A Conversation with Peter Dickinson

  • READ an excerpt from CageTalk edited by Peter Dickinson.

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    Composer/pianist/author Peter Dickinson

    Frank J. Oteri: Since his death, there have been so many articles and books published about John Cage, to the point where it seems that no stones have been left unturned, yet your collection of interviews manages to offer several fresh perspectives. Perhaps being on the other side of the Atlantic has afforded some necessary critical distance from both Cage and his detractors here in the United States?

    Peter Dickinson: CageTalk is a British perspective on Cage, and I have drawn on sources collected over many years in the U.K. that may not be readily accessible elsewhere. Something similar could be done for Cage’s reception in France, Germany, or Italy, but his British exposure is longer, usually more critical and probably more detailed.

    FJO: What initially triggered your fascination with Cage?

    PD: Attending concerts at the Living Theater in Greenwich Village and meeting Cage himself around 1960 after I had been a graduate student at Juilliard. Of course, he was utterly captivating. I think my admiration for him emerges through CageTalk, even though I probed his intentions rather sharply in some of the interviews.

    FJO: Your relationship to the music of American composers was a formative influence on your own development as a composer. What made you decide to study in the United States?

    PD: My father had been to the U.S.A. before World War II for professional reasons—he was the contact lens pioneer Frank Dickinson. My family in Lancashire got to know Americans in the services based nearby during the war years. So when I planned post-graduate study, it seemed more enterprising to go to New York rather than follow others to Europe. I was one of the first British composers to do this.

    FJO: How did studying with American composers affect your own compositional identity?

    PD: At Juilliard I studied with the Dutch-American Bernard Wagenaar (I admired his compatriot Willem Pijper), came into contact with William Bergsma, and remember Charles Jones’s classes where I discovered Ives—the Concord Sonata and “General William Booth.” My sister, mezzo Meriel Dickinson and I later did many recitals including Ives and other American composers. These included Copland, Carter, Cage, and Thomson, and we made some first recordings. I was certainly affected by the lively atmosphere at Juilliard—my fellow students included Philip Glass and Peter Schickele—as well as what was going on in New York City. In the second of my three years in the US, I reviewed concerts for the Musical Courier—an unforgettable panoply of all the major orchestras at Carnegie Hall.

    FJO: Has Cage been an influence on your own music? If so, in what way?

    PD: Cage persuasively opened up everybody’s horizons so that one could approach or even embrace a kind of chaos in sound. The more dense passages of my larger works—such as the three concertos—reflect this, but I have never been able to relinquish control in the way that Cage did.

    FJO: What, in your estimation, are some of the key differences between American and European composers?

    PD: This is now a very complex question because there has been so much interaction for so long. By the mid-20th century—heard from this side of the Atlantic—the use of popular music by some American composers was a major defining feature. Copland said that was his intention in drawing on jazz idioms in the 1920s; Ives absorbed pre-jazz syncopations well before that; Carter has discussed a specifically American rhythmic sense in performance; Bernstein fulfilled Henry Cowell’s notion of “living in the whole world of music” more than Cowell himself. There was a celebration of diversity sometimes missing when European composers were involved in popular music where figures such as Weill and Maxwell Davies have given their references a sleazy or cynical connotation. More recently, popular elements in the music of John Adams come across in a positive way and have helped to create the wide audience response to what seems to be a specifically American personality. And the international public increasingly goes to Ives, Copland and Gershwin as well as jazz and musicals for their unique American qualities.

    FJO: I know that some people interviewed in the book, including Stockhausen have already pondered this question, but I wanted to turn it back over to you: Would a John Cage have been possible in Europe? Why or why not?

    PD: Very unlikely. And you can’t imagine a European Harry Partch either. Such figures arose from the wide open spaces: the open mind starting afresh, the absence of a dominating tradition. And Cage is a West Coast phenomenon affected by Eastern philosophy. There have been British eccentrics of an earlier generation who anticipated aspects of modernism before their compatriots: Cyril Scott, whose 1908 Piano Sonata No. 1 is almost Ivesian; Kaikhosru Sorabji, who forbade performance of his madly complex and dissonant works until the 1970s because he knew they would be played so badly; and Lord Berners, who was much admired by Stravinsky. Scott was also a writer of books on health and was interested in spiritualism. Sorabji’s ancestry was half Parsi. Berners made fun of almost everything. Unlike Cage, these composers have had little influence. There’s nothing as radical as the microtonalism of Partch and his homemade instruments or the incorporation of noise in Cage. Although there is a post-Cage generation represented in the U.K. by Cornelius Cardew and Gavin Bryars—and Cage affected young composers in other countries from his Darmstadt visits onwards.

    FJO: Cage was and in some ways continues to be a polarizing force in music, even among some so-called maverick composers—I’m reminded of Elliott Carter’s response when asked what he thought about John Cage: “I do not think about John Cage.” Why do you think his music and the ideas that generated it are so difficult for some people to acknowledge?

    PD: Most people find it difficult to turn themselves into Zen Buddhists and accept what Cage said he liked best—”the sound of what happens” regardless. As Kurt Schwertsik said in CageTalk, “You have to be in good shape to listen to Cage.” He meant, of course, the indeterminate pieces rather than the earlier and later fully notated works.

    FJO: But in a post-Cage musical universe, is there anything to rebel against? Can there still be new music?

    PD: Cage emerged when there was still a kind of consensus culture in Western classical music and a perceptible mainstream, which he was able to infiltrate lethally but disarmingly. That situation has now exploded into a kind of cultural fragmentation with masses of different publics all downloading their own favorite music. Often the way in which music or video is presented is the main thing—it was more than forty years ago when McLuhan said “the medium is the message.”

    FJO: In your introduction, you cite a rather nasty dismissal of Cage by a New York Times music critic who claimed that only four works by Cage would be remembered twenty years hence, all of them writings rather than musical compositions. Hindsight, of course, has proven this to be completely wrong; Cage has emerged as a canonic figure and record companies can’t seem to get enough of him. There are hundreds of Cage recordings including multiple versions of many of his works at this point. What would you say are Cage’s most important musical compositions?

    PD: This is an issue that emerges frequently in CageTalk. The extensive keyboard works—involving piano, prepared piano, toy piano—now fall within the 20th century repertoire. The percussion works were pioneering and are now an essential contribution. Even the string quartets get played. The notated number pieces of Cage’s last decade are a final testament unlike anything else. In between there are taxing virtuoso pieces based on chance operations such as the Freeman Etudes for solo violin, the Music for Piano series, and a large group of works that involve performers in making arrangements to create the piece. As Earle Brown’s interview in CageTalk shows, there are problems when this technique is applied to established groups such as orchestras, but players continue to find these tasks challenging and, as you say, there are more and more recordings—which speaks for itself.

    FJO: As the compositions of Cage veer ever closer to standard repertoire status, might it be possible for Cage to be viewed one day as a conservative composer that a subsequent generation will need to rebel against?

    PD: Not exactly, but the more extreme aspects of Cage could be seen as having done their job even if the universalist and multi-cultural aspects of his ideas remain relevant.