Cage Will Set You Free

Piano Planter

Near the entrance to the Cité de la musique in Paris I spotted this remarkable planter in the shape of a grand piano and I wondered what music John Cage would have made from it.

Readers of these pages are already quite aware of my deep appreciation for John Cage. I have voraciously studied his music for many years and now have about 100 CDs devoted exclusively to his compositions as well as numerous scores. Cage’s oeuvre and his approach to the making of it have deeply influenced how I listen to everything as well as how I approach my own creative work (despite my not using indeterminate procedures most of the time). However, I think I might have outdone myself in my devotion to John Cage over the past week. My entire trip to the Côte d’Azur region of France was actually bookended by John Cage experiences.

Music on the Move

The Paris Metro zipped me around town during my 14-hour layover there, too fast to attempt to figure out the music implicit in this photograph.

Thanks to a 14-hour layover in Paris en route to Nice, Paris’s very efficient commuter railroads, and massive amounts of coffee, I spent an entire day meeting with various people in Paris. You might recall that I decided to devote a substantial part of my time in Paris to learning more about the Russian-born, France-based microtonal pioneer Ivan Wyschnegradsky, and I wound up spending nearly an hour with Wyschnegradsky’s son, Dimitri Vicheney. My final meeting of the day took place at the Roissy Charles De Gaulle Airport minutes before my departing flight. Pianist Martine Joste, who is the president of the Ivan Wyschnegradsky Society, was unable to meet me in Paris during the day, but she agreed to meet me at the airport (since she lives nearby) in order to bring me some recordings and scores. During the course of exchanging emails about Wyschnegradsky and trying to figure out how two total strangers would find each other in one of the world’s most heavily trafficked airports, I realized that in addition to her advocacy for Wyschnegradsky, Joste is also a leading interpreter of John Cage’s solo piano and chamber music, and that I actually have her recordings of Cage’s music on Mode. In fact, one of my all-time favorite Cage pieces, Two6, which proved to be his penultimate composition, was written for Joste, who premiered and recorded it shortly after his death in 1992. So after we talked about Wyschnegradsky for a while, I thought I’d ask her to talk a bit about John Cage. She said a lot of fascinating things, but I was particularly moved by her comments about the importance of teaching Cage’s music to younger musicians.

My 40 hours without sleep on the way to Nice (except for about 2 hours of partial dozing on the flight from New York to Paris) ultimately trumped my only 24 hours of awakeness on the return trip home, but I was also staying awake for John Cage. This past week Juilliard devoted the entirety of its free annual contemporary music festival, Focus!, to John Cage because 2012 marks the Cage centenary. I was very disappointed that I would not be able to attend all six concerts since they started while I was still in France, but I was determined to attend whatever was happening once I returned. So I went straight from Newark Airport to Juilliard, not completely sure how I’d store my piles of luggage. And I was so glad I did—the vigor that these Juilliard students brought to most of the performances I witnessed proved Martine Joste’s assertions that Cage’s compositions can provide extremely valuable learning experiences for younger musicians.

The concert I attended on Wednesday featured Cage’s zany solo organ piece Some of “The Harmony of Maine”, a re-composition of music by the early American hymnist Supply Belcher. I was only familiar with this piece from recordings; it is completely overpowering live. It was also thrilling to watch a group of players interact with each other in order to make notes not sound—the purpose of the piece is, by chance operations, to play only partially the music that Belcher had written, and in so doing create a completely new piece. But perhaps even more thrilling was rehearing something I had heard countless times before, the Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano. Han Chen only performed a selection from this hour-long work, but his account was both highly dramatic and deeply nuanced. If I were in charge of the universe, this music would be as mandatory for keyboardists to learn as J.S. Bach’s preludes and fugues and Beethoven’s sonatas.

Thursday night featured the bizarre Child of Tree in which a performer is required to make sounds on various amplified plants. It was quite a contrast from Cage’s early song cycle on poems by E. E. Cummings for contralto and piano and the Six Melodies for violin and piano from 1950, both of which came across feeling almost like standard rep. Friday night also contained some sonic moments I will always treasure, particularly the simultaneous performance of the tender vocal duo Litany for the Whale and the late bowed piano concerto Fourteen (albeit with sampled bowed piano sounds so as not to disturb yet another Juilliard piano after others had been “prepared” in various ways). I’ve long known and loved both of these pieces, but hearing them performed together (which is totally acceptable performance practice for Cage) made me hear details in both works that I had not previously focused on when hearing them individually. I actually imagined I was hearing cadential progressions even though Cage’s harmonies exist in a realm far removed from functional tonality. After all, in his music anything can be followed by anything else without causality. And yet ironically, the flow from one chord to the next so often feels purposeful anyway. In fact, I guess that it is a perfect metaphor for being at peace with whatever happens in the universe. It is a lesson worth learning over and over again.

John Cage once famously suggested, “If you’re bored listening to something for five minutes, listen to it for ten minutes; if you’re bored listening for ten minutes, listen for twenty” etc. What I didn’t realize—and this is sadly not the case for all music (I have nodded off a few times during some really wonderful concerts I have attended over the years as a result of jetlag)—is that John Cage’s unique way of manipulating sound in time actually completely erodes one’s personal clock. If you are truly focused on it and can experience it on its own terms as it is happening, it is possible to completely forget what time it is and it will keep you from falling asleep. At least it worked for me.

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