This Sunday night the Eclectic Laboratory Chamber Orchestra will present Star Songs, a program that places the works of Stockhausen, Cage, and Monteverdi beside those of David Bowie and Lou Reed. The common thread: each piece is related to space.
Elizabeth Hoover describes the thought process behind John Cage’s Atlas Elipticalis, a major feature of Sunday night’s program:
’1961 was an important year for John Cage. Not only did he sign with music publisher, C.F. Peters, but he also acquired an important position in Middletown Connecticut as a Fellow of the Center for Advanced Studies at Wesleyan University. By October, he published his first and most well-known book through its University Press: Silence, a collection of lectures and other writings that he had produced by that time. To add to this list of accomplishments, Cage also received a commission by the Montreal Festivals Society to write a work for orchestra. According to Cage, his inspiration for the piece stemmed from “a remark by Erik Satie to the effect that written music is nothing but points and lines.” To find the points and lines for his orchestral composition, Cage visited the astronomical library in the observatory at Wesleyan. After viewing many star maps in the library, he settled on a book titled Atlas Eclipticalis.
Named after this book, Cage’s Atlas Eclipticalis was composed through a method of chance operations in which he copied the positions of stars from the astronomical maps onto transparencies. These transparencies served as templates with which to transfer the positions of the stars to individual instrumental parts. Each star transforms sonically into an individual tone; therefore, an aggregate of pitches represents a constellation. Although there are eighty-six instrumental parts in total—each of which Cage dedicated to a friend, colleague or relative—all or some of these parts may be used in performance. As a result, a performance of Eclipticalis may endure for an undefined length of time, and as Cage notes in his general directions for the piece, exists “at any point between minimum activity (silence) and maximum activity (what’s written).” Despite levels of indeterminacy which operate in the instrumental parts, Eclipticalis is not lacking in control. Cage specified the role of a conductor, whose function is not only to determine the length of a performance by keeping time throughout the piece, but also to decide which parts of the composition will be performed. Though Cage created the parameters of the piece, it is the conductor’s aural view of Cage’s musical atlas that is ultimately experienced by an audience. It was only appropriate, then, that Cage acted as conductor for the premiere performance—to provide his very own vision of the night sky.
Atlas Eclipticalis premiered on August 3, 1961 at the International Week of Today’s Music in Montreal, and was played simultaneously with Winter Music (for 1-20 pianos, completed in 1957). Two days later, for the same festival, Eclipticalis was performed with choreography by Merce Cunningham, titled Aeon. Although, the premiere performances of Eclipticalis did not incorporate electronic equipment, other performances of the piece may do so by attaching contact microphones to the instruments involved, whose output is then fed into amplifiers and loudspeakers. In February, 1964, an electronic version of the piece was performed by the New York Philharmonic: the disappointing results of which Cage angrily lamented in numerous interviews throughout his career. For this performance, Cage called on Max Mathews, an innovator in electronic music, to produce a fifty-channel mixer that received output from the instruments of the Philharmonic. Unfortunately, due to a less than enthusiastic audience, technical glitches such as overwhelmingly loud electronic feedback, and instrumentalists’ who mocked the innovation of Eclipticalis by destroying Cage’s contact microphones and ignoring his written notation, the Philharmonic’s performance of Eclipticalis left much to be desired for everyone who had taken part in its electronic design.’
The performance starts at 8 p.m. Sunday at the Gray Box Theater, Lawrenceville.
Admission is $10, $5 for seniors, students and artists.
Details: 412-608-6120 or elco-orchestra.webs.com