S.E.M. Ensemble / Petr Kotik

Marchel Duchamp: The Entire Musical Work

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Of the many creators in other fields who turned their hand to writing music -- Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Friedrich Nietzsche, Ezra Pound -- to name a very few, Marcel Duchamp is not one whose name springs immediately to mind. Associated with dada and surrealism, Duchamp worked in a variety of media and left a handful of musical sketches created between 1912 and 1915 that were realized by Petr Kotik and the S.E.M. Ensemble in the late '70s. Duchamp left two notated pieces and a conceptual work that must be entirely realized by the performer. The notated pieces were created completely by chance operations, predating Cage's work by many decades. The first, for three voices, was written by pulling cards with pitches out of a hat. In spite of the simplicity of its concept it's a virtuoso piece to perform because the singers must have perfect pitch and a range of two octaves. Here the performers first sing their individual lines and then combine them in various configurations until all are singing together. It's an intriguing and lovely piece. The singers perform with absolute purity and precision so that the dissonances are unambiguous, but what's perhaps most astonishing are the moments when the chance operation produces a unison in the voices, or a triad, or a conventional cadence. Duchamp's La mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires meme, a sketch for his famous glass and metal construction of the same name, is subtitled "Erratum Musical," and its material is derived from a mechanically complex procedure involving a giant funnel, numbered balls, and a toy train. Kotik offers two realizations, one of which, for mechanical piano, prominently includes "Lara's Theme" from Maurice Jarre's score for the 1965 film Dr. Zhivago, a decided dada touch. This is a disc that should fascinate fans of the avant-garde, and it is particularly valuable as a record of a previously undocumented moment of the implementation of dada principles in music.

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