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Earle Brown

Christian Wolff, conductor
Tracer for ensemble & 4 -channel tape (1985)
Folio and 4 systems (1952-54)
Special Events for cello & piano (1999)
Octet I for 8-channel tape (1953)
Music for Violin, Cello & Piano (1952)
String Quartet (1965)
New Piece for ensemble (1971) (first recording)
For Neil for violin solo (1975) (first recording)

Mode DVD 179

An important release that de-mystifies the music of an important and influential composer, providing a good introduction not only to his pioneering ‘open works’ of the 1950s, but also pieces from earlier and later periods. Indeed, each decade of the composer’s output is represented.

Committed and engaging performances are given throughout, and the camerawork is creative and largely effective.

Perhaps the most compelling performances are of Special Events for cello & piano, and the Music for Violin, Cello and Piano (although the latter contains probably the most unimaginative camera-work on the disc.) I also felt that the Octet would have benefited from some kind of visual element (it is, after all, a DVD not a CD...) My favourite visuals included the piano moving around the stage for track 7, and the beautiful hazy ending to Tracer (or was it an interlude between Tracer and Folio?) - the grainy film and rich palette of colours matching the effect of the music. Would this have been tiring for longer? Probably not for me. Trio for Five Dancers featured a haunting combined image - the performers seeming to float like ghostly apparitions.

Unfortunately I do not have surround sound, so I was unable to appreciate Four Systems, with geographically separated groups of musicians appearing on the screen. The other compositions would also have greatly benefited from this technology, and after ten minutes or so I plugged my headphones into the TV, finding that the traffic noise outside was intruding upon my enjoyment of Brown’s nuanced sound world.

The performances are given extra gravitas by the involvement of several figures who were close to Brown - Christian Wolff, Joan La Barbara, Micah Silver and Cornelius Dufallo - and an accompanying interview featuring the reminiscences of the composer’s widow, Susan Sollins.

Yet the involvement of all these figures is a double-edged sword, and I am concerned that this problem is only briefly discussed in the interview. The danger is of the disc becoming a ‘benchmark’ interpretation, a canonisation of repertoire that was designed to be different with each performance (not just interpretation but formal content itself.) Jonathan Tilbury’s recordings of Cornelius Cardew’s piano music contained an important disclaimer to this effect, written by Alan Parsons, that although Tilbury was close to the composer, and that his interpretations were thus ‘closer’ to the composer’s conception, the open structure of the works mean that each performer must approach interpretation according to their individuality. Thus, Tilbury’s performances are no more ‘authentic’ than those of other pianists.

This production does not take this view at all, and I would be interested to know the thoughts of Micah Silver concerning this, as he has clearly devoted a large part of his life to Earle Brown’s music, as well as his own open works. I shudder to think of a future rehearsal of Brown’s music in which one of the performers suggests “why don’t we play (x) like they do in the DVD? It sounds good like that.” This is bad enough for Classical repertoire (we are not karaoke artists!) but for open-work repertoire of the 1950-60s, this attitude is totally destructive. The fact that the sleeve-notes concentrate on Brown’s ‘preoccupation with “impermanence”’ is quite funny, given the permanence of these performances! Would it have been impossible to offer alternative performances of some of the shorter open works?

I also feel uneasy about the following lines in the programme notes: “Also present at our sessions was Susan Sollins, Earle’s wife, who helped us tremendously with her recollections of Earle’s opinions and musical tastes.” In other words, “our performances are right”. But how can they ever be? And what is taste in an open work? And what if Susan Sollins disagreed with Earle, or remembered inaccurately? This has certainly been the case throughout history, with both Clara Schumann and Yvonne Loriod changing their husband’s metronome marks and fingerings, to name just two examples. (There are certainly more recent ones...)

I am not saying that those close to Earle Brown should be ignored or deliberately contradicted, but these influences must be placed in context according to the spirit in which the music was originally composed. This DVD is a vital document, encapsulating an attempt to fully capture the ‘true style’ of Brown’s music. But in the open works, while a ‘style’ can be captured, an interpretation cannot, and this is not made clear.

In the interview, Cornelius Dufallo states that he first performed Brown’s open works, then returned to them having learnt some of the closed compositions, finding this process beneficial to his understanding of the open works. (Naturally, the more one learns about a composer, the more detailed an understanding takes place - but can this improve an interpretation? Not necessarily. It merely changes it.) He asks Susan Sollins for her opinion, but her comments do not reach the heart of the matter.

Sollins is sure that Brown did not intend, in the open works, for the performer to ‘do anything they want’ or do anything ‘crazy’, but to respond musically to the notation and the aesthetic of the chamber group that each particular piece is scored for (for instance the particular forms of expression and communication enjoyed within a string quartet.) But I could respond musically and sincerely to the notation and yet produce a result quite different to what she would imagine as the correct style. Another performer could do their best to do something ‘crazy’ and yet produce something that she would find appropriate. The identification of the correct intention is only part of the story, and the rest is not given. The boundaries of interpretation, and more importantly Earle Brown’s beliefs concerning where these boundaries exist, is by far the most important issue concerning the open works and in my opinion the interview should have concentrated on this.

I hope that this release encourages more performances of Earle Brown’s work, just as long as it does not inhibit the individuality that the open works thrive upon.

Aleksander Szram