Merce Cunningham passed away on Sunday, July 26th. Cunningham was known as a choreographer and dancer, but in this article, I want to review his work with composers of electroacoustic music. He collaborated extensively with John Cage, and also worked on a number of early movement-music interfaces. His ideas had a direct impact on the processes of certain electroacoustic composers, especially John Cage.
Cunningham’s work with Cage began relatively early in Cage’s career.
By the summer of 1948, Cage and Cunningham were well on their way to forming what was eventually called the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. They had been giving joint recitals since the spring of 1944, and much of Cage’s music of the later 1940s was triggered by the needs of Cunningham’s choreography. Their collaborations were already premised in the notion that music and dance should be created independently and only brought together at a late stage in rehearsals, this being made possible through micro-macrocosmic structuring. (Nicholls 2007, 42)
As their collaboration continued, Cage and Cunningham continued to explore the idea that music and movement need not have the direct relationship that was traditional. Cage and Cunningham showed that the only necessary relationship between music and dance is that they exist in the same space, at the same time. This idea fed into Cage’s thinking about an interconnected world, and led him to his anarchic compositions such as Reunion and Musicircus.
Cage’s use of simultaneity after 1962, on the other hand, does not require any common characteristic among the various parts. In Reunion, there is no given relationship among the various musics of Behrmann, Cross, Mumma, and Tudor (other than Cage’s inviting all of them).
Instead, Cage asserts here that it is the simultaneity of the various performances that constitutes their relationship. Rather than have independent parts performed simultaneously because they are related to one another, Cage here relates independent parts to one another by performing them simultaneously. This concept of simultaneity-as-relationship can perhaps be traced to the manner in which Cage was accustomed to working with Merce Cunningham. Beginning in the 1950s, the only relationship between Cage’s music and Cunningham’s choreography was that they took place at the same time and in the same space. As Cage put it in “Where Do We Go From Here?”: “Neither music nor dance would be first: both would go along in the same boat. Circumstances – a time, a place – would bring them together.” In these dance productions, the complete independence of elements extended to the lighting, sets, and costumes, as well. In Reunion, the same approach is taken to the four musicians who perform together. (Pritchett 1993, 154)
Cunningham helped many other young composers by commissioning new works for his dance company. Composers like Gordon Mumma and David Behrman had opportunities to create new interfaces and new performance situations for his dancers.
In Spring 1966 Tudor, Cage, and Cunningham invited Mumma to accompany them on a tour of Europe. They offered him a commission for a new piece (Mesa) and sought his expertise for their production of Variations V, a work in which the actions of Cunningham’s dancers activated sound through an elaborate system of electronic sensors. That summer Mumma left Ann Arbor to begin a collaboration with the Cunningham company that lasted eight years and led to numerous innovative works. (Miller 2003, 21)
Cybersonic and related technology has continued to play a major role in Mumma’s art. His MESA (1966) is a particularly interesting application of these ideas, in this case to a large concertinalike instrument called a bandoneon. Completed for his first tour with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, it was written for his fellow tour musician David Tudor, whose talents include bandoneon as well as piano. Mumma was able to rig both sides of the bandoneon with microphones and set the two outputs to modify each other as well as themselves. The results were distributed about the hall quadriphonically. An un- expected side effect of the phase-shift circuitry incorporated in this particular cybersonic console is the occasional impression of changes in “acoustical dimension.” The listener actually senses that the speakers are being moved or the shape of the room somehow altered. (James 1987, 375 – 376)
For David Behrman, the Cunningham commision was an exciting opportunity for a young composer to meet and work with some of his creative idols.
…in 1967, Cunningham commissioned David Behrman to compose music for Walkaround Time, a repertory dance piece based on Marcel Duchamp’s Large Glass. Behrman used photocell mixers and recordings of himself walking around Niagara Falls on an icy day, or driving his Colkswagen Beetle, and of all the women in the Cunningham Company reading texts of Marcel Duchamp which described Large Glass. The premiere was in Buffalo in March 1968. As Behrman recalls, “Duchamp came up and took a bow onstage, and since I was the young composer who had been commissioned to do the piece, I was up there – it was a very exciting thing…” (Chadabe 1997, 101)
Cunningham was devoted to new electroacoustic music, and his devotion changed music. He supported innovators and iconoclasts, and he helped electroacoustic music reach new audiences. Cunningham was a terrific choreographer and dancer, without a doubt, but we shouldn’t forget that he was also an unmatched promoter of electroacoustic music.
Chadabe, Joel. Electric Sound: The Past and Promise of Electronic Music. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1997.
James, Richard S. “ONCE: Microcosm of the 1960s Musical and Multimedia Avant-Garde.” American Music. Vol. 5, No. 4 (Winter 1987): 359 – 390.
Miller, Leta E. “Once and Again: The Evolution of a Legendary Festival.” Liner Notes from Music from the ONCE Festival. Visibility Music, 2003.
Nicholls, David. John Cage. Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2007.
Pritchett, James. The Music of John Cage. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1993.