OPEN SECRETS, by Jackson Mac Low. CD recording, approximately 74 minutes. 1993. Experimental Intermedia Foundation / 224 Centre Street /New York, N.Y. 10012. $12.00.

Review by Karl Young

Despite the extensive notes on performance in Mac Low's published works, the print medium tends to emphasize text, and to push performance into the background. There is an advantage to this: Mac Low has always admonished readers and performers to speak and hear words and phonemes clearly and carefully, as they would in serious speech, and to pay particular attention to their significance, no matter how unusual their configuration might initially seem. This should keep the texts from drifting into abstraction or white noise. But for those who have not heard or taken part in performances, the texts or scores in isolation can skew the proportions of the work in the other direction, away from the equally important dimensions of performance. At least a dozen recordings of Mac Low performances have been available for sale during the past three decades, but most of these have not been much more widely distributed than the tapes that have circulated among Mac Low's friends. OPEN SECRETS has a chance for wider distribution, and should be considered a necessary companion to Mac Low's printed works.

In the liner notes, Mac Low writes "Performers are asked always to listen attentively to other performers (live or recorded) and to ambient sounds, and to produce vocal sounds (usually linguistic elements) and/or instrumental tones, in relation to all they hear. They must often fall silent and listen. By exercising invention, sensitivity, tact, courtesy and 'virtuosity without ego-tripping,' they make each detail contribute significantly to the total sonic situation." Mac Low has been writing performance instructions (and noticing how they can be disregarded) for three decades, and the notes for this recording may be seen as an advanced stage of the instructions he has been working and re-working throughout his creative life. The performances in the recording show how precise these instructions are, and what kind of results they can produce.

Mac Low performs many of the pieces in this recording with his wife and long time collaborator, Anne Tardos. In many pieces, several recordings of the two artists are superimposed, so that there are as many as eight vocal lines going on simultaneously, albeit spoken by only two voices. The disk begins with 1ST MILAREPA GATHA, which exemplifies this two voice, eight vocal line development. Mac Low's GATHAS make up an opus that has grown considerably since its inception in 1961. Most of the GATHAS were composed on quadrille (graph) paper using chance processes. Those written before 1973 were all based on mantras. Instructions for performance vary from one GATHA to the next, and these, in turn, have evolved over time. The word "hymn" roughly translates the traditional meaning of the Sanskrit term "Gatha," and the spiritual nature of the work is toward de-emphasization of the individual egos of the author and the performers, to open them up to what is going on around them. In the Buddhist sense this could ultimately lead to union with all things. Mac Low does not try for anything that ambitious, which would probably be more an exaltation of egos than a release from them. Receptiveness is accomplishment enough.

The recording of 1ST MILAREPA GATHA is relatively short, and a good introduction to the pieces that follow. Frequently, Mac Low and Tardos simply utter phonemes or the names of letters. There is little repetition in this sequence, and individual words sometimes float in isolation on the ground of phonemes. Some sounds are prolonged or intoned in pitch sequences, slightly reminiscent of liturgical chant. Superimposition of some of these prolonged sounds from several recordings form choruses with haunting harmonies. During the first minute or so of the recording, sounds are relatively sparse, but grow in density through the GATHA. By listening carefully for passages where the voice lines are not superimposed, you can hear how easily and freely Mac Low and Tardos work together, responding to each other and building each on what the other is doing without making demands, competing, or doing anything else that would violate the cooperative orientation of the GATHA. The superimposition of the four separate recordings, however, reduces the individuality of each recording. It is particularly interesting that the performers relate to each other even across recordings.

In the notes for MILAREPA QUARTET FOR FOUR LIKE INSTRUMENTS, Mac Low says that this "fully notated composition may be played on any four instruments of the same kind and range." In this case, four flutes. I'm not sure I follow the liner notes on this one, and I'm not particularly worried about that. The piece, without a vocal line, first suggests Stravinsky in its sprightly melodic riffs, augmented by polyphonic delights that often suggest intentional counterpoint. This polyphony parallels the multiple lines of the vocal pieces, and may suggest medieval to Baroque composers from Duffay to Ockeghm to Palestrina to Bach. As is the case with the composers of the past, polyphony suggests volume. Perhaps this sense of volume, of described space, contributes to the openness of Mac Low's work on this disk.

THANKS builds on 1ST MILAREPA GATHA. In this case, there are only three superimposed recordings, but sound density and complexity is greater due to the longer components employed. These components come from Tardos's multilingual writing, passages in Hungarian, sequences from Mac Low's FORTIES, and an issue of WORDPERFECT magazine and other sources. The comedy of phrases like "search and replace," and "oratory nincompoop Palladian damson damsel" is reinforced by Tardos's speaking words and phrases such as "une chanson," "King Kong," and "Infodeck" as though they were words in a language she didn't understand and was trying to figure out, and by Mac Low's studiously hesitant delivery of several phrases. Perhaps the most delightful sound in this sequence is a growl vocalized by Tardos, probably as a realization of the letters "gr." This growl is not aggressive or threatening or angry or erotic -- it is just plain fun. This piece is full of repetitive passages that take the place of the semi-liturgical choruses of 1ST MILAREPA GATHA. The frequent recurrence of phrases from WORDPERFECT should make this piece a delight for anybody who uses a computer, whether they use WordPerfect software or not.

WINDS/INSTRUMENTS (1980) brings together the vocal developments and the music of the preceding pieces and adds narrative. A narrator reads a text from which the notation for vocal and instrumental sounds has been derived, while the speakers and musicians work around the narrative. In the liner notes, Mac Low stresses "the need for the narrator always to be heard clearly." The narration is not always clear to me in this recording. I'm not sure whether the failure in this instance is the result of my inability or failure in recording or in performance. It is possible that the ones who have to hear the narrator are the other performers, not an audience. Whatever the case, this piece stresses continuity and development. The sense of narrative, the feel of the narrative voice, never leaves the piece, even if the narrative line does. If we take narrative to mean the succession of events, each following from what came before, this underscores a basic quality in many of the other pieces which may seem incoherent to some people, but which progress not through syntactic development or logical dialectic, but through the cooperative efforts of the performers.

The composition of 38TH AND 39TH MERZGEDICHTE IN MEMORIAM KURT SCHWITTERS (1989) employed not only numerous sources but also the text-generating computer programs DIASTEXT, DIASTEX4, and TRAVESTY. (TRAVESTU is available from the Grist BBS -- DIASTEXT and DIASTEX4 may also be in the public domain or availble as shareware.) The piece is made up largely of phonemes, fractured words, and abstractions. Much of the lexically complete material is in German, which moves it away from immediate comprehension by North Americans not fully fluent in that language. That many of the phonemes and fragments sound distinctly German, not English, has some strange disjunctive implications, given the close relations between the two languages. Unlike the preceding pieces, harshness, aggressiveness, insistence, sharp attacks and snipped closures abound in this piece. Since these characterize Schwitters' MERZGEDICHTE, Mac Low's loyalty to his source is clear and appropriate.

The conceptualization of PHONEME DANCE IN MEMORIAM JOHN CAGE is the simplest and most severe of the pieces on this disc. The performers may only use the phonemes in John Cage's name: "/dj/, ah/, n/, k/, and /ei/." This may seem a difficult limitation, but Mac Low and Tardos nonetheless explore the possibilities of these five phonemes with great freedom and range. Mac Low's virtuosity in vocalizing phonemes and Tardos's spontaneity find their most prominent showplace in this piece. The simplicity of conceptualization make this a fitting memorial to John Cage.

LUCAS 1 TO 29: FOR ONE OR MORE INSTRUMENTALISTS (IN MEMORIAM MORTON FELDMAN AND FOR THE MUSICIANS OF GERMANY) (1990) takes its origin from the Lucas number sequence: 1, 3, 4, 7, 11, 18, 29, and its reverse. This is a sequence that builds on itself (1 + 3 = 4, 3 + 4 = 7, etc.). A piece for musical instruments only, the piece is built on durations, measured in seconds, and a system by which the performers move to entirely different pitches. Given the time frames and the need to change pitch, this piece has a decidedly static quality found in none of the other works on this disk. Long silences, abrupt unions and decisive closures create an astringently contemplative impression that seems to go in precisely the opposite direction of WINDS/INSTRUMENTS and the vocalized pieces, even the SCHWITTERS piece which emphasizes unity despite its disjunctions. More than any other piece on the disk, this work demands what Mac Low calls "bare attention" -- without that kind of close attention to individual sounds, this piece would tire and irritate nearly any listener.

FREE GATHA 1 (1978) AND FREE GATHA 2 (1981), composed without the aid of nonintentional processes, joined together as one piece, and further doubled by superimposing one recording over another, this piece makes a pleasant conclusion to the disk. Elements from previous pieces are reprised, but the work makes no attempt at summary. The piece simply points out that there are other possibilities to explore.

This is an intimate recording. The naturally limited vocal range of the two main performers contributes to the intimacy, and helps to unify the pieces in which Mac Low and Tardos perform. The rapport, respect, and cooperation of the performers, and the limited vocal range make the disk a unified work in itself, rather than a collection of pieces related only by authorship or subject. This is particularly important given the wide range of material and technique that the openness of Mac Low's approach brings to the work. Buddhist hymns, popular magzines, Lucas sequences, the phonemes in a friend's name, computer composition software, Schwitters' sound poetry and the techniques it implies, all work naturally and integrally together. Although the work may be labeled avant garde, that doesn't mean that such characteristics as harmony, counterpoint (the real thing, not the metaphor), liturgy, even narrative can't contribute to the work as easily and naturally as elements more often associated with contemporary garde art.

Some of the characteristics that make this a unified work, however, limit it in other ways. The range and complexity that come with a larger number of performers with wider vocal and instrumental range are missing, and you don't get the sense of spontaneity and energy of live performance. These are, of course, beyond the capacity of audio recording. Mac Low makes up for some of this by overdubbing -- achieving sound patterns that could not be produced in live performance. Although this recording is complete in itself, and a necessary companion to Mac Low's printed work, it should not be seen as a summation or synopsis. Rather, it should be considered as part of Mac Low's ongoing exploration of infinite possibility.