Philip Corner’s 1962 Piece for Malcolm Goldstein by Elizabeth Munro is undeniably an extraordinarily difficult way to open a recording; it’s hard to imagine it luring people to listen through the entire track and beyond to whatever else follows it unless they are already hardcore devotees of uncompromising experimentalism. Yet that’s precisely what Pogus Productions has done on Pieces from the Past by Philip Corner for the Violin of Malcolm Goldstein, a CD retrospective which features a rare, long out of print track and four previously unreleased tracks from live performances. Positioning this stark music at the very beginning, however, provides an ideal grounding to help listeners understand the unusual nature of this extraordinary composer-performer relationship.
Corner and Goldstein both boast serious Uptown compositional credentials—both studied with Otto Luening at Columbia University in the late 1950s. But they were subsequently drawn into the equally rigorous world of the Downtown avant-garde just as the multidisciplinary Fluxus movement was starting to evolve John Cage’s indeterminacy into the realms of conceptualism and minimalism. A watershed opus that has gone down in history as the pivotal moment for this phenomenon in music is La Monte Young’s Composition 1960 # 10, whose score is simply the sentence: “Draw a straight line and follow it.” Just as Cage had opened the door for music to go literally anywhere in Imaginary Landscape No. 4, 4’33″, and subsequent compositions, Young opened another door for music to go absolutely nowhere. And the way we create, perform, and experience music has never been the same since, even though most music still occurs in an arena that remains somewhere between anywhere and nowhere.
But what kind of music results if you follow a line that is not straight? Such is the gambit realized in Corner’s 1962 Piece for Malcolm Goldstein by Elizabeth Munro. As with Young’s seemingly unassuming work from just two years earlier, the music for Corner’s Piece is not notated in a conventional sense; rather it is simply one very long, unbroken line drawn on an adding machine roll that rises and falls, twists and turns. To further add to the indeterminate nature of the undertaking, Corner did not even draw this line himself but rather enlisted the help of visual artist Elizabeth Munro to execute one seemingly endless, continuous horizontal form. Transforming this image into music, as Goldstein has done on this nearly 21-minute live recording from a 1984 concert at Experimental Intermedia, is also almost an act of co-composition. And since he is also a composer of extended-duration works employing structured improvisation, as well as conceptual and indeterminate elements, he is an ideal collaborator. In addition, the violin, with its possibility for an infinite gradation of pitches, is the perfect instrument on which to convey an extremely meticulous sonic translation of every jagged contour and loop rendered by Munro’s hand.
While none of the other works by Corner on the present disc offer as fluid a continuity between conception, visual instruction, and sonic realization as Piece, the extremely wide range of violin sounds they each exploit reside in similar aesthetic terrain. The two Pieces for String Instrument, Nos. 3 and 5, both from 1958, already reveal Corner’s extreme tendencies; exaggerated portamenti and distorted bowings abound. But unlike his later continuous arcs of sound, the music here is very much a byproduct of the then contemporaneous zeitgeist of musical pointillism; each utterance feels like a self-contained sonic atom. The performance of No. 3 is here blended with Corner’s much later Gamelan Antipode/s (1983), which though notated on a standard G-clef using familiar-looking noteheads and dynamic markings, yields music that is in no way conventional. Admittedly, verbal instructions burst from the margins of the score to explicate the desired sounds that traditional music notation cannot transmit to a performer. The Gold Stone (1975), which is literally named for Goldstein (Stein = Stone), is another graphic score that leaves lots of room for improvisatory interpretation and takes full advantage of the violin’s limitless pitch spectrum creating a melody of infinite microtonal gradations. For the performance featured herein of Gamelan Maya (1980)—a live recording from Belgium in 1981—Goldstein is joined by Corner at the piano for what is arguably one of the most austere violin and piano duos ever attempted. Though Goldstein uses all kinds of extended techniques (an extraordinary wide range of bow pressure ranging from barely touching the string to digging into it full force, and he even sings along with his playing), he is basically playing the same note over and over again for about 17 minutes as Corner accompanies him doing the same.
While Pieces from the Past by Philip Corner for the Violin of Malcolm Goldstein is hardly a disc you’re likely to spin to create the right ambiance at your next dinner party, spinning it in such a setting might generate hours of provocative conversation.