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: 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 convolution 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.