Review: Talking Music by William Duckworth

Talking Music: Conversations with John Cage, Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, & Five Generations of American Experimental Composers [1995]★★★★

Experimental music is defined as “any music that pushes existing boundaries and genre definitions“. Though the term originated in the 1950s, the US of the 1960s saw certain music artists emerging that can be said to be loosely associated with the “experimental music” movement. This book by American composer and educator William Duckworth compiles the author’s interviews with experimental composers and performers from the US, including John Cage, Philip Glass, Lou Harrison, Conlon Nancarrow, Meredith Monk and Laurie Anderson. The interviews shed light on the artists’ backgrounds, major works and inspirations, and many of the interviews are frank, interesting and inspirational.

The book is divided into five sections: (i) Experimentalists; (ii) The Avant-Garde (Ben Johnston, Pauling Oliveros and Christian Wolff); (iii) Minimalists; (iv) Performance Artists (Meredith Monk and Laurie Anderson); and (v) Post-Moderns (Glenn Branca, Gene Tyranny and John Zorn). As I am interested in the piano, I focused on experimental and minimalist composers, most of whom experimented with early electronic music, prepared pianos and the twelve-tone composition.

American composer John Cage (1912 – 1992) always experimented with unusual sounds, and was later heavily influenced by Eastern philosophy, trying to remove his ego from his compositions in order to produce “true” music [Duckworth, 1995: 4]. Duckworth writes: “…Cage, in essence, invented a new philosophy of music – one in which individual sounds, chosen by chance, are valued in themselves rather than for their connections to other sounds, and where silence is considered musical, as is noise” [ibid].

“I was always…interested in the variety and nature of musical activity outside my own tastes and inclinations” (John Cage)

What is music? Who has to decide? It so happens that absurdism may be found not only in fiction, plays and poetry, but also in music. In 1952, John Cage composed a musical piece titled 4’33. During this piece, an orchestra is required to produce – nothing, being absolutely silent for the entire composition. John Cage wanted to draw attention to the sounds we miss in our daily life. 4’33 opens you up to any possibility as nothing is taken as a basis, explains Cage in this book, while also stating that most people do not understand it. The irony, of course, is that, as every musician knows, silences are an essential part of music. All the rests signs in a musical sheet are an integral part of music, so the paradox here is that the absence of music is also music.

“The way I have chosen to compose is by means of asking questions rather than making choices, and to use chance operations to determine the answers” (John Cage)

American composer Steve Reich (1936-) is considered one of the lead contributors in the development of minimal music in the 1960s. If many experimental composers drew inspiration from Eastern philosophies (India and Zen) to compose their music, Reich became fascinated by the “rhythmic subtleties” of African music. This, together with his Bach schooling and the love for jazz, formed the foundation of his musical style. Some of his better-known compositions are It’s Gonna Rain [1965] and Come Out [1966], and it was interested to learn from his interview that he was actually friends with another experimental composer Terry Riley and advised him on his monumental composition In C [1964].

Duckworth’s interview with Philip Glass (1937-) (see my posts Philip Glass: Mad Rush and Philip Glass: The Hours) was also insightful, and Glass talked much about his childhood, musical education, early inspirations, first compositions and, later on, about this creative process. For example, I never previously realised that he studied under no other than Nadia Boulanger!, a celebrated French music teacher. His insights into her piano and musical composition trainings are very eye-opening. For example, Glass talks how Boulanger emphasised instilling in her students “independence of hearing”, whereby a student developed a great ability to hear one voice independently, being able to play one voice independently of another. Of course, studying Bach gets you there in the shortest period of time. Glass was fortunate in his early work reception since he worked for a theatre company in Paris, and “theatre is a haven for progressive music” (no music critics go there, for one thing).

“…The things I learnt from Ravi [Shankar] is that the rhythmic structure could become an overall musical structure…[in Indian music] the tension is between the melody and rhythm, not between the melody and the harmony…” (Philip Glass)

One may skip some sections of this book depending on one’s music interests, but, overall, Talking Music is a wonderful book that expands horizons and now introduces one to some composers and performers that have fallen off the radar, a “must-read” for anyone who is interested in the nature of music and its boundaries.

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