The New York School Composers: Bios

John Cage

John Cage left Pomona College early to travel in Europe (1930-31), then studied with Cowell in New York (1933-4) and Schoenberg in Los Angeles (1934): his first published compositions, in a rigorous atonal system of his own, date from this period. In 1937 he moved to Seattle to work as a dance accompanist, and there in 1938 he founded a percussion orchestra; his music now concerned with filling units of time with ostinatos (First Construction (in Metal), 1939). He also began to use electronic devices (variable-speed turntables in lmaginary Landscape no.1, 1939) and invented the 'prepared piano', placing diverse objects between the strings of a grand piano in order to create an effective percussion orchestra under the control of two hands. He moved to San Francisco in 1939, to Chicago in 1941 and back to New York in 1942, all the time writing music for dance companies (notably for Merce Cunningham), nearly always for prepared piano or percussion ensemble. There were also major concert works for the new instrument: A Book of Music (1944) and Three Dances (1945) for two prepared pianos, and the Sonatas and Interludes (1948) for one.

During this period Cage became interested in Eastern philosophies, especially in Zen, from which he gained a treasuring of non-intention. Working to remove creative choice from composition, he used coin tosses to determine events (Music of Changes for piano, 1951), wrote for 12 radios (Imaginary Landscape no.4, also 1951) and introduced other indeterminate techniques. His 4'33" (1952) has no sound added to that of the environment in which it is performed; the Concert for Piano and Orchestra (1958) is an encyclopedia of indeterminate notations. Yet other works show his growing interest in the theatre of musical performance (Water Music, 1952, for pianist with a variety of non-standard equipment) and in electronics (Imaginary Landscape no.5 for randomly mixed recordings, 1952; Cartridge Music for small sounds amplified in live performance, 1960), culminating in various large-scale events staged as jamborees of haphazardness (HPSCHD for harpsichords, tapes etc, 1969). The later output is various, including indeterminate works, others fully notated within a very limited range of material, and pieces for natural resources (plants, shells). Cage also appeared widely in Europe and the USA as a lecturer and performer, having an enormous influence on younger musicians and artists; he wrote several books.

Cage works on the program:

Morton Feldman

Morton Feldman was born in New York on January 12, 1926. At the age of twelve he studied piano with Madame Maurina-Press, who had been a pupil of Busoni, and it was she who instilled in Feldman a vibrant musicality. At the time he was composing short Scriabin-esque pieces, until in 1941 he began to study composition with Wallingford Riegger. Three years later Stefan Wolpe became his teacher, though they spent much of their time together simply arguing about music. Then in 1949 the most significant meeting up to that time took place - Feldman met John Cage, commencing an artistic association of crucial importance to music in America in the 1950s. Cage was instrumental in encouraging Feldman to have confidence in his instincts, which resulted in totally intuitive compositions. He never worked with any systems that anyone has been able to identify, working from moment to moment, from one sound to the next. His friends during the 1950s in New York included the composers Earle Brown and Christian Wolff; painters Mark Rothko, Philip Guston, Franz Kline, Jackson Pollock and Robert Rauschenberg; and pianist David Tudor. The painters in particular influenced Feldman to search for his own sound world, one that was more immediate and more physical than had existed before. This resulted in his experimentation with graph notation, "Projection 2" being one of his earliest scores in this idiom. In these scores the players select their notes from within a given register and time structure. Because these works relied so heavily on improvisation Feldman was not happy with the freedom permitted to the performer, and so abandoned graph notation between 1953 and 1958. However, the precise notation he used instead during this period he found too one dimensional and so returned to the graph with two orchestral works: "Atlantis" (1958) and "Out of Last Pieces" (1960). Soon after these, appeared a series of instrumental works called "Durations", in which the notes to be played are precisely written but the performers, beginning simultaneously, are free to choose their own durations within a given general tempo.

1967 saw the start of Feldman's association with Universal Edition with the publication of his last graphically notated score, "In Search of an Orchestration". Then followed "On Time and the Instrumental Factor" (1969) in which he once more returned to precise notation, and from then on, with only the exception of two works in the early 1970s, he maintained control over pitch, rhythm, dynamics and duration.

In 1973 the University of New York at Buffalo asked Feldman to become the Edgard Varese Professor, a post he held for the rest of his life.

From the late 1970s his compositions expanded in length to such a degree that the second string quartet can last for up to five and a half hours. The scale of these works in particular has often been the cause for the controversy surrounding his works, but he would always be happy to attempt to explain his reasoning behind them:

"My whole generation was hung up on the 20 to 25 minute piece. It was our clock. We all got to know it, and how to handle it. As soon as you leave the 20-25 minute piece behind, in a one-movement work, different problems arise. Up to one hour you think about form, but after an hour and a half it's scale. Form is easy - just the division of things into parts. But scale is another matter. You have to have control of the piece - it requires a heightened kind of concentration. Before, my pieces were like objects; now, they're like evolving things."

Nine one-movement compositions by Feldman last for over one and a half hours each.

In June 1987 Morton Feldman married the composer Barbara Monk. On September 3, 1987, he died at his home in Buffalo aged 61.

Feldman works on the program:

Earle Brown

Earle Brown was born in Lunenburg, Massachusetts, on December 26, 1926. He studied mathematics and engineering at Northeastern University, and attended the Schillinger House School of Music for techniques of composition and orchestration. Mr. Brown has been a major force in contemporary music since the early 1950's. His work at that time with new notations, scoring methods, and performance attitudes led to his development of graphic, improvisational, and "open-form" scores such as DECEMBER 1952 (from his collection of FOLIO), TWENTY-FIVE PAGES (1953) for one to twenty-five pianos, as well as the later orchestral scores AVAILABLE FORMS I and II (1961 and 1962).

Since that time he has continued to develop his "open-form" concepts and performance techniques in new ways. Directly influenced by the visual arts in many ways, in particular by the works of Alexander Calder and Jackson Pollock, Mr. Brown's music is also related to the work of Robert Rauschenberg in its conception and formulation, for example in its use of collage and junxtaposition. In the past, Mr. Brown has organized "sonic events" and performances of his own and other new music in galleries and museums in the United States and Europe, making clear through these performances some of the relationships between contemporary music and visual art.

Brown has been composer-in-residence at the California Institute of the Arts, the University of California at Berkeley, the Peabody Conservatory of Music (which awarded him an honorary Doctorate of Music in 1970), Rotterdam Kunstichting, the Basel Conservatory of Music, Yale University, Indiana University, Bloomington, and at the American Academy in Rome (1987), among other institutions. He received numerous awards and commissions both in this country and abroad. Some of these are a Guggenheim Fellowship and an American Academy and National Institute of Arts and Letter Awards, the Brandeis Creative Arts Award, grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York State Council on the Arts, and commissions from Darmstadt, Paris, Zagreb, London, Rome, Saarbrucken and Venice, among others. Earle Brown died on July 2, 2002 after a long illness.

Brown works on the program:

Christian Wolff

Born March 8, 1934 in Nice, France; lived mostly in U.S. since 1941; U.S. citizen since 1946. Studied piano with Grete Sultan, composition (briefly) with John Cage. Mostly autodidact, but early contact with Cage, Morton Feldman, David Tudor and Earle Brown, later Cornelius Cardew and Frederic Rzewski has helped form the direction of his work. Academic training in Classics and Comparative Literature at Harvard University. Has taught Classics at Harvard and, since 1971, Classics, Comparative Literature and Music at Dartmouth College (Hanover, New Hampshire).

Compositions include works for piano(s), miscellaneous keyboards, instrumental solos, chamber groups, unspecified groups of players and sound sources, tape, chorus and orchestra.

A particular interest in Wolff's work has been to allow performers flexibility and ranges of freedom at the actual time of a piece's performance; to devise notations to make this practicable; to foster among both professional and lay players a spirit of liberating interdependence; and to draw material from traditions of popular political music.

Wolff's music has been performed throughout the world, especially in Europe and the U.S. A number of pieces have been used by Merce Cunningham and his dance company; also the dancer Lucinda Childs. Music publisher: C.F. Peters, New York. Recordings on: Columbia-Odyssey, Vox, Time-Mainstream, Wergo, Centaur, Elektrola, EMI CRI, Opus One, Philo, EMI-TOCI, Collecta, Hat Hut, Mode, Koch International, Time-Scraper, Content. Writings on music collected in: Cues - Writings and Conversations (published by MusikTexte, Cologne).

Christian Wolff has performed as an improviser with Takehisa Kosugi, AMM, Steve Lacy, Christian Marclay, Kui Dong and Larry Polansky.

Award from the American Academy and National Institute for Arts and Letters (1975); DAAD, Berlin (1974); Asian Cultural Council Grant (1987); John Cage award for music (1996); member of the Akademie der Kuenste, Berlin (1999).

Wolff works on the program: