Philip Corner: A Long Life, Endless as the Sky

This was originally published in the June 2004 issue of The Wire. (To read more of my journalism, click here.)

“I have a very hard time believing in the past,” says Philip Corner, speaking from his home in Reggio Emilia, Italy, where he has lived since 1992. “In some way it’s just not real to me. I’ve always had a sense of things being outside of time. It doesn’t matter historically when something was written. I’ve even indicated in some things where I’ve come very close to a universal principle, of putting in the score that this can be done again under a different title, under a different composer’s name.”
Chronicling the life of the often mentioned but undercelebrated 71 year old American composer, best known for his connections to Fluxus and the Judson Dance Theater, presents an interesting challenge. Thanks to a recent programme of reissues by Italian label Alga Marghen and the rediscovery of Corner’s remarkable 1970s and 80s work with Gamelan Son Of Lion, recently reissued by Locust, we have a window into Corner’s extraordinarily diverse activities. But what if, as Corner suggests above, a life in sound consisted precisely in stepping outside of biography or documentation? How would such a life be acknowledged or remembered by anyone who has not directly encountered the musician or composer in question? And in Corner’s case, how can one talk about someone who, by taking to a limit some of John Cage’s ideas of freeing music from the legacy of the composer, the notational score, and so on, risked disappearing entirely into sound, without a trace of his activities?
“I never understood why Cage didn’t go any further,” Corner declares. “He opened up something and then he stopped. Since Cage was so concerned with getting rid of what he called the Western claptrap, to stop at the point he did and attack improvisation, which is spontaneity and vision and being in the moment and research and search – by the end of his life, he was negating the basis of his whole aesthetic.”
By contrast Corner has continued to develop Cage’s legacy for the last 40 years, exploring the world of sound from a broad range of positions and perspectives, even for a tradition that prides itself on pulling the rug out from under its own feet. Corner has clearly come to feel at home in the groundless multiplicity that is the sound world. “It used to be that outside of music you have noise, or outside of structure you have chaos and that’s out,” he explains. “I don’t have any sense of that. There are people who represent extreme positions. La Monte Young’s early stuff is really hyperminimal compared with Cage, who was hypermaximal, and together they form an axis. But then at right angles to that you might have free jazz on one side and some kind of ethnic music on the other. And these form a definition of the limits of what essentially is a circle. I think it’s an infinite circle with these kinds of extreme stylistic manifestations at certain points along the edge. I feel that I’ve been working from the edge in towards the centre, which is where you have music, art, structure, tunes, dances – things that are relatively rational or coherent. I’ve also done some things that are working in that cultural centre where you have…” he pauses, deadpanning, “real notes, real tunes, real music.”
Corner’s work has encompassed tape music, piano improvisations involving just about every part of the piano and indeterminate numbers of performers; sound meditations and walks, Alpine horn pieces; a series of interactions with rock ’n’ roll and jazz entitled Popular Entertainments; many compositions for gamelan, some performed on computers, others on the piano, others on traditional and reconstructed Indonesian instruments; a vast body of work exploring the sonic potentialities of metals; orchestral pieces such as If And When It Will Ever Again Be Possible To Write A Piece For Symphony Orchestra (1969) – where “each player has a chance at uninhibited self-expression” – and conceptual sound pieces that range from the self-explanatory minimalism of One Note Once to a conceptual piece entitled Of Hearing The Whole World, which he describes as “a fantasy of an incredible scene, making things as complex as possible”.
“Mostly,” he admits, “I’ve worked around the edges, from some point, in. In pieces like One Note Once, I’ve worked towards an extreme position of: how much can you get rid of? How much do you not need? That’s a very extreme point. Beyond that you have silence which is even less. But in a certain sense silence isn’t less, it’s more. It opens up action, spontaneous theatre, noise, which you could say is diametrically opposed [to silence], 180 degrees in the opposite direction. But these are all extreme points.”
The sheer diversity of Corner’s work forces one to question what it means to talk about a composer or musician’s style. “I’ve noticed,” he says, “that I could be satisfied to stay at any one of these places, and you could say that a lot of people find their style doing that. But there’s no reason why you should be at one place any more than any other, minimal or maximal, jazz or ethnic. It just seemed arbitrary, culturally determined in the most provincial sense, that you find yourself at one particular point and stay there. Nevertheless at any one particular point there’s an infinite number of possibilities, and not just for yourself. In a way this kind of stuff is a discovery rather than an invention, one that’s opened up to other people too. Once these things are discovered, they’re part of human culture and tradition, open to the whole world forever. So I feel that for each one of these areas that was staked out, which manifested in my work, with the conscious resolve to push them in certain directions, I have gone to maximal extremes.”
Once inside the sound world with Corner, ideas flow forth in whole pages of precise thoughts. Try to come back to history, biography, time and he slows down, as though slugging through quicksand, not resentful, but suddenly unable to fly. Still, a few facts emerge. Corner was born in New York’s Bronx in 1933, where he began composing when 12. In 1955 he received a government grant to study in France, and attended Olivier Messiaen’s courses at the Conservatoire in Paris for the following two years, and was already composing Cage-like indeterminate works by the late 1950s.
In 1959, in a move he describes as “fortuitous”, Corner was drafted into the US army and sent to Korea, where he discovered what he calls “the most beautiful piece of music in the history of the world”, a Korean court orchestra piece called Sujecheon (Long Life, As Endless As The Sky). Somewhat similar in style to the Japanese gagaku court music that had a profound effect on minimalists like La Monte Young and their interest in slow tempos and duration. The music’s spaciousness, use of glissandi and very slow tempos made itself felt on Corner’s Situations, composed and performed in Korea, and on pieces like 1962’s Lovely Music, along with others to be found on the soon to be issued More From The Judson Years: Instrumental/Vocal Works on the Italian archival label Alga Marghen.
“One of the things I learnt in Korea was to go into the quality of sound,” says Corner. “I wanted to bring this notion into the range of possibilities – not in order to sound oriental, but to enter into this thing that the Orient had explored that the West hadn’t. And I pushed that as far as it could go, finding that place on the outside of the circle – which funnily enough leads to something that’s 180 degrees removed, which is self expression! Self expression’s supposed to be out. But there’s this link between the objectivity of listening to the world as it is, to sounds as they really are, and seeing in that self expression and feeling all the direct correlates of that in the human body, the human being. The wind blowing or the waves have the same quality as someone screaming or sighing. What’s coming from the inside of somebody’s experience is definitely related to how the world is working.”
Corner returned from Korea in 1961 to a New York in the middle of a creative renaissance. Suddenly dance, music, film, poetry, theatre, art and every other category of artistic production and experience were being gleefully taken apart and reassembled in a multiplicity of events, counter-events, actions and happenings that, much to the irritation of many involved, including Corner, have become associated with the name/word Fluxus.
“There was no such thing as ‘Fluxus’ at the time,” he asserts. “Let’s talk about specific people. Of course Cage I met during my Columbia days and got to know him pretty well. I also met Dick Higgins. My good friend was Malcolm Goldstein. Also Richard Maxfield. Some of these people had a foot in Fluxus, and some had other connections. Through Malcolm I met Jim Tenney, through whom I met Carolee Schneeman. Through Dick I met Alison Knowles and Jackson MacLow. La Monte Young. I knew George Brecht. I knew Yoko Ono from before I went to Korea. And then there was George Maciunas who was an organiser, who pulled together a lot of people who were already working, who’d already created a style and performed together. He put together some programmes and called it Fluxus and it became this thing with an ideology and a manifesto, everything else that is now causing confusion in the world about what Fluxus was and is.”
Depending on how you look at it, the early 1960s were either an excellent or a very bad time to be a piano. Corner’s Piano Activities was infamously performed at the 1962 Wiesbaden festival, which is often considered the inauguration of Fluxus. The piece, whose score advises a group of people to, among other things, “play”, “pluck or tap”, “scratch or rub”, “drop objects” on, “act on strings with”, “strike soundboard, pins, lid or drag various kinds of objects across them” and “act in any way on underside of piano” resulted in the total destruction of the piano at the hands of a group including Dick Higgins, Emmett Williams, Alison Knowles and George Maciunas, and was considered scandalous enough at the time to make it onto German television. Although Corner says that the objective was not necessarily to destroy the instrument, Piano Work (1970) features his high school students from the New Lincoln School in Harlem, taking an old piano apart with their hands in what he calls an “operatic” performance, while discussing their creative work of destruction. “Dig it!” says one student, gleefully.
Another early 1960s Corner piano piece of note is Keyboard Dances, which the composer performed at the Judson Dance Theater in New York’s Greenwich Village. A Peter Moore photograph from this period shows him seated at the piano, his foot resting on the keyboard with a delicacy and precision somewhere between that of a dancer doing warmup exercises and a kung fu master about to chop a block of wood in two with one intensely focused blow. A reconstruction of one of these dances on 1998’s Forty Years Plus One: Philip Corner Plays The Piano (XI) confirms the surprising mixture of delicacy and pulsing keyboard clusters.
Corner moved through the world of the 1960s New York avant garde chronicled by performance critic Sally Banes in books like Greenwich Village 1963: The Effervescent Body and Democracy’s Body, her history of the Judson company, for whom he composed and performed a variety of pieces, collaborating with many key figures in contemporary dance including Yvonne Rainer, Lucinda Childs and other future stars of the avant garde such as composer and vocalist Meredith Monk, cellist Charlotte Moorman and artist Robert Rauschenberg. He met his wife, the dancer Phoebe Neville there too. He also wrote for Julian Beck and Judith Malina’s Living Theatre and formed the Tone Roads Chamber Ensemble in 1963 with composers James Tenney and Malcolm Goldstein, to perform Charles Ives’s vocal music, which was at that time out of fashion – but soon branched out into performing their own work and those of their Fluxus pals.
During this period Corner expanded his use of non-traditional scores, hundreds of which have since been published in beautiful editions by Frog Peak Music ( These scores offer an encyclopedia of alternative ways of describing a musical piece, ranging from a single sentence instruction (like the self-explanatory One Note Once) to a baroque visual mapping of possibilities of, say, one of his gamelan pieces, often involving calligraphic or other visual elements, blurring the line between a text, a painting and a piece of music.
What sound at first like ‘improvisations’ are in fact well crafted sets of parameters and instructions to be observed by the performing group, giving rise to chaotic spontaneities and regrouped constellations of order that are as much a discovery for the performers as for any audience. Most of the compositions do not indicate particular instrumentation. As with the work of a number of the key New York composers of that period, “the concept is the composition… It’s certainly not just a question of, Well, we’re here, we’re free, let’s do anything we want,” Corner continues. “It’s always bothered me that the tradition that we’ve come down with, of music literature, has pushed us into putting down every note and turning the interpreter into a technician. This ridiculous idea of the will of the composer and the perfect realisation of the score. The idea of allowing personal variation, whether improvised or done by ear, has always been attractive to me. With my scores, instead of detail being defined, such as the tune, etcetera, the framework is indicated. My work has a range of possibilities that can be defined.”
In the case of Corner’s Elementals, which consists of a series of ‘fill in the blank spaces’ for pitch, tempo, instrument, etc, that range is quite considerable. The piece received its premiere in 1977 at New York’s Kitchen, at the suggestion of the venue’s music director Rhys Chatham, in a performance that lasted for five days, involving up to 40 musicians at different times, all playing a C sharp at a tempo of once per second. Alga Marghen hopes to put the recordings out as a DVD soon.
However beautiful the recordings of Corner’s work from the 1960s are, to really experience his work, you should get together with a group of friends (or enemies, for that matter) and actually perform them. While certainly not unique in doing this, Corner’s work from the 1960s opened a door out of the controlled space of the stage, not to say the medium of recorded music, to a more general experience of the sound world. In 1965’s never realised Vietnam War piece, Anti-Personnel Bomb, drastic means of emptying the concert hall were conceived. “It basically says, an anti-personnel bomb will be thrown into the audience, and you print that on the programme as the title of the piece. And then the performance of the piece is to announce that the piece won’t be performed,” comments Corner. In I Can Walk Through The World As Music, from the same year, he took the audience at New York’s Town Hall for a sound walk around Times Square, one of many pieces that focuses on the act of listening to sounds rather than creating them. In 1972, with his first wife Julie Winter, Corner started Sounds Out Of Silent Spaces, a music ritual collective that met twice monthly at the Experimental Intermedia Foundation. The group, which included Alison Knowles, Daniel Goode, Charlie Morrow and William Hellermann at various times, would begin each evening with improvisations on found objects and instruments, moving into drone chanting followed by a silent meditation and ending with dance/rhythm based pieces. For Corner, the group provided a way of exploring the spiritual potential of music, without needing to link it to any particular idea of spirituality or spiritual tradition. “Everything is spiritual, depending on how you look at it,” he says. “I certainly think all music is spiritual. I always thought that the most evident spirituality came from chanting on one note – so minimalism, music that eliminates a lot of things in a quite objective way, leads you to a concentrated inner experience. But I wanted the deepest spiritual experiences pure, without the contamination of religious doctrine.”
In 1972, Corner accepted a position in the music department at Livingston College, a part of Rutgers University that had been a Fluxus stronghold since the late 1950s. The College hired ethnomusicologist Barbara Benary in 1973, who, having studied gamelan on the West Coast with Lou Harrison, decided to build an Indonesian gamelan for students to practise on, using instructions supplied by Berkeley Gamelan founder Daniel Schmidt, a sheet of steel and a lot of old grapefruit tins. Benary herself was initially against the idea of mixing Eastern and Western traditions, but as Corner’s New Music Performing Group and composer Daniel Goode became increasingly involved, and Gamelan Son Of Lion (‘Ben Ari’ is ‘son of lion’ in Hebrew) came into being, the group started to develop in a way that, as Benary says, “had absolutely nothing to do with traditional music”.
Gamelan has a long, rich history as an object of inspiration and appropriation for Western composers, going back to Debussy, who heard a Javanese gamelan at the Paris Universal Exposition of 1889. Some composers working with gamelan, like Colin McPhee, lived in Bali for periods of time, while others, like Henry Cowell, studied and taught it as part of surveys of World Music. The measured, formal qualities of traditional gamelan at first appear to be highly resistant to the spontaneous singularities characteristic of Corner’s previous work. Surprisingly, an interest in numbers opened the gamelan up to him. “I’d been totally into this intuitive, irrational Zen approach,” he acknowledges, “and that seemed like a great liberation because it permitted a complexity which numbers always seemed to inhibit. But I can go back to my work in the 1950s, stuff that was even more indeterminate than Cage, but pieces that were based on polyphonic pulsations ebbing and flowing. The gamelan brought me back to that. I wanted to add this idea of repetition, of measured relationships and extreme simplicity without renouncing anything that I had been doing, or which had been culturally achieved by irrational values, indeterminacy, silence, noise, improvisation. I never renounced long tones fading into silence, gonglike sounds floating in untuned space. With the gamelan you don’t necessarily hear that, but everything is tuned that way, and it still sounds like objects floating in pre-rational space.”
Just as chaos theory shows how mathematical formulae can themselves produce highly unpredictable and complex patterns, pieces like the marvellous Gamelan on Three Pieces For Gamelan, which begins with a slow deep gong sound fading into silence and gradually adds higher pitched instruments playing at increasingly rapid tempos, or the graphically scored Gamelan PC on Gamelan In The New World Vol 2, apply apparently simple principles of pitch and time measurement to each of the individual instruments in the gamelan, collectively producing a rich, highly complex permutating sound.
The other strand that connects Corner’s interest in gamelan to his earlier work is a fascination with the sonic qualities of metal, which he investigated on 1960s works such as the exuberant, booming Gong! or 1973’s Metal Meditations, in which improvisors including David Behrmann explore the resonances of amplified bells and other metal sources. “I was really involved with resonant metal in a contemporary idiom,” Corner recalls, “and metal involves the possibility of noise as well as resonance, the oriental idea of sound dying away into silence, the use of silence, static sounds and all of that.” The gamelan provided a whole set of new possibilities for meditating on metal – and over the following 20 years, Corner produced more than 400 such pieces.
Gamelan Son Of Lion released the first of two volumes entitled Gamelan In The New World on Moses Asch’s Folkways Records in 1979 (both have recently been reissued by Locust; full disclosure: I wrote the sleevenotes). The two sets are wonderfully fragile, childlike recordings: beginner’s mind or luck, backed by a fierce determination not to produce anything remotely resembling traditional Indonesian music. Dika Newlin’s Machine Shop, for example, was “suggested by the sounds of presses, paper punchers, electric staplers, and electric comb binders in the print shop of Beneficial Management, Morristown, NJ”, although the set’s most exquisite moment, Benary’s In Scrolls Of Leaves, with its melodious zither, invokes Indian classical music.
“There was a conscious decision, certainly not to impose a group style, but among the leaders there was a desire not to create neo-exotic music – although there was a lot of minimalist, repetitive stuff going on in the 1980s,” Corner recalls. “When I got to the West Coast I saw that there was another aspect to it. That we were [adopts singsong by-rote voice] ‘reactionary East Coasters under the umbrella of the European tradition’, unable to free ourselves from 20th century European avant gardism while they in California were part of a pan-Pacific culture which included Indonesia and Korea and that was really their culture, so that they could do that. And Lou [Harrison] did what he was doing, but there were others who were doing quasi-traditional pieces. I used to call this California style, ‘afternoon on the beach’. To me it had very little to do with real Indonesian music, which somehow, because of Lou’s genius, crept into his music anyway.”
Harrison himself was criticised for using non-traditional elements, especially in later works, such as Suite For Violin And American Gamelan where he mixes Western and Eastern instruments. Corner, who returned to the Bay Area to study with Harrison in 1982, felt that Harrison’s approach to gamelan was “absolutely against everything I believe – that here’s an American composer who decides that he is going to imitate faithfully classical Javanese music and write in a classical Javanese style, just as someone might say, ‘I’m going to do Palestrina counterpoint exercises and call them compositions’. I said: ‘This is absolutely absurd!’ The only thing is that Lou makes it work. And that to me is a great miracle. I just had to accept that.”
Corner himself finally visited Indonesia in 1986, ten years after he began composing for gamelan. In an interview with gamelan composer Jody Diamond made just before his trip, he argued that “you can’t run away from who you are. You can’t immerse yourself in another culture and pretend to be them. I think you have to go there knowing who you are, and then relate to them out of who you are and where you are.”
Corner was well received and collaborated with Javanese composers, such as Michael Asmara, with whom he remains in touch, but his involvement with gamelan ended when he left New York for Italy in 1992. However, Benary and Goode have continued to compose and perform with Gamelan Son Of Lion, and have issued a number of new recordings.
In the famous rhizome chapter of A Thousand Plateaus, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari talk about the symbiotic relationship between an orchid and the wasp that seeks out the flower and distributes its pollen. The idea of this productive meeting and collaboration of two or more entirely unrelated objects or beings, resonates with many of Corner’s compositions and ideas, not to mention his theories of harmony, which he developed through an intense interest in exploring the sonic properties of metal.
“The essential harmony is dissonant,” he declares. “Everything we call harmony is essentially counterpoint. Putting together single tones – the relationship between single tones. We use harmony as a kind of prejudice, against disharmony. Some relationships are acceptable, some aren’t. Some we call harmonious, some we don’t. But I see it all as essentially counterpoint. Whenever you take distinct pitches and put them together in combinations, it’s counterpoint.”
The notion that literally any combination of tones is harmonic flies in the face of the equal temperament tuning system that has dominated Western classical music since Bach, but it’s equally foreign to those who favour alternative tuning systems, such as Just Intonation, grounded in particular mathematical or physical principles of sound. For Corner, harmony is about relationship, and relationship is a good thing, the more sonically complex the better, as evidenced by recent works like a p o t h e o s e from Pieces Of Acoustic Reality, in which he conducts metal meditations while an old recording of Baroque composer François Couperin’s Apothéose De Lully plays. It should sound ‘wrong’, but it doesn’t – it sounds contemporary, in the same way that French film maker Jean-Luc Godard’s soundtrack use of classical music sources might.
“Harmony has to do with a sonic entity that does not collapse into an accumulation of components, pitches,” explains Corner. “It’s inherently dense. So the closest approach in equal temperament is a cluster. It’s no surprise that the effect of a cluster is not really violent – if you want violent, dissonant sound, one does much better to have, say, major seventh and minor ninth chords with spaces in between, emphasising the dissonant intervals. When you use a cluster, you can play them very subtly, very softly, and they’re cool, they’re very refreshing, very harmonious. You approach the limit where you can distinguish the components. If you go further, into entities where the component vibrations are much smaller, narrower than the limits of equal temperament, you start getting what I call real harmony. And the model in nature for that is a waterfall. Which is a supercluster. And the flat gong, which doesn’t emphasise a single tone, also creates a wash of sound over a broad spectrum in which the individual components are not extractable. So, to me, that’s harmony.“
It’s also the kind of harmony that sums up Corner’s entire lifework – a supercluster of experimental approaches to creating sound-based works. “I was interested in moving beyond pattern!” he concludes. “I feel it’s necessary to go to the circumference because the circumference is where any one thing equals everything. And it’s just as important to go there as to the centre. But, going there [to the circumference], what you get on the way is the elimination of pattern and you end up with raw material. My music has been concerned with all these elements, possibilities, whether of pulse, single tones, even spontaneity, outcry – as raw material, a totally distilled element of raw nature. As you move towards the centre where human cultures have always been, you find patterned complexities of these elements. I was always interested in revealing the elements, through a process of microscopy, finding the elements, asking: what’s underneath, what’s the thing behind them all?”

More From the Judson Years: Instrumental-Vocal Works Vols 1 and 2 are out this month on Alga Marghen; Gamelan Son Of Lion’s The Complete Gamelan In The New World is out now on Locust. Corner’s scores are available from Frog Peak Music (