The New York School                                     Page 1 of 3                                       pdf

The term "New York School" refers in music to a circle of composers in the 1950's who orbited around John Cage: Morton Feldman, Earle Brown, Christian Wolff and David Tudor above all. Their music paralleled the music and events of the Fluxus group, and drew its name from the New York School of mostly Abstract Expressionist painters who had got their start in the 40's: Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Franz Kline et al. (There was also a New York School of poets, among them Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch.)

What brought these artists together – and together they were, since they often shared neighborhoods and even collaborated – was a faith in the liberation of the unconscious and an excitement drawn from the street energies of Manhattan. Among the composers, Cage exerted his benign influence through his interest in rhythm and percussion, through his meditative philosophy and contemplation of Eastern religions, through the patronage he could offer via the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, and through his generally, genially energetic personality.

This compact disc offers multiple realizations by the solo percussionist Max Neuhaus of scores by three key members of the New York School: Brown, Feldman and Cage. Neuhaus' own comments on their scores and his way of interpreting them can be found elsewhere in this booklet. In general terms, all three composers notated their scores in ways that invited individual interpretation.

Hence they conformed to the ethos of the 60's – not to the blend of hippie mysticism and pop commercialism that defined that decade toward its end, but to a broader notion of personal liberation, in which the individual artist (both the individual composer and the individual performing musician, in this case) was liberated to express himself. Conventional notation in the Western tradition was giving way to symbolic, even graphic evocations of the sounds the composer heard in his ears – and yet the scores urged performers to surprise the composers, too. Graphic notation in particular, of course, was a way for composers to reach out to painters – to become painters. Graphic scores became a Feldman specialty for a while, although that for The King of Denmark looks more like Chinese calligraphy.

It was no accident that Max Neuhaus came of age as a solo percussionist in this era. Had he been born earlier than 1939, he would have played in the more conventional ensemble percussion pieces popular in the 1930's. But in the 60's he was allowed to express himself, to revel in timbral color (including the use of electronics, as in the amplification of the cymbals in the Brown performances) and in giddy dialogue between notated compositional intention and performer expression. Each of the realizations on this disc is a valid response to the scores, yet each is different, almost a new piece of music, as much by Neuhaus as by Cage, Feldman or Brown.

 

John Rockwell, New York City, 2004

 

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