Based in Ann Arbor, MI, ONCE was one of the most experimental groups of American composers active in the mid-20th century. Among its members were many that even until this day remain fairly obscure, although others, such as Robert Ashley and Gordon Mumma, have gone on to become well-known throughout North America and the world. In this program you will hear a selection of early, largely aleatoric works that were first presented in a series called New Music for Pianos, and were performed at a variety of Midwestern universities during the 1960s.
The program begins with “Cassiopeia” by George Cacioppo, a two minute piece consisting of four structures written on a single page. They can be played in any order and are here performed by Robert Ashley and Gordon Mumma.
This is followed by Ashley’s own “Detail 2b” composed in 1962. The one obvious characteristic of the piece is the inversion in importance of silence and sound with long stretches of quiet being broken by a single pitch, chord, or scattering of pitches. The performance, also by Ashley and Mumma, was recorded at the 1963 ONCE Festival.
Michael von Biel is more loosely associated with the ONCE collective, however the work heard here, “Book for Three” for violin and two pianos, was also performed at the 1963 Festival by the violinist Egon Mayer accompanied by Gordon Mumma and the composer. You will notice the technique of rubbing the piano strings that of course emphasizes the string rather than the percussive sound of the piano.
The next two pieces are by Mumma, the first for solo piano, the second for two pianists. Both pieces bear the title of Mograph, and are distinguished from each other by their size, large and medium. In the first work the composer calls attention to its precisely notated, complex rhythmic structures, while its wide spacing of pitches demands a wide reach on the part of the pianist. This performance features Mumma on piano and was recorded in Toronto, Canada. The second, medium sized Mograph is for two pianos, with Mumma being rejoined by Ashley in a performance recorded at the University of Missouri in Columbia.
Two short works conclude this program of piano music from the ONCE group. Donald Scavarda’s short composition, “Groups” for piano, features Robert Ashley, while “Variations III” by John Cage is for two pianos and is performed by Ashley and Mumma. The Cage work was an experiment with “abstract notation” in which the score of symbols was inscribed onto transparent sheets and were then superimposed on each other. The sheets could be rotated so as to produce new relationships between the symbols signifying specifications for duration, tone quality, etc...