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Cartridge Music was composed in 1960 and is one of Cage’s earliest attempts to produce live electronic music.  

Sounds are produced using cartridges from record players. Performers insert different objects into the opening of a cartridge, and manipulate them in a variety of ways (scraping, touching, striking etc) so that the sound of the object is picked up by the cartridge and then fed to an amplifier and speaker. The choice of objects and means of manipulation are left entirely to the musicians, the score providing only the means to determine a time structure for each performer.  The score consists of a number of transparent sheets on which patterns are drawn.  Each musician superimposes the transparencies and works out their particular time structure by observing the ways in which the drawn lines and patterns on the sheets intersect.

The realisation on this CD was recorded at a live performance at the Audiograft Festival in Oxford in February 2012.

Interview with Stephen Cornford

Why were you interested in realising Cartridge Music?

It's certainly a favourite piece of mine among Cage's compositions.  I remember spending one evening when I lived in Devon listening to three realisations of it back to back, the Cage & Tudor LP, the recent Wandelweiser CD, and the under-appreciated one by Mario Bertoncini on Edition RZ.  So as a piece I've been fascinated with it for a while. It's a composition whose character is defined by its unique instrumentation (like Christian Wolff's Stones or Cage's own Branches), which now seems like a somewhat dated idea, but the instrumentation is also very contemporary - it's very relevant to the approach of a lot of contemporary electronic improvisers even though not many people actually use cartridges. Listening to the realisations that are available, some of which are horrible (the Mode CD, for example) and some of which are astounding, I actually thought there was a lot of potential for a group of contemporary players to bring something new to the piece. I'm not sure whether that has completely materialised on this CD, but in places I think it has.

For me your realisation does 'bring something new' to the piece, but - paradoxically - by returning to the spirit and technology of some of the earliest realisations. I see it as a fundamentalist interpretation: going back to using actual record cartridges (as opposed to piezo discs, which many recent realisations do), and also through its uncompromising, almost brutalist soundworld, which refuses any kind of narrative or unity of mood. Were you consciously trying to reconnect with the original spirit of the piece?

From my perspective using piezos for this piece is both crazy and lazy. They have a completely different, and much less appealing, frequency response to cartridges and they give you a consistent and reliable output, whereas cartridges are actually quite difficult to use in the manner that Cage intended, which adds a layer of unpredictably even from the perspective of the performer. As minute adjustments in the position of the amplified object make a massive difference to the volume and clarity of the sound, it becomes hard to predict the sound that each gesture will make and, as I see it, this is what makes it Cartridge Music and not Piezo Music.

But having said that, personally no, I wasn't interested in re-connecting with the original spirit. I thought we should be rigorous about our interpretation of the score, but I was hoping that by choosing players who are known for their inventive approaches to amplification and electronics we would be able to extend the language of the piece away from the predominantly friction based gestures that people have used in the past.

Can you spell out what ‘being rigorous’ about interpreting the score meant?

When I wrote ‘rigorous’ I’d actually forgotten just how thorny an issue this is with this particular score. Obviously interpretation is always an issue with indeterminate works, but here before you even get to interpretation you have to untangle Cage’s description of the rules which, while it is meticulous, is still not entirely clear on first reading. So rigour in this case was at times more about trusting in your understanding of the score and then applying your interpretation of Cage’s words unflinchingly. I think the trick for me personally was to clearly delineate between the decisions I am making and those that are made for me, and in this case the player should be making almost all the decisions about content but the framework should entirely be derived from the score.   

You spent a weekend with six of the musicians rehearsing a couple of months prior to the performance at the Audiograft Festival.  What did you learn from the rehearsal weekend?

I think the most important thing that I learnt was that when you make a decision while playing this piece to stick with it. Having worked with sound in predominantly improvisational contexts I had become used to working with sounds in relation to other players, to thinking about performance as relational. The structure of this piece both suggests that this approach is applicable but simultaneously expels the possibility of it really working. The vast majority of gestures are well under a minute long and with seven players the sound world can spin abruptly in unknown directions, so a quiet sound imagined in a moment of subtlety can suddenly become lost and vice versa.  But over the course of the weekend this became the defining character of the piece and something that I increasingly embraced, and I even began to take some pleasure in trying to throw sounds into the piece which were out of place if it seemed too aesthetically coherent.

Yes, challenging ‘aesthetic coherence’ does seem to be part of the piece. It makes it fascinating to listen to, but also quite hard work over an extended period.  I was struck by the musicians’ decision to reduce the length of the realisation from 45 to 37 minutes between the time of the rehearsals and the performance.  

I think this is all a matter of how you listen to it. If you go in with expectations of traditional musical relationships between players and a discernible structure then of course you will find it challenging, because Cage has made damn sure that achieving this is impossible. And I think as time has passed this has actually become a bigger problem. When it was composed the very idea of music sourced from toothpicks and springs was likely so novel that it did something to shift expectations, but in the last 20 years this approach to amplification has become so heavily codified (some of which by musicians on this disc, and releases on Another Timbre) that now there is an expected language in the mind of many listeners when they see the instrumentation and players, which makes me sympathise with Cage’s famous dislike of improvisation, because it leads to a certain conservatism and what you hear on this disc (and even more so in some of the recordings from the December session) is one of the possibilities created by removing the players’ notions of structure and replacing it with seven subjective readings of a score which is as legible as tea leaves. And then you find that even if the instrumentation has become fairly mundane the piece is still radical.

But all that said, none of us wanted it to become an endurance test for the audience, and having listened back to the previous versions we were all aware that just those eight minutes makes quite a beneficial difference to the perceived length of the piece as a live performance.

at57   John Cage - Cartridge Music

Realised by Stephen Cornford, Rob Curgenven, Ferran Fages, Alfredo Costa Monteiro, Patrick Farmer, Daniel Jones and Lee Patterson

Recorded at the Audiograft Festival, Oxford, February 2012

Total time: 37:00

Youtube extract  

CD copies have now sold out, but downloads are still available here           


“It’s easy to understand why it was necessary to compose a work such as Cartridge Music in 1960, because this composition by John Cage introduced gesture and the musician into electronic music at a time when the latter was confined to broadcasts of works recorded on tape. A score like Cartridge Music really introduced the concept of performance into electronic music, and marked the beginning of live electronics. But why continue playing this work at a time when electronic performances are ubiquitous? It might seem unnecessary in some way, but I really don’t think so. To the extent that it’s a graphic score, it leaves space for the performers, and this space is precisely exploited here as an area of ​​freedom both for the musicians and for technological advances in the tools that are used (the cartridge of a record player in this case).

And the musicians, who are they anyway? Truly some of the most original in the field of improvised electronic and electroacoustic music, some of them close to the Wandelweiser collective. Brought together by Stephen Cornford, musicians as talented as Ferran Fages, Alfredo Costa Monteiro, Patrick Farmer, Lee Patterson, Daniel Jones and Robert Curgenven offer their collective interpretation of Cage’s work - players who usually play rather different music, but are here capable of offering a coherent performance over 37 minutes.

The seven musicians have a common interest in exploring sound in itself, and in experimenting with timbre and colour. They take turns for short blocks of time, producing sound fragments that frequently sound different, but are united by their temporal and material aspects.  On the one hand the score of Cartridge Music sends them back to an interpretation in which the successive sonic fragments, while different, are similar in their approach to time - a non-linear time in which any narrative is impossible, and where each fragment is forced into an exploded temporality.  On the other, the sound source itself, the cartridge, unifies all the fragments. Often abrasive, a full-frontal and physical approach to sound is constantly present; each sound is recorded very close and engaged with in a very physical, hands-on way.

This confirms the performance’s fidelity to the score. What’s most interesting, though, is that the diversity of approaches and the singularity of the musicians still come to the surface in spite of the sense of unity. And it is this diversity that maintains suspense throughout the length of the CD, which is not an easy task for a disc that lasts 37 minutes and uses just one instrument - the record cartridge.  Each player employs different gestures, gestures that either lead to blocks of loud sound or to microscopic, subtle details. Gestures which either attempt to create an impossible narrative, or which assert the ephemeral nature of the individual sounds. We never know what’s going to come next, how long it will last, if it will recur or just stop dead, if it’s accidental or intentional, if it will be in response to something else or deliberately set apart from everything that has preceded it.

In short an extraordinary disc. Extraordinary for its ability to combine a rigorous interpretation that is faithful to John Cage with an innovative and inventive spirit - innovative with regard to the score, and inventive with regard to current electronic practices. Highly recommended.”

Julien Héraud, Improv-Sphere

“A magnetic cartridge is a transducer used for the playback of gramophone records on a turntable or phonograph. It converts mechanical vibrational energy from a stylus riding in a record groove into an electrical signal that is subsequently amplified and then converted back to sound by a loudspeaker system. Cartridge Music is a homage to Cage’s pristine explorations and groundbreaking blundering with a needle and a record, dating from around 1960, and it definitely deserves recognition as it is a landmark recording of sonic discoveries turned into beauty.   

Although Cage realized that using chance one also realizes that things start to happen that do not always align with aesthetic preferences of that moment. Now if chance is the essence of Cage’s music, then this release is somehow in conflict with its own intentions, yet at the same time everything keeps sounding Cageian during the performance. Here the cartridge encloses silence, and silence wraps around noises coming into existence. Cartridge music draws lines, circles, stripes and rectangles to create a score that celebrates everyday nothingness that goes by unnoticed, using amplification and electronics. Cartridge Music forces the listener to become very aware of its surroundings, almost claustrophobic, as if a cold reality slowly merges with a booby-trapped excursion through an imaginary wasteland. Sounds as incidents, mixed by chance dosed randomly and with the arrogant patience of a god, almost. The recurring vibrant moments of stillness impose emphasis on the sometimes harsh sounds yielded by tiny collisions between the different surfaces, both mechanical and electrical in nature.  

Hermetically, sounding like a one-man exercise, although it is an army of avantgardists realizing Cartridge music ; Stephen Cornford, Rob Curgenven, Ferran Fages, Alfredo Costa Monteiro, Patrick Farmer, Daniel Jones and Lee Patterson taking turns for short blocks of time. The listener is taken through wormholes, unaware of the journey that drifts along the outer limits and beyond, where things aren’t mapped and the fringes of the universe get explored, all triggered by chance.”

Pim van der Graaf, Progress Report