The Cage Style
I was having trouble with a John Cage performance a while ago, and thought I’d take Cage’s own advice. The performance was the first ever of the complete Song Books (both sets), by the S.E.M. Ensemble at the Whitney Museum on March 31. Among other things, the performers sang a version of the Queen of the Night’s second aria from The Magic Flute, recognizable even though all the notes were changed. (This is one of what Cage calls "cheap imitations," made by arranging random pitches in the rhythm and in this case the melodic contour of some previously existing piece.) Not, all the performers were singers, of course. Sometimes they chanted, or played reverberant dominoes on a table amplified with a contact mike, or ironed a large pile of uncomplaining handkerchiefs, or walked by in animal masks, or rasped little Bronx cheeps (not a misprint), or practiced scales on the cello. At one point black flags of anarchy. appeared, .a tribute to Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, on which parts of the piece are based.
After an hour or so I got restless; it seemed like things would go on for a long time, and not all the performers were interesting. The unobtrusive ones, who were just quietly there, were usually the best; the flamboyant ones -- with a single exception, who made Cage himself laugh out loud -- showed what they could do in the first few minutes, and then just repeated at least the spirit of what they started out doing, with a delight in their one-string bows that got more cloying as time wore on. So I remembered Cage’s advice, given to a questioner from the audience during one of the conversations reproduced/reinvented (read the book to find out what the ambiguity’s about) in For the Birds. The questioner thought a Cage performance was too loud: Cage suggests that paying attention to what’s unpleasant is good discipline for the ego. Earlier, he'd said "What is important is to insert the individual into the current, the flux of everything that happens. And to do that, the wall has to be demolished: tastes, memory, and emotions have to be weakened; all the ramparts have to be razed. You can feel an emotion; just don’t think that it’s so important." I decided to take him up on that. So what if I didn’t like what I saw? I’d put my feelings aside and just watch.
When the performance ended, more than three hours after it had begun, half the audience was gone and I’d been transformed -- with a surge of tangible warmth somewhere near the finish -- from a critic, God save the mark, to a creature of delighted, unforced attention. Everyone on stage, whatever I may have thought before, now was simply there. Performers I’d liked were interesting because everything they did was fresh, at least to them; performers I hadn’t liked were interesting because everything they did was familiar. (As I sit in a Village coffee house trying to put my experience into words I find I can watch people on the street with a trace of the same dispassion.)

little stone

So is this my critical swan song? Sorry. Nobody has to be a saint; more to the point, most saints have been honored not so much for abstaining from judgment as for the clarity of the choices they do make. People who’ve criticized me for not being Cageian enough (to touch for a moment on an old quarrel) are themselves critical -- not just of me, but of music that doesn’t conform to their own criteria, and often, sadly, of each other. In For the Birds Cage himself calls one of his early piano works "boring as hell," describes someone’s playing of his music as "perfectly horrible," and recalls that an otherwise "well prepared" evening of pieces by Christian Wolff, Earle Brown, and himself "resembled church music" because its formal concert setting was "nearly unbearable" -- at the same time saying, with real humility, that he tries to "accept everything."
Zen archers shoot without emotion and hit their targets without trying to aim: Cage’s writings and personal manner suggest that judgments can coexist with the kind of acceptance of the world he’s so passionate about if the judgments made without rancor. This is part of a John Cage style that I've pieced together lately. You can play every note of a Beethoven sonata just as the score indicates, and still not get the music right; style seems even more important in Cage, because when the notes themselves are chosen by random processes, or left to the performer, how they’re played matters much mote than what they are. Cage’s writings and personal manner are a guide to his style, and so are his scores, which are put together (as Hanslick said, perhaps grudgingly, of Wagner) with "truly beelike industry."
The first violin part of Atlas Eclipticalis, for example (which is only one of the 15 instrumental parts Cage made for the piece), consists of 70 complex events that must have required hundreds of I Ching coin-tosses and star charts overlaid on music paper to work out. Violinists can play the notes in these events in any combination and in any order, but if they understand what they’re looking at should feel challenged to be as diligent as Cage as they decipher the intricate; precise notation to learn bow many notes can be long, how many can be short, bow many can be repeated, which are loud, which are soft, and how to time them to follow the conductor. They’re challenged too by the severe graphic charm of the part to play musically, but never obtrusively. Most of the sounds should be soft, according to the notation, and all should be separated by silences, so the S.E.M. Ensemble’s subdued, pointillistic realization on April 1 at the second of their three Whitney concerts ("mumbled," as The New York Times critic said) seemed appropriate, if not especially lovable. Before that, though, Joseph Kubera’s humorless approach didn’t begin to suggest the variety and high spirits of his 84-page (with a new visual delight on every one) solo part in the Concert for Piano and Orchestra. The tense sound and colorless gestures of the instrumental ensemble missed the point too. It was a fatal mistake to make the occasion so sober -- like church music -- and above all to supplement the ensemble’s regular members with hardened freelancers, at least.some of whom thought Cage was junk and came close to making him sound that way.
The Bowery Ensemble played the Concert much better at Cooper Union on April 7, in fact, from their evening performance I’d bet that their 10-hour Cage day was as exciting as the better-publicized Symphony Space marathon, and also that they’re musical and spirited enough to make anything they do worth hearing. Ivar Mikhashoff played the piano part of the Concert for them as he’d played three short pieces by Henry Cowell at Symphony Space, with an inspired air of both improvising the music and knowing it as well as a classical scholar knows the Iliad; I can fault the joyful instrumentalists only for numbing the freshness of individual sounds -- and thus missing the highest distinction of a good Cage style -- by imitating each other’s gestures too often. (Cage says that when sounds are repeated, you hear only the repetition and not the sounds; he doesn't like jazz because jazz improvisors respond to each other.) The best ensemble Cage style I’ve heard is in the 1958 performance of the Concert on the 25-Year Retrospective Concert recording I’ve praised here before: after the first few minutes, the players are so independent of each other and so enjoyably alert to their own possibilities that you never know what’s coming next.. But I did find two extraordinary individual Cage stylists at these concerts; violinist Mary Rowell, who seemed both surprised and delighted by everything she did at the three S.E.M. concerts, and cellist Frances-Marie Uitti, who repeated her afternoon performance of Etudes Boreales on the Bowery Ensemble’s evening program at Cage’s request and not only played with the heat of a high-tension wire and unfailing control and beauty of tone, a virtuoso feat in itself, but also -- which is exactly what Cage wants -- as if each note were a new creation entirely unconnected to anything that had come before. With performances like these as the standard, you can see from the lesser ones how radical Cage’s music is, and how pitiless. Musicians are always themselves when they perform Cage, which means that they’re always performing Cage no matter what else they may be playing; we’re always immersed in the current, whether we know it or not. Without a classical or even a contemporary score to hide behind, the song a Cage performer always sings is joyfully but mercilessly exposed.

(one of my columns from the Village Voice, sometime in the early '80s)

Other Village Voice columns from the '80s:

Cage Speaks Faster When the Street Gets Noisy

Feldman Draws Blood

The Struggle for Form [about Meredith Monk]

Beethoven Howls

A Fine Madness [about Milton Babbitt]

The Secret of the Silver Ticket