The Music of Earle Brown Unwrapped and Unraveled

When a composer admits that one of his more "famous" pieces has no identifiable content, you know you're in for an uphill climb whether you choose to study their works, perform them, or just listen to them.

Beyond Notation: The Music of Earle Brown
Rebecca Y. Kim, ed.

University of Michigan Press

Sep 2017


I have four recordings of the Earle Brown composition "December 1952", yet they all sound completely different. If you are unfamiliar with the mid-20th century New York School scene that included the contemporary composers Brown, Christian Wolff, John Cage, and Morton Feldman, then you may rightly wonder why the sonic disparity. The answer lies in the piece's score, which looks nothing like musical notation as you and I know it. It looks like a Scantron readout gone wrong, or a connect-the-dots picture where the printer ran low on ink. There are dashes here and there, some going vertical, some going horizontal, all with various thicknesses.

The composer was well aware of the ambiguity he was creating. In fact, Brown would long wrestle with the fundamental nature of his music, especially when so many other people were trying to pin down that nature for him. In the fourth chapter of Beyond Notation: The Music of Earle Brown, musician and writer David Ryan draws words directly from the mouth of Brown: "'December 1952' raises the question of whether a work whose form and content are different in each performance can be called, 'open form.' My personal answer is no; that to be called open form, a work must have identifiable content which can then be formed." Simply put, he had no control over how this piece would be realized." (page 84)

When a composer admits that one of his more "famous" pieces has no identifiable content, you know you're in for an uphill climb whether you choose to study their works, perform them, or just listen to them. It stands to reason that music that functions on an academic level should be accompanied by writings that can spell it all out for you. Enter the musicologist Rebecca Y. Kim-curated collection of essays titled Beyond Notation, a thick and dense hardbound devotion to Brown's art if there ever was one. In these pages 12 authors (including Kim herself) spare no ink in linking Brown to the Schillinger System, the 12 tone scale, the mobiles of Alexander Calder, the paintings of Jackson Pollock, and all of the puzzling musical scores, sketches, and cross sections that the Earle Brown Music Foundation Music Foundation have lent out for this project. This is not a breezy biography or a quick critique. This is for the student who really wants to get their hands dirty with some truly baffling music theory, the scholar who has to be aware of every angle from which the composer approached his music.

Beware, there are many angles. Between those angles are yet more angles. Just from reading Kyle Gann's informative introduction, it's hard to believe that the thorough dissection of Brown's music hasn't been the subject of a book until now. But when you consider the company the composer kept, figures like Brown and Wolff come off as the George and Ringo of the New York School while Feldman and Cage were John and Paul. What makes this more interesting was the relationship between these four men, with ego clashes and squabbles. Cage and Brown disagreed on the mind's subconscious influence on the arts, with Cage doing his best to eradicate the human element. Brown and Feldman found complications in a mutual acquaintance, French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez. Boulez declared Feldman's music as "too simple" and "too imprecise". Feldman shot back by saying that Boulez was "everything I don't want art to be." The fact that Boulez and Brown eventually struck up a friendship gave Feldman reason to distrust Brown as a person and become overly skeptical of his music, an attitude that wouldn't thaw until much later in Feldman's life.

The least academic and thereby most emotional chapter comes from Carolyn Brown, Brown's first wife. Her story "The Early Years" is second, oddly placed between Jason Cady's overview of Brown's method's and Louis Pine's exhaustive history and explanation of the Schillinger System. In this short and sweet chapter, Carolyn Brown talks of meeting the composer as early as 1939. He found regular work playing the trumpet in dance bands while she continued her studies in ballet (she would become a founding member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company). Earle Brown remained close to her parents over the years, even after their divorce. "The Early Years" is a strange but not unwelcome piece in this book. The tone is one of genuine admiration. There is no sign bookish music theory, no philosophical wanderings, just a woman in her 90s recalling the time she met a young man. Not only is it strange that it's the second chapter of this book (and not, say, the last -- or perhaps the introduction), but it's also strange that it's in this book at all. But after trying to figure out just what the hell is going on in the printed score of "Time Spans", I'm in no mood to complain about Carolyn Brown's fireside chat.

Another tasteful thing that Kim lets happen in the book is allowing Brown to have the last word (not including footnotes and indexes). The portion of the book named "Select Texts by Earle Brown" begins with some private correspondence that, when typed out, looks slightly odd. The first letter in particular, a rough "thesis" he sent to Ray Grismer, is peppered with elipses, sentence fragments, multiple exclamation marks and question marks, and the occasional set of entirely capitalized words. It's disarming to say the least. After more than 200 pages of trying to read between already the obscured lines of Brown's music, here's Brown himself dishing out explanations of what he does like it was an ordinary dinner of meat and potatoes. "I compose because of a feeling (shall we say a need to express??) NO. A need to explore... a feeling of dissatisfaction with things as they are or perhaps a playing around with sound because I can conceive of something else to do with sound." (p. 267) Despite the laid-back nature of the writing, these sentences are remarkable in their clarity. Nothing against the previous writers or their contributions, but just a few sentences lifted from a private letter written by Brown go a long way to detangling all that academic yarn. I especially don't want to discourage people from reading the chapters written by David Tudor and Stephen Drury, two people who earned their paychecks by sitting down at the piano while trying to perform Brown's works.

Considering that Beyond Notation marks the first time that a book has been devoted to the music of Earle Brown, reading through it is akin to a novice swimmer getting tossed into the deep end of the pool... unless you've already earned a bachelor's from Eastman or something along those lines. If the intense study of mid-20th century graphic notation frightens you, then I would advise you to pick up a lighter book on Brown. Unfortunately, one doesn't appear to exist. That, on the other hand, would be a good stepping stone along the way to this book.


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