CD Reviews

Thursday 26th January

January 26, 2012

9.30AM – So I have begun today’s John Cage – Empty Words marathon. For those that didn’t read my post last night, I am spending ten hours today with this piece of music, which indeed lasts ten hours. It is playing behind me while I type this. The music is a recent release on the Wandelweiser label and comes as four two and a half hour long Mp3 files stored on two CDs. To be able to listen to the music continually without a break, what I have done is ripped all of the files to my iMac, which is quite old now, and is only really used for design work, which I have hooked up via an Airport Express wi-fi link to my stereo. I tested a few ways to play the music yesterday and, given that I don’t own a DAC, and couldn’t exactly follow my normal route and burn the music to discs, this seemed the way that produced the best sound. It actually sounds pretty good, with no obvious loss of detail or alteration to the subtleties of the sound. There must be some kind of DAC in the Airport unit, which is probably quite basic but seems to be doing the job, with what so far seems quite a basic musical structure.

I don’t intend to write much about the actual music today. I will probably save that for the review I am writing of the project for The Wire, but somehow it felt like I needed to communicate something about this experience here for those with so little to do today that following my experience here might seem a good thing to do. So far though, the music consists of Sylvia Alexandra Schimag, who I believe may be Antoine Beuger’s wife, reading short sentences from Cage’s treatment of a Thoreau text while portions of the wonderful old Ensemble Daswirdas recording of Cage’s Branches sit in the background. For now, the text remains semi-understandable- complete short phrases, some of them utterly hilarious that don’t connect together into anything more, but remain easy to hear. Maybe little bits more about what I hear as the day goes on though.

I have a strong coffee here, and will get up and go and make more, as well as food, as the day goes on, without ever leaving earshot of the stereo. I have completed long listening sessions like this before, but always in a concert space situation rather than at home. In a concert hall, the discipline required seems to come naturally, as you have others in the space to consider. It may actually be harder here. I intend to go about some menial tasks here as the day goes by, tidying up this room I listen in quite a lot, as its a complete mess, probably filing a lot of CDs away. My aim is to try and only do things that keep me focussed on the music as best I can. I have a pile of books to read but am going to resist the temptation and keep posting here every so often as the only reading/writing I do.

Its a little grey outside. It rained heavily overnight, so heavily that at one point I nearly got up to point a microphone out of the window to capture the sound, as I do from time to time, but my tiredness got the better of me. Down the road a lorry or something is reversing as I can hear that annoying beeping sound, a pigeon is doing its best to mimic the lorry in a tree in the garden and the smell of the coffee in my caffetierre is calling me. More, written in this same post just below, a bit later.

10.30 – I had a bit of a scare earlier, as halfway through the last hour there was a break in the sound that lasted about six seconds, a little longer than any of the other breaks. As I am not fully au fait with Airport Express, and am slightly nervous of how it works, or, more accurately, its potential to fail, I ended up diving off of the bed to go and check it was still playing. All is fine though. Nothing had stopped, and by the time my hand had landed on the mouse the silence was over. Heh…

Oddly, it seems really quiet here. I rarely actually listen to music closely here at this time of the day. I will often have things playing while I go about my preparations to head off to work, but f I have the day off its usually about midday before I put anything on the CD player. So laying on the bed listening, as I have been, has felt a little strange. I have been listening to the town outside as much as the music. Very little seems to have happened out there as well. After the early rush of traffic as parents drove home after taking their kids to school the road nearby has gone quiet. Even the pigeon has shut up. Its cold out there so at present the window is closed, but I might have to open it soon.

Listening to the spoken words is currently an amusing experience. Little fragments of things jump out clearly here and there, partly obscured by the cut-up text, partly by my unfamiliarity with Schimag’s accent. The house creaks here and there, next door bang about in their house, adding extra taps and thuds to the pops and cracks of the recording of Branches that sits behind Schimag’s voice. A small aircraft is passing over as I write this, just as Schimag says something about “drag the hazel” or something that sounds a bit like that.

I’m enjoying this. In a radio interview in 1974 (which can be heard here) Cage describes Empty Words as “bewildering at first, but extremely pleasurable as time goes on”. Well its quite pleasurable now. I look forward to how this develops later.

11.30 – I should mention that I began listening at exactly 9AM, aiming to finish at exactly 7PM, when I have a dinner date with Julie. So the last potential problem using the computer to play this music has just passed without issue, as iTunes moved from one file to another without a break. So I am a quarter of the way through this now. This seems to have gone ridiculously quickly. Since beginning I aimed to go and boil an egg for breakfast, but not at eleven thirty I think I will end up having it as an early lunch. The spoken word parts do not seem to have changed all that much. Maybe the gaps between sections are longer? Maybe the phrasing is more fragmented? Its hard to tell as things progress so slowly. I do have a copy of the book here, so am able to see roughly how the text is gradually decomposing itself, but I am not really trying to follow closely, just use it as a vague pointer to where we are.

I think the outer front door here opened and closed again, which could mean that the postman has been, as he tends to drop mail off in the porch as often jiffy bags don’t fit through the letter box. I will go and look when I boil the eggs. The plan is to turn the volume up slightly here so that I can hear the music still in the kitchen. I should be able to.

Outside the daily calls of red kites appear every so often as they circle above the town. Some kind of roaring engine can be heard drifting over from the railway lines as well, not your usual rush of a passing train but something static. The pile of loose papers on the end of my desk, and the absolute jungle of CDs and their separated packaging that has spread from the desk onto the floor is catching my eye more now. I think I am attuned enough after two and a half hours to be able to get up and do things while still listening.

The taps and clicks of Branches continue behind Schimag’s voice.

12.30 – Boiling the eggs was interesting. I was just about still in earshot of the music playing, though obviously for the ten minutes or so it took me to prepare brunch I obviously lost some concentration. I used a different pan for the eggs, because I couldn’t find my usual one and din’t want to waste time looking for it. The pan I chose was shallower than normal, and as the water began to boil the eggs started to bob up and down in the water rapidly, in a way that meant they tapped constantly against the base of the pan. So as Schimag continued to talk, this additional random percussive element seemed to merge with the taps and clicks of Branches, and I stopped and listened for a while, enjoying how my ind seemed to merge it all together. I stopped for a little too long though as the tapping caused one of the eggs to crack right open along its side, so spooling it a little, but it was worth it I think.

The spoken text is really breaking up now, and the spaces between passages do seem to be getting a little longer. Where I could hear little strings of words before, the completely recognisable words now stand alone surrounded by syllables and word fragments. According to Cage’s score, this change should have happened between Parts I and II (We are about an hour into Part II right now) but I can’t say I noticed a definite change at any point, it feels as if the degradation of the words has been very gradual, though reading the text seems to suggest otherwise.

Very little of interest outside. There is the gentle quiet hum of a South Oxfordshire market town going about tits way on an average Thursday, nothing dramatic. A red kite did swoop past low about twenty minutes ago, scavenging for food in back gardens, but it didn’t call as it did. often these fantastic birds cry out as they pass the window, so frightening the hell out of me, but not so far today.

13:30 – At almost exactly 1PM, as I was just considering opening the window to try and let some more sounds into the room, the wind suddenly got up really high and it rained very heavily for about fit emanates before stopping again. This little interval seemed to change everything about my listening environment. I have yet to break off from listening and try and do any tidying up here, so I was sat trying, without too much difficulty, to retain my attention with the music as the room became, really quite quickly much darker, then colder and then noisier as the rain pelted against the window. Listening through this brief addition of sounds really altered how I heard the music. I lost track of where we were not he score when I went to boil the eggs, and subsequently when I made a pot of tea to accompany brunch, and somehow, this loss of place, combined with the sudden, additional sound made it all feel a little more alien. The charm of Schimag’s beautifully melodic voice was momentarily replaced by just a stream of barely human sounds as everything seemed to become more abstract and unfamiliar. Branches was still in there, but hard to discern behind everything else for this short while. I found myself almost desperately trying to pick out each tap and click, not wanting to lose track of it perhaps.

The tea is nice, a strongly brewed pot of genmai, my favourite brew. Things have calmed down now and all is very quiet. For a short while I heard next door use their vacuum cleaner, a distant but instantly recognisable sound. It was only there for a few moments. Perhaps someone spilt something and it needed instantly cleaning up. I wish I was that conscientious about tidying up.

In twenty minutes or so, part III is due to start. According to the sleeve notes of the release Branches is due to be replaced by a realisation of Antoine Beuger’s composition Oborozuki. I am preparing myself.

14:30 – The halfway mark came and went at two o’clock, and it was marked by the change in music behind Schimag’s now very fragmented voice. Just before the move from part II to Part III I refound my place in the printed text here and followed the section to its conclusion, somehow bringing myself back in live with this experience, finding my place in the ten hour length and bringing the first half to an end. Beuger’s Oborozuki is very beautiful- just faint soft tones fading in and out played by a septet of wonderful musicians. The change in background has altered the music tremendously. The voice, which is now close to completely indecipherable seems to have moved forward in the mix, though this may just be an illusion as the sounds behind have become softer. The instruments often seem to fade completely away for longish periods as well, only to remerge so quietly that you wonder if they went away at all.

Outside remains quiet. Little is happening and the weather is staying cold but calm. The last dregs of the second cup of tea from the pot is my the mug in my hand. In the bottom sit lots of little leaves, slowly swirling about, sometimes combining with other leaves to form bigger clumps, sometimes breaking away again. Its impossible to not sit here watching the leaves and not think of the spoken words / parts of words in the music.

15:30 – I began to sift through some of the stuff here at about three o’clock. Apart from the brief trip to the kitchen, perusing Facebook a little and writing here I had done nothing but listen for the first five and a half hours. I am struggling to find the energy to do any real tidying up, my focus remains on the music, not following every second, as that may well drive me mad, but staying closely in touch with it, feeling how it has now broken down into just small parts of words, many of them just single sounds, and the soft underbelly of Beuger’s composition is punctuated by these stuttered spoken parts like percussion. While the plant sounds that made up Branches in Parts I and II could easily be considered to be percussion, now this dynamic has been reversed.

Little else to say remark at this point. Outside seems more calm than ever, the house is silent bar the occasional roar of heating pipes as they crank up to fight off the incoming cold. I haven’t spoken to anyone all day, I have barely left this room. Tonight Julie and I are going to cook together. I might have to remember how to communicate…

16:30 – Three quarters of the way through now, and we enter the fourth part of the piece, and a further change in the music, this time time Burkhard Schlothauer’s ab tasten performed on piano by Jongah Yoon. The piano is barely recognisable here, becoming a percussive instrument, just taps and clicks of an only slightly tonal nature. It took three minutes at the start of this part for Schimag’s voice to appear. The last part also ended with a very very beautiful passage- a couple of minutes of very quiet dying instrumental sounds, a soft mix of strings and (I think) clarinet and then a full minute of silence before Part IV began. This gave me six minute between the last time Schimag spoke until now. It felt like an eternity. Now her voice actually sounds a little more perky, bouncy, possibly because the words have just about all gone, and only little sounds remain, but there did definitely seem to be a more quiet, less energetic feel to the closing of Part III, which is I imagine completely inevitable if you are to read clearly, without errors for such a long period of time. Even with the inevitable breaks that must have been taken to record this monumental work there will have been dips in tone.

This piano is wonderful, more like someone shuffling small pieces of wood about than what we are used to from the instrument. I wish I could hear the composition alone, it sounds a wonderful work.

Outside there is peace. as there has been all day really, short rainstorms excluded. A dog barked for a while about ten minutes ago, and next door’s television is turned up too loud, but then it always is. I’m hungry. Looking forward to cooking with Julie later.

16:40 – Woah hang on… is part IV identical to Part V? Am I hearing the same sounds again, Branches rather than the piano? Have I got a fault on my disc? This is the same set of sounds I am sure…

17:00 – I am continuing to listen to Part IV, as it came off of the CD. I have gone and checked, and I am definitely listening to the file that came from the correct disc and is labelled correctly. Has anyone out there reading this heard all of the work? Is the fourth Part the same as the first on your copy for do I have a faulty disc? Let me know if you know one way or the other. I am confused….

17:20 – This is a little depressing. The Mp3 file I am playing is definitely the same as the opening one, so I am listening to the same two and a half hours of music. Whether I am wasting my time doing this or not, I am going to continue, given that I have set my day up to do so. If anyone else reading this has a copy of the release and can check theirs to see if it is the same I would due grateful.

18:20 – Well, my suspicion, though I haven’t found out anything new, is that I do indeed have a faulty pressing of the release, as Part IV is the same as Part I and does not include the piano track described on the sleeve. This is of course disappointing, and makes writing a review difficult to say the least, but I am continuing with the quest to listen to all ten hours that I have. The music has ceased to surprise in anyway, obviously.

My brother, who I live with, has come home, and is running a bath in the room next door.


19:00 – Well its an unfortunate ending to today. I have invested quite a lot into this experience, and it leaves me a little flat to know that I haven’t really been able to complete it. Such is life though, and the experience has been a rewarding one in many ways.  I am not not certain how I will proceed with this little adventure. I obviously need to get hold of the final part of the work (quite soon if I am to meet The Wire’s deadline!) so perhaps I will just pick up this post at some point and finish the listen off when I can. I now am off to dinner, and will get back to this when I can!


19:14 – A late, exceptionally annoying discovery… When I take the file and try and play it through Reaper, a non-Apple sequencing programme I get the correct, piano track…. Damn, damn, damn. So this is my fault entirely, though god knows what iTunes was playing at. I must now go out and will try and resolve this med sin good time. Sigh….


Comments (4)

  • rrot

    January 26, 2012 at 6:33 pm

    Hi Richard. A hello’s proper first, since I haven’t touched base with you since I left London, but my copy of this (just received this week) has a proper part IV, down to just sounds and letters on the reading and accompanied by piano. I haven’t listened to the whole piece (or any of it, really) yet, but skipped ahead after reading your running commentary today.

    For myself I am curious how the ‘background’ pieces were reworked to multiply their durations.

  • Richard Pinnell

    January 26, 2012 at 6:37 pm

    Thanks Richard, that confirms my suspicions. That’s disappointing as today has become only partly successful. Thanks for letting me know.

  • Richard Pinnell

    January 26, 2012 at 7:18 pm

    In case anyone has not read the text in full above, the problem is not with the disc but in how I am playing it back. For some reason iTunes will not play it, and starts playing Part I instead, no matter how I try otherwise… I have found another piece of software to open the files though, and will listen fully when I can to the correct last part! Sheesh

  • Bob Burnett

    February 4, 2012 at 2:32 pm

    iVexations. Still, I enjoyed following your updates throughout the day.

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