max neuhaus / john cage | fontana mix-feed (1966)

fontanamixfeedTechnically, this LP consists of four realizations of John Cage’s 1958 Fontana Mix, an indeterminate graphic score originally intended to be used for a tape piece, with or without additional instruments. To say that, though, is not really to capture the unique nature of this music, or the unique nature of percussionist and electronic music pioneer Max Neuhaus’ take on Cage’s material. In the mid-’60s, Neuhaus approached Fontana Mix with an interpretation so radical that it became a new piece altogether, a combination of Cage’s ideas with Neuhaus’ own. Fontana Mix-Feed, the resulting composite, wasn’t just a reworking of Cage, but a revolutionary step forward in electronic music that remains an exciting listen even though Neuhaus’ innovations have long since entered the musical lexicon as common elements.

Neuhaus’ idea was to use Cage’s open score as a vehicle to explore controlled, shaped feedback, generated by placing contact mics on percussive instruments and hooking the mics up to loudspeakers positioned directly opposite the instruments. The result was a feedback loop in which the harsh sounds were modulated and often softened by the bodies of the drums and other instruments, creating complex, constantly shifting layers of noise. At the height of an era when many sounds previously considered unmusical noise were being reconsidered as musical elements, the introduction of feedback into that fold was one more vital challenge to tradition. Like the contemporaneous electronic work of David Tudor (another Cage collaborator/performer), Neuhaus’ music is no mere novelty, and if it doesn’t shock today the way it might’ve in 1966, it’s still extremely inspiring.

Cage’s score for Fontana Mix consists of sheets of paper with squiggly lines and a set of transparencies with dots, a grid and a straight line. The sheets are combined by the performer, overlaying the transparencies, generally by using chance operations, to generate a particular performance version of the score. Neuhaus created his own version in this manner, and decided to apply the resulting graphs and contours as envelopes for the amplification of the four speakers he’d use in performances. Interestingly, Neuhaus’ version of the score remained static: he did not recreate the score before each performance, but reused the exact same realization each time he played the piece. The chance element thus enters in a different way than expected. The same volume adjustments, following the score, are performed on each of the four pieces on this LP (and the two additional takes on modern reissues), but the different realizations feel quite distinct, even in terms of overall structure, because of the complex interactions between mic placement, speaker placement, the resonating surfaces of the instruments, and the room itself.

Neuhaus’ feedback experiments thus engage with ideas about sound’s interplay with space. The recordings, even more so than with a lot of other music, capture only a fraction of the total live experience. Each performance’s nature was defined by spatial parameters: the placing of the four speakers in a room; their distance from one another, the contact mics, and the audience; the acoustical properties of the room itself; and the position of any given listener in relation to the looping systems. These factors shape every second of the resulting music, every little shift or hiccup in the four layered feedback waves; the recording necessarily flattens the mix, but the physicality and interactivity at the core of this music is still very much apparent.

The first piece here was recorded at the University of Chicago in April 1965. An initial rich, resonant squeal gives way to percussive clatter, then fades to silence and builds back up again with a thin whine after a few hushed moments. The music is defined by these dramatic shifts and sudden turns. At one moment the feedback produces high, eerie tones suspended in a hauntingly empty space; at the next, multiple layers of noise are piling up, locked into propulsive rhythms. Several times, the music falls entirely silent, as the volume on the speakers is lowered enough to cancel out the feedback effect. Such pauses add to the impression that, despite its intensity, this is also quite fragile music, liable to fall apart entirely if conditions are not balanced just right. A glistening, high-register waver might suddenly collapse into a stuttering low-end pulse or be swallowed up by glitchy distortion, and just as easily the speakers might fall silent altogether. This tension gives the music much of its power, evoking a delicate balancing act in which the score helps Neuhaus guide these feedback tones through treacherous territory, with the grating simplicity of unmodulated feedback on one side and pure silence on the other.

The second piece, recorded a few months later in New York, is defined by similar shifts. The sudden silences are absent, and instead the performance is dominated by the contrast between delicate, sewing-thread-thin strands of high-pitched sizzle and a roaring, rumbling industrial low-end. The similarity to a bass line or a submerged bass drum beat is striking, as the feedback’s oscillations create insistent, pounding rhythms. The high tones occasionally manage to cut through the dense noise, slicing at the murk, but more often the density simply smothers any more subtle sounds. This track, especially, could appear on virtually any noise- or experimental-oriented record of the last few decades and seem modern and utterly satisfying, its bracing impact scarcely dulled at all by the passage of time.

The B-side opens with a recording from towards the end of the year in Madrid. Once again, the same score and basic setup induces different results, as this piece tends more towards droney sheets of sound, with elements fading in and out of the mix as the speaker volumes are adjusted, but the overall atmosphere remaining relatively static. This raw mass of sound becomes quite overwhelming at times, creating an all-encompassing dark cloud that only clears up, pushed aside by crystalline high tones, for a minute or so near the end of the piece. This might be the track that best suggests what seeing one of Neuhaus’ feedback performances live might have been like: all these abrasive sandpaper sheets of noise grinding against one another, flaking off little details within the murk but mostly building an oppressive, impressive totality.

The album’s final track, recorded over a year later at the end of 1966, has the most interesting venue, originating from a recital Neuhaus performed at New York’s famous Carnegie Hall. There’s something especially radical and charming about imagining Neuhaus in this context, and in some ways this is the most abrasive track here, dealing mostly with competing high-frequency swells and piercing tones. Various layers are juxtaposed, with cycling oscillations occasionally providing a subtle rhythmic counterpoint to the dronier components within the mix.

Neuhaus’ experiments are both sonically rewarding – each 10+ minute chunk of sound is densely packed with information – and stimulating in their ideas. Neuhaus’ radical reconfiguration of Cage’s work, using it as a vehicle for his own experiments, complicates the usual composer/performer relationship. The nature of composition and notation was shifting rapidly in the early 20th Century thanks to Cage and the many other composers who introduced graphic scores, indeterminacy, and openings for improvisation into their work. Even in that avant-garde context, though, the primacy of the composer was often taken for granted, with works involving a great deal of performer latitude still generally credited to the composer alone. On these performances, Neuhaus pushes subtly at those boundaries, as the performer becomes a composer and inventor in his own right. Cage and the Fontana Mix score have an arguably minimal relevance to the resulting music, providing only a loose framework for Neuhaus’ unrelated (and incredibly innovative) ideas.

What’s most striking about Fontana Mix-Feed, though, is how good it still sounds. This isn’t the kind of crude but innovative music that’s “experimental” in the most literal sense, tentatively testing out the possibilities of a new technique. Neuhaus created a fully realized, fascinating music with his feedback explorations, and neither the distance from the four-speaker concert experience nor the distance of time has managed to dull the impact of these pieces.

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