John Cage Tribute Concert at Bard; Lecture on the Weather

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John Cage, photo Christopher Felver, Courtesy of The John Cage Trust

John Cage, photo Christopher Felver, Courtesy of The John Cage Trust

John Cage Tribute Concert at Bard; Lecture on the Weather

“Even when our industrialists thought of themselves as the owners of the world, of all of it, not just the part between Mexico and Canada. Now our government thinks of us also as the policemen of the world, no longer rich policemen, just poor ones, but nonetheless on the side of the good and acting as though possess of the power…I dedicate this work to the U.S.A., that it become just another part of the world, no more, no less.”

John Cage, Introduction to Lecture on the Weather, 1975

John Cage Tribute Concert

Sosnoff Theater of the Fisher Center at Bard College, Annandale-n Hudson

Thursday September 27, 2007 at 8:00 pm

John Cage (Los Angeles 1912-New York 1992), Four3 (1991), performed by Merce Cunningham Dance Company (MCDC)

Musicians: David Behrman, John King, Takehisa Kosugi, Stephan Moore, and Christian Wolff.

John Cage, U.S. premiere of Dance Music for Elfrid Ide (1940),

performed by Nexus: Bob Becker, Bill Cahn, Robin Engelman, Russell Hartenberger, and Garry Kvistad.

John Cage, Water Walk (Milan, 1959), performed by David Behrman.

World premiere of For John (2007), performed by MCDC Musicians.

John Cage, Lecture on the Weather (1975)

For 12 speaker-vocalists (or instrumentalists), preferably American men who have become Canadian citizens, each using his own sound system given an equalization distinguishing it from the others.

The work also features tapes and a film.

Sosnoff Theater of the Fisher Center at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson

Thursday September 27, 2007 at 8:00 pm

John Ashbery, Leon Botstein, Merce Cunningham, Sage Fuller Cowles, Jasper Johns, John Kelly, Kevin Klose, Garry Kvistad, Mikel Rouse, John Ralston Saul, and musicians from The Bard College Conservatory of Music and Music Program. Directed by Laura Kuhn.

During his career, which lasted from the late 1930’s up to his death in 1992, John Cage revolutionized music by reducing its vocabulary (even to silence!) and expanding its sonic range by assimilating a vast array of unusual and exotic instruments and non-musical sounds. Meanwhile he ventured into other art forms, drawing, poetry, theoretical writings, stage, dance, and film, either alone or with collaborators, notably his lifetime creative partner Merce Cunningham. Through this the musical notations developed new symbols and formats not found in traditional scores. While his indications are often quite detailed and precise, performance practices involve many aspects, which cannot be recorded on paper, or even conveyed in the many recordings and films of his works, which were made during his lifetime and under his direction. For this reason, it is a most important event that was celebrated by these two evenings of performances. John Cage’s records and materials have passed from the care of Merce Cunningham to Bard College, as The John Cage Trust at Bard College, a resident organization at Bard College, in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., where all of the trust’s materials will be housed and maintained. The Trust will provide access to these holdings through courses, workshops, and concerts, and will develop new programs around this extraordinary resource. The Trust completed its move to Bard’s campus this spring. Laura Kuhn, in addition to operating and maintaining The John Cage Trust at Bard College, will hold the position of John Cage Professor of Performance Arts at Bard and teach courses at both undergraduate and graduate levels.

Of course there could be no better place for the John Cage Trust. Bard has developed a music and performance program which is second to none. It has two first-rate performance facilities, Olin Hall, and the Fisher Performing Arts Center. It is also close to New York, where John Cage lived and worked for most of his career, and is also easily accessible to most musicians and scholars interested in his work. It is also a good thing that Bard is not far from Tanglewood, making collaboration with its annual Contemporary Music Festival a possibility. Bard publicly launched the new institution with two lively evenings of music by Cage and his associates. If we are to consider this a taste of what the work of the John Cage Trust will be like, there is much to be thankful for.

It is significant that the concerts combined a range of Cage’s work, some performed with the instruments and methods with which they were originally performed in his lifetime, and one performed freely with a substitution of instruments not in Cage’s score, most successfully, too. Most of the performers knew Cage and collaborated with him. In fact, all of the heads on stage with white or grey. Not only were the performances all fresh and full of life, the spirit of these works was very much alive, especially Lecture on the Weather, which was commissioned in 1975 by the Canadian Broadcast Company in observance of the American bicentennial. Based on texts by Henry David Thoreau, it addresses issues of the Vietnam War and American imperialism in a way which is absolutely vital today, more than ever, in fact. Henry David Thoreau and John Cage are very much men for our time, and Lecture on the Weather reminds us that we must listen to them.

On Friday evening Lecture on the Weather was performed twice, each time with a slightly different group of speakers and musicians, and of course significantly different options in the interpretation of the score. While the first seemed monumental and epic, closing with powerful words spoken by Merce Cunningham, the second was more lyrical, intimate…and darker, but powerful nonetheless, against the massive surround-sound tapes of rushing water and storms. The twelve (eight in the second performance) American-speaking readers sat in chairs on a riser at the back of the stage, which was made shallow by a backdrop. Four musicians sat in front, below, paired on either side of the stage, while the electronic component was operated from an open sound booth at the back of the front stalls. Both performances began with a tape of John Cage reading a introductory statement which draws its power from understatement and irony. Lecture on the Weather is an example of a work which is overtly political without sacrificing the resonance of its multivalent layers of meaning and association.

Of course Sosnoff auditorium with its unique acoustics and flexible stage is ideal for this kind of music. Its up-to-date sound system is also and advantage. When I’ve heard it used for recorded examples of nineteenth-century music, it struck me as not the most natural-sounding I have heard in a theater. However, the system was effective enough in these concerts, in which a tape, or a manipulated sound is meant to sound like what it is. To speak of historicity in performance, I noticed that Apple laptops and other gear not available before 1992 abounded on stage and in the sound booth.

I was immediately struck by the virtues of the auditorium in the first work performed on Thursday evening, Four3, composed for a Merce Cunningham performance in Zurich in 1991, Beach Birds. The full depth of the stage was revealed. In this two Steinway concert grands faced each other in opposite directions, one stage front left, played by Christian Wolff, and the other at the very back. In between them were the other musicians, similarly separated at the left and right, creating the sense of extreme isolation among them. Takehisa Kosugi provided a sine wave with an oscillator. Years ago we did not often hear Cage performed on excellent, well-tuned Steinways in such a rich and balanced acoustic. The two pianists, in spite of their considerable separation, and one being at the very back of the stage, were able to coordinate the subtlest variations in dynamics and tone. When desired, they could replicate each others’ sound exactly, effecting an eery negation of spatiality, as the musicians alternated between the sound of their instruments, silence, and their allotted rainsticks. The composer Christian Wolff, who essentially led the performance, played his austere part especially beautifully.

In the second piece we also heard music for dance without a dancer, this time a rediscovered percussion work from 1940/41, when Cage was on the faculty of Mills College and composed music for the thesis performance of Elfrid Ide, a student in the recently established dance program at Mills. The percussion group Nexus gave it a vivid, occasionally jazzy performance, substituting a marimba and a vibraphone for the original piano.

The second half of the concert began with Water Walk, created for an Italian TV quiz show in 1959. This brought us into Cage’s humorous dimension. As the score states, Cage used 34 materials, as well as a single-track tape, 7½”, 3 minutes. The materials required are all related to water. Some examples: Bath tub, toy fish, grand piano, pressure cooker where steam is being released, ice cubes and an electric mixer to crush them, rubber duck, goose whistle, 5 radios, etc. The score consists of a list of properties, a floorplan showing the the placements of instruments and objects, three pages with a timeline (one minute each) with descriptions and pictographic notations of occurence of events and a list of notes “regarding some of the actions to be made in the order of occurence.” Timings are not accurate: “Start watch and then time actions as closely as possible to their appearance in the score.” David Behrman’s performance was hilarious and brought home the nature of the actions involved in a musical performance, as they are subsumed into the actions of domestic life, in this case all involving water, or some other liquid, in this case Campari.

The concert closed with a longish, complex piece, For John, created by the performers as a tribute to John Cage, again led by Christian Wolff, using thematic materials and procedures from Cage’s work. This was a moving elegiac work, full of complex development and interactions. As in the other pieces, one was left at the end with a perception of the shape of the work, the form the musicians have imparted to sound and silence through their actions. Particularly in the case of Dr. Wolff, the performance consisted not only of the sound produced by his piano, but his process of deciding how to interpret the score, making the audience fully aware of its randomness, and the multiplicities of possibilities in the unfolding of the music. If Cage, a student of the I Ching, by introducing the element of chance, has put the composer into a more passive role, he has also brought the performers into a more active part in the creation of the music. I was also struck by the fact that the piano, however it may be manipulated or unconventionally played, is the only instrument allowed to sing in its own voice to any extent. In any case, For John offers a presage of the kind of free, original work the John Cage Trust will provide. It will clearly not be an authority policing the literal performance of his scores.

These two evenings were indeed a tribute, bringing together many of his old friends and associates, but it did not feel like one. They were entirely forward-looking, inaugurating a new phase in the transmission—that is, the constant re-creation of the work of this great artist—whose interests and activities reached so far, that he can appropriately be compared to Richard Wagner, whose career spanned the 19th century as Cage’s the 20th. For me personally there was an element of nostalgia, because once, many years ago, I studied with Christian Wolff, not music, but Euripides, on whose late plays he has specialized. And I remember writing some very bad papers for him, too, not through laziness, but through misguided experimentalism. As these concerts showed, it takes maturity to move forward.

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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