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    Various Artists – Music From the ONCE Festival

    Music From the ONCE Festival box set cover.

    How far back in time does experimental music go? To 1913 and Luigi Russolo with his Art of Noises? To the 1920s and Edgard Varese with his dissonant symphonies? To the 1940s and John Cage with his prepared piano? To the 1950s and France’s musique concrete vs. Germany’s electronic music? Despite the fact that experimental music had been around for decades by the time the 1960s arrived, the time was still ripe for the kind of highly unusual artistic invention that could incite amazement, confusion, deep contemplation, surprise, revelation, laughter, or anger. Enter the ONCE Festival, which delivered all of that and much more.

    In the first half of the ‘60s, this series of annual concerts of challenging and groundbreaking experimental music, theater and film was held in the unlikely location of Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Back then, one would much more likely encounter such a happening in a larger city like New York.) Although the events attracted new music luminaries like Luciano Berio, Cathy Berberian, John Cage, David Tudor, Alvin Lucier, Pauline Oliveros, La Monte Young and many more from far and wide, the bulk of the music featured in this box set concentrates on performances by then upcoming young local composers Robert Ashley, George Cacioppo, Gordon Mumma, Roger Reynolds, Donald Scavarda and a few others who organized ONCE.

    Music From the ONCE Festival, Disc One - 1961.

    Disc One 1961 — Sparse, dissonant piano pieces dominate and darken the first half of the first disc with Robert Ashley’s “Sonata,” which explores rhythmic density; Donald Scavarda’s “Groups for Piano,” which precisely notates tempo, rhythm and dynamics; and Roger Reynolds’ “Epigram and Evolution.” An abrupt, woozy, screeching string trio–including violin, viola and. cello–shines a ray of light into the room during George Cacioppo’s expressionist mosaic called “String Trio.” Gordon Mumma’s “Sinfonia for 12 Instruments and Magnetic Tape” tosses in a dank, lurching, stop-and-go instrumental piece augmented with a spool of magnetic tape that ushers in a menacing roar and white hot noise blast that is sure to tick off anyone, except you and I.

    Donald Scavarda’s twelve-tone “In the Autumn Mountains” pits intense operatic singing against really quirky avant garde classical. Similarly, Bruce Wise’s “Two Pieces for Piano and Chamber Group” continues that vein (sans vocals) and occasionally raises quite a ruckus. With his “Fourth of July,” Robert Ashley calls forth the chaos of an outdoor festival with field recordings of people at a backyard party talking, laughing and clinking glasses, plus the sound of background music and animals. Gradually, everything gets buried inside a vast swath of power electronics decades before it was ever called that. Robert Ashley completely rules, and so does this piece.

    Music From the ONCE Festival, Disc Two - 1962.

    Disc Two 1962 — Like the piano on disc one, a dark, rumbling and minimal chamber ensemble dominates disc two with no less than three out of eight tracks. An exercise in musical contrasts, Roger Reynolds’ “Wedge” boasts quirky yet explosive avant garde classical chamber sounds ranging from held tones that resemble elephant screams to plink-plonk improv. Inspired by growth and decay, Donald Scavarda’s “Sounds for Eleven” bellows more shrill tones interspersed with silence, and throws a few good wood knocks into the sparse, tentative proceedings. Contrasting human singing with percussion, George Cacioppo’s “Bestiary I: Eingang” offers more dim vibes with male singing and occasional wood and metal outbursts.

    More instrumental sounds come to the fore during Robert Sheff’s “Ballad” as a flute, piano and violin puff out a row of quiet, tentative scrapes and tussles that eventually turns boisterous. (Sheff later changed his name to “Blue” Gene Tyranny and rose to considerable notoriety in the new music world.) Gordon Mumma’s “Meanwhile a Twopiece” features a piano, percussion and French horn bobbing within swells of a black, alien ocean formed by magnetic tape. A couple of piano pieces hark back to disk one, including Gordon Mumma’s “From Gestures II” in which incredibly sparse single notes demonstrate major restraint then suddenly give way to obscure prepared rumbles and clatter. Brandishing a score that allows improv and chance, Robert Ashley’s “Details (2b)” mines similar territory sans all of the ruckus. Lastly, we take a look at the first track, Donald Scavarda’s multiphonics-soaked “Matrix for Clarinetist,” in which some solo clarinet hum, squeal and screech creates a thoroughly zoned minimalism that demands close listening.

    Music From the ONCE Festival, Disc Three - 1962-1963.

    Disc Three 1962-1963 — Taking up half of disc three, the piano is featured even more prominently than it was on disc one. With a score based on seismic activity, Gordon Mumma’s “Large Size Mograph” sprinkles spare, dissonant tinkles all over your dandruff-free head. Roger Reynolds’ “Mosaic” adds a piccolo to more wafting and occasionally prickly prepared piano. Stretching out over three tracks, George Cacioppo’s graphic score-realized “Pianopieces” displays a round of solo ivory quirk that proceeds confidently from light tinkles to all-out rumbles. The Camerata Quartet shows up on two tracks, including the flexible score of Robert Ashley’s “Fives,” in which quirky improv bass, piano and percussion proceed effortlessly from thorny shrubbery to thick thunderheads; and George Cacioppo’s “Two Worlds,” in which a woman belts out a vibrato-filled yet wordless tune amidst all of the dissonant, dramatic chaos realized by a whole constellation of instrument abuse.

    Manhandling double bass, flute, French horn and oboe, the Hart Chamber Players throw a little improv in with the notation of Gordon Mumma’s “A Quarter of Fourpiece,” while Roger Reynolds’ “A Portrait of Vanzeti” lofts some keening held tones on wind instruments that get splattered with clattery percussion outbursts amid narration of the letters of Bartolomeo Vanzetti. Shutting down disc three is, appropriately, three minutes’ worth of flitting, scintillating, shivering electronics by Gordon Mumma called “Greys.” Unfortunately, it’s not about grey aliens, as this piece predates the use of that term by a few years. But, you can always pretend.

    Music From the ONCE Festival, Disc Four - 1963-1964.

    Disc Four 1963-1964 — The lion’s share of disc four is chewed up and spat out by large instrumental ensembles. Following a graphic score based on star charts, Philip Krumm’s “Music for Clocks” sets a pinging, sprightly, clockwork rhythm on top of a raging, skittering, held tone atmosphere all for a literal audience of clocks. Exercising incredible restraint, ONCE newcomer George Crevoshay’s “7PTPC” joins a bit of inisde-the-piano playing with some light tinkles and super subtle sax drones courtesy of the late, legendary Terry Jennings. A creepy, droning chorus supported by start-and-stop instruments permeate George Cacioppo’s “Advance of the Fungi” while Robert Ashley’s “in memoriam…Crazy Horse (symphony)” employs the largest orchestra on this disc with a round of shrill, droning, minimal ambience of Twilight Zone-like sonorities.

    In addition to the ensemble pieces above are two works for two instruments each. Employing only flute and magnetic tape, Robert Sheff’s “Diotima” gets inspired by a Socrates love story and plasters up some incredibly dank rumbling wallpaper, only to shoot it full of abrasive noise holes. Along with James Tenney’s “Analog No. 1 (Noise Study) this is an early example of dark ambience of the most submerged order. Donald Scavarda’s “Landscape Journey” introduces a droning clarinet and shrill, dissonant piano plonk to each other during a long, red eye bus ride through the night.

    Music From the ONCE Festival, Disc Five - 1964-1966.

    Disc Five 1964-1966 — Embarking on a half-hour cruise down a subterranean river, Bruce Wise’s “Music For Three” pits spare yet vivid piano plonk of both the regular and prepared variety against mesmerizing, pinging, magnetic tape drones that flow from free improv noise blasts to insistent pounding rhythms, forming one of the highlights of the while five-disc set. The ONCE Chamber Ensemble is featured on the next two pieces. George Cacioppo’s “Time on Time in Miracles” proceeds from raspy, start-and-stop, droning chamber music to a super empty realm of pin-drop quietude. Prefiguring the word “track” on compact discs by decades, David Behrman’s “Track” presents a clattery, free improv chamber music that sounds like a million rattlesnakes battling a squealing seal while a hyper game show host rants and raves under a blanket of random talk radio recordings. As ONCE started to wind down, Behrman recorded and toured with Ashley, Mumma and Alvin Lucier in a legendary outfit called the Sonic Arts Union.

    Electronic music rears it’s beautifully ugly head during Pauline Oliveros’ “Applebox Double” as she and David Tudor coax quiet scrapes, pings and distant warbling drones chock full of reverb and occasional roaring outbursts. Shuttering the entire box set is Robert Ashley’s “Quartet,” in which clarinet and French horn drones hover sublimely over a bed of indistinct spoken word murmurs emanating from a distant flock of humans. The whole five-disc enchilada is sheathed inside a thick box with a perfect bound 138-page book crammed full of endearing black and white photos (many of them dreamily blurry), a long essay that details the whole story, and a list of concerts and composers’ notes—all covering the time periods before, during and after this unique eight-year series. No stone was left unturned! It’s so good to have a detailed document of this inspired and influence-spewing festival, which, to anyone who wasn’t there, previously only existed as a vague legend. Once again, New World Records delivers the goods.

    Music From the ONCE Festival book front cover.

    Label: New World Records Catalog Number: 80567-2 Format: CD Packaging: Paperboard box with slimline jewel cases Tracks: Disc 1: 8, Disc 2: 8, Disc 3: 10, Disc 4: 6, Disc 5: 5 Total Time: Disc 1: 72:56, Disc 2: 72:23, Disc 3: 74:21, Disc 4: 76:32, Disc 5: 76:52 Country: United States Released: 2003 More: Amazon, Ann Arbor, Avant Music News, Bagatellen, iTunes, Michigan Muse, New World Records, Wikipedia

    Text ©2010 Arcane Candy

    One response to “Various Artists – Music From the ONCE Festival”

    1. The whole five-disc enchilada is $63 on Amazon, with the download $20, while iTunes wants a laughable $50 for the download. The liner notes–not the entire contents of the booklet but apparently some of it, including the Leta Miller essay you mention–can be downloaded as a free PDF on New World Records.

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