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Merce Cunningham and Contemporary Music

Merce Cunningham by Annie Leibovitzby David Vaughan

In a statement written on 19 September 1994 , Merce Cunningham listed “Four Events that have led to large discoveries [in his work]”:

The first came with my initial work with John Cage, early solos, when we began to separate the music and the dance. This was in the late forties. Using at that time what Cage called a “rhythmic structure”— the time lengths that were agreed upon as beginning and ending structure points between the music and the dance — we worked separately on the choreography and the musical composition. This allowed the music and the dance to have an independence between the structure points. From the beginning, working in this manner gave me a feeling of freedom for the dance, not a dependence upon the note-by-note procedure with which I had been used to working. I had a clear sense of both clarity and interdependence between the dance and the music.

As is well known, that independence of dance and music became a cardinal principle of the Cage-Cunningham aesthetic. The independence soon became total, to the point that all that Cunningham tells a composer from whom a score has been commissioned is the proposed duration of the work. The dancers learn and rehearse the choreography in silence and frequently have not heard the music of a piece until its first performance. In any case, the music may change from one performance to another, though the choreography remains fixed.

The association of Cage and Cunningham, which began with Cunningham’s earliest independent choreography, in 1942, continued until the composer’s death fifty years later. David Tudor was associated with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company from its inception, in 1953, until his death in 1996. Much of Cage’s early music for Cunningham’s dances was for prepared piano, but in the early fifties music for magnetic tape also began to be used. Soon Cage and Tudor developed the idea of “live electronic music,” which is not played on tape but created at the time of performance with electronic instruments, so me of them custom- made.

From the beginning John Cage, in his capacity as music director, saw the need to diversify the musical component of the company’s performances. Composers who have written scores for Cunningham included—in the early years--Alan Hovhaness, Alexei Haieff, Lou Harrison, and Ben Weber. (Cunningham also choreographed several dances to music of Erik Satie, whom Cage greatly admired.) Since the formation of the Company in 1953, there have been notable scores by Christian Wolff, Earle Brown, Morton Feldman, Toshi Ichiyanagi, La Monte Young, Gordon Mumma, David Behrman, Pauline Oliveros, Alvin Lucier, Maryanne Amacher, Jon Gibson, Yasunao Tone, Larry Austin, John King, Emanuel Dimas de Melo Pimenta, Robert Ashley, Ivan Tcherepnin, Michael Pugliese, Walter Zimmermann, John Driscoll, Andrew Culver, Stuart Dempster, Trimpin, Brian Eno, and Gavin Bryars. Merce Cunningham was the first choreographer to use the music of Conlon Nancarrow (Crises, 1960).

David Tudor’s first score for Cunningham was for RainForest in 1968, followed by many others. Takehisa Kosugi first played for the Company in Japan during its 1964 world tour; then in 1976 he composed the score for Squaregame, and at that time became one of the Company’s regular musicians. In 1995 he was appointed music director; he continues to compose new music, most recently for Scenario (1997) and Way Station (2001).

The Merce Cunningham Dance Company has commissioned music from more contemporary composers than any other performing arts organization, affording them the freedom to write according to their own wishes and the rare opportunity to hear their music performed live, frequently and before a large audience.

This article appears by kind permission of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.

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