The Circus of Life as Music

John Cage has been a guiding role model for me throughout my life both as a composer and as a listener. Even though I rarely stick stuff inside pianos, have an embarrassingly small amount of music in my catalog that involves percussion or electronics, and almost never leave anything to chance, I’ve learned to listen to and treasure most things I hear. The open-endedness of Cage’s music and ideas has given me the courage to try almost anything as a composer—whether it’s happily returning to unabashed tonality, completely wigging out with combinatorial matrixes, or even performing bluegrass and salsa.

I first learned who Cage was in my senior year in high school, as a result of a handful of disparaging remarks made by some of my music teachers at the time. Ferreting out more information on my own, I found his approach to be totally liberating. The fact that my teachers claimed he was a charlatan made admiring him and his music all the more rebellious, certainly more so than the ultimately musically conservative punk rock movement I observed from the periphery (this was the ’70s after all) or Arnold Schoenberg’s so-called “emancipation of the dissonance” (which was still being touted as new despite it being the ’70s, more than a half century after it actually was new).

Right before I graduated, Cage was doing a book signing in Greenwich Village and I went there to talk to him. In front of me in the receiving line was a hard-core punk rocker, with requisite mohawk, torn jeans, piercings, etc. (long before any of that was incorporated into and appropriated by mainstream fashion). The guy literally genuflected in front of Cage and exclaimed that we all owed everything to him since he’s the one who liberated us all. Cage just sat there peacefully, almost completely non-reactive, thanking him in his trademark calm, quiet voice. It was a tough act to follow. I mumbled a few things about starting to compose microtonal music and asking him what he thought about it. He said something to the effect of it being an area of music-making that needed to be pursued. I took it as a stamp of approval and years later felt even more encouraged when Cage began exploring microtonality in some of the number pieces he composed toward the end of his life.

But I had a subsequent encounter with Cage as an undergrad in college that I’m not particularly proud of. In the 1980s, the campus of SUNY Purchase hosted a remarkable summer festival of experimental music, dance, theatre, and visual art. I somehow found my way up there (I no longer remember how) to attend the American premiere of John Cage’s Europeras 1 and 2. It was a seeming mishmash of simultaneous passages from all over the standard operatic repertoire with no apparent purpose, and I was somewhat bored by it. During the intermission I read a program note claiming it was the last opera that ever needed to be written. I was attempting to write my own first opera at the time and that remark angered me. So I exclaimed somewhat animatedly to the friend who accompanied me to the performance that this was the dumbest and most arrogant thing I had ever experienced. I turned around and Cage was sitting right behind me. Once again, he was totally peaceful, oblivious to my outburst. (There are many famous anecdotes about Cage not being the least upset if someone did not like his music.) But I was mortified. I certainly did not attempt to reintroduce myself to him and sadly never came into contact with him ever again. However, his music and its implications had an ever greater impact on me in the ensuing decades. In fact, one of the things I’m most desperate to hear is that same Europeras 1 and 2 which to this day has never been released on a commercial recording but rumor has it will be issued during the Cage centenary next year. (In anticipation of that august anniversary there has already been a whirlwind of activity, some of which I will write about tomorrow when I describe an extraordinary new Cage recording just issued by Mode Records.)

Over the weekend, I had an additional opportunity to have an all-consuming encounter with Cage’s music.

As part of the annual Atlantic Avenue Artwalk in Brooklyn, the concert venue Roulette—which has just moved there—opened its doors a couple of months early to present a Cage Musicircus. (There’s still a lot of work to be done in their new digs, a former theatre space which was owned by the YWCA. E.g. many of the hinges on the seats still need to be reattached.) Anyway, the way Musicircus works is as follows: A bunch of musicians (either soloists or groups, any number you wish) are invited to each play whatever music they play, regardless of what anyone else is playing or doing, for however long they wish. Among the participants on Saturday afternoon there was a marching band, a solo shakuhachi player, a nearly naked singer behind a curtain, an electric cellist who initially struck her instrument by making swimming motions while lying on the floor of the stage, and a group of people triggering a sewing machine, a popcorn maker, and other household appliances that were miked and hooked up to a speaker system. In the audience, people came and went, children jumped up and down, and everyone seemed to be having a great time amidst what was, for the most past, a cacophonous din. No one actually seemed to be playing music by Cage, yet the sound created by them playing together all at once was Cage’s music. While this might seem preposterous, it actually had an identifiably Cagean sound to it, at least to my ears and the ears of the people I was with.

As a result, however, the work raises interesting issues about ownership, rights, performance practice, listening modality, etc. If the music being played was the music of someone else, how could it be Cage’s and shouldn’t the folks who wrote that music be remunerated for it and not the estate of John Cage? Is it possible to make a mistake in such a performance, and if not what constitutes a good performance of it? How attentive should the audience be during the performance? In this particular instance, most of these questions are non-starters because it was a free event and people were allowed to wander in and out as they pleased. Additionally, musicians sprawled out onto the street, plus there were instruments outside which pedestrians were encouraged to play on as they walked by. And, of course, there was the incessant traffic on Atlantic Avenue which was every bit as musical as the sounds coming from everyone else. At one point, some friends and I wandered off for lunch and were not sure where or if the piece had temporarily ended for us. We eventually decided that it was still going on.

Indeed, if Musicircus is so open-ended to contain all and everything, is any other music possible? Is Musicircus somehow what the program annotator claimed for Europeras—the final piece of music? Cage certainly created works, including five Europeras, decades after the first performance of Musicircus at the University of Illinois in November 1967. But claiming something—anything—is the end, that something could ever stop music, is the exact opposite of what Cage’s emancipatory aesthetics is all about.

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