Saturday, November 26, 2011

Frederic Rzewski - Plan for Spacecraft

Frederic Rzewski - Plan for Spacecraft

"Form for a music that has no form. We begin with a group of performers and an idea. The idea concerns two kinds of space: occupied and created space. Each performer occupies a part of the space, which can be a theater, concert hall, radio station, or whatever. This space is corporeal and has limits defined by the performer's own body. his materials are the space around him, the objects within it, and his own body. His medium is the vibrating atmosphere. By means of concentrated energy, he excites the air, creating a situation in which lines of force are set up between himself and other persons. These alternating rhythms produce a sense of liberation in those whose ears they greet.

Each performer considers his own situation as a sort of labyrinth. Each begins by making music in the way in which he knows how, with his own rhythms, his own choice of materials, et cetera, without particular regard for the others, or for setting up some kind of simple ensemble situation. This primitive ensemble, however, is superficial and has nothing to do with the fundamental unit that is the final goal of the improvisation. He beings by making music in an already familiar way; he does not transcend himself and does not consider that he is creating anything or doing anything that he has not done already at one time or another. He sees himself as imprisoned in a labyrinth with many corridors; at the center of this labyrinth he imagines something like a movie screen with a loudspeaker; images flash across the screen and sounds emanate from the speaker, both without interruption. These images and sounds are incomprehensible orders snapped at him by an unknown master whom he feels compelled to obey. They are archaic runes and magic symbols whose meaning is unknown - all he knows is that action is required of him. The only action he knows is that of moving from one place to another within the labyrinth: left, right, forwards, and backwards, all the time with the more or less vague intention of getting out.

The images and sounds flashing at him are formulae drawn from the reservoir of tradition, that which he knows as art, which has been transmitted to him in various ways and is registered in his mind. They are like dream-images and appear to have a certain meaning expressed in the form of command; but they also seem to have a deeper, secret meaning that is incomprehensible. The commands are not specific, they are only commands. The response to them is to move spontaneously, executing already learned actions and empty gestures: mechanical repetitions of the past. His mind is like a complicated organ with many keys: an "inspiration" key, a "composition" key, a "communication with God" key, a "Beethoven" key, a "Stockhausen" and a "Cage" key: one for every myth. This is all right; he is a practiced musician and knows that he has a battery of arms at his disposal. He knows that if one thing does not satisfy him he can immediately flip a switch and turn on something else. This is his virtuosity. But he has done nothing to escape from his labyrinth, he is still reading images flashing across his individual mind, he has not transformed the space in any way.

Each performer begins by making his own music in his own way. The result is chaos, a great tumult and confusion of sound, with occasional chance harmonies which appear for a moment and then vanish, sometimes with clashing forces: sounds battering against each other and trying to push each other out of the way. Each person is contained within his own labyrinth. The object of the music-making is to escape from his labyrinth. The way out of the labyrinth is not forwards or backwards, to the left or to the right, but up. To go up it is necessary to fly. The performer must enter into someone else's labyrinth.

Now, two things can happen: either miraculously, by magic, music will immediately result; or, as is more likely, music will not happen, and the tumult will continue and tend to grow worse, or the harmonies will become more superficial. It is difficult to make music. If the magic takes over and the music happens, the entire space and everything in it will be transformed; the audience, too, will be drawn into the music and eventually contribute to it, either by producing sound or by remaining silent.

In the event that the magic does not operate, the performer finds himself confronted with a heavy task. He beings to search the atmosphere for lines which may unite his rhythms with those coming from other sources; he begins to examine his own rhythms, searching for those which he can cast out, hoping that someone will attach himself to them. It is as if each man were an atom floating in space, emanating feelers towards other atoms. Manifold tentacles of rhythm creep out from each vibrating body, catching hold of each other. Very slowly a single, fundamental rhythm, with which all of the musician can join in one way or another, begins to emerge from the chaos. As each person lends his weight to this rhythm, as if to a central pendulum, its force increases. A general oscillation, which forms the tonic for everyone's individual music, sets in: it is as if a giant molecule were taking form out of nothing. The relations, manifold, between the individual parts of this structure make it, as a whole, infinitely richer than the individual musics with which the process began.

The performer finds that he has been transported into a new situation in which there are other laws of gravity. He discovers a new economy of energy; he is almost weightless and is able to move with fantastic ease. The energy, which formerly had been expended in the general tumult and conflict, is now used more efficiently, used to move the giant pendulum. By placing his balance upon this fundamental rhythm, he finds he can devote his energies to the adornment of this rhythm, to its enrichment with smaller and more complex sub-rhythms. Ultimately, the sound of the players oscillating in a harmonic relationship with one another will acquire an unimaginable richness and fineness, completely transferring the individual musics. The spirit, endowed with grace, will ascend from the body, escape from the spatial limits of the body, and become one with the atmosphere in vibration - it will be everywhere the sound is. The space will no longer be occupied, but created. If this desired transformation of space takes place, it will not be magic (which should have happened immediately) but rather the creating of conditions where music becomes possible at the end of a long process. It will be work. The difference between magic and work is one of duration. It is possible that this work process may not take place at all. Two negative conditions can result. The tumult and confusion may grow worse. Or, the performer may find himself with nothing to do, nothing to say: he is surrounded by nothing and in him there is nothing. In both cases it is possible to transform a negative condition into a positive one.

The first case is that of conflict. Here the performer's task will be to give vent to violence in his music, and in an extreme form: to push the conflict further and let it break out into open warfare. He must localize and isolate the sources of resistance to the music, the inertia which interferes with the oscillation of the pendulum, and direct his energies aggressively toward the breaking-down of that inertia. Everyone must become aware of where the resistance lies and that the music is not taking place. The resistance may be in the performers, or in the audience, or both. The experienced performer's secret knowledge is that the resistance is normally in himself. The imagined hostility of the audience or of the other performers is a projection of a negative state, a hallucination manufactured to prevent strangers from entering into the performer's labyrinth. In this case. the performer is already at war with himself; it is too late for negotiations. One side must win, the other must lose. Before there can be peace there must be a clash of arms, a total thrust of the self into the struggle. An extreme state must be demanded of the body in order that the body accept other terms. The warlike situation is merely another form of work.

The second case, that of drifting in nothingness, is more critical because the body lacks the energy to plunge itself into conflict. It is a situation of silent hatred. The performer has been or is being destroyed. In this second case four courses of action are possible. These courses of action are consequences of different interpretations of nothing. Although they may all be necessary at different times, and may, at least within the limited framework of music-making, have no lethal consequences, they are to be considered as arranged within a scale expressing an ascending order of truthfulness and, therefore, of desirability. (1) To be destroyed = to do nothing. It is to deny the possibility of creation, to interpret nothing as absolute. The duration of this state of "drifting" must be as short as possible. (2) To destroy = to make a gesture of total negativity, to produce a change, any change that will transform the state of things. To destroy is to interpret nothing as if it were something out of which something else is to be formed. A negative force is mistaken for creation. The mind cannot see beyond the possibility of a single, blinding act, which would bring nothingness in its wake. (3) To put on a professional mask = to conceal, to falsify, to draw upon the reservoir of formulae that constitutes one's virtuosity, to save appearances. This is to interpret nothing as if it were a vacuum, to be filled with something already existing; it is to transfer something from one place to another, like the convict who is punished by being made to dig a hole and then fill it up again. It may save appearances, but it perpetuates a lie. It is not creation. (4) To go back to point zero = to wipe the slate clean, return to the original situation, begin the piece again. To return to zero is to identify with nothing. It is the only creative attitude. It is to take zero as the common denominator between oneself and all other creatures, to admit the possible identity of oneself and all that is and is not.

By returning to zero the performer reaffirms the possibility of accomplishing his original task. The music continues to live. He may have to go through this experience once, twice, several times during the course of a performance. But, as everything which has a soul is mortal, this cycle must also end. There may be insuperable obstacles which bar the way to music. The obstacles may never be overcome, and the piece will end in exhaustion.

Three possible courses of the music have been described:

1) The goal was achieved instantaneously, through magic.
2) It was arrived at after a natural and necessary duration, through work.
3) It was never found at all.

The third result will be as acceptable as the first two because of its excellence, but with the difference that it communicates sadness, whereas the others were joyous.

A final note with regard to the situation at the beginning of this piece. Here, the performer is not entirely without responsibilities; he does not merely begin to play in any way whatsoever. Since this piece is based on an idea, although it has no necessary form, and this idea is the transformation of space from one state to another state, the music at the beginning must express what state it is that exists at the moment when this transformation is about to be attempted. We consider the audience as being in a state of ignorance. The space in its present state is non-musical, it is merely occupied; the people, including the musicians, are merely what they are and always have been: flesh, bound and finite, imprisoned in labyrinths, repositories of the past, automata. There is, however, a state of expectation, of general anticipation that an attempt is going to be made to bring about another state of things. What the musicians have to make clear is that this change is not just any change, but a fundamental one: the redemption of the space and of everything in it.

For what the audience does not yet realize, before the beginning of the music, is that the space which it occupies is profane, dominated by demons, and that those demons are themselves. Each individual is a worshipper of images; what is going to happen now is that images are going to be smashed and meaningful rituals created in their place. The air is charged with stupidity, complacency, inaction, slavery; it is poisonous, and we have to become fully aware of its loathsomeness. The music now must necessarily be demonic, because demons are everywhere - even in the musicians. The musician is possessed; the first sound that he strikes must be one of terror. The breaking of the silence is a breaking of the spell of stupidity which shrouds the soul. The sound, which may be called "anti-music," awakens the soul to its demonic state; and only then may the exorcism begin, the struggle to cast lines through the tumult to another soul."

This article/piece is found in issue no. 3 of Larry Austin's "The Source" magazine, a wonderful resource of avant garde music from the late 60s/early 70s. I couldn't find the text online, so I typed it up, my apologies if there are some transcription errors. There were a few lines in this that reminded me of performing Edges with Christian Wolff several years ago in a large ensemble. There were moments where various performers were stuck in their own labyrinth and simply moved from one thing that they knew, to something else that they knew. There were others that became so musically frustrated, with either themselves of the ensemble, that they chose to sit in silence, for 10 minutes or more at a time. Then there were few moments of actual violence, where the inner struggle/conflict became too much, and loud percussive noises from one member of the ensemble took over, but was incredibly musically necessary. This is one of the BEST writing that I've ever seen as far as what happens with free improvisation, and what options are out there. Rzewski was a member of group MEV, and an incredible pianist and composer. Check out his variations on "the people united will never be defeated" here.

Stay tuned for more blog posts, one on free improvisation recordings/groups, and another two on CD releases of Grant Gordy and Sam Trapchak.

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