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Richard Kostelanetz
«Conversing with Cage»


, When did you first encounter audiotape?

I must have first encountered it in Paris in the late forties, when I met Pierre Schaeffer who was the first to do any serious work from a musical point of view in relation to magnetic tape. He made every effort he could to get me interested in working along those lines, but I wasn't yet really ready. I was moving ... Well, I was writing my String Quartet [1950], and I had written Sonatas and Interludes [1948&. I was gradually moving toward the shift from music as structure to music as process and to the use, as a result, of chance operations in composition. I might have been more cooperative with Schaeffer, but I wasn't. lt didn't really dawn on me.

Because of notational problems?

No, my mind was being used in a different way; so that I wasn't as open as I might have been to the notion of music on magnetic tape then. That was '49.
In '52, when I worked with David Tudor and Earle Brown, we made several pieces-one by Earle, one by me, one by Christian Wolff, and one by Morton Feldman, with funding from Paul Williams. I made the Williams Mix [1953] then. All of that work was done with excitement over the possibilities of magnetic tape, and they were various. That's why I was anxious not to exploit them alone but with other people, because each mind would bring into the new possibilities a different slant; and that's certainly the case. Feldman was working with his early graph music, and it was just marvelous to come to a square on his graph paper with the number, say, 1,097 in it. That meant that we were to chop up a piece of recorded tape so that it formed 1,097 fragments and splice it back into the band, you know, at that point. I was very open at the time, and very interested in splicing tape and in making the music manually. I found various ways of changing sound not with dials but, rather, by physically cutting the tape.

Such as?

Well, the tape normally goes past the head horizontally, but if you cut it and splice it back diagonally ...

You would have to cut it into pieces so small they would be no longer than tape is normally wide.

Yes, but you could get perfectly beautiful sounds by putting it at an angle to what it should have been.

That's terribly meticulous work.

Yes, and I was using chance operations, so that I was able to go from a vertical cut on the tape to one that was four inches long at an angle on quarter-inch tape.

It must have taken years.

Well, no, it took about a year with help to splice the Williams Mix, which was itself a little over four minutes of music. - Richard Kostelanetz (1984).
[All this effort] is a highly questionable process, in view of the electronic utilities we now have that produce with ease musics of much greater lengths and, if I may say so, greater variety. Well, maybe not greater variety-Williams Mix is actually very lively in its four minutes. lt might be that the kinds of variation in Williams Mix that did result from splicing could happen with computer programming; I don't think they could happen with the manipulation of dials, but I do think they could happen with computer programming. - Bill Shoemaker (1984).
We [also] did the Suite by Chance of Christian Wolff, and we did the Octet of Earle Brown and we did the Intersection of Morton Feldman.

Do all these works still exist?

I believe they do.

All I know is your Williams Mix from the 25th Anniversary Record.

Earle's piece, the Octet, was made with the rubbish from the pieces by Feldman and Wolff and myself.

Using similar compositional operations?

Using his own composing means, but with regard to the sounds that were, so to speak, thrown away through the process of making other pieces.

You know that I regard the Williams Mix as your most neglected masterpiece.

Well, it's an interesting piece. One reason it could very well be neglected is that the score has nearly five hundred pages and, therefore, it has not been reproduced. The original is at Peters, I think. lt would be too expensive to multiply it, so I don't think many people are aware of it. I have illustrated it in the notes to the Town Hall program.

The 25th anniversary album.

People have seen one page that is like a dressmaker's pattern-it literally shows where the tape shall be cut, and you lay the tape on the score itself.

On the scale of one to one?

One to one, yes.

So the tape is, in effect, the length of five hundred pages.

Yes, each page has twenty inches, two ten-inch systems, a little over a second in duration.

Which are, in the album illustration, reproduced on a single page, one atop the other. Your idea for this score is that it would be possible to reproduce the cuts with tapes other than what you used.

Yes. I labeled each entry in the score according to the categories which were A, B, C, D, E, and F and hoped with those categories to cover all possible environmental sounds. Then I took the various parameters of sound as little letters to follow those capital letters .

Of the categories.

So that you would know what kinds of transformations of those original environmental sounds had been made, whether the frequency had been changed or that the loudness had been changed and so forth; so if it was the same as it was originally, it was followed by a C. lf it had been varied, it was followed by a V. So «ACCV» would be a sound, let us say, from the country that had remained as it was in two respects and had been changed in a third.

And this «ACCV» you would have gotten by chance operations.

Right. And then you could have a sound described as «AVVC» or «BCVC» or their combination «ACCCBCVC,» and someone else then could follow that recipe, so to speak, with other sources than I had to make another mix. lt really is very interesting, don't you think?

Fantastic, yes. As you say, the score is like a dressmaker's pattern, You just simply lay it out and duplicate its cuts on Your tape.

One of the pages has a hole in it, which came from a burn from a cigarette. I was a great smoker in those days.

To me, two of the special qualities of the Williams Mix are its unprecedented range of sounds and the rapidity of their articulation.

Right. What was so fascinating about tape possibility was that a second, which we had always thought was a relatively short space of time, became fifteen inches. lt became something quite long that could be cut up. Morty Feldman, as I told you, took a quarter of an inch and asked us to put 1,097 sounds in it, and we did it-we actually did it.

Within a quarter inch?

Which would be one sixtieth of a second, you sec, we put 1,097 fragments.

Without mixing? You mean just little slivers of tape?

Little slivers of tape.

That's physically impossible.

No, no, we did it.


By counting, and by hand. - Richard Kostelanetz (1984).

Where else have you used audiotape?

I have two pieces. They're called Etcetera and Etcetera 2/4Orchestras (1986), and each piece is accompanied by a tape recording of the sounds in the environment where the music was written. In Etcetera1, I lived in the country; in Etcetera 2vv, I lived in the city.

Did you collect those?

No, I didn't collect them; I just made a recording.

And they were just happening while you were recording.

While I was composing.

Have you used other natural phenomena in recorded pieces?

Well, not recorded pieces. I don't make recorded pieces. But in Variations V I used tapes of the drain, with the drops of water coming from them in the plumbing.

Did you adjust the plumbing in any way?

No. I just took it the way it was. And then those tapes were used in a situation where I couldn't control the sound coming out. lt was controlled rather by the movement of a dance company, with respect to receivers. Some of the receivers were like antennas and some were like interruptions of photoelectric cells. - Tom Erikson (1987).

When did you work again with radio?

The next time I was conscious of radio was with the invitation from Frans van Rossum to make the Sounday in Amsterdam, and that was so extraordinary that I accepted it, extraordinary because it meant something like a twelve-hour broadcast with only an announcement at the beginning and one at the end and one in the middle. That was all. Otherwise, there was no interruption of the sound. So I put into the morning the pieces for Grete Sultan, the Etudes Australes for piano, surrounded by performances of Branches, the plant materials, cacti and all, and then I put into the afternoon the Freeman Etudes for violin.

Would these pieces be done simultaneously, or alternately?

No, the morning consisted of Branches mostly, and every now and then the Branches would stop and you'd hear a piano étude. The image I had in mind was that of going into one of those entertainment parks through those dark tunnels in a boat, and every now and then you'd see something lit up, some image.
And then in the afternoon the tunnel changed from being Branches to Inlets, the gurgling of the conch shells filled with water, and things that were heard changed from the piano études to the Freeman études Freeman Etudes played by Paul Zukofsky, and then toward the end they changed to the voice of Demetrios Stratos singing the Mesostics re and not re Merce Cunningham.

How much of this was live, and how much was prerecorded?

It was all live. The whole thing was a performance which could be attended through the whole day by people in Amsterdam. lt was after that performance that I met Klaus Schöning who had heard from Frans van Rossum that I had made a Writing Through Finnegans Wake, and he asked me if I would be willing to read it for his Hörspiel program in Cologne, and I said yes. Then when I returned to the United States, I received a letter from him asking me if, since I was willing to read it, would I be willing to write some music to go with it, and I again said yes, and out of that came Roaratorio.

What were your compositional ideas here?

Well, the text is mesostics on the name of James Joyce. It's not my first Writing Trough Finnegans Wake but the second writing. lt doesn't permit repetition of the same syllable for a given letter of the name. lt was an attempt to shorten the first Writing Through Finnegans Wake; and it not only does not permit repetition of the syllable, but it doesn't permit the appearance of either letter between two letters of the name, so that ...

So that if the A in one line is that axis of «jAmes, « that syllable ...

Can't represent the A of another James.

Or the S, between the A and S of «JAMES. « Did I get it right?

No, between the j and the A you can't have another j or A, and the syllable that's used for the J can't again be used for the J; nor can the syllable used for the A appear again, and that ensures that the text will be shorter than the first one.

And by convenience one hour long.

I'm wondering, as I tell you all this, whether I'm telling you the truth. I think what happened with the second writing is just the following of one of those new rules which is the non repetition of the syllable. It's in the third writing that I followed the new rule which I call Mink's Law, because it was Louis Mink who suggested it.

That text, as you said, existed prior to your meeting Schöning, but the compositional idea for Roaratorio came when be asked you to write some music for it.

Then the question was what kind of music to write for the rest of that. - Richard Kostelanetz (1984).
It's called Roaratorio, an Irish Circus on Finnegans Wake. The work was done with john Fullemann, who's a sound consultant, using the facilities at IRCAM in Paris. We didn't use the computer, but we used all the advantages from 16-track machines, and so on. We ended with a piece that has sixty-four tracks. It's very, very thick. Very dense. In January there were some performances with some of the tracks taken out and put back in live with Irish musicians, and my voice reading my text which is called Writing for the Second Time Through Finnegans Wake. lt was used as a ruler through the hour. By ruler I mean that it could be identified by page and line. And then there was a book published listing the places in Finnegans Wake, a very large number of places; and I reduced it to a reasonable number. I think I considered reasonable the number of pages in the Wake which is 626. And the book I think listed some four to five thousand places. So we recorded sounds from 626 of these places. And they're around the world, but most of them are in IreIand. So it gave me the opportunity to make a chance-determined trip through Ireland, which was very, very pleasant. That took a month. And then another month was given to the putting together of those sounds and others which came from other parts of the world and from the library of the West German Radio. The piece had been commissioned by that radio together with the Dutch Catholic Radio and the South German Radio.

What kind of sounds did you choose from those Places?

We would go to a place and then look for a sound that was distinctive, that is to say which wasn't a sound that would be found in other places. The sound which is predominant through the world is the sound of auto, nobile traffic. And so we - . . Although the tapes include that, we had a tendency to look for other sound than that. We were very fond of birds and of streams, or dogs and chickens, babies and children. And then I also went through the Wake and listed all the words or phrases that suggested sounds. I called that - that's a long list - Listing Through Finnegans Wake. There was that work to be done, to record those sounds. And they were identified also by page and line, you see; so were the places. - Andrew Timar et al. (1981).
I had done a piece earlier, Williams Mix, in which I catalogued all sounds as A, B, C, D, E, and F; and we could do things to any sound that was satisfactory as A. I used the same kind of thinking with reference to this, because Finnegans Wake is so complicated and has so much in it. - Klaus Schöning (1984).
Then on top of that a circus was put of Irish traditional music and my reading of the text. And we put as many sounds as we could in the space of a month. And then we stopped arbitrarily because had we continued and recorded every sound, we would probably still be working. So the notion of being able to stop carne to me from thinking of the Venus de Milo, who gets along so well without her arms; so that you could have a principle of thinking that something is complete at every stage providing equal attention is given to all of those parts. In this case the parts were two sixteen-track tapes and the work ... and in relation to that listing and in relation to the places. So then we had, you might say we had A and B, the tapes, and then we had one and two, the work to be done, plus the Irish music, which didn't need much; it had been recorded in Ireland. And my reading took one day only. So we had a little over three weeks of work to be divided between Ai, A2, Bi, 112; and we kept them equal, giving equal number of days to each one of those things to be done.

And them the whole was structured using chance procedures?

We knew where the sounds were to go because of the book. But the other variables were determined by chance: how loud, whether they were short, medium or long. And instead of being precise about that, I was just rough. I would make a recipe through chance operations of how a sound should be, and then john Fullemann would ... as the sound would go on he would do what he thought was short or what he thought was medium ,or what he thought was long. - Andrew Timar et al. (1981).
I think that remark of Va16ry's that a work of art is never finished, it's just abandoned must be true of Finnegans Wake. And it was abandoned in our case, the Roaratorio on schedule. The people at IRCAM were very surprised. I'm sure the people who work there go and waste a few days at the beginning and then [expect], at the end, a few more [days] to be added on to the schedule. We set to work the moment we arrived, and we only worked ordinary days, you know, like eight hours or so. And then at the end they really asked me whether I wanted to stay longer. I said, no, we're finished. Because, you know, we planned to stop at the end of the month. - Andrew Timar et al. (1981).
I remember once, as we were making it, when you were then in Paris, you realized that we were covering up some sounds that you especially cherished with louder sounds; and the things that you had enjoyed were disappearing. I remember a walk back into the house where we were staying, and you were trying to persuade me to leave some of those nice sounds.

I remember; I loved them so much.

I said that I had work to do. I knew what it was, and I was going to finish it, willy-nilly; and that if you didn't like it when it was finished, you didn't have to take it.

You're right. This work, with you, was permanent learning for me.

One nice thing about it is that it always seems to be different. It's so complicated that you don't somehow hear the same thing twice.

You felt in the midst that I was a bit anxious about broadcasting these three thousand sounds....

I said you must think not of the audience.

And if your station throws you out, we'Il give you a job in America. I wrote it in my diary.

With all the work you've done now [with Americans], I'm sure you could get a job there like rolling off a log. - Klaus Schöning (1984).

What was your next work for German radio?

Each [scene in Alpbabet (1982)] has its own characteristics in terms of the mesostics, in terms of the ideas, in terms of the characters. The dictionary was subjected to chance operations, and the encyclopedia, in order to find other characters and the stage properties. Then later, seeing that it would be nice to have music to go with it, or sounds, whatever you want to call it, I obtained those sounds also using the alphabet.

How did you get these sounds, which you called «rational» and «irrational'?

Rational sounds are sound effects. lf, for instance, the scene includes opening a door, then the sound of opening a door will be a rational sound. Whereas in the same scene, if we don't have any mention of a parrot, a parrot would be an irrational sound. But it would also arise, if not only the letter P arose, but P having been obtained, you would then count the number of pages in the dictionary, and subject that to the chance operations, and then on two facing pages in the dictionary you would look for the sound. And if the parrot was there, you could use it, or whatever else you find-or a pump, a water pump. And now the irrational sounds can happen anywhere in a scene-therefore, they happen at a chance-determined point. Whereas the rational sounds can either happen where they belong, or they can happen at some other time than where they belong.

Sometimes illustrating and sometimes not-illustrating.

Or sometimes being. For instance, if in the scene, someone says, «The telephone rings,» the telephone might ring when it is supposed to, in which case it's rational, or it could happen to ring earlier, in which case-when you hear the words «the telephone rings,» you say, «Oh yes, I know the telephone rings.» Or if it happens later, then the memory goes into operation. This is the Buddhist principle: everything is related....

With everything?

Even irrational things are related to rational things, fortunately.

Your first idea was, you told me, «Please find a Chinese child who can speak German. « Buckminster Fuller you had in, and we have George Brecht; and we have Teeny Duchamp, and you spoke the role of James Joyce.

I think there has been a great inclination in the aspects of theater to get rid of aeting and to have the real McCoy. It began with Saroyan, I think. He thought instead of having an actor be a streetcar conductor, for instance, to have a streetcar conductor be a streetcar conductor. Or instead of having somebody represent Buckminster Fuller, to have Buckminster Fuller doing it.
But here we have a problem with the dead ones, the ghosts, who have to be represented by live people, unless-but this never occurred-to get some psychic person to go into a trance and speak voices....

So you spoke the character of James Joyce.

That was because I like to read from Finnegans Wake.

So you spoke the real quotations of Joyce, and you spoke your inventions of what Joyce bad perhaps said. And then it's a nice idea, I think-you divided your friend Marcel Duchamp into two parts.

Divided him into two beings. Well, he did that himself. I don't know whether he would agree, but I ascribed his writings to his female alter ego, Rrose Selavy; and then, when he wasn't writing, but just saying something, I decided naturally that he was male. - Klaus Schöning (1982).

Just before beginning the production of HMCIEX at WDR in Cologne, you'd been in Torino working with a thousand children. What was it like-a joyful coming together, like a children's music Olympiad perhaps.

I think it turned out very well. There were a thousand children, from four years old to twelve. They sang the songs they learned in school. Some of them danced.

So the Olympic Games also bring together thousands of people peacefully fighting, we can say; and you agreed to make a composition for this event [the 1984 Olympics]

I had the idea of letting the countries be represented by their folk music. How many countries? There are 151 countries that have recognized Olympic committees. I don't know who does the recognizing. Some of them, of course, haven't accepted the invitation to come to Los Angeles, but that was a political decision, not an Olympic or athletic one. I decided for musical reasons to keep all 151 in the situation. I wanted the feeling of «Here Comes Everybody,» and that's what the title is-the «H. C. E' of «Here Comes Everybody» alternating with the letters of the word «mix.»

You always have a relationship with Finnegans Wake and Joyce.

I think the notion of a musical circus, which the children's work in Torino was, is just that-here comes everybody.

So you put in the folk music and the names of the countries, but in a very strange way.

I separated the names of all the countries into syllables, and I found that in the German pronunciation of them there were 520 syllables; but in the English pronunciation, there were 502. So by chance operations, I was able to locate one of either kind.

Let' s turn to the music composition. We have I the folk musics, on records and tapes from the WDR archive. How did you bring together all these musics?

I took the total length, in seconds, and submitted it to the I Ching, and I found that number of entrances of sounds I needed in that total length. Originally, the total length was to be fifty-five minutes. lt has since been cut in half, because the work turned out to be so complicated that the amount of time I asked for, and which was available, was insufficient to do the splicing that became necessary. Through chance operations, the sounds came so close together the only way they could be realized was through splicing. lt turned out, in the end, even when we cut the tape in half and superimposed the halves in a way to get the density that we might have had, there still was no time for the splicing.
But what we do have on the tape is the proper order of the sounds, and we have the proper dynamics, and we have the proper stereo locations, composed through chance operations. A further element of indeterminacy is that the splicing will not be according to a score but will be according to the circumstances of simply removing unnecessary silences from the unedited tapes, until we come to the proper lengths.

You told me that after you make this decision, you don't feel unhappy.

No, I feel liberated. There's something extraordinarily domineering about a score which one is trying to realize exactly. Long ago I moved to independence of parts, from a fixed score, a fixed relation. I look forward to hearing it. lt will certainly be another example of non-intentional music, with the desire to free sounds from my notions of order, feeling and taste. - Klaus Schöning (1984).
Another thing that's equally shocking is the quality of television entertainment, which is being absorbed willy-nilly by so many people. That is what has kept me from supporting the so-called public broadcasting system, because they are as bad as the others, and I think their programs, for the Most part, are very bad, and yet they're supposed to be so good, so elevated. - Geoffrey Barnard (1980).
I find the fund-raising as annoying (if not more annoying) than the commercials of the other stations. I end by not looking at it.
I think though, theoretically, if cables continue and multiply, that the television will become a kind of university; they'll have to have something to broadcast, and eventually they'll broadcast something interesting like the monkeys working with the dictionary or encyclopedia or the alphabet. - Jack Behrens (1981).

Source: Excerpt from «Radio and Audiotape», in: Richard Kostelanetz,
Conversing with Cage, New York 1988, p. 161–171.