere, and one hit the post of a box, splashing Mme Gaveau herself. This frenzy left more than one member of the public undecided: was this art, or was it real sacrilege at the expense of a heap of things that were really sacred? The various tones adopted by the press could hardly have enlightened anyone... In the end Dada became nothing but an art of sacrilege, an art that may be accessible to all and for which anyone at all is bound to develop a taste. There is nothing easier to play with than fire."
Ultimately this remarkable repertoire may be considered the true music of Paris Dada. Unfortunately none of these experimental works were recorded at the time, and the score for Danse frontière cannot now be traced. After the collapse of Dada in Paris in 1923 Ribemont-Dessaignes threw in with the Surrealists, but like so many others eventually broke with de facto leader André Breton. That his music has not been heard since 1920 is regrettable indeed, since his method of composition was at least as interesting as Duchamp, and undoubtedly more advanced than Picabia.
Composition par hasard lay dormant for the next three decades, to be revived only in 1951, when radical American composer John Cage (1912-1992) unveiled his first fully aleatory piece, Music of Changes. Like his Dada forebears, for Cage chance techniques functioned as a means to escape from tradition, taste and conscious intentions. Cage had first become acquainted with Marcel Duchamp in New York in 1942, long before the Reunion happening in Toronto. Back then Duchamp had invited Cage to write music for his segment of a film by Hans Richter, Dreams That Money Can Buy (1946), the result being Music for Marcel Duchamp, for prepared piano. As with Duchamp and art, Cage would do much to alter the very nature and meaning of music over the next five decades, demonstrating that it could be generated by objects and machines, that instruments were no longer sacrosanct, and that noise - even silence - was musical. "Nothing is accomplished by writing, hearing or playing a piece of music," the composer famously declared in 1961.
Composed ten years earlier, Music of Changes is a piece for solo piano wherein Cage developed Duchamp's simple methods by applying decisions made using the I Ching, the Chinese oracle text used to identify order in chance events. Indeed the title Music of Changes is derived from an alternative title ('Book of Changes') sometimes applied to the I Ching. Cage's first fully aleatory work comprises four 'books' of music, with Book I completed on May 16 1951, Book II on August 2, Book III on October 18 and Book IV on December 13. It was premiered in its complete form by David Tudor in New York on 1 January 1952, although Cage's preferred pianist had previously performed Book I in public, on 5 July 1951. Tudor would also record the complete Music of Changes five years later.
Cage elected to use a modified version of the chart system previously employed for his Concerto for prepared piano, with separate charts to determine tempi, dynamics, sounds and silences, durations, and superimpositions. In addition a density chart is used to add polyphony to the piece. Besides conventional playing of the piano keys, strings may be plucked, or hit with cymbal beaters, and the lid of the piano struck or slammed. Use of the pedals is also notated in detail. All notation is spatial and measured out with a ruler, so that 1 inch equals a quarter-note. The rhythmic structure is expressed in changing tempi, including accelerandi and ritards. Cage himself remarked in the score that in many places "the notation is irrational; in such instances the performer is to employ his own discretion."
For Cage, this was a necessary first step in the abandonment of individual taste and memory, as well as other previously meaningful traditions in the making of art. "The Music of Changes is an object more inhuman than human, since chance operations brought it into being," he wrote in 1958. "The fact that these things that constitute it, though only sounds, have come together to control a human being, gives the work an alarming aspect of a Frankenstein monster. This situation is of course characteristic of Western music, the masterpieces of which are its most frightening examples, which when concerned with human communication only move from Frankenstein monster to Dictator."
The American icon (and iconoclast) went on to explore chance operations further still in subsequent works, notably Indeterminacy (1958/9), sometimes employing the roll of a dice, or the toss of a coin. Other significant composers also produced aleatory works, notably Karlheinz Stockhausen (Zeitmasze, 1956) and Pierre Boulez (Third Piano Sonata, 1958), while behind the Iron Curtain chance elements soon came to be deployed as a metaphor for individual freedom. Indeed by 1968 music composed par hasard had lost its power to shock. At the Reunion performance by Cage and Duchamp in Toronto, no-one threw tomatoes or meat at the stage, or was roused to violence by musique sodomiste. "It went very well, very well," confirmed Duchamp. "It began about eight-thirty. John played against me first, then against Teeny. It was very amusing."
Amusing, but with serious intent.