Five days after the death of colleague and friend John Cage, I produced and hosted a two-hour tribute broadcast on the New York City radio station WBAI-FM. Only a few of the many, many friends who were also close to him could be invited and the emotions of the moment were still raw. Now, all this time later, it’s hard to believe he’s no longer with us.
Many of John Cage’s scores seem to allow performers a degree of freedom that often leads to interpretations that, by the composer’s own admission, do not reflect the spirit of the work. This is a problem of both attitude and notation. If we are to continue or reconstruct the tradition, we must look to the one performer in particular who defined and was defined by the performance practice of Cage’s music – the pianist, composer, and electronic musician David Tudor.
Sometimes, the thoughtful and respectful recreation of a work is the deepest form respect. Other times, taking that work, using it as a diving board to bounce on and leap from, and landing in a cannonball to splash the snoozing pool-side adults is a much more fitting nod. I think Cage would prefer the latter.
The idea of comparing Cage to Rameau and Wagner, should lead us to think about Cage the same way as we look at any other composer from the past or present. What should the path then be for a would-be interpreter of Cage’s music? Performing a piece by Cage is no different from performing a piece by Mozart, except for the mechanics of the execution.
Producing my opera The Face outside of the world of traditional opera companies has been both challenging and freeing. Major companies have a significant infrastructure and financial resources, but they also tend to focus on a full season of standard favorites. A new music ensemble or small independent production company can dream and create independently.
When Marvin Hamlisch was inventing music, his focus and concentration were extraordinary. He would look at the words I had brought in for 30 or 40 seconds and hear something in his head. His hands would then take over. After that initial “idea” phase in the composing, there seemed to be no time-lag between his continued musical impulses and his ability to simply play them.
As we approach the Pierrot Lunaire centennial, its instrumentation, once reflective of Viennese weltschmerz, has been internationalized, turned timeless, and endured both modernism and postmodernism. Briefly tracing its legacy reveals a story of artists grappling with tradition as well as practical realities.