SA3: The John Cage Issue

 I think it’s safe to say that John Cage’s music has entered an American musical canon. For better or for worse the performance of his compositions will be played by a vast number of musicians for years to come. These are compositions that demand a certain amount of interpretation by the performer or received information from Cage himself which, after his death, is not possible. The question, then, is how does an accepted performance practice take shape for his work? For those unfamiliar with either the concept of performance practice or with the scores of John Cage, here is an example that hopefully gives a definition of the former and explains the current difficulty with the latter. For our purposes, performance practice can be defined simply as the accepted way in which a majority of musicians perform a specific piece, the works of a single composer, or the works in a particular style or belonging to a particular time period. As an example, the performance practice surrounding the work of Gustav Mahler is to treat his music with great gravitas, the brass playing with heavy dark sounds. This is that music’s standard performance practice (simplified of course). And, this comes, in large part, from the way in which Mahler presented his music through his choice of articulations, dynamics, and other notational guidelines. For John Cage, much of the printed guidelines that created a performance practice around a more traditional composer like Mahler, doesn’t exist. His scores have been purposely created to be open to and almost force interpretation, which makes a codified “correct” way to perform them very difficult to come by. And, it’s this thinking about the performance practice related to John Cage’s music that becomes an interesting idea to explore in this issue. Some of the questions I ended up asking myself as I was preparing material were: Does the way to perform his music become codified and stale if a performance practice is put in place as a iron-clad guiding principle? Conversely, does a lack of articulated performance practice allow for the ambiguity of his scores to devolve into musical anarchy? And, finally, as I began to be completely absorbed in this project, this question seemed to leap to the forefront of my mind: Was John Cage enough of a genius to create musical forms that allowed for something transcendent in the middle path between anarchy and dogma? After setting up interviews and recordings with the broadest possible range of interpreters of Cage’s music; everyone from those receiving the transmission from Cage himself (Joan LaBarbara) to those that are discovering Cage’s music through a rigorous examination of his history, aesthetic, and the scores themselves (JACK Quartet and Rob Haskins), to those that regard Cage almost more as an idea, a somewhat open vessel that provides fodder for philosophical and musical speculation (BSC), I settled down to my foregone conclusion that John Cage had been full of interesting ideas, but that his legacy wouldn’t stand up once you took the genius of his interpreters out of the equation. I was beginning to get a feeling of apprehension, but I was still determined to be successful in my grounding of America’s maverick king. The following is one example of how I overcame that apprehension and embraced Cage's genius. - Nate Wooley, Editor Sound American

John Cage's Song Books

 While the Number Pieces of John Cage offer some very tangible clues about how they were composed and the aesthetic rules for their performance—clues that make it possible to discuss what defines the series from the rest of the composer’s oeuvre—the Song Books, compiled by Cage in 1970, present the performer with such diverse information that a lucid description is almost impossible to set on paper. As the title suggests, the Song Books are a series of works for voice….generally speaking. The work itself consists of 89 Solos for Voice numbered 3-92 that are grouped into three volumes: Volume I consisting of solos 3-58 Volume II consisting of solos 59-92 Volume III consisting of instructions, which include a series of tables and materials to guide the performance of the different songs. Within each volume, the solos are grouped into the following four subdivisions: Songs Songs with Electronics Directions for a Theatrical Performance Directions for a Theatrical Performance with Electronics These categorizations in the score may be the closest thing we can find in Song Books to a formal aesthetic. There are also two main figures that recur throughout the solos and inform them, even in their absence: composer Erik Satie and writer/philosopher Henry David Thoreau. The first determination for Cage in composing each of the solos (which, like the Number Pieces, relied heavily on the use of chance operations like manipulation of the I Ching) was whether that solo would reference Satie or Thoreau, or not. If he received an affirmative answer, the solo might refer to Thoreau’s journal, to pictures of Thoreau, etc. or the cheap imitations (see definition below) of Satie’s Socrate. If neither the author or composer were to be referenced, Cage would instead draw upon other thinkers of his own time: Norman O. Brown, Duchamp, Buckminster Fuller, Merce Cunningham, and Marshall McLuhan, to name a few examples. The abstract, sometimes contradictory and frequently anarchic result of this creative approach make the Number Pieces difficult to describe, and a challenge to perform. This complexity lies less in the instrumental requirements of the score than in successful execution of Cage's creative intent: to engage the performer and audience with himself in an act of collaborative expression. This intent is communicated in the way Cage prepared the individual pieces, in their style, notation, and performance aesthetic. Compositional Style: In his concert notes to a recent performance of the Song Books, Rob Haskins makes the comparison between this period of Cage’s work and Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, a work for piano that is often seen as the culmination of the composer’s complete creative powers at the end of his life. Cage’s Song Books were written more than 20 years before his death and far before he was done being a creative force, but the comparison hangs on the fact that both works show the many different ways in which a single composer might approach the same musical form. In the case of Song Books, this is exemplified by solos that encompass many of Cage’s signature compositional methods. These include the use of “cheap imitations”, which strip the work of another composer—usually Erik Satie—of everything but rhythm and replace the pitches through chance operations; text pieces; performative (i.e. staged movement) works; and a variety of Fluxus-style events. The pieces therefore seldom conform to the standard audience expectation of how a contemporary art song should “sound”. A performance from the Song Books might for example incorporate such disparate and simultaneous elements as a recitation from Henry David Thoreau’s journal, pure vocal sound, the playing of chess onstage, someone taking a nap, etc., all elements set forth in the score but governed to a degree by chance or through conscious decisions made within the performing group. Notation: Within the myriad kinds of composition found in Song Books, Cage’s forms of notation vary widely. A solo for voice involving no stage direction (one of the songs or songs with electronics, for example) may be notated traditionally—meant to be either sung traditionally or using extended or non-traditional vocal techniques, but using a recognizable “notes on staff” form. But another solo might be notated through a series of drawn lines that give the performer a general sense of pitch and shape of line; by the drawn representation of Henry David Thoreau’s profile; through a series of numbers corresponding to a table in Volume III (instructions); as a text in which some of the letters are capitalized; or simply limited to the phrase “Perform a disciplined action”. These are all equally valid systems of notation, but with inherent qualities that equally invite input from the individual performer. This is very important when you consider putting all the solos together to create a performance. Artistic Intent: To simply perform the solos for voice from 3-92 in order would be missing the point entirely. In this, Cage breaks decisively from the tradition of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. The decision regarding which solos to perform, in what order and how, is in many cases left completely up to the soloist or ensemble. They are invited to choose the length of the performance and then populate it with the solos they feel work best: in any order or at the same time, even in combination with other Cage works like Winter Music and Concert for Piano and Orchestra. Presentation is especially effective when multiple musical works are presented in tandem with Cage’s stage-oriented instructions. The overall aesthetic of the performance, then, can vary wildly depending on the performers. An austere presentation of a single solo for voice in recital is just as valid as staging all 92 simultaneously in the manner of a “happening”. This is not to say “anything goes” – the piece does not give absolute free reign to the performers. Rather, Cage constructed a work that asks a series of decisions be made by the performers, using their own artistic judgment, to create an one-of-a-kind stage experience that is personal while at the same time retaining the spectre of Cage as a composer and thinker.

Ne(x)tworks on Cage's Song Books

There's very little to say here. Ne(x)tworks is one of the great new music ensembles in New York, headed by a true master of the genre, Joan LaBarbara. Harp/electronicist Shelley Burgon and violinist Ariana Kim from the ensemble, along with Joan, agreed to take some time out of their busy schedules full of concerts, travels, weddings, and a performance of Cage's Variations IV at New York's Lincoln Center, to talk to me about the performance practice in Cage's music. Both Ariana and Joan provide very illuminating answers, but it's very important to me to point out Joan's email response, as it exemplifies the importance of Cage as a composer that collaborated with his musicians and how deep and profound his influence was on the performance of his work. To hear this narrative evidence from someone of Joan's stature is something very special. As in the email conversation with the BSC in this issue, I offer our conversation just as it took place, with no editing. From: Nate Wooley August 16, 2012 Hi everyone, I think we have as much of a quorum as we're going to get, so let's start and if someone else wants to join later, I can fold them in and catch them up. I've been having a similar conversation with some of the members of the BSC (Boston Sound Collective, a large improvising group), and one of the things that has come up there, and elsewhere as I've been preparing this issue of Sound American, is the idea of a spectrum of performance rigor when it comes to Cage's music. My take on it, as a musician that has never performed Cage, but studied his music through recordings and his writings only, is that there is one end of the performance practice spectrum in which the performer/interpreter has a very basic and surface level understanding of Cage, more as an icon than as a composer. These performers then use a very non-specific idea of the freedom of chance composition and Cage's work with time brackets, the importance of 4'33", etc. as an excuse to exercise their personal musical aesthetic at the expense of the composition and, generally, good musical taste. The other end of the spectrum are those that have imposed a rigorous performance practice structure onto the performance of Cage, treating it like a dogma of sorts which can be musically interesting but sometimes misses the humor of the composition. There are a lot of parallels in improvised music, and so that's what we've been talking about, but I wonder if you've had a similar experience in your work on Cage's compositions over your careers. As musicians playing contemporary composed music, I'm sure you have developed a personal approach to how you interpret these compositions. If my rough spectrum is close to correct (and if you disagree, let's talk about that) then do you think that your aesthetic falls closer to the free or dogmatic ends, or do you attempt to land in the middle somehow. For those that had experience with Cage himself, did you get a feeling for what he expected and desired in regards to a performance of his work? let's start there, and if we move in another direction, I'm very open to it. This should be more of a discussion between all of us, then me asking questions, more like an opportunity to open a discussion amongst yourselves that I get to listen in on. best, Nate From: Ariana Kim September 9, 2012 Hi All! Thank you for your patience while I was flying under the radar for my 2 weddings! I've had a chance to think about Nathan's very interesting and probing question, and here are my thoughts: The concept of how to approach Cage is actually something that has tugged at me for many years. When I was first exposed to experimental music and open scores, I was indeed dumbfounded as how to approach them. On the one hand, I feel drawn to the first approach that Nathan describes -- allowing my musical instincts to lead me through his compositions, trusting that my integrity would lead me to a worthy performance. However, I do also feel that it is of utmost importance that we, as interpreters of his scores, adhere to his instructions to the best of our ability. The greatest Cage performances that I have witnessed or taken part in are a combination of studying his instructions and then allowing one's own freedom work within those boundaries. I also feel that, as I get to know Cage's life and philosophies better, that familiarity helps to guide my interpretation beyond the instructions that we find on the opening pages of our score. Perhaps my approach isn't as scholarly or dogmatic as others, but coming from a performer's perspective, my feeling is that one must try to do both. If I do my best to understand his written instructions and use that as my foundation, my own expressivity and interpretation exists freely, but within that foundation. It's often as I tell my students: think of your interpretation of all musics as one would think of building a house. First, a strong foundation must be created, with good, substantive, strong materials. Once that is in place, you have earned the liberty of putting up artwork, flat-screen televisions, and state-of-the-art appliances to express your own aesthetic. If that foundation is not sound or not in place at all, the home will exist without character, or crumble altogether. One should approach the study of a score and the lead-up to a performance in the same way. Ok, that's my 2 cents for now -- I hope this helps! Thank you, Ariana From: Joan LaBarbara September 23, 2012 Hi Nate - I've copied your relevant paragraph below so I can refer to it while I write ... Nate wrote: "Now we're on to Cage and that's where Ne(x)tworks comes in. Our "Cage" issue focuses less on the composer himself and more on discussing the different ways that performers interpret his compositions owing to their history with his music (or Cage as a person), their own musical education, and their general aesthetic. We're concentrating primarily on the songbooks and the number pieces. For Ne(x)tworks I would like to have a discussion about how you are approaching your preparations for the songbooks for the upcoming Cage Festival and how your own education and historical experience is guiding you in making choices for your performance." Joan's response: My history with Cage begins in the early 70's when I was working with Steve Reich and our ensemble's concert schedule crossed paths with John and David Tudor's schedules at various european festivals. When we reached Berlin there was a performance of Cage's HPSCHD taking place all over the Berlin Philharmonie. An orchestra was playing in the concert hall, there were projections of the moon landing, performers were playing keyboards (some of them harpsichords, some pianos) in the lobby, or not playing (as in the case of Cornelius Cardew, who took the liberty of discussing politics with anyone who would listen, instead of playing keyboard). I was so incensed by the cacophony that I marched up to Cage and said, "With all the chaos in the world, why do you make more?" The devotees at his feet gasped and I realized I would not be able to talk with him in that situation, so I turned on my heel and walked away. A few minutes later, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned to see John smiling beatifically. "Perhaps when you go out into the world, it won't seem so chaotic anymore," he beamed. I was impressed that he would search me out amongst thousands of people in attendance, and give a response to what was clearly an affront. I relate this story because over the nearly twenty years that I worked with Cage, I saw many people come up and ask him questions. He never ceased to give an answer, or to pose a question in response. If the question was in regard to a specific work of his, he would ask to see the score and would peruse it carefully to see if the answer was indeed contained in the notation or the instructions. 99.9 % of the time it was; if there was a discrepancy, he would write the clarification directly into the questioner's score. Several years after that initial encounter, I had started composing my own music and I saw Cage at a concert in Phill Niblock's loft. I had performances coming up, first performances of some of my new works, and I wrote down the dates and locations on a piece of paper, walked up to John and said, "I'm doing some performances of my music and I'd like you to be there." He took the paper and said he would come. And he did. To one of the first performances I gave of my rigorous etude "Voice Piece: One-Note Internal Resonance Investigation", an early process piece, exploring the myriad of colors and timbres that can be generated from a single pitch by exploring and isolating resonance resonance areas in the face and neck, reinforcing harmonics and creating double stops or "multiphonics". Afterwards, he came up and said he loved the work and asked me if I would like to work with him. I said I would and he handed me "Solo for Voice 45" from "Song Books", 18 pages of aggregates with very specific instructions about choosing pitches in treble and also clefs, generating a vocal line and using the letters beneath as a vocalise. Once one had made the choices and created the vocal lines, one was to learn to sing the resulting fragments as fast as possible. I set to work. It took me 6 months to make the choices and learn the vocal lines. When I felt I was ready, I called him to come to my loft and listen. "It's marvelous," he said "but it's not as fast as possible." I was shocked, to say the least, and asked him what he meant. "Like calligraphic gestures or birdsong." And then he demonstrated, intoning a vocal gesture that was a flurry of pitches in a fraction of a second. I went back to work. It was this piece, Solo 45, that I performed with two pianists playing "Winter Music" and the Orchestra of The Hague playing "Atlas Eclipticalis" at the La Rochelle festival on July 3, 1976, celebrating the American bicentennial in France, of course. Cage had determined through chance procedures that the performance was to have a duration of 2 hours and 40 minutes. He had previously had some difficulty with this particular orchestra, so he gave a beautiful talk to them having to do with human dignity and our responsibility to take on a task and do it to the best of one's ability. The talk was so wonderful that I thought we were about to experience a sublime performance. Unfortunately, that was hardly the case. Because it was one of the hottest, driest summers in europe in many years, and because of the concert's duration, Cage had arranged for refrigerators to be placed in the wings. "If you feel the need," he said "and you have a long silence in your part, you may quietly leave the stage, get something cool to drink, and return." A kind gesture but a recipe for disaster. The orchestra musicians had been arranged according to chance procedures and were seated as many soloists. The principal oboist walked onstage carrying two bottles of wine and took his seat downstage center, just opposite the conductor, Richard Dufallo, and proceeded to offer drinks to other musicians and to consume the bottles of wine over the duration of the performance, never lifting his instrument to his lips. About 60% of the orchestra sat and chatted with each other, showing their disdain for the music. The remainder tried valiantly to perform, as did I and the two pianists (one was Richard Bernas, now a conductor as well as pianist, based in London). When the performance ended, the audience went ballistic, as did John, who was purple with rage. Journalists surrounded him, peppering him with questions. When things calmed down a bit, John came over to me and said, "You were marvelous! You did your job! I want you to know that I am with you always now." And there was the commitment, mine to perform my task to the best of my ability despite the chaos, and his to me, for doing so. As I said, we performed together for nearly twenty years. I asked him to write me a solo work, thinking that he would make use of my extended techniques. Instead, he presented me with "Eight Whiskus", lovely, lyrical lute songs sans lute, in viola clef, on a text by Chris Mann, mesostics constructed on the first line of Chris' text "whistlin' is did" as the central vertical line, the "kus" of the title referring to haiku form. He gave me the vocal part to "Music for ... " (the title completed by the number of musicians, up to seventeen, participating in a given performance. Some years later, when I was about to record the work, the publisher sent me the vocal part, which was slightly different from the one John had originally given me. I called and asked him which I should use. "I would never question your judgment," he responded. In dealing with Cage's graphic notation, I always refer to the instructions to determine precisely what the desired result may be. In some cases, there are circuitous routes to take, but the underlying request is that the individual follow the directions, make choices and decisions, and then follow them precisely, usually using a stopwatch (what Cage referred to as a chronometer.) Graphic notation can be daunting or enticing. It is generally used to achieve a variety of results, depending on the dedication of the performer to the task at hand. Cage very much wanted to be surprised! He was disappointed and chagrined if a performer made choices during the performance based on audience reaction. The task was to make the decisions, and perform the determined activities, not to react or improvise on the spot. The late "number pieces" offer an enormous amount of choice to the performers: choice of sounds, choice of instruments, choice of all parameters of sonic gesture within time brackets. It is the form, as well as the freedom, that give these late works their compositional Cageian identity. FOUR 6 was composed for myself, William Winant (percussion), Leonard Stein (piano) and Cage himself (who told me he would do "shocking things"). We performed it at New York City Central Park's Summerstage on July 23, 1992. Sadly, it was the last performance Cage participated in as a performer before he died. To directly answer the questions posed, I prepare for each performance of "Song Books" by determining the duration of the overall performance, choosing which works I want to do, then determining a timeline of when the Solos will occur over the course of the overall duration. I often choose to do new works along with ones that I have in repertoire, so that I learn something new about the piece. I performed "Song Books" with members of a class I was giving at the Conservatory of The Hague in the Netherlands. My class dealt with how to sing Cage with respect and how to deal with realizing the graphic notation as well as dealing with performing silence (not an easy thing for many performers to grasp). Cage arranged the stage in a grid and helped organize the timelines for all the singers. He also allowed some to utilize the costume shop (since the Conservatory had an opera department and lots of costumes) but also insisted on street clothes for others, so that there would be a mixture of outfits, similar to what one might see on the street (especially in New York). He also made use of traps in the stage floor, a swing that could be attached to the rigging, a ladder and, of course, the ability to "fly". He had determined that 3 performers could fly. I told him that I wanted to be one of them because I am afraid of heights, but to please not leave me up in the air too long. He obliged. I flew up, took an animal's head that had been pre-set in the fly-space and descended wearing it (I was also wearing a pink jogging suit that Cage thought was a wonderful costume.) When I have had the opportunity to direct productions of "Song Books", I often go back to my notes from that production and base my ideas and judgment and choices on the procedures and determinations that Cage himself made for that production. Cage also told me that he always tried to say "yes" when asked to do something because he might have the opportunity to be surprised. This is advice I give to students, to audiences, to musicians, to people who say they don't know what to make of "new music". Experience, especially new experiences, offer us the possibility of being surprised and maybe even delighted. Joan La Barbara From: Shelley Burgon October 12, 2012 I was first introduced to Cage's music while a student SFSU my theory/composition teacher did a short lesson on modern music and played a piece that Joan had recorded. I don't recall the title but the names stuck in my head. My next encounter with Cage was when I was studying at Mills College in Oakland, CA. I don't recall the first piece I heard or learned about once I arrived at Mills but most of the professors there either worked with him directly or were avid followers of his music. So in a sense Cage was always around at Mills. In my final year Willie Winant gave me a recording of the Cage at New York City Central Park's Summerstage performance that Joan spoke of earlier (This was years before I even met Joan). I sampled this recording in one of my first harp with four channels pieces. Using a convlution SuperCollider patch I in a sense able to play along with them. As I played the harp the pre-recorded music was revealed. I also remember a student at Mills gave a performance of 4'33" and thinking how weirdly mind blowing it was. The first piece of Cage's that I performed was "In A Landscape" a through-composed piece for harp or piano, it was also suggestion of Willie Winant's. Once I moved to NYC, performing Cage had become more frequent. I have performed Songbooks with two different ensembles with very different results. The first one was before I performed it with Joan and once she began explaining Cage's intent with the piece I began to understand and appreciate it more. I really value the close relationship Joan had with Cage and his music and all the insight she brings to the rehearsal and performance practice of Cage's music. The repertoire I generally choose for my part in Songbooks is definitely a combination of suggestions from Joan along with songs I'm personally drawn to. I feel very fortunate to be able to perform this legendary music with someone equally as legendary.

The BSC on Cage's Song Books

The following is something extraordinary. This conversation with four members of the monumental improvising large group the BSC (see the Networking Issue of Sound American for more info) could be summed up by the phrase "lightning in a bottle" along with an equally apt phrase, "be careful what you wish for". Initially, I approached the BSC, along with Ne(x)tworks, and invited them to have something of an email interview, or more appropriately an email conversation, about how they were approaching their upcoming performance of John Cage's Songbooks at Bowerbird's Cage: Beyond Silence Festival. When things finally came to a rest near the deadline of the issue, I straightened myself from the fetal position and opened my eyes to find that what had actually occurred was a fascinating and humorous discussion of not only the Songbooks, but Cage as an idea, the ideal of improvisation, what constitutes a proper performance, the development and protection of a musical syntax, and a quickly disappearing hegemony. More explanation than that will only detract from the conversation, but I will add this bit of housekeeping. You'll be reading the bulk of the emails, in the order they came in, and as they came in (saving a little capitalization on my part). I haven't excised anything, with the exception of a handful of one sentence emails that weren't pertinent to the topic, as I think it's most interesting to experience the lengthy discussion on its own terms as it unfolded. Included in the discussion are saxophonist Bhob Rainey, vocalist Liz Tonne, bassist and electronicist Mike Bullock, and cellist and electronicist Vic Rawlings From: Nate Wooley August 10, 2012 Hi Bhob, Liz, Vic, and Mike, I'm dropping you all a line on behalf of a quarterly online journal I edit called Sound American ( As you'll see if you go there right now, we're already featuring the BSC in Issue #2 and by happenstance it works out that I can feature you all in Issue #3 as well. Issue #3 is dealing, like every other piece of music media right now, with John Cage. We're partnering with Dustin Hurt, Bowerbird, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art to create a discussion around the composer that will coincide with the Cage festival in which you'll be performing his Songbooks. I feel as if there are more than enough festschrifts to Cage the composer/thinker/oddball, etc. going around that we're trying to concentrate less on the man himself and more on the overlooked role of the performer/interpreter of his works with a special emphasis on the Songbooks and Number Pieces, both of which show not only his most mature thought on music as social construct, but require a very unique mixture of rigor and freedom in interpretation. I would like to open up a dialogue with the four of you about how you are approaching the performance of the solos for voice, especially in terms of your backgrounds as improvisors and as part of a long-standing performing ensemble like the BSC. This will be paired with a similar discussion with members of Joan LaBarbara's ensemble, Ne(x)tworks, who are also preparing the Songbooks for the festival. If you're open to the idea, I will send a preliminary set of questions next week. The deadline gives us some time, but I would like the opportunity for us to get beyond the typical question/answer/done format and into more of a discussion, so I may push things along slightly, although there's no need for anyone to feel rushed. let me know what you think. I hope to get your voices as part of this issue. I think it will be an important contrast to a certain hegemony amongst Cage-ists. best, Nate From: Mike Bullock August 10, 2012 Hi Nate, This definitely sounds interesting Nate - I am in favor. This is a good time since there's been some email chatter in the last few days among BSC members to get us ramped up for the festival. Mike From: Liz Tonne August 10, 2012 Hi Nate, This sounds interesting - I say 'yes'. As Mike mentioned we have indeed been in a flurry of Cage based emails and are somewhat more together on this thing than we were a week ago. Hmmm, perhaps another flurry is in order? Could someone tell me more about the "hegemony of Cage-ists"? Maybe I am one and don't even know it. Liz From: Vic Rawlings August 10, 2012 Hi Everyone, Consider me in. I, too, like an ongoing dialog sort of format, rather than the q/a situation. Ideas will develop more that way. The discussion will definitely push us. nate- please do send the starting points and push as we go. And as for the hegemony, I don't think any of us focus on cage enough to embody the center. I will join Liz in professing my ignorance. In short, I'm hoping to be faithful to the meaning and intent of the pieces, vainly retain some aspect of my sound, and produce music that matters today- as opposed to playing an old quaint composition. Vic From: Mike Bullock: August 11, 2012 Hi everyone, I'm an Art Doctor®, dammit, so I am totally the hegemony! One of the things that bothered Cage the most about performances of his pieces, and which still unfortunately can happen in the (relatively) conservative versions of his works, is too much humor/vaudeville and the use of his open-endedness as some kind of license to freak out. He kind of opens himself up to the potential for abuse, because clearly in these Songs and in other of his grand pieces, he definitely doesn't want it to be hyper serious either. But in terms of some kind of Cage orthodoxy, the only danger there I think is that a lot of people toss his name around as lip service to anything “non-conservatory” without actually doing any homework or real listening. It's way too easy for people just to read some of Cage's writings and not listen to/play his music, and thereby claim they 'get it.' Which leads into what Nate wants us to talk about, which is not the philosophical back-n-forth but the practicalities of actually making Cage happen. I agree that would be a more interesting topic! Cage made some famous statements about not liking improvised music etc. that can make him sound like the "typical" western-style composer who doesn't trust musicians. I don't think that was really what was going on with him though, given his propensity to write pieces for specific musicians who certainly had their own agency in a lot of ways. Which leads me back to David Tudor, who is as much a godfather as anyone else when it comes to "our scene" of electro-acoustic improvisation. Mike From: Nate Wooley August 13, 2012 Hi everyone, I'm glad you're on board, and I think we're already headed in a direction that is more interesting than it any I would have imposed on the discussion with predetermined questions so, for the time being, let's just follow this idea of hegemony and philosophy versus performance practice. Using the term hegemony was a slip on my part and is definitely too strong a word for what I'm trying to describe. Really what I'm trying to do is distinguish between two sets of performance practices for Cage's music (especially these later pieces) that are at opposite ends of a spectrum. I think Mike starts talking about this when he describes the danger of people mistaking the openness of Cage's compositions with free license to play unmusically. In my experience, though, it's not just that musicians think of playing Cage's music as an "anything goes" proposition (although that certainly happens a lot) that is part of the orthodoxy. There also seem to be another side of the debate that puts more limits on Cage's work than would necessarily be imposed by the composer himself in an attempt to create a "common practice" or dogma, and I think that this is just as dangerous as the "license to freak out" to the intent of the music. So, bringing it back to the pragmatic "how the fuck do you play this" question do you sit with a piece of music (like Cage's) that gives you certain limitations to live within but not necessarily a strict, inviolable score, and find a musical way to interpret it that rides that thin line between dogma and anarchy? I am interested in your answer to this specifically because of the way the four of you seem to view improvising. To my ears, you all are consistently riding that thin line in a discipline that often is on one side of that coin or the other (either the anarchy of free jazz squall or the dogma that can be inherent in minimalist eai improvisation). Do you feel like because of that experience (undr quartet, bsc, nmperign, etc) that you are equipped in a different way to interpret Cage or do you think it adds a different level of information that gets in the way of the composer's intent? best, Nate From: Vic Rawlings August 15, 2012 I can say a coupla things (as a witch doctor/chiropractor of music/art)- I don't claim to know mountains of cage's specific statements or to have deeply studied him. I'm pretty much going on the aggregate vibe of all of the things I've read/seen by and about him, including many awful performances of his works. In February I spoke with a librarian at Oberlin who had interviewed and hung with cage some amount and she said that in their conversations cage was outspoken about being very into getting performers to improvise outside of their standard approach (I add that this is understandable given that most of the improvisation that he saw was probably either genre-specific or pretty bad). This tells me that he was into improvisation, but not crappy improvisation done by overly trained unimaginative virtuosos or 'freedom' junkies running scales and hitting their hit lixxx. She also spoke of his dislike of repeating themes (and his reprimanding Gordon Mumma for doing this) and his being not into a piano player (she forgot who this was specifically) who brought focus to himself over the band by using game calls and generally being ultra-interesting as a soloist/spectacle. It seems that the idea is just to not sound bad or step into concerto mode, and that these pieces are attempts to put up enough obstacles to get players to a place that they can play without hitting their defaults; defaults they arrived at as orchestra players or jazzers or hippies. At the risk of sounding like an egomaniac for the scene, I think cage was writing his instructions so that much less imaginative musicians than us would have a shot at reaching music that we routinely produce- enough time has gone by. Most of his dictates/statements seem to generally describe a good performance by us or the improvisers we appreciate in the scene. Taking all of these ideas into account, my guess is that he would be into a lot of what goes on in the scene we occupy and would want us to play the pieces and would also want the pieces to stay out of our way. I am also thinking of Christian Wolff's acceptance of us as a band and his smile and his 'just play' statement when we asked him about some specific aspects of Edges. By extension, I don't imagine Cage would feel the need to strictly dictate to us- we have grown up and matured in a slurry of ideas that he set in motion. He'd be psyched we are here. As for myself, anytime I encounter a piece I am trying to figure out a way that I can play my instruments in a way that remains specific to me and also satisfies the intent of the piece- in that order. There is no point in doing a piece that I can't be fully present in or that calls me into a place of inauthenticity. I'm wanting to present great music- music that is as good as our improvisations. Some pieces will allow this, and others won't. I'm not gonna dedicate the time to do this, but I imagine it would be very possible to take a recording of the BSC or another group and to find a Cage score (after the fact) that it is a faithful realization of. It seems this would be particularly good with the pieces that use transparencies. I also think it would be fun to play 'name that tune' with the audience by playing a cage piece that we don't tell them the name of. As for some earlier questions, the hegemony thing: There are a lot of goofballs falling back on Cage as a legitimizer of doing whatever- Obviously. I'm thinking of the amount of vomiting at high school and college parties when people begin to exercise the freedom to drink alcohol. Likewise, Cage is a bit of a projective test. Contradicting accepted wisdom, I'll say that freedom is as free as claiming it- and it can be dangerous. If people are not used to (or capable of) responsibly using freedom, they tend to play a type of improvisation that we have generally moved away from. And while I'm on my high horse: At the risk of sounding like a guest on - I'm Tom Ashbrook- This Is On Point - people want heroes and leaders. It's natural that cage attracts this, but it's not cool. I'm not thinking of what he would want or any of that- I'm saying it's not cool. I have always appreciated art/music in general and the scene in specific as a place that people can do things that are specific to themselves and their time. Cage is an old thing now by any standard of art-time in the 20th or 21st century. I see grasping at Cage or any avant-garde hero (including, but not limited to Jasper Johns and Lou Reed) as a bullshit move. By bullshit I mean missing the point. For his 100th birthday it's a very good thing to throw the guy a party and play some of his jams, but people who make a life and career out of expressing their version of his intent have lost me already by the time they have glued themselves to their god/hero/leader. Vic From: Nate Wooley August 20, 2012 Hey everyone, There is a lot of information here (thanks Vic!) and I've read it now a couple of times. Since no one else has jumped in after Vic, I thought I would take the opportunity to give my impressions and then folks can go from there, or go back to the original question or into a different direction entirely. In Vic's email I latched on to a couple of things. Hegemony and hero worship aside (even though I think these would be interesting topics to follow up and am open to talking about them), if I concentrate specifically on how he's viewing the role of the BSC as performers of Cage and in a "tradition" of modern improvisation, a couple of questions come to mind. This may provide fodder for someone else to expound upon. 1. I'm interested in Vic's statement about the hierarchy of how, when he encounters a piece, he is: "trying to figure out a way that i can play my instruments in a way that remains specific to me and also satisfies the intent of the piece- in that order." In this statement, he’s basically saying that maintaining a very personal musical personality is first and foremost and the intent of the composer seems to come in a far second. Is this a common attitude among you as improvisers? To me, it seems counterintuitive to the basic notion of composition, but with a lot of improvisation language and aesthetic now coming from Helmut Lachenmann, Gerard Grisey, etc. I think a case could be made for this. 2. Let's say we agree with the above idea that, in this musical landscape with improvisers that are much more complex and savvy in the languages they work in the scores of Cage's later period might take on a different meaning than they did when they were being written. If Cage really would be willing to step back and allow you to "just play" (as Christian Wollf did) then performing his works now seems like his work would be nothing more than a group exercise more suited to a rehearsal and discussion amongst players than to a dedicated performance. What then, if anything, makes performing Cage's scores meaningful? Hope everyone is doing well, Nate From: Mike Bullock August 20, 2012 Hey folks, A lot to think about here: About Vic’s quote: "trying to figure out a way that I can play my instruments in a way that remains specific to me and also satisfies the intent of the piece- in that order." In that sense the interpretation of the piece becomes like a cooperation across a gulf of time, where you are kinda "collaborating" with Cage, which I think is a good pragmatic way to approach most indeterminate scores. Morton Feldman gave a nicely distilled version of that with his early scores where the performer is free to choose one element (e.g. pitch or rhythm or duration, but not all of them). There's a hoary old tradition of composers in the "western tradition" fearing or distrusting or even sabotaging their performers, and writing that into their music, e.g. Brian Ferneyhough composing absurdly complex rhythms because he wants the sound of people trying to play them but not quite succeeding. Though Cage is often cited as not liking improvisation, I think he definitely liked to collaborate with his performers. When improvising in an established ensemble, we are all collaborating with each other in a composerly way as well as a performerly way; in a sense, each performance by a long established group like the BSC is like a new iteration of a piece called "the BSC." Not that they all sound the same, but that's an interesting way of thinking about why groups get certain distinct sounds and a distinct level of comfort (not boredom). Vic, I must take exception to your idea that any given BSC piece could be matched to a Cage score after the fact - to me that's falling into the trap of saying that Cage = Everything, that he encompasses all possible sounds and sound-related actions. To the best of my knowledge he never wrote anything that leaves his own input out entirely (in spite of his stated intentions, perhaps). Though the "name that tune" idea is interesting - not that anyone is necessarily going to name the tune, but it would be interesting to hear the guesses of Cage-savvy listeners. And about Nate’s quote: “Maintaining a very personal musical personality is first and foremost and the intent of the composer seems to come in a far second. Is this a common attitude among you as improvisers?” Hard to say, since we don't play a lot of composers' stuff. I'm gonna guess Vic doesn't mean it as a priority thing - like I'm going to throw the score out the window if it starts to bum me out - but just in terms of a to-do list as an interpreter. E.g. never mind all the things that *can* be done with this piece, what makes sense for *me* to do with it? For me, I'm looking at these pieces trying to find an opportunity to do something authentic (eek, that word), that is something that "I would do" or has some kind of vibe with my own values and priorities as a performer, while also looking to be challenged a little by Cage to do something a little new, so I'm not just playing "my thing" and tacking Johnny's name on the end. For example, there's a lot of humor in these scores, some of it subtle, some of it obtuse; I used to do a lot of stuff in my solo work that involved use of theatrical or performative elements, and I took great pains to try to ride a fine line of subtle humor and awkwardness without being dramatic or clownish. So I might be interested in some of Cage's staging instructions, but not the cartoonish or political ones. I'm also not so interested in the pieces that involve, for example, reading Thoreau's face like a score; there was a time in history when doing that was revolutionary and liberating, but now I think that sort of thing is an excellent étude for a student improviser but not so interesting for an experienced one. Cage was not working with people who had already done hundreds of pages of graphic scores in their lives, with maybe some exceptions (Tudor). And, Nate’s other question: 2. Let's say we agree with the above idea that, in this musical landscape with improvisers that are much more complex and savvy in the languages they work in the scores of Cage's later period might take on a different meaning than they did when they were being written. If Cage really would be willing to step back and allow you to "just play" (as Christian Wollf did) then performing his works now seems like his work would be nothing more than a group exercise more suited to a rehearsal and discussion amongst players than to a dedicated performance. What then, if anything, makes performing Cage's scores meaningful? This gets the question of "Is Cage more useful as a philosopher than as a composer?" There are some people who feel this way, and it's understandable - I felt that way for a while when I first read about him. I don't feel that now. With Christian [Wolff], it may have been a situation where, nowadays, he has been playing with experienced improvisers for years at this point and he knew that we fit that category. Maybe he wanted to do that with us because it's a rare opportunity for him to do so at a Conservatory, where most of the students are working on his written pieces (and lucky to be able to wrap their heads around that). Even at New England Conservatory, one of the most forward-thinking conservatories going, anything beyond Mahler is still utterly alien to most of the students and teachers. In order to keep meaning in performing Cage scores, I think it's important to remember that it's not hard to sound like yourself in a Cage score; I feel he wasn't writing to try to get a certain sound out of people, but to set up certain structures and possibilities. -Mike From: Liz Tonne August 20, 2012 Phew! Well here goes..... Certainly, I was being facetious in joking that perhaps I was unknowingly a Cage-ist. I really know very little about John Cage, I have never read any of his writings and the only article I have read about him was in the Gastronomica journal in regard to his work on mushrooms. I suppose what I think I know about John Cage is from hearing other musicians, or people interested in music, or people who once knew him, talk about his work or about him as a person or what ever they think they know about John Cage. Other than that, I have performed 4 of his compositions, some of them more than once. I have also looked long and hard at all 92 of the songs in the Songbooks trying to figure out if and how I could possibly perform any of them. In this light my responses to these thoughts are completely subjective. One of the Cage pieces I have blissfully done a few times now is Ryoan-ji and I could talk about that piece forever because I absolutely love it. The other 3 have all been from the Songbooks, #52 & #53 (the Songbook Aria's) and #85. In the process of selecting pieces from the Songbooks, that I felt I could even begin to pull off, I tried to familiarize myself with a few of the indeterminate scores that could have set the context for the pieces. Because I am a vocalist, and purely out of curiosity, I have also looked at what I think of as Cage's Artsongs, purely notational compositions written for voice and accompaniment. What I have taken away from looking at these scores is that they are all COMPLETELY different and that there is no way to generalize about Cage's music or really have an informed discussion about John Cage's music without selecting which of his vast number of compositional styles and eras you are talking about. Even within the Songbooks themselves the diversity of approach is immense. They range from fluxus-like theatre pieces to traditionally notated scores. So, as improvisers perhaps we need to specify that we are talking about how John Cage composed to accommodate improvisation? But even here we are in a vast sea of many, many different improvisational systems. Many, I'd even begin to say most, of these seem highly specific - not much Free Jamm allowed. Let's say we agree with the above idea that, in this musical landscape with improvisors that are much more complex and savvy in the languages they work in the scores of Cage's later period might take on a different meaning than they did when they were being written. I definitely did not feel in the least bit savvy trying to sing the Arias - I carefully selected techniques which I felt I had developed for myself and applied them to the system detailed in the directions to the score. Basically, I was trying to make it workable for me with the tools which my personal experience has given me - and it was still very, very challenging. I found these to be serious compositions and I have gained a lot of respect for each and every one of them as a separate entity. "Is Cage more useful as a philosopher than as a composer?" No. For me, I'm looking at these pieces trying to find an opportunity to do something authentic (eek, that word), that is something that "I would do" or has some kind of vibe with my own values and priorities as a performer, while also looking to be challenged a little by Cage to do something a little new, so I'm not just playing "my thing" and tacking Johnny's name on the end. That pretty much sums it up for me too. I'm also not so interested in the pieces that involve, for example, reading Thoreau's face like a score; there was a time in history when doing that was revolutionary and liberating, but now I think that sort of thing is an excellent étude for a student improviser but not so interesting for an experienced one. Interesting point Mike - many of these don't readily lend themselves to personal expression, but they are compositions! They aren't meant to be about the performers - though some allow a lot of freedom to put yourself in there. (and some... Ryoan-ji.....are transcendent) Thankfully that is all I can think of to say right now. liz From: Mike Bullock August 21, 2012 This is great, Liz - coming from the one among us who has most likely played Cage the most. Re: your last comment relating to personal expression - last night in conversation with Linda and Vic and Liz W, I was reminded of a major revelation Cage had in his early career (when he was writing some of these art songs you are talking about, I think, like The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs). He was trying to pour a lot of himself into his pieces, and people were just "not getting it" and finally he had the revelation "music may be expression, but it's not self-expression." I thought that was a great way to sum up moving beyond the personal into the trans-personal, interdependent way of making music that is a lynchpin of improvised music. -Mike From: Bhob Rainey August 23, 2012 Hi, I'd like to take a step back and try to address some of the fundamental questions that Nate is putting forth and that always seem to be looming whenever an improviser from our generation performs an indeterminate score. Implying that contemporary improvisers have internalized and possibly improved upon both Cage-ean concepts and the instrumental language that arose around those concepts, Nate asks, "What then, if anything, makes performing Cage's scores meaningful?" Meanwhile, Vic postulates that, to a listener, an improvised performance could be indistinguishable from the performance of a Cage score. I think that the trouble expressed by both of you boils down to the question, "What constitutes a good performance of an indeterminate piece?", and, for the improviser / performer, "Where do I place my disciplined effort?" As to the first question, it's obvious but not always expressed that there is a significant shift in the score / performance relationship with indeterminacy. It is possible with a work by, say, Brahms, to derive the score from a given performance – just by listening you can figure out the notes, rhythms, dynamics, etc. So, the performance is a "realization" of the score, and the two resemble each other. The degree to which the performance resembles the score is a major criteria for judging the quality of the performance. This criteria is absent in indeterminacy, where a single score can produce radically different performances, none of which reveal with any kind of accuracy the score underlying them. In this case, the performance is an "actualization" of the score; there is no resemblance, but there is still an intimate link – the score provides the potentials and problematics necessary for the performance without specifying the outcome.* The lack of resemblance between performance and score in indeterminate music opens up a wide field for charlatanry – no one can tell if you're playing it "right" or not, so why not do whatever you want? Cage already supplied the answer: "Permission granted. But not to do whatever you want." Depending on your disposition, this is either a perfectly succinct summation of a fascinating worldview or it's a coy dodging of the question. Cage said a lot more than those nine words on the subject, and I believe he answered the questions of why an indeterminate score is significant and what constitutes a good performance of it rather thoroughly. The problem is that the answer feels less like an answer than an injunction: "Perform a disciplined action." Think of it like this: a score like Song Books is a framework for an event. "We are gathered here this evening for a performance of Song Books." Song Books is the reason for the gathering, and it provides a number of significant potentials for the direction of the evening. It opens up possibilities but also closes many others. It tells you what to do, but not so specifically that you forget the other parts of the sentence: "We are gathered here…" "We" are the performers, audience, animals, the things in the space of "here", which is both place and time. We are spending a certain duration living around Song Books, and our respect, our disciplined effort, is directed towards that ecosystem. It isn't "Song Books will be performed this evening" or "I'm playing Song Books tonight" or "This is what Song Books sounds like". A good performance of Song Books is a productive, ethical engagement with the score, the time, the place, and the life of the performance. You could say, "remove the 'score' part and you have improvisation". I would say that the "score" in improvisation (as we practice it) is an embodied, fluid history. It is always unfinished, almost impossible to prepare. The advantage of an indeterminate score is that you can know better what you are preparing and can proceed with the confidence that this preparation has been in some sense sanctioned by a thoughtful person (i.e., the composer). The freedom that emerges is really a freedom from your own taste (quite different from the freedom to do whatever you want), so that you might open up a space for beauty rather than fill a space with your ideas. Can you do the same thing with improvisation? Yes, but it's hard. You have a more direct conflict with your own history, your taste, and as soon as you feel that you've surpassed these things, they adapt. I love the self-splitting snags of this particular struggle, but these are not the only things I love about making music. I'm tired now. -bhob * And if you haven't read Joe Panzner's dissertation on Deleuze and Cage (to which I am somewhat indebted for my Deleuzian interpretation of the relationship between scores and performance), you're really missing out. From: Nate Wooley August 28, 2012 Hi everyone, I'm sorry for my long silence, but I've been running around and trying to digest and process all this information with the thought of writing some simplistic summation for the audience before moving on. I finally gave that idea up and will let the reader do what comes naturally, pick and choose their concepts from what you've all sent and follow the threads in the way they want, sort of like an indeterminate conversation. However, there are two ideas that came up consistently for me, although I'm not sure they were ever implicitly mentioned by any one person. First, the idea of what constitutes a "successful" performance of an indeterminate score. This is such a common question in the improvisation world that I wasn't even sure it was worth the typical compare and contrast, but one thing that Bhob pointed out kept sticking in my mind, when he said: "Cage said a lot more than those nine words on the subject, and I believe he answered the questions of why an indeterminate score is significant and what constitutes a good performance of it rather thoroughly. The problem is that the answer feels less like an answer than an injunction: 'Perform a disciplined action.'" From my experience with you all and your music, I think you've answered the questions of what constitutes a good performance in improvisation for yourselves to one degree or another, but is that aesthetic completely applicable to an indeterminate score? In other words, if Cage has answered that question of what constitutes a good performance, is there room for your own opinion? Or maybe even more to the point, who decides what "disciplined" means, Cage or the performer? To me, it's another question of where the line is drawn. If the music becomes all about the performer than it is no longer a Cage piece, and if it is all about the composer (and here is where I think he's important as a philosopher) than it's no longer specifically a Cage piece in that you step outside the spirit of indeterminacy. I have a feeling you have all thought about that on one level or another, as you've referenced you're own relationship, talking about either specific pieces as in Liz's case or indeterminate music in general as Bhob and Vic talked about, and so I just want to hear where you think that line is with Cage and how you toe it individually. Beyond that, we have to talk about what happens when the "collaboration", as Mike talked about, no longer includes just you and John Cage (whatever that means to you), and becomes a collaboration with your fellow musicians in the BSC and with Cage. Does your approach change? Does someone need to take charge to shape an interpretation? How much of the language and aesthetic that you've developed as an improvising group go into how you interpret the scores? These are not necessarily new questions. I feel like we've been hitting on them throughout, but I thought it might be interesting to just winnow down the topics a little and see if it opened up some new ideas. I hope you are well, Nate From: Liz Tonne August 28, 2012 First, the idea of what constitutes a "successful" performance of an indeterminate score. I don't think I can really answer that one. I don't think any of the pieces I've performed have been indeterminate. They have been mostly systems that I've worked through with specific sounds or fairly specific scores - or as Bhob so eloquently stated (or quoted?) "the score provides the potentials and problematics necessary for the performance without specifying the outcome" - there's not really much of what I think of as improvisation involved in them. What happens when the "collaboration", ... no longer includes just you and John Cage (whatever that means to you), and becomes both a collaboration with your fellow musicians in the BSC and with Cage. Does your approach change? My filter for sifting through the Songbooks and choosing which ones I thought would be appropriate for the BSC has definitely been different from when I chose pieces from the same scores for duets with Tim Feeney. Though it remains to be seen (we haven't performed them yet) how successful this will prove to be. How much of the language and aesthetic that you've developed as an improvising group go into how you interpret the scores? In looking at the Songbooks this time I certainly had the aesthetic of the BSC in mind. I don't think of the BSC as presenting much of a narrative - if there is one it is super abstracted and then splintered by 8 different people. When recognizable language is included in a piece it becomes a focal point regardless of the language (French, Romanian, English, broken English). Words placed in music are very powerful whether or not they convey a clear meaning or story-line. Even a single recognizable word can change the atmosphere of the piece. Most of the Songbooks use words in one form or another and so I've tried to keep the feeling of performing a BSC piece in mind knowing that the text will very much change that feeling. A friend of mine is a very talented Mezzo-Soprano and in her world she has almost no control over the selection of the pieces she performs. She recently performed a Cage piece that she didn't get to choose. I can't imagine what this must feel like. Like a boat completely lost at sea? It makes me feel all black and hollow inside just thinking about it. -Liz From: Bhob Rainey October 7, 2012 Hi All- I hope that it's not too late to finish this up, but I had a couple things to add. First, the idea of what constitutes a "successful" performance of an indeterminate score. The ratio of words that Cage uses to talk about performance vs. composing and listening is striking. It's almost as if he only started thinking seriously about performance when he saw how frivolously some performers approached his work. That said, there are two, fundamental things I think about when working with a Cage score. The first relates to something I said earlier: that creativity is not isolated in individuals; that the world itself is creative. In that sense, a successful performance of Cage will give voice to the creativity of the environment and will not be overshadowed by the creativity of the performers. The second is that Cage was seeking something "productive" from a performance. He wanted something to emerge that he could not have foreseen, and, I imagine, something that none of the performers could have foreseen, either. In other words, if Cage has answered that question of what constitutes a good performance, is there room for your own opinion? Or maybe even more to the point, who decides what "disciplined" means, Cage or the performer? My answer to both questions lies in the porous border of the individual (the "self"). There is room for your opinion, but only if you acknowledge that your opinion is never merely your own. You get to decide what "disciplined" means, but only in relation to a network of disciplines. Here it might be important to mention that Cage's anarchy differs from most modern forms of libertarianism in the way he views the individual: Where libertarianism places the individual self and its rights at the center of its worldview, Cage, following Zen, saw the self as empty, an illusion (real, nonetheless, but contingent on our experience of heterogenous forces). He may have loved "freedom", but his freedom was not specifically targeted to "people". So you might say that the mandate to the performer is not to be free, but to produce freedom. -bh From: Mike Bullock October 10, 2012 Just a couple of final thoughts. We've had some discussions among the BSC about Cage's use of theatre, or his indications of when to approach one of his pieces as theatre. I was reading James Saunders' article on Solo 6 from the Song Books, in Word Events, a great new book about text scores from Continuum. In it he cites Cage as saying "theatre is only another word for designating life," citing also Cage's preference that performers use neutral methods for determining the materials of their realizations. Cage is giving performers problems to investigate, and was frustrated by people who create realizations in a way that fits into their comfort zone and helps them avoid having a new experience. I agree inasmuch as that's one of the main points for doing a Cage piece; it's a collaboration with Cage. On the other hand the "comfort zone" for many of the performers Cage knew was probably very different from my "comfort zone," in fact may have been the opposite. I also think it connects with what Bhob said below about the porous border of the individual, where that porousness interfaces with the porous environment, constantly in flux. The discipline you have is in your choice about where to stop using one method and start using another, and where you set that porous boundary. The 'success' of a performance, I think, is find within, namely how much you got out of the collab/experiment with Cage himself. Saunders also cites Cage interpreter William Brooks as saying "it'm important not to exercise imagination too early;" in other words, apply Cage's instructions thoroughly, use chance processes, and only bring in your own creativity in order to resolve impasses. Again, I agree with this to a point - but I also feel that for improvisers, we should not try to second guess Cage or throw him out when he "cramps our style," but nonetheless we can rely on our creativity a little more readily as long as we remember it really means not to be free, whatever that means, but to produce freedom (as Bhob put it) or to freely give up certain individual liberties to make an environment of where one can designate life. From: Vic Rawlings October 11, 2012 hey yous- this has been great to have been a part of- there is way too much to respond to- my apologies for this mess, but at least i capitalized it. Cage is certainly idolized, and also quite American. He strikes me as the type of idol who would be most pleased to be killed, what with all the Zen. I find this attractive, yet I am inspired to be true to the score, in letter and intent. Cage, meanwhile, seems to allow/invite/mandate a loose interpretation- the spirit of the law supersedes its letter, mostly because the letter (the latter) barely exists in comparison. Simply stated, the instructions for every one of Cage's indeterminate scores that I have read are woefully inadequate to describe the activity of playing music. He is, by being quite close to illegible, inviting performers to enter into what is at least a 50/50 split (but he gets the marquee). There is a general mode of activity that is described (and Cage's aura follows him), but an open-endedness that more than crosses into vagueness is the overpowering experience I have of reading his indeterminate pieces. This directly tells me that he is trusting the performer/interpreter (what a word) to have taste, which is to say, as it were, pertaining to taste, that the performer must exercise it, pertaining to there being a lot of things left entirely unsaid and that taste is important to producing a tasteful performance rather than a tasteless one, pertaining to what is desired and seen as good, even by a Zen guy. The performer must make a lot of choices; it really is a collaboration. As a collaborator, Cage was truly a trusting gent, and he has gotten burned many times by fools. The "Cage=everything" mentality is certainly a downer and a dilettante vibe. It is not what I was trying to communicate with my earlier comments on the after-the-fact realization. My comment was a rude and crude attempt to say that as the BSC (or many other musicians from the scene- you know who you/they are), we are not going to have to stretch too far to faithfully play his pieces and to make them sound good. We will have to stretch a little. This is why we were asked to do them, and most of why we agreed to do them. Here's another: we won't do this, but I do think it would be interesting to put a player into an ensemble performance of an indeterminate piece and not let them see the score or even tell them what the piece is. I am certain that many people from the scene would be able to fake it amazingly well. This is not a diss on the compositions. It underscores something fundamental. Granted: they are arrived at by different means, but many of the choices we tend to make while improvising are nearly identical to those that could be arrived at by Cage's methods. Somehow artfully avoiding descriptors, Cage pioneered a sound world that we quite often embody while we are playing our music, without him telling us to. This is because his influence is immense. It don't matter who's in New York; John Cage is still the king. Cage can accurately be called the father of the scene, but his methods of describing how to access our sound world were strained. We seem to agree that this is because he was addressing different people than us. If he was talking to us I do wager that he would follow Mr. Wolff's example. I'm aware of my redundancy here, but a light went on for me when the Oberlin librarian mentioned that in her conversations with Cage, he effectively said he was interested in getting people to improvise in new ways (and that the various evolving notation schemes were the means he chose to reach this end). The word improvisation was in there loud and proud in conversation, but not in the scores- the guy knew what he was up against. He wanted to walk into the mother church of music, do heretical things, and to make sense there. It seems to have necessitated a certain style of communication. Freedom/The Individual/All That Jazz: I don't claim to have a scholar's patience or approach, but from the poaching I've done it seems that the idea is to get towards environmental sound, rather than sounds that would come directly from a brain or a collection of brains. The visual balance/chaos of a place subject to entropy or the sounds of virtually any non-maintained environment anywhere: these are reflective of the broad idea I have of what Cage was aiming towards. That's enough for me. Going for a high-res view of a thinker, even a great thinker, is flirting with disaster as an individual. Finding a balance is important, particularly as a performer (I prefer not to be an 'interpreter', thank you). It's cool, to a degree, to research what he was thinking, but I am honestly more interested in having some mystery involved, rather than sifting through the minutiae of a single person's thoughts, whoever that person was. The point of diminishing returns is arrived at early in the conversation. What makes performing Cage's scores meaningful? I am playing his pieces for a reason, well, stunningly to me, a lot of reasons. Speaking strictly for myself, the Philadelphia Cage performances are the single best-paid gig (easily the best-paid live performance) I have had to date, other than an hour I spent in a recording studio playing banjo for a corporate jingle based on "This Land Is Your Land". If you let the market decide, canons seem to buy a lot of things. At some point, with the gloriole that often accompanies Mr. Cage these days (I am not speaking of him, but rather of those who desire and pimp him), I sense a trajectory that includes period costume and period instruments. And when it happens: you read it here first. And yes- there are experiential and musical reasons that make it meaningful. We will certainly play different music than we would have made without the scores in front of us. It will be different from playing the BSC song, and that's very cool for the BSC to do every now and then. We will improvise in ways that are new to us. And it's giving proper respect to a guy who earned it from us. I value the experience of doing these pieces, and I expect that the music will be worth hearing. And it's gonna sound a lot like us, because it is going to be our music too. To state the obvious, we'll be using the instruments and techniques we have authored. Those sounds are not to be found elsewhere, and that's definitely no small potatoes. Our sensibilities will be present, because Mr. Cage saved a lot of ink for us. As for form, that's a place that JC will be more in charge. But don't forget that our sounds are our creation, and nothing happens without our sounds. Nobody sounds like Chris Cooper. From: Mike Bullock October 12, 2012 On a more serious note, hear hear. I like the view of Cage as essentially an optimist who has been burned before, but his optimism survived. He believed in his own ingenuity as an inventor (cf the famous Schoenberg quote), and he believed in the ingenuity of those who displayed it, such as David Tudor, and maybe where he got the most burned was by people w/o ingenuity who saw his music either as license or challenge. I love this line from Variations III: "Some or all of one's obligation may be performed through ambient circumstances (environmental changes) by simply noticing or responding to them." This seems well fitted to improvisers who can be trusted to leave things up to the environment, much more so than the average classical player of both then and now, who has had his/her reactions to the environment beaten into a Pavlovian cringe. (Ok, that's a harsh judgement perhaps, but I saw plenty of it at music school.) But he was able to sustain hope in performers like David Tudor and Cornelius Cardew (who is cited on the opening page of Fontana Mix as having used that piece to make a guitar solo).