John Cage

(From Beyond Willow Bend)

July 15, 2012

Northwestern University Contemporary Music Ensemble Concert Program

I joined Northwestern University’s Contemporary Music Ensemble in 1974, within a month after arriving on campus for graduate study in composition. There was no audition. My composition teacher, the late Bill Karlins, a co-director of the ensemble, asked what my major instrument was. When I said, “Voice,” he wanted to know if I sang contemporary music.  As soon as I told him I did, I was in.

By the end of the fall term, the ensemble learned that John Cage was going to be on campus during the last week of January, and that we were going to give a concert of his works.

Since I was the lone vocalist in the group, I was assigned the task of preparing two of Cage’s pieces, The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs, based on a text from Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce, and the Aria.

There’s always a level of anxiety associated with performing music by and for a living composer, particularly if the composer hasn’t been available for questions and coaching.  You’re eager to please; you want to be more than note-perfect: you want your interpretation to reflect the composer’s aesthetic and vision; you want the performance to replicate the sound they had in their head when they were writing the piece. When the composer is as famous as John Cage,  the anxiety arising from those desires is magnified.

My anxiety was heightened by more than just Cage’s absence and fame.  I kept remembering a story one of my undergraduate professors told me about how angry Cage had become during a rehearsal of one of his chance pieces because the performers were not taking the music seriously enough. That was one mistake I did not want to make.  But how was I going to avoid it?

My initial concerns about The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs quickly disappeared after I got the score and saw that the piece was not only traditionally notated, it was lovely, with the gentle and hypnotic quality of a lullaby.  The vocal line consists of three pitches accompanied by rhythms which are tapped or knocked on a closed piano. While the score has the pitches set at B, E, and A,  Cage instructs the singer to transpose them, if desired,  into any “low and comfortable range.”  For me, that put them down a perfect fifth, to E, A, and D.  All I had to do was learn the music and enjoy it.

But the Aria was another story.  The piece uses a combination of graphic notation, sparsely placed traditional notation, real words, fabricated words, and letters.  As in Widow, the traditional notation serves as a reference point for intervals and rhythms the singer should use, whereas the graphic notation—arcs, squiggles, colors—represents specific vocal events and styles, all of which the performer must determine in advance, and then adhere to during the performance.  Even though I  had written music with graphic notation,  this was the first time I had to perform from it.  If I was going to do the Aria justice, I would have to take Cage’s instructions literally: assign specific styles, extended vocal techniques, and events to the graphics, and then stick with them.

I was just grateful that I would not be on stage alone: the entire ensemble would be backing me up with Fontana Mix as an accompaniment.

My memories of the concert itself are sketchy, with only a handful of moments that are clear.  I remember that the hall was packed—standing room only, and that a couple of music critics, who hadn’t come early enough to find seats, were in the wings, sitting on the floor, with their notepads on their laps.  I can’t remember singing The Wonderful Widow, but I do remember watching the saxophonists in 4’33”, and trying to hear In a Landscape over the occasional eruptions of Cartridge Music, which went on through the entire concert. When it was time to perform the Aria, my nerves suddenly settled with the confidence that comes from going through a piece so many times that there are no more conscious decisions to be made. I went out on stage and let the performance happen.

When the last note faded,  the hall filled with the sound of applause.  I bowed, then looked around and saw John Cage walking up on stage.  Fortunately, a photographer was there to catch what happened next.

Photo by Uldis Saule ION PHOTOGRAPHS Evanston, IL 1/27/75

September 4, 2012

“I’m an old showman….” (John Cage)

Apart from knowing that John Cage could be angered by performers who didn’t take his work seriously, I knew nothing about the man before I met him in 1976.  His renown as a musical innovator and philosopher preceded him, and so, for the several days that he was at Northwestern, I, like many other students, followed him around every chance I got so that I could observe him.

He visited a Freshman Theory course and talked about cadences in Haydn, went out to lunch with a group of students and shared his meal with an undergraduate who couldn’t afford more than a soda.  He sat in on an evening improvisation session with the Contemporary Music Ensemble and had us turn out the lights, open the windows, and “fit the sounds into the environment.”

And then he visited the Introduction to Electronic Music course where I was assisting.  Because we were only a few weeks into the term, the students were still mystified by and terrified of the synthesizers, patch cords, and recording equipment, and their faces showed it.  As Cage was introduced, they shifted uneasily in their seats, probably wondering what he was going to say, how he was going to relate to them.  He thanked the professor, smiled, took a minute to eye the equipment, the students, and then told the class about the first time he walked into the Studio for Electronic Music in Cologne, Germany.  He talked about how intimidated he felt by the studio, which was “much larger” than the Northwestern studio, and equipment.  I don’t recall if he used the word “Overwhelming” to describe it, but that was the impression he left with us, that he felt overwhelmed by it. Immediately, I could see the students relax and nod. They wanted to hear more.  So he told them how he dealt with his reaction, how he took a piece of paper and drew a series of boxes on it, each one representing an equipment module, and then labeled them.  This way, he was able to study them where he was comfortable. The students took out their pens and began to make notes.

Cage had said, at the end of the concert where I sang the Aria,  “I’m an old showman.”  He was supposed to perform Empty Words after the concert, but decided not to because he knew “When not to follow an act.”  So, without any hesitation,  he invited the audience back to the hall the next day for a performance of Empty Words.

Until I saw him speak to the beginning electronic music students, I didn’t appreciate how gifted a showman he was.  As he had done in the Theory class, at lunch, and with the musical improvisation, he sized up the setting, the circumstance, and audience, figured out almost instantaneously what was needed, and supplied it—not just by identifying with the students’ problems, but by offering them tools they could use to solve them.  But what struck me as most extraordinary about his gift, was the remarkable spirit of generosity driving it. There was no artifice there, no arrogance, no condescension; there was simply the desire to communicate, entertain, and instruct.

That was enough.

September 5, 2012

My experiences with John Cage, though limited to several intense days, left me profoundly changed.

During that time, I saw different aspects of the composer: a generous, supportive teacher and astute, perceptive showman, along with a composer who expected nothing less than precision when it came to realizing his work, and philosopher who could see every side of an issue and discuss them simultaneously.  He felt the ego should be removed from music, yet he continued to sign his name to his compositions.  He left many decisions regarding the performance of his pieces to performers, yet, when it came to performing Empty Words, he took three hours testing microphones because he wanted a specific type of sound.  When he was lecturing, no matter what the topic, he would walk to one side of the room or stage and make a statement, then walk to the other side and state the opposite.

Cage seemed to be the embodiment of opposing forces, contradictions.

It was only after he left, and I had the time to process all I had seen and heard, that I began to realize how truly remarkable he was, and why he and his work were so important.

If you love literature, you are familiar with irony.  Writers use it all the time to convey realities that characters fail to grasp, or emphasize disturbing or ludicrous stances.  In art, irony can be used to present conflicting images, such as the day-lit skies and night-shadowed buildings in Rene Magritte’s Empire of Lights series.  But, in an abstract medium like music, how does one convey irony?  Certainly, composers can set a text to music that does not match it in tone, but the irony still depends upon language to create the contradiction.  With only pure sound, it was impossible to convey irony.

Until Cage.

He gave performers a score of blank staves—an absence of sounds to execute—and instructed them to mark time with a stopwatch, then leave the stage when the allotted time is up. But whenever, and wherever 4’33” is presented, there is no absence of sound: the audience, the hall, the universe fills in…

With its own music.

And there is irony.