SA Issue 3: The Cage Issue Part One (Opening and Rob Haskins)

My wife and I have a running joke involving a specific nature show trope.  The narrative is always the same, and if you’ve seen any television….at all….ever…this will at least sound familiar. It goes like this:

A baby animal (usually a panda or polar bear, but sometimes a baby deer or even a penguin if you’re lucky) is learning the ropes of life in the great outdoors.  Often they are bumbling around in the cutest possible way, totally unaware of the danger that awaits them later in life, if not in the immediate future, in the form of predators, global warming, hunters, or some other such buzz kill that the producers of the show will surely present to you later to remind you of the harshness of the circle of life.

The joke between us has been to look at each other whenever we stumble upon this over used device and say “he has A LOT to learn” with that slight upturn of voice at the end of the sentence that is intended to wring every last bit of twee irony out of the phrase, and accentuate the cuteness of the baby animal while quietly underlining the fact that it will probably be eviscerated in the snow by the end of the hour.  Yes, it is a dark household.

As I was deleting my fourth draft of this opening essay, that bit of black humor kept running through my mind.  It seemed to me that I could easily refer to myself as the bumbling naïve being that had, with no presentiment of the dangers lurking ahead, prematurely undertaken this ambitious issue of SA celebrating the American iconoclastic composer John Cage.

I think to truly understand how I ended up approaching this issue, and especially my amazement about the state I’m left in, now that I’m nearing its completion, an observation and a confession must be made. 

First the observation, and I’m sure this is one that you, as a reader interested in this kind of music has made to yourself already.

This is the YEAR OF CAGE.

And, why not? John Cage is one of the most interesting and important thinkers of the 20th century. But, here’s where the confession comes in.

I LOVE being contrary.

It’s not a pleasant trait.  I am not proud of it, but it is a part of me I’ve accepted, and when I was approached by Bowerbird with the idea of doing an all-Cage issue of SA to coincide with their festival, Cage: Beyond Silence, my first thought was that it was an opportunity to expose the “man behind the curtain”; to roll John Cage down from his seat on Mt. Olympus and set him in front of the world as nothing more than a simple human being that had a few good ideas

(I can tell that you’re already shaking your head and saying to yourself,  “he’s got a lot…”)

Yes, yes, I know.  It was an approach that was pointless and small, and I admit that. That being confessed and atoned for, however, this contrarian attitude caused me to do a couple of things in the content and structure of this issue that make it slightly different, I think in a good way, than it would have been if I had decided to make yet another centennial festschrift to the greatness of John Cage.

The first way in which my hubris affected this issue was my attempt to concentrate less on the historiography and apocryphal knowledge around Cage as a person, and more on the pragmatic concerns of performing what he left behind…his music.

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.

(You can almost feel the eyes of the hungry she-wolf glowing on my fat, furry white rump, can’t you?)

Yes, I was wrong. Dead wrong. Delightfully wrong. As I started sifting through the interviews, recordings, and scores of Cage and critically weighed the attitudes of the artists interpreting his music, I felt an epiphany growing deep in the pit of my stomach.

 

John Cage was a genius....

 

Not just a genius for his use of indeterminacy in The Music of Changes or embracing the sounds around us in 4’33”, but a genius at providing the musicians around him a spectacularly interesting and varied set of forms and molds that they could pour their personalities into. He found ways to create restraints on their performance while still providing just enough ambiguity to encourage lively discussion (see JACK Quartet’s rehearsal of Four). He wrote a body of work that could embolden brash statements of musical language (see BSC’s email discussion on Songbooks and Cage’s legacy to improvising musicians). His oeuvre prompts serious and insightful research (Rob Haskins on the Number Pieces and Songbooks) and his legacy is most telling in the remembrances of those that worked with him (Joan LaBarbara and Ne(x)tworks on Songbooks).

All in all, I’ve grown to love John Cage over the last few months.  His music has made me respect him as a thinker, a writer, a musician, and a human being. This wasn’t supposed to end up like the other grand celebrations of a great man, but I can understand now why they exist, and I’m proud to give in. 

And, as I thought about it, this is what Sound American is all about.  The hope and idea of this journal has always been to present musicians and their ideas from multiple axes, so that the naysayers and uninitiated can find something of interest to grab onto, think about, and grow.  I have to say that I’m damn proud of this issue, as it does this…I know, I tested it.

 

-Nate Wooley-Editor, Sound American

 


Enjoy the issue, please stop at the DRAM subscription page and consider signing up for a personal subscription to DRAM.  There are great new premiums for your contribution and it helps me justify the man-hours.  Also, take a moment and go to the Bowerbird page to look at all the amazing music they are presenting over the next months in celebration of John Cage’s 100th birthday.  All of the musicians that are featured in interviews, essays, and podcasts here will be performing at some point on the festival, along with a host of other phenomenal interpreters of Cage’s music. Take some time to check out a very special set of mix tapes, as well, featuring some of the leading young lights of experimental, jazz, noise, and classical music pouring their very unique musical personalities into the molds of Cage’s Solos For Voice.  And…as always, thanks for taking the time to read, to listen, and to think.  The world needs it.


*****


NOTES ON PERFORMING JOHN CAGE

Rob Haskins


Introduction by Way of Autobiography

As an undergraduate studying piano performance at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, I had several opportunities to encounter Cage’s music. With the exception of the early works for prepared piano or percussion, and 4′33″, each time was unsatisfying. The performances I heard on record sounded awful, and I couldn’t get over the idea that the music’s structure—if it had any structure at all—was wholly determined by chance. If the music was totally random, why should I bother listening to it carefully?

            I did love Silence, of course, especially the stories from Indeterminacy. And I soon became much more absorbed in the music of the minimalists, especially Steve Reich and Philip Glass; Glass, in particular, owed a debt to Cage with respect to the aural experience of music, but my realization of this fact would arrive years later. However, I do remember performing the first movement of Cheap Imitation while I was a Master’s student at Peabody; I heard the next day that one of my theory professors gravely warned my piano teacher, Lillian Freundlich, that I needed to be told to stop wasting my time playing such music; to her credit, Lillian delighted in my discoveries and encouraged them. I wrote a paper later—for that same professor—analyzing movements from The Perilous Night; I got an A. At the time, I thought it might be interesting to analyze more of Cage’s music, but I didn’t have any idea how to proceed.

            Several years later, my friend Laurel Karlik (now Laurel Karlik Sheehan) returned to Baltimore from Toronto. During those years, she’d given the Canadian premiere of Two2 with Jack Behrens and had met Cage at June at Buffalo. She asked if I would be interested in performing it with her. Thus began a period of the most intense rehearsal—usually every week for what seemed like months. As we played through the piece over and over again, I began to realize that the same sonorities would recur, not necessarily in the same order, but with sufficient regularity that it seriously affected my previous impression that Cage’s music was totally random, without pattern or logic. This music, in fact, made a great deal of sense. Around the same time I discovered James Pritchett’s amazing article on the Concerto for Prepared Piano and Chamber Orchestra;[1] Pritchett explained how Cage’s chance composition worked and pointed out how often his precompositional plans as well as his realization of those plans depended on the kinds of choices typical of many composers. I began reading more about Cage and purchased a copy of the I Ching, even started to consult it periodically. But I still wasn’t listening to much of his music. In 1992 I helped bring Pritchett to Peabody to present on Cage during the twenty-fifth anniversary celebrations of the school’s electronic and computer music studios; I also attended the premiere of Cage’s One10 during the festival, a life-changing event that I’ve written about elsewhere.[2] Just as I began to feel that I had some understanding of Cage and wanted to meet him, he died.

            Not long afterward, I started my Ph.D. work at Eastman, convinced I was going to continue writing about minimalism. (My master’s thesis offered an analysis of Einstein on the Beach in rather painstaking detail.) But I was studying harpsichord, too (I completed a DMA in 1998, the first awarded to a harpsichordist at Eastman, under the exceptional tutelage of Arthur Haas), as well as writing harpsichord and new music CD reviews for the American Record Guide. The siren song of earlier music called to me, and for a long time I seesawed back and forth between all sorts of dissertation topics: Bach’s harpsichord concertos was the one that occupied me the longest, but I could never come up with a topic that seemed workable to my mentors.

            Just at that point, Alex Postelnek, a percussionist and amiable radical, suggested I return to my interest in Cage; I thought his idea was excellent and decided that my work should contain both historical and analytical components. Jürgen Thym and Robert Morris agreed to be my co-advisers. While both advisers were essential, I found Bob’s input particularly valuable because I had been dabbling in Zen for most of my time at Eastman, and Bob’s extensive knowledge of Buddhism was both inspiring and frightening. (I remember a conversation we had concerning Buddhism about which I remember not a single word, but the feeling I had while we talked has stayed with me, just as Cage said he remembered D. T. Suzuki’s Columbia lectures while not always understanding them.) Eventually, I finished a dissertation on the Number Pieces.

            At the same time, however, I became more and more interested in performing Cage’s music. I had the good fortune to be at Eastman at the same time as a number of amazing musicians and composers. among them Alan Pierson, Caleb Burhans, John Pickford Richards, Payton MacDonald, Ian Quinn, and Gavin Chuck; many of them began a student-run new music ensemble called Ossia. I performed the bowed-piano concerto Fourteen on one of their concerts, joined their board shortly afterward, and produced and performed in a staged presentation of Song Books, discussed further below. I also worked with Brad Lubman on the performance of Cage’s text works, which led to an all-night performance of I–VI and a simultaneous presentation—with Brad’s Musica Nova ensemble—of Seven, Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse), continued ’73–’82, and Five2; Brad and I also performed Four6 with Caleb and Heather Gardner. It was a good time to be at Eastman.

            So when Nate Wooley asked me to write an essay about what it was like to perform Cage as someone who also studied him, the assignment seemed easy until I began to realize how much my performance and study were interconnected, feeding off each other, nurturing each other. In point of fact, I’ve always studied the music that I perform. (I imagine musicians usually do.) But it’s true that most musicians rarely write about that part of their work, content to present the fruits of their labors on CD or in the concert hall. I, on the other hand, am known more as a musicologist than a performer, and believe that it’s probably right to think of me that way since I don’t have the time to develop the extensive repertoire and concert schedule typical of full-time musicians. And it so happens that I’m able to write about my experiences performing in a way that, for reasons of time, perhaps, other performers cannot. In the past ten years or so, I’ve spent time studying and performing the Number Pieces, Song Books, and the text compositions. I also recently finished a book on Cage for Reaktion Books’s Critical Lives series, in which—among other things—I was keen to share my experience of listening to Cage’s music. Having done so, I’d say that I have an idea of what’s involved performing his music. I’ll spend the rest of this short essay, then, first explaining  the fundamental background knowledge that I think is useful to have in mind before beginning to perform Cage, then illustrating how these principles inform my experiences performing two of the Number Pieces and Song Books.

Cage’s Model for Art

Cage, of course, is one of the most unusual composers in the Western music tradition; because his work calls into question many fundamental assumptions about art, developing a good understanding of his project seems to me essential. He always thought of his music as a means to change a person’s mind: dropping habits, likes, dislikes, and the tendency always to see the same piece of music as embodying a consistent expressive experience. In this sense, his music is didactic, not unlike the way Bach’s music supplied models of composition and a means of savoring musical genres or spiritual messages in addition to their being superb examples of sounding art.

            Certain aspects of Cage’s music support this didactic aspect. First, it is resolutely non-rhetorical. Many of the works are quite long, and in them, very little happens. The combination of length and unfamiliar expressive surface pose a formidable challenge to listeners who expect to be amused, entertained, or moved in specific ways. The music is, in short, not easy to listen to. Second, his compositions often exemplify a dynamic process of change within a piece; the image of a work that is fixed and immobile largely disappears, and along with it the sense that a piece of music contains a repeatable trajectory of desire toward some particular goal or expressive epiphany. His preference for process over object dates from very soon after his embrace of chance and probably owes a great deal to Suzuki’s Columbia lectures, which, as Kay Larson proposes, centered around the principles of nonobstruction and interpenetration that are explored at great length in the Flower Garland Sutra (in Sanskrit, Avatamsaka Sutra);[3] this text lies at the heart of Kegon (Hua Yen, or Flower Ornament) Buddhism, a branch of Buddhism for which Suzuki was preparing a introductory text at the time. Nonobstruction, for Cage, implies that no event within the attention of the audience should be ignored, that they are all equally important; interpenetration holds that one sound is influenced by and influences all others, creating a vast network of cause and effect that defies simple explanation. These premises, in turn, are also emblematic of American anarchism; in the 1960s and beyond, in particular, Cage wanted to use music as a method to suggest a new way of conceiving society and polity. His understanding of Zen also entailed the celebration of the extraordinary character of everyday life; one of his important models for art was Marcel Duchamp, whose art Cage felt resolutely resisted becoming a mere art object.

            For the performer, Cage’s project presents a considerable challenge. Musicians practice arduously to perfect their technique, the better to respond reliably and consistently to the notation they encounter in a composition. Their taste (developed by following their teachers’ directives, listening to music, and practicing and performing it) leads them to make unconscious decisions about phrasing, articulation, overall projection of form, and communication of the music’s style and character. All this training must be largely forgotten when performing Cage’s music, however! Habitual choices, he told us, must be rejected, but in favor of what?

            Watching Cage perform his own work offers a clue and, in the bargain, demonstrates that some aspects of his aesthetic carry over into its performance. For instance, some evidence suggests that he preferred a non-demonstrative, economical performance style. Consider, for instance, his performance of Water Walk on the television show I’ve Got a Secret: he executed the score with a deadpan face and a physically spare, efficient manner that often reminds me of Jack Benny’s performances. He creatively adapted to unforeseen circumstances: in rehearsal for the performance, the radios didn’t work, so he announced prior to the performance that whenever a radio was involved, he would hit it with his hand instead. For the last gesture involving each of the radios, however, he toppled them to the ground. Coupled with his nonchalant but business-like demeanor, the violence of the act is disconcertingly funny.

            Other evidence supports the idea that he preferred performers who were equally non-demonstrative. Late in his life, he complained about a Juilliard pianist who performed Satie as if it were Liszt, quipping that “He looked like Dracula. (laughter) The piano was in danger!”[4] The preference for a spare, nondemonstrative approach, furthermore, seems to imply that it allows the performer the psychological space to hear the sounds for themselves and also serves not to distract the audience from doing the same.

            But what should this spare performance style feel like? In light of Cage’s preferences in conjunction with his famous remark that he didn’t think expressing one’s feelings in composition constituted a sufficiently worthwhile reason for creating music, it’s possible to conclude (as many people have) that the music is inherently meant to be inexpressive, that performers should not attempt to be expressive when performing it, and that audiences should similarly do nothing more than passively pay close attention to each sound as it occurs, thinking about the deeper philosophical and spiritual implications of nonobstruction and interpenetration. This assumption led the composer-performer Payton MacDonald, for instance, to make the following observation to me:

[Cage] didn’t take into account that music is not philosophy for most people. . . . It’s love and sex  and despair and something you feel in your gut, not discuss in your head.[5]

Indeed, Ulrich Krieger, a composer and saxophonist prominently involved with Cage’s work, provocatively observed one of his major concerns as:

a music which does not have an extra-musical, gestural, semantic (and therefore emotional) communicative expression – but instead, freed of this burden, can address the listener solely and directly through sound.[6]

It’s probably unnecessary to rehearse Cage’s numerous comments that his music means nothing and that an audience’s proper response to it is listening rather than interpretation.

But what happens when a listener is addressed “solely and directly through sound?” Steve Reich’s contrast of acoustic music with electronic music begins to outline an answer:

Take a person playing the violin. You say, “I want you to just draw the bow across the A string, no vibrato. Just play it ‘like a machine.’” You put a microphone on it, and you put the microphone into an oscilloscope, and what do you see? All kinds of dancing irregularities. You take an oscillator and tune it to A and put it into the oscilloscope; you see an absolutely steady state wave form. You don’t have that microvariation. . . . Now, throw the oscilloscope out, blindfold yourself, and in five seconds your ear, your mind, and your heart react to those things. In other words, there is an acoustical basis, you can discuss it; there is an intellectual basis, it’s not irrational. But you don’t need those things. You can work with your own sensory apparatus. There is an effect, and the effect gets to people.[7]

Reich’s remark suggests to me the possibility that acoustic sounds, at least, contain a natural complexity that leads listeners to respond to them expressively, that this response is basic to the human cognitive process. Therefore, when an audience encounters one of Cage’s spare performances, it need not (perhaps cannot) foreclose this possibility in listening to it. Let me say unequivocally that I do have an emotional response whenever I hear—or perform—Cage’s music, so in the course of my research for this essay I asked Ulrich what he felt about this topic, thinking that he would disagree with me. He replied:

that doesn’t mean at all that music (his music) is not or should not [be] triggering an emotional response in the listener! and cage agreed in a conversation i had with him. but it is the listener’s emotion/association and not what the composer wants or intends the listener to feel! cage felt that telling the listener how to hear and what to feel would deprive the listener of the right to have their own response – emotional or any other way...”[8]

Audience members, then, certainly have the right to respond to the music any way they wish. One might to listen to the sounds as they occur without any expressive engagement whatsoever— although I think this is nearly impossible to do—or react in any number of other ways. I definitely fall in Reich’s camp: the sounds of any music are expressive of emotions, and my own personal experiences can call up still other associations. It is true that in Cage’s music, the complexity and lack of intentional pattern makes the act of identifying specifically those emotions or associations is not easy. Then again, life in the twenty-first century is considerably more complex than it was in the nineteenth, when the subjective experience of music was in its heyday. I am more interested in exploring the changed nature of subjectivity in our time, and Cage’s music supplies one very important way of doing this. In that sense, I respond to the didactic nature of his art: it does more than simply amuse or delight me, but rather makes me both feel and think. Furthermore, Cage likened the experience of art-as-everyday life to walking down the street in a city and seeing “that people are moving about with intention but you don’t know what those intentions are.”[9] Likewise, the people we encounter in everyday life are experiencing feelings but not necessarily hiding their feelings from us; by attending to our own emotions as listeners or performers, we return to a situation much closer to everyday life and so approach the ideal that Cage valued in Duchamp.

Three Case Studies

A number of experiences performing Cage’s music (many from 2012) have given me the opportunity to think about these questions further. In so doing, I have begun to recognize certain ideas about the performance of his music that might have general usefulness to others. I do so not to be prescriptive, but rather in order to share my experience. I believe that other people sharing their experiences of performing Cage will be as beneficial as the experience of other people describing their experiences of encountering his ideas or listening to his music.

one5

Part of the Number Piece series (which principally occupied Cage from 1987 until his death in 1992), One5 (1990) is a piano solo that presents the performer with a series of single tones or chords containing two or three additional tones inscribed within a series of time brackets. Normally, a time bracket spans the width of one system of music; a range of numbers on the upper left side of the system indicates the range of times within which a performer may begin playing the content and a second range on the upper right side indicates when she must finish. In One5, the score comprises two sets of simultaneous time brackets the performance of which the pianist must carefully coordinate.[10]

            I performed this piece in February 2012 at thefidget space, a venue in Philadelphia run by composer Peter Price and his wife, choreographer Megan Bridge. Situated within a nineteenth-century, 4700-square-foot warehouse in the city’s Kensington neighborhood, the space is divided into two sections, the performance area itself and the living quarters for Price, Bridge, and their two children. The performance area includes a lot of comfortable furniture, further reinforcing a sense of intimacy that’s rare for new music performances today. Large windows look out on the city, and the audience can readily hear the sounds of the city and of adjoining dwellings.

            My preparation for the performance followed principles laid out by Margaret Leng Tan in an e-mail she sent to me and that I quoted in the final chapter of my Reaktion book. In brief, Tan believes that a performer of Cage's music must acquaint herself with many possible realizations of a score; these multiple possibilities enable her to draw upon a range of interpretive possibilities in the moment of performance, making each reading a new discovery in keeping with his beliefs about the mind-changing possibilities of music. [11] For my rehearsal of One5, this meant practicing many hours to explore as many possible performances of one time bracket as I could manage; I would then repeat the process with other time brackets and then with a sequence of them, continuing until so many possibilities had been rehearsed that my tendency to choose one over another out of preference alone became severely attenuated.

            Once I arrived at thefidget space, however, I found I needed to take other things into account; my evolving sense of the performance now included my reactions to the space’s domestic intimacy, the multitude of sounds around me, and the vibrant sense of life I felt there, since I knew that people lived only a few feet away. Once I began playing, I immediately heard the sounds from beyond the performance: the sounds of the subway and traffic, a couple talking loudly (perhaps arguing), and the sound of a television playing a song that would have sounded perfect on the soundtrack of a David Lynch film. I was surprised at the way that Cage’s music never intruded on these other sounds, but actually created a sonic space in which I could concentrate on them in a way I wouldn’t have done otherwise. My performance choices weren’t affected by these new sounds—or, if so, very little—but, rather, the unintentional sounds simply became another element of what could be heard in the space; I paid as close attention to them as I did to the sounds in Cage’s score. And in all my subsequent experiences with his music, I attempt to be so perfectly prepared that I can grow even more aware of the sounds around me and consider them as expressive events that are in no sense detrimental to the music itself. Indeed, I think this is what Cage had in mind when he said that 4′33″ opened the listener to all sounds around him but only when one cultivated an awareness of nothing—in the Zen sense of mu (in Sanskrit, Śūnyatā), or emptiness—and that 4′33″ had become part of his daily life experience simply by turning his attention to it.[12]

two2

As mentioned at the beginning of this essay, my process of discovering Cage as a performer really commenced with the intensive rehearsal of this work with Laurel Karlik Sheehan in 1992. Unlike most of the other Number Pieces, it doesn’t employ time brackets; instead, the pianists are allowed to proceed at their own pace, so long as they observe the order of musical sounds in each measure and so long as they wait until both pianists have finished playing the music in a measure before continuing. With a few exceptions, Laurel and I have performed this work at least once a year since we began performing it in 1993. Left to our own devices, we like the piece to take a very long time (the longest performance to date lasted 84 minutes); just as frequently, however, we perform it as part of another concert and so must be more sensitive to time. These changing concert experiences, as well as our own long familiarity with the piece, have given us the opportunity to explore a wide variety of possible realizations and so constantly discover new connections among our two separate parts. No doubt the many performances also helped to inform my analytical account of the work: an occasion to trace a number of possible connections within the vast network of sonorities whose potential can never wholly be exhausted.[13]

            However, the experience of performing the same piece over many years has had another consequence much more significant than the discovery of new aural combinations: a profound impact on my own sense of what performance is. My extensive, intense acquaintance with Two2 has allowed me to become more intimate with the piece of music; I am forging a relationship with it as though it were another person. And my relationship with music, and with the ongoing process of performing the piece with Laurel, resembles very much the kind of experience of love that Cage described at the end of his life: “It isn’t a fixed thing that you come to and keep. It’s something which is not dependable. Even if you think it is, it isn’t, hmm? And it gets richer as it encounters obstacles and surmounts them.”[14] Performance in this sense becomes less a formal affair with all the trappings that that implies as it does a time in which people have the good fortune to be in each other’s company for a time: we expect this time to be happy but know that it holds no guarantees.[15] Since then, I’ve become more interested in developing this sort of relationship with other pieces, too; although this experience is not something that I would say is absolutely essential for the performance of Cage’s work, it definitely has become inextricably bound up in my own experience of performing it; I believe his art, in particular, can benefit a great deal from such an approach.

song books

I observed above that my experiences with Song Books date back to the 2000–2001 concert season at Eastman, when I produced and performed in a staged presentation of the work with Ossia. This work, whose cryptic theme is “We connect Satie with Thoreau,” asks individuals to agree upon a total time length for a performance; then each performer selects from the collection of solos (ninety in all) to produce a program that will fill the required time length; finally the performers assemble, rehearse the material that they have prepared a single time, and present it. The resulting performances have run the gamut from the ridiculous to the sublime; as I have argued elsewhere, certain problems latent in Cage’s conception of the versatility of actors intrinsically undermine the possibility to effect a mode of theater that fully realizes the promise of his overall aesthetic project.[16]

            In order to avoid a completely foolish and haphazard performance for the Eastman production, the musicologist Elizabeth Wells and I selected solos and auditioned singers and musicians to perform them. After our preparation of an initial scenario, the production was then significantly shaped further by the University of Rochester director Nigel Maister into a cogent and compelling piece of theater that, nevertheless, contained very little opportunity to offer the kind of surprise that Cage valued above all in indeterminacy. Still, by all accounts the performance was a landmark in Ossia’s history and my own early career.[17]

            Nigel and I worked together this past year to create a new production commissioned by the Holland Festival with the new music group Alarm Will Sound (several of the members of which had participated in the original 2001 Eastman production) in June, 2012. For this production, I advised Nigel and the ensemble with the aim to produce a theatrical experience more Cageian in spirit (while still not necessarily realized exclusively through Cageian methods) and in full agreement that Nigel would have the final say on any theatrical aspect; we chose this approach primarily because many of the performers lacked extensive experience with the music. He and I assigned solos to individual performers, and he created in advance a skein of overlapping narratives for the theater-specific pieces, even though the raw material for them was arrived at through chance operations; he was—in contrast to a Cage purist—almost willfully mindful to help the actors find motivation for their performances, pointing up connections between Satie and Thoreau in accordance with the theme, and creating a satisfying theatrical experience for the audience. The crucial difference, I believe, was that he stopped short of specifying precisely the individual components of that experience, leaving it to individuals to draw their own conclusions. I employed other chance operations to make additional musical and theatrical decisions, and these sorts of decisions were made both before and during the rehearsal process.

            Strictly speaking, this is not completely cricket. In my view, the best alternative would entail supporting the salaries of a company of expert musicians and actors, a lighting designer, a sound designer, and me so that we could extensively rehearse our own independent programs until we could become aware of the others and respond to them, albeit not in predictable, habit-formed ways. Such a project would exhaust the financial resources of all but the most robust patrons and organizations. Until such a patron steps forward, Nigel’s and my approach strikes me as an ideal solution.

            I also advised the musicians on certain performance decisions. For instance, one of the musicians was performing an orchestral part from the Concert for Piano and Orchestra, which calls for the production of noises to be produced on the instrument or through any other auxiliary sounds. In rehearsal, he chose to eruct as one of these auxiliary sounds; while nothing in Cage’s instructions indicated this would be unacceptable, I suggested to him that a different, less predictable sound might be more suitable, recalling that at least one of Cage’s interests as a composer was to create sounds that had never been heard before.

            Since performing the work in Amsterdam, I had another opportunity (in October 2012) to present it at thefidget space with seven other performers including Nicole Bindler, Bridge, Chris Mandra, Joo Won Park, Peter Price, Bhob Rainey, and Mauri Walton. For this performance, we followed Cage’s instructions and prepared our solos in advance without prior knowledge of what any of the other performers would do. Then, using the online utility developed by Andrew Culver to simulate the I Ching software he developed for Cage, we used chance operations to assign the performers to twenty-minute time brackets in which they could perform their solos, and also limited ourselves to one rehearsal as specified in the instructions. The performance ended—through chance—with Mandra and Park, whose solos seemed to me an absolutely ideal ending. (Mandra’s solo involved singing vocalise with digital delay processing, while Park’s involved the use of amplified Lego toys and other computer-generated sounds.) The only thing that I would do differently would be to cultivate an enhanced awareness of the environment and the activities of other people within it; this would probably involve more rehearsal or at least a very long acquaintance with the people who came together to perform.

Conclusion

From the above, I would say that, in general, I hold with Cage’s view that performance should be essentially nondemonstrative; I try to be economical in my movements but also as natural and aware of my own body as possible. Nevertheless, I would re-emphasize that the resulting performance should never be inexpressive or mechanical; the performer should also be responsive to contingencies (sounds outside, sounds of the hall, other performers), making creative use of them. He should be as spontaneous as possible, but the spontaneity should not be the kind associated with personal choice borne out of habit, but rather a spontaneity that results when so many possibilities have been explored that he finds it more difficult to make a conscious choice of one option over another. I would argue, too, that ideal performances take on a quality of community with the audience and, in the cases where there are other performers, with one’s colleagues onstage. Once again, however, the nature of that community isn’t the conventional one in which the performer plays off the activities of his colleagues or the reactions of the audience, but one that allows for a sharing of separate experience, a mindfulness that shapes the ongoing performance on a subtle, quasi-subconscious level.

            Having said this, I reiterate a certain concern about my conclusions. I would never want to give the impression that I am telling other people how to perform Cage. Rather, I have only tried to offer what I think are some certain ideal tenets of his aesthetic that seem pertinent to a performance, and to share some experiences I have had that, I believe, appear to harmonize with those tenets. For the performer who is just embarking on an engagement with the music, however, it might be a simpler matter to subject all the important decisions to chance operations, as Cage would have done: in other words, to formulate a wide number of possible solutions to each decision made along the way in preparing a score, decide each solution by employing chance operations (Andrew Culver’s ic is ideal for this purpose), and then learn the results for a single performance. Ultimately, however, the performer must find a way to free herself from her preferences—even the preference to use chance operations over some other mind-liberating method might easily turn into another kind of dogma, after all. If we want to remain true to Cage’s aesthetic, we need constantly to escape from any comfort zone and seek to invent new ways of surprising ourselves through the performance of his music. I’d like to think there are as many good ways of doing that as there are people.


ROB HASKINS holds a D.M.A. in harpsichord and Ph.D. in musicology from the University of Rochester, Eastman School of Music. His research concerns American music in the second half of the twentieth century, especially the music of John Cage. In 2012, he will present papers on Cage (including performances of his work) in Germany, Canada, and the US. He is working on two book-length projects: a volume of essays on the performance practice of John Cage and a study of Cage’s exploration of Zen Buddhism and its importance for his compositions, analysis, and performance. In addition to his work as a musicologist, Haskins performs as a text works performer, pianist, and harpsichordist. With Laurel Karlik Sheehan, he recorded Cage’s Two2 for Mode Records and served as musical director for Alarm Will Sound’s 2012 production of John Cage’s Song Books at Abrons Art Center and River to River Festivals (New York) and at the Holland Festival. Haskins’s recording of Marc Chan’s solo piano work, My Wounded Head 3 (dedicated to him), will be released on Mode in 2013. He is an Associate Professor of Music at the University of New Hampshire.

Rob Haskins' fantastic book, "John Cage" from the Critical Lives series is now available as an e-book on Amazon.  You can get it here! -Ed.

 



            [1] James Pritchett, “Understanding John Cage’s Chance Music: An Analytical Approach,” in John Cage at Seventy-Five, ed. Richard Fleming and William Duckworth (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1989), 249–61.

            [2] Rob Haskins, John Cage (London: Reaktion Books, 2012), 12–13.

            [5] Payton MacDonald, e-mail to author, January 25, 2012.

            [6] Ulrich Krieger, A Cage of Saxophones, vol. 1 (New York: Mode 104, 2002), n.p.

            [7] Cole Gagne and Tracy Caras, Soundpieces: Interviews with American Composers (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1982), 307.

            [8] Ulrich Krieger, e-mail to author, January 23, 2012 (my emphasis).

            [9]. Michael Kirby and Richard Schechner, “An Interview with John Cage,” Tulane Drama Review 10, no. 2 (Winter 1965): 57.

            [10] For more on the Number Pieces, see Rob Haskins, Anarchic Societies of Sounds: The Number Pieces of John Cage (Saarbrucken: VDM Verlag, 2009).

            [11] Haskins, John Cage, 152.

            [12] William Duckworth, “Anything I Say Will Be Misunderstood: An Interview with John Cage,” in Talking Music: Conversations With John Cage, Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, And 5 Generations Of American Experimental Composers (New York: Da Capo Press, 1999), 14.

            [14] Cage and Retallack, Musicage, 151.

            [15] Rob Haskins, “The Harmony of Emptiness: John Cage’s Two2” [liner notes] in John Cage, Two2 (New York, Mode Records, 2008), n.p.

            [16]. Rob Haskins, “The Promise of John Cage’s Music Theater: Song Books and Europeras 3 & 4,” in The Theatre of John Cage: John Cage at 100; A Celebration [program book for the 2012 Holland Festival], 64–71.

            [17] Though not one without controversy. An aside: one theory professor who shall remain nameless came into the hall during a rehearsal and asked someone, “Why are people still doing this?” Had I had the opportunity, I would have replied, “I suppose for the same reason that theorists continue to analyze Webern songs.”