Earle Brown: Times Five; Octet I; December 1952; Novara; Music for Violin, Cello and Piano; Folio (November 1952, December 1952, Four Systems); Music for Cello and Piano; Nine Rare Bits

David Tudor, Michael Daugherty, Earle Brown, others

New World Records 80650-2

I fear for Earle Brown‘s historical legacy. He is no danger of falling out of the music history textbooks (a fate that might well befall his colleague Christian Wolff, most unfortunately), but he owes that staying power almost entirely to a single sheet of paper: the mysterious, widely spaced rectangles of December 1952. Quite aside from its musical merits, December 1952 has served as an iconic image of the Zeitgeist that gave rise to the New York School of composers. It is a stark, simple and shocking example of the opening of new possibilities, and even if Brown was neither the very first nor the most persistent explorer of these notational hinterlands his name will always be attached to them.

More thorough histories of American experimental music will note Brown’s innovations in proportional (“time-space”) notation, open form, and other sorts of structured notational ambiguities. But even if textbooks of the future devote a paragraph to Brown rather than merely the obligatory sentence and illustration of December 1952, they will neglect to evoke the wide-ranging aural imagination at work in the strikingly diverse group of works on this disc.

New World Records has, in either an act of great charity or an extremely optimistic business decision, taken upon itself the task of re-releasing and distributing the catalog of the defunct CRI label, home to a fair amount of historically vital material amid a larger number of forgettable recordings. This album, originally released as CRI CD 851 in 2000, is definitely in the first category. It brings together works from Brown’s early maturity, from 1952 to 1965, in performances either led by Brown himself or entrusted to stalwarts of the repertoire like David Tudor and harpsichordist Antoinette Vischer.

December 1952 is here, of course, in two different versions. The “classic” is David Tudor’s performance on prepared piano, which Brown declared the best of Tudor’s multiple realizations. The separated notes and small clusters are what we expect to hear, and the cloudily noisy timbres yielded by the preparations create an effective sense of three-dimensional sonic space. This is the version to play in the classroom””an expertly assembled and performed example of what we all know December 1952 is supposed to sound like.

Michael Daugherty’s realizations for piano and electronics of December 1952 and two of its companions in the collection entitled Folio (November 1952 and Four Systems) are quite different. Instead of Tudor’s points and noisy grumbles, they involve little linear melodic figures, literal repetitions (particularly in Four Systems), trills, and rhythmic motives, couched within a much wider sonic vocabulary than that deployed by Tudor. It’s a surprising interpretation. Although not obviously wrong, I certainly wonder how Daugherty justifies the sense of linear continuity that takes over at the end of his performance of December 1952, and what he intends with the surface motivic connections he creates with his melodic and rhythmic material. In any case, the results are certainly aurally compelling on their own terms, and the conceptual dissonance itself is a worthwhile experience.

The rest of this recording includes lesser-known pieces, most of which were unfamiliar to me, and some of which were revelations of a breadth and aural imagination of which I do not automatically associate with Brown. Music for Violin, Cello and Piano, written just before the Folio pieces, is utterly different””the apposite term is “Webernesque”, given not only he work’s concision in both overall length and motivic vocabulary and its continually wide registral span but the sense of horizontal line that manages to emerge nonetheless. Octet I, written while Brown was working with Cage on the tape-collage project that also yielded the latter’s Williams Mix, is as frenetic and unstoppable as its more famous cousin. Music for Cello and Piano, from 1954-55, is framed in the proportional notation that Brown developed, and the sensitivity of communal gesture and spontaneous sharing of resonance and energy is expertly captured in this performance by Dorothea von Albrecht and Christine Olbrich. Nine Rare Bits (1965) for one or two harpsichords, commissioned by Antoinette Vischer and performed by her and George Gruntz, is a riotous collection of modules put in order by the performers with a show of energy and force as uncharacteristic of the instrument’s traditional image as Xenakis’s later pieces would be.

The standout pieces here, the ones that show a side of Brown that is hidden from those who have lacked sufficient opportunity to explore much beyond the textbook characterization of his career and his strengths, are the longest: Times Five, from 1963, and Novara, from 1962. Both of these works for chamber ensemble (Times Five also involves four-channel tape) are shockingly limpid, calm, and utterly beautiful in these performances conducted by Brown; the unisons, held string chords and ear-capturing melodic figures outdo even those in the better-known Available Forms pieces. The sound is more Bruno Maderna than Webern or early Feldman, and these two pieces make this archival recording far more valuable than David Tudor’s historically important recording of December 1952, and also make it far more likely to get taken down again and again from the shelf.

Some of these recordings show their age in tape hiss and a mild loss of frequency response, and some have stray live-in-concert noises, but it doesn’t matter. Without Times Five and Novara, this would be a disc worth owning as a reference, a reminder of a participant in the joyous experimentation of 1950s New York often overshadowed by his more often performed colleagues. With these two gorgeous and obscure works, it becomes something to be listened to often, and savored. This record needs to be heard, and I hope that it will serve as a life preserver for Earle Brown’s posthumous reputation. It reminds us that Brown was, to reverse Arnold Schoenberg’s remark about his erstwhile student Cage, “not just an inventor of genius, but a composer.”

4 Responses to “Rescuing Earle Brown”
  1. DJA says:

    Thanks for this, Evan. I don’t know if many people are aware of this, but my own mentor, jazz composer Bob Brookmeyer, is a massive Earle Brown fan and is hugely indebted to his work, and indeed to him.

    When Brookmeyer dried out and moved back to NYC in the early 1980’s, he decided it was time to engage in the formal study of composition, for the first time in his life. His teacher of choice was his old acquaintance, Earle Brown. I credit Brown’s influence for the incredible creative renaissance Brookmeyer underwent in the 1980’s.

  2. Sparky P says:

    I am glad that New World going ahead in re-releasing the CRI catalogue (and, in time, will get to their Feldman compilation). I have the LPs which the bulk of the material comes from (the “Times Five”, Tudor’s “December 1952″, “Novara” and “Octet” come from the CRI LP; the piano trio is from the Time LP, which also has the Feldman Durations), and the thing that sticks in my craw is that, for some reason, “Novara” is shorter on the CD than on the LP, that somehow the last two minutes were lopped off.

  3. Micah Silver says:

    Thank you for the nice writing on Earle and his legacy! In the past few years I and Earle’s Foundation has been doing a number of things to preserve and secure the availability of Earle’s music and thinking into the future. I would encourage people interested in Earle’s work to visit the Foundation’s website, where score examples, audio examples, audio interviews, videos, writings, exist and are expanding on a regular basis.

    Further, please check out the CD to be released by Tzadik in the next month or so. It was a pleasure to produce and is a very diverse exploration of FOLIO from artists from Joan LaBarbara to Merzbow! —

    Micah Silver (composer and former Administrator of Earle Brown Foundation)

  4. Evan Johnson says:

    Yes, I heartily recommend http://www.earle-brown.org – a fantastic site with tons of fascinating stuff. The Tzadik disc looks very interesting; I’ll happily write it up if you get Jerry to send me a copy 😉

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