Tona Scherchen: “Between”

In the course of working on a further two-part project about the composer Tona Scherchen – more information about both will be provided at a later date – I’ve come across an audio recording of what may be her most recent work, which it seemed proper to share here.

Entitled “Between,” it’s the final incarnation of a piece with a long history. She first conceived and composed it during a sojourn in New York at the end of the nineteen-seventies, with the idea in mind of creating a “spectacle d’architectures, sons et lumières pour ensemble instrumental et bande magnétique,” having been inspired most likely by the performance art of the time: the result was premiered in the very center of the scene on March 13, 1981, at The Kitchen and featured Robert Dick on the flute, J. D. Parran on the clarinet and saxophone, George E. Lewis on the trombone, James Emery on the guitar, and Mark Helias on the bass, with Scherchen herself providing direction and operating the pre-recorded audio tape featuring the sounds of the sea. In this initial version the work lasted an hour and a half.

Several years later, during the Festival de Lille, on November 28, 1986, a considerably shorter version, around fifty-five minutes long, made its debut. This time she arranged the work for pre-recorded tape and trombone, performed by Yves Robert, but the son et lumière side was preserved.

More than two decades went by, and then in May 2009 a third and even shorter version, twenty-three minutes in length, was presented, in honor of the late composer, theoretician, and author Daniel Charles (a great partisan of John Cage in France) during a commemorative conference devoted to him convened at the Musée national Marc Chagall in Nice. By this point the work had become entirely sonic, the visual dimension having been shed like an extraneous sheath, and it was this version – “dédié à la vie” – which Scherchen also contributed to the webpages Charles’ son has set up to document his father’s life and work; for the sake of ease I’ll embed it here as well.

Although Scherchen’s prefatory remarks as transcribed there are brief, she does suggest that hers is a work imbued with “des affinités et des liens profonds” between the noise of the waves, on the one side, and, on the other, the vocal sound of human breath and the rhythmic beating of the heart.

In this last and definitive form the music now emits a subdued or sombre feeling of the human being alone.

In conclusion and in order not to neglect the eyes, I’ll include here the older silent portrait study the cineaste Gérard Courant recently made available (one of the thousands he’s become famous for assembling) of the composer, Cinématon n° 699, recorded on February 9, 1986, in Paris. Perhaps by the very absence of sound the viewer may intuit something more of the artist as a personality.

Postscript. Madame Scherchen has sent word that Mark Helias was indisposed the evening of the premiere of “Between” in 1981, and hence the others performed the piece without him.