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Gresser, Clemens

(Re-)Defining the Relationships between Composer, Performer and Listener: Earle Brown, John Cage, Morton Feldman and Christian Wolff

Ph.D. University of Southampton, 2004
(cgresser@gmail.com)

This thesis examines works by Earle Brown (1926-2002), John Cage (1912-1992), Morton Feldman (1926-1987) and Christian Wolff (b. 1934), some of whose compositions avoid a fixed and determinate sequence of sounds in performance. This can lead to a redefinition of the relationships between composer, performer and listener, thus changing the role of the musicians and asking for a different attitude on the part of listeners. Such an alteration of the traditional, hierarchical model of music production was motivated, to differing degrees, by aesthetic, political and sociological considerations.

Drawing on diverse music, mostly written between 1950 and 1971, such as Feldman's Projection 1 (1950), Cage's 4'33" (1952) and 0'00" (1962), Brown's Folio (1952-53) and Wolff's Prose Collection (1968-1971, ca. 1986, 1997), this study explores the compositional and notational ideas which have changed the status of the "work". Such music aims neither for a reified work, where all parameters are totally fixed, nor for a completely "free" improvisation.

Instead of trying to establish a historical perspective on this repertoire, the thesis compares the composers' works by focusing on overarching issues. It is shown that the four composers are less homogeneous in their aesthetic, their compositional approaches, and in their attempts to redefine the relationships between themselves and the performers of their work, than previously assumed. This research illustrates that, in spite of a common understanding that Brown, Cage, Feldman and Wolff experimented with traditional conceptions of art music, this does not mean that many works negate the traditional functions of composer, performer and listener. However, a number of compositions redefine the idea of a musical "work", and alter the functions of, and relationships between composer, performer and listener.