THINKING SOUND MUSIC: The Life and Work of Robert Erickson. Charles Shere. With a Foreword by John Rockwell. Copyright 1995 by Fallen Leaf Press. P.O. Box 10034. Berkeley CA 94709. 888w


The composer's natural response to the composition of "Ricercare a 5" was the contrasting "Scapes". In it Erickson continues his exploration of graphic notation, but chooses a form very different from the fully determined dialogues of the "Ricercare". "Scapes" is an elaboration of the "mobile form" that had evolved by 1960, reaching perhaps its highest form of development in "Credentials", the setting (for narrator and eight musicians) of a passage from Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot" made that year by the Polish-Israeli composer Roman Haubenstock-Ramati. A San Francisco performance of "Credentials" by Cathy Berberian in the early 1960s had a profound influence on the Bay Area avant-garde, among young composers as different from one another as Robert Moran and Loren Rush.

In "Scapes", as in the mobile-form pages of "Credentials", the written music is set out divided not into the conventional measures of so many beats but into rectangular frames representing boxes. Performers are free to choose their own route from one box to the next, resulting in an "open" form, whose structure is variable, as contrasted with the conventionally "closed" form, whose structure is determined once and for all by the composer. The analogy is the sculptural "mobile" invented thirty years earlier by Alexander Calder.

It is worth noting, though, that the implications are very different for sculpture and for music. The various planes and volumes of even a conventional sculpture assume different relationships as the viewer regards it from varying positions; this is the challenge faced by the sculptor. Calder's mobiles simply allow the sculpture to present these relationships in even more subtle variations, to an unmoving viewer. In music, on the other hand, "open form" scores inevitably result in "closed form" performances. As performed, even a mobile-form composition results in a musical structure whose relationships are fixed for that one experience. It is only when different performances of the same mobile-form piece are heard, preferably in succession, that the changes in relationships allowed by the form can be perceived.

(Of course the attentive listener stores in mind constantly changeable responses to the musical events heard. This is why certain compositions, whether open or closed in form, continue to yield rich meaning even after repeated hearings, and why they can change their "meaning" even when merely being considered without actually being heard.)

Like "Ricercare a 5", "Scapes" is a dialogue--not among five musicians, but between two groups. Its three movements, each set out on a single square page, are arranged as a game to be played three times. And so it is, of course, rich in implications, suggesting political and athletic metaphors of the musical process. It is not farfetched to think of other examples: Degas' painting "The Spartan Games", Stravinsky's ballet "Agon". "Scapes" is, among other things, a musical embodiment of the dialectical process so familiar to Erickson through administrative politics, and it resonates with his emerging interest in ancient Greece.

Characteristically, though, it is grounded in familiar American vernacular: the game of tic-tac-toe. The boxes of musical notation are arranged nine to a page, like the squares of that game's grid. The leaders choose the route through the square, marking them with Xs or Os (the audience and performers watch by means of an overhead projector). Erickson takes care to provide contrast: some squares are nearly empty, resulting in a very quiet passage; while others are cluttered with markings; conventional notes; letters representing vocal sounds [HU(gh), HI(c), Shshsh]; sand- or woodgrain- like areas representing busy improvisation on percussion; and cartoonlike constellations of exclamation points, spirals, pointing fingers and so on, representing "a vehement quarrel" produced by combining instrumental sounds with vocal ones. ("Instruments that are unable to produce quarreling should remain tacit during these passages," the composer stipulates.)

The three pages of actual score are supplemented by three pages of instructions. (An oddity of "free-form" music has been the extensive instructions so many composers need for its elucidation.) In them, Erickson is careful to balance the sport and the musical implications of "Scapes": "Progression from square to square need not, should not, be at a regular rate. If interesting interactions are taking place between the two groups, or if one of the groups is producing music of interest, stay there longer. If a square is not producing worthwhile musical results, move quickly to a new square."

Two versions of "Scapes" were prepared: the second, commissioned by the University of Illinois ensemble for a European tour, requested three navigations of the score, with improvised passages separating the movements.

Erickson asks that the performing groups be "of about the same strength, but not necessarily identical in instrumentation. Five or more instruments on each side. No high strings." And yet while they vary considerably as to instrumentation, length, and dramatic curves, different performances of "Scapes" have sounded not only remarkably similar, but recognizably Ericksonian. The musical drama recalls that of the "'Chamber Concerto", the piano concerto, and "Ricercare a 5". There is humor, and lyricism, and substance.


Typed by Barb. Golden, October 1996.