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14 September 2017

John Cage's Percussion Collection (July 8, 1940)

Cage's Inventory of Percussion Instruments (July 8, 1940)
Early on known as a percussion composer, John Cage spent time in the period September 1938-Summer 1939 building a percussion instrument collection at the Cornish School in Seattle, Washington. Cage was employed at the Cornish School as composer and accompanist for the class Creative Composition and Percussion Instruments and to accompany the classes in modern dance taught by Bonnie Bird

It was at the Cornish School that Cage first met Merce Cunningham, a young man seven years his junior who hailed from Centralia, Washington, a rural part of the state, some 80 miles south.  Cunningham had entered the theater program with aspirations of becoming an actor, but quickly took to dance and thus was often in Cage's presence in Bird's modern dance classes. (Cunningham later recalled that Cage was excitedly referred to in whispers by the Cornish students as the "handsome new teacher in the red sweater"). Other faculty members in residence at Cornish were Margaret Jansen and Doris Dennison, both of whom played in Cage's ensemble, known as the Cage Percussion Players. Cunningham occasionally played with them, and Xenia, Cage’s young wife, also a transplant from Los Angeles, was a regular member. Cage referred to them all as his “literate amateur musicians.”

Merce Cunningham, Bonnie Bird, Syvilla Fort, and Dorothy Hermann,
performing "Three Inventories of Casey Jones" at the Cornish School, 1938,
choreography by Bird, music by Ray Green.
Cage's instrument collection was hard come by, and many an appeal was written to potential funders to help it grow. Cage often wrote (see The Selected Letters of John Cage, 2016) that in addition to the instruments he'd amassed, he also had access to Henry Cowell's Rhythmicon, as well as instruments invented by Léon Theremin. He had acquired a thunder screen designed by Harold ("Dr. Snodgrass") Burris-Meyer of the Stevens Institute of Technology, and he had access to instruments then being developed by his father, John Milton Cage, Sr., a well-known (and slightly eccentric) inventor, including one that would demonstrate "the variation of the overtone structure of a tone."

Works scored for percussion instruments alone were scarce at the time, and Cage appealed to a variety of composers to write scores for him. The list of composers Cage reached out to, as well as the composers whose works appeared on his programs, is eclectic: Virgil Thomson, Charles Ives, George Antheil, José Ardevol, Gerald Strang, Johanna Beyer, Edgar Varèse, Franziska Boas, Mildred Couper, Henry Cowell, Lou Harrison, William Russell, Ray Green, and Amadeo Roldan, among others. Some of these names are well known to us today, while others exist only on the fringe of memory.

The Cage Percussion Players

The Cage Percussion Players became well known at the Cornish School and around Seattle, but the ensemble widened its reach by touring a bit throughout the Northwest, presenting concerts at venues that included the University of Idaho in Moscow (Jan. 8, 1940), the University of Montana in Missoula (Jan. 9, 1940), and Whitman College in Walla Walla (Jan. 11, 1940.  The program in each of these venues consisted of works by Cage (Quartet, 1935), Johanna Beyer, Ray Green, Lou Harrison, and William Russell.  The Cage Percussion Players ended its tour at Reed College in Portland, Oregon (Feb. 14, 1940), where added to the program was the premiere performance of Cage's Second Construction.*

*Second Construction (1940) endures as one of Cage's most popular works, to both players and audiences. I'm reminded of the time I had the great pleasure of performing at an enormously successful Musicircus at the Embassy Theatre in Los Angeles on Sept. 12, 1987, an event produced by Larry Stein, a longtime member of the Repercussion Unit. This was part of the larger John Cage Festival taking place in Los Angeles (Sept. 5–12, 1987) celebrating the composer's 75th birthday. The many weeklong events included “An Evening of Words About, For, and By John Cage,” wherein Cage read his little-known (and still prescient) text “Other People Think” (1927), an essay he'd presented at the Hollywood Bowl 60 years before. I was one of eight performers in Cage's Radio Music, while Cage had been charged with reading "Part IV" from his Empty Words.  We found ourselves on a simultaneous break and we sat together quietly watching the proceedings. All of a sudden virtually everyone began to move hurriedly from one side of the theater to the other, and I quickly looked at my program: Nexus was scheduled to perform Cage's Second Construction in just moments and in exactly the position people were heading.  I commented that this must be one popular work!  Cage simply sighed and then laughed, his eyes twinkling. "Oh, yes," he said. "It's my Bolero."

Laura Kuhn

13 September 2017

A Celebratory 216 Hours of John Cage Across Ace Hotels!

John Cage's 105th birthday was celebrated this year with "Untouchable Numbers," a 24-hour listening event taking place in the lobbies and other public spaces of Ace Hotels in Chicago, London, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, New York, Palm Springs, Portland, and Seattle. The playlist was a randomized sampling of works drawn from CDs from the John Cage Edition on the Mode Records label, created by none other than Mode's founder, Brian Brandt: 75 works performed by five dozen or so individual musicians and ensembles, including John Cage himself!

Ben Sisto, mastermind of the project, prefaced the announcement of the event from his position at the New York Ace Hotel as follows:

In 1952 a composer called John Cage told us there was music in silence, and the world hasn't been the same since. Today, the gradual wearing away of stone by water, the echoes of gravitational waves, and the caloric metamorphosis of food into energy may all be understood as musical works, a privilege for which we are indebted to Cage.

So, beginning at 12 am on Sept. 5, 2017, lasting until the stroke of midnight, the sounds and silences of our favorite "sonic philosopher" were heard non-stop at Ace Hotels, comprising voices and strings and orchestras and pianos and organs and rain sticks and radios and bass guitars and snare drums and flutes and gramophones and bottles and zoomoozophones and percussion and recordings and oboes and bass trombones and handclaps and...

The press coverage was generous and fun:

LA Downtowner
Pelican Bomb
Off Beat Magazine
The Violin Channel
Instant Encore
Slipped Disc*

*This last contained Sisto's favorite quote: "No, it's not the Hilton or the Marriott."

The image at the top, by the way, was created by plotting all of the Ace Hotel locations onto a world map.

Laura Kuhn

23 August 2017

Untouchable Numbers

Ace Hotel and the John Cage Trust 
Untouchable Numbers

A listening party curated by Mode Records.

Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2017

(New York, NY)  Ace Hotel joins forces with the John Cage Trust and Mode Records to celebrate the 105th birthday of the renowned composer, philosopher, and artist John Cage. Starting at 12am on Tuesday, September 5, we'll broadcast Cage's compositions for a twenty-four hour period in Ace Hotel lobbies and public spaces worldwide. From Seattle to Pittsburgh, New Orleans to Los Angeles, and Chicago to London — we invite guests to immerse themselves in a day-long sonic experience.
About Ace Hotel 
Ace Hotel reimagines urban hotels for people who make cities interesting. We crave experience more than hospitality clichés. We are curious about the history and geography of the buildings we inhabit and let these guide us to someplace fresh and familiar. Ace is the low card and the high card. 
And Ace Hotel in New York also has two pretty wonderful restaurants: The Breslin and The John Dory Oyster Bar!

Laura Kuhn

19 July 2017

Alana Pagnutti's "Reception: The Radio-Works of Robert Rauschenberg and John Cage" (Smith+Brown, 2016)

Alana Pagnutti, Reception: The Radio-Works of Robert Rauschenberg and John Cage
(Smith+Brown, 2016 © Christine Jones)

Pagnutti's work is the first comprehensive look at how Robert Rauschenberg and John Cage embraced and employed radio in some of their most sophisticated and experimental works between 1942 and 1991. These include Rauschenberg's artworks Broadcast (1959) and Oracle (1962-1965) and Cage's compositions Imaginary Landscape No. 4 (1951), Water Walk (1959), and Variations VII (1966). Pagnutti considers how both men were influenced by Marshall McLuhan, and how both used radio to foster and provoke new qualities of experience and to elicit the participation of their audiences. Edited by Victoria Miguel, designed by Christine Jones, and with a beautiful foreword by Angus Carlyle, co-director of Creative Research into Sound Arts Practice (CRiSAP) at the London College of Communication (UAL). Illustrated, 73 pp.

The official book launch took place at Cafe OTO in London on July 10, 2017, 7-9 pm, with two performances by Arthur Bruce of Cage's Water Walk.  Fun to note that Bruce made use in his arsenal of instruments two of Cage's originals, on loan from the archives of the John Cage Trust: Cage's gong and one of his small, yarn-covered mallets.

Here's a little video excerpt of Bruce's performance (captured by filmmaker George South), where he uses both.

We offered the slightly dented pot lid that Cage used on occasion when touring (see below), but it was declined in favor of an actual cymbal, as called for in the score.

The wonderful photographer Fabio Lugaro was in attendance, and has kindly shared a few of his images below.

Laura Kuhn

19 April 2017

Notes from Underground, David Rose on John Cage

In my many years with the John Cage Trust, I've seen a lot of very fine writing about John Cage. This essayNotes from Underground, Cage : Two (Diary and Letters), is David Rose's latest, and it's absolutely beautiful. Ostensibly, it's a review of both The Selected Letters of John Cage (Wesleyan University Press, 2016) and the first ever edition of all eight parts of Cage's Diary: How to Improve the World (You'll Only Make Matters Worse) (Siglio Press, 2015). But, it's far, far more. David is an avid mycologist, and he brings his passion for and insights into the art, science, and pure contemplation of mushrooms to this essay, so much so that I found myself reading it again and again. He also is spot on with regard to Cage's views on world improvement.  I think John Cage would have been heartened to see that someone out there really understood his devotion.

This piece appears here in advance of publication courtesy of Fungi, and its publisher and editor-in-chief, Britt Bunyard.  Look for Volume 10:1, Spring 2017, coming out soon.

Laura Kuhn

31 May 2016

The Selected Letters of John Cage available!  

©Ralph Benko

Our annual "John Cage Evening" this year took place on Saturday, May 28, 6:30 p.m., at the home of hostess extraordinaire, Susan Hendrickson. I read a bit from the collection, and the discussion that followed with the invited guests was lively and informed. Click here for the archived broadcast by our local WGXC 90.7-FM.

Laura Kuhn

08 May 2016

Three Ends of the Cinematic Spectrum

I have three three remarkable films to share with you, each (quite differently) related to John Cage:

First, because it's the newest, is Scorcese's latest*: Shutter Island, a genre thrilled based on the 2003 novel by Dennis Lehane with an extraordinary performance by Leonard DiCaprio. While I loved every inch of this film, I especially loved its soundtrack, compiled by Robbie Robertson, former lead guitarist of The Band, which weaves together music by Ligeti, Marshall, Penderecki, Scelsi, Feldman, Richter, Eno, Schnittke, Harrison, Adams, Hodgkinson, Mahler, Erickson, and Cage. Actually, two of Cage's works are heard -- Root of an Unfocus (Boris Berman, on Naxos) and Music for Marcel Duchamp (Philip Vandre, on Mode) -- and in just the right spots (no spoilers here)!

©Klaus Baritsch
What's also included in Robertson's soundtrack that's received less than its critical due is Nam June Paik's Hommage a John Cage (1959-60), subtitled "Music for Tape Recorder and Piano." This was Paik's first staged action outside the boundaries of conventional music, significantly in the same venue Cage first presented his Music Walk the year before (Dusseldorf's Gallerie 22). Click here for a nice encapsulation, courtesy of Medien/Kunst/Netz, and here for a cool audio/visual clip, courtesy of the ubiquitous

*Scorcese's working with 3-D technology for his next film, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, based on the best-selling children's book by Brian Selznick recounting the story of a 12 year-old boy who lives in a Paris train station in the 1930s.

©Ralph Benko

Second, because it's the most exquisite, is as fast/slow as possible, conceived and directed by the German filmmaker and airplane pilot Paul Depprich. "What is time? What is velocity?" So begins Depprich's ponderous concept statement about his 8 hour and 23 minute HD recording of a transatlantic flight from Berlin to New York. Depprich is exploring the discrepancies that exist between objective and subjective time and speed, having been deeply inspired by Cage's As Slow As Possible, currently and for the next 600+ years being glacially sounded in Halberstadt, Germany.

This is definitely one of those times when words can't describe experience, or, put in the reverse, when art reveals itself anew. What isn't so evident in Depprich's words is just how beautiful those discrepancies can be felt when vividly captured on HD video and experienced from a living room couch. As he points out, those phases of the flight that seem the fastest -- take-off and landing -- are actually the slowest, whereas when we're up in the air and seem timelessly afloat, we're moving at maximum speed.

You're seeing only the demo DVD here, lasting a mere 32'39". With luck, I'll be enticing the folks at the Anthology Film Archives here in New York to do a screening of Depprich's extraordinary whole in their upcoming season.

Third and last, because it's an archival find, is Dove vai in vacanza? (Where Do You Go on Vacation?), a 1978 Italian gem comprising three independent episodes: I'll be all for you, directed by Mauro Bolognini, Buana, directed by Luciano Salce, and Intelligent Holidays, directed by Alberto Sordi. It's the last that I'm bringing to your attention, since Cage's 4'33" makes an extremely serious appearance here in what is otherwise a very funny scene.

The plot is simple: Remo (played by Sordi), a greengrocer, and his wife, Augusta (played by Anna Longhi), have been sent on a big city holiday by their snooty if well-meaning children, who, being close to graduation, wish their parents to experience something of their superior, learned ways before flying the coop. Remo and Augusta are treated to a number of mystifying cultural experiences on this holiday, including a meal of miniaturized food, a concert of unfathomable music, and a gallery exhibition that would do well today in Soho if painted sheep were still allowed.

While I'd recommend that you see this entire film, it's virtually impossible to come by. So, let me share at least the concert attended that includes the performance of Cage's 4'33" (which lasts a timid 2'14"). And do forgive the audio quality of this clip, which was lifted from a very aged VHS tape. The soundtrack, by the way, is by none other than Ennio Morricone, released as an LP in 1979 by RCA Italian (BL 31435).

There's a potential prize in store for those of you who've made it to the end of this lengthy blog: something hot off the press from the John Cage Trust to the first 10 people who correctly identify the other works on the program.

Laura Kuhn