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09 December 2010

Cage Against the Machine

But let's start at the beginning.

The X Factor is a TV talent show franchise originating in the UK (2004) as a replacement for Pop Idol. It is a singing competition that pits contestants -- aspiring pop singers drawn from public auditions -- against each other. The programs are produced by British music executive, TV producer, and entrepreneur Simon Cowell and his company Syco TV, a subsidiary of his TV production and music publishing house Syco. The "X Factor" of the title refers to that certain, indefinable "something" that makes for star quality. The prize is public adulation and, usually, a recording contact.

A predictable fact in the UK, at least until quite recently, is that whoever wins The X Factor will assuredly release their winning song on a debut single that will go straight to No. 1 on the UK charts in time for Christmas. So when Joe McElderry won The X Factor in 2009 with the December 12 release of his terribly earnest ballad, "The Climb," he was confident he'd be celebrating the holidays in very celebrated style.

Ah, but it was not to be so. The 18-year old from South Shields was ousted by the California rock band Rage Against the Machine, and specifically for their re-release of the 1992 song, "Killing In The Name" (with the endearing iconic refrain, "Fuck you! I won't do what you tell me"). The upset was the result of a rather lofty Facebook campaign spearheaded by one Jon Morter, a 35-year old rock fan, part-time DJ, and logistics expert from Essex.

Morter had made a similar attempt in 2008 when he campaigned for Rick Astley's "Never Gonna Give You Up" against The X Factor starlet of that year, Alexandra Burke, and her song, "Hallelujah." He was not successful.

Unfazed, Morter decided to try again in 2009 with a campaign on behalf of Rage Against the Machine. But this time around he got a little help: On December 15, the comedian Peter Serafinowicz urged his 268,000+ Twitter followers to join in, and by the time Paul McCartney and former X Factor winner Steve Brookstein pledged their support, McElderry was already doomed.

Rage Against the Machine won the battle for Christmas top spot on the basis of +/- 500,000 downloads (a mere +/- 50,000 more than the runner-up). A pleasurable twist to the story was that Rage Against the Machine had gone in pledging that, should they win, 100% of the profits from their download would be given over to charities: specifically to the housing and homelessness organization Shelter, and Youth Music, the UK's largest children's music charity. True to their word, on June 6, 2010, Rage Against the Machine gave a concert in London's Finsbury Park to celebrate their success. During the set, which was attended by some 40,000 fans, the band presented the charities with a check for nearly $300,000.

Two months later, on August 12, 2010, a short piece by one Alun Palmer appeared in the Daily Mirror with the following headline: "Silence Isn't Golden for Simon Cowell and X Factor in Christmas No. Battle," wherein it was reported that a host of musicians would be gathering together to record experimental composer John Cage's classic work 4'33" as a viable contender against whomever (and whatever) Simon Cowell would ultimately throw into the 2010 ring.

"Cage Against the Machine" was started by the London-based artist Dave Hilliard in the summer of 2010 as a grassroots Facebook campaign to get Cage's 4'33" to No. 1 on the UK charts this Christmas. For him it may have simply been an amusement, or a petty war lodged against the tyranny of Simon Cowell, but, to date, it's garnered some 73,000 fans, infused over the past several months by the attention of Eddy Temple-Morris (Xfm presenter and CMU columnist), Joe Hutchinson (Ou Est Le Swimming Pool), and Mark Jones (Wall of Sound). Should 4'33" take the No. 1 spot, proceeds will again go to charities, this time five:

Interesting stuff, no?

But The X Factor may not be Cage's only contender, or, from another point of view, Cage may not be a contender at all. Since the power of an energetic grassroots Facebook campaign is obviously some measure, we might want to keep an eye on The Trashmen's "Surfin' Bird," that ubiquitous little ditty recorded in 1964 by the Minnesota-based surf rock band known as The Trashmen, which reached #4 on the Billboard Hot 100. The Facebook campaign on behalf of The Trashmen's "Surfin' Bird" has attracted, to date, an astonishing 600,000+ fans.

"Surfin' Bird" is actually a combination of two contemporary R & B hits by The Rivingtons: "Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow" and "The Bird's the Word." The earliest pressings of the single credit The Trashmen as composers, but with the threat of a lawsuit by The Rivington's legal counsel, the credit was changed to reflect the song's true origins.

Such shady beginnings matter very little, of course, and the song went on to be covered by an astonishing array of musicians over the years, including (but not limited to) The Deviants, The Ramones, The Cramps, The Boppers, Silverchair, Equipe, Sodom, The Hep Stars, The Iguanas, The Studio Sound Ensemble, Sha Na Na, The Psycho Surfers, The Queers, The Wipe Outs, and even Pee-Wee Herman. It's also sustained itself in the culture via television and film, with repeated references in Family Guy -- "I Dream of Jesus," "Big Man on Hippocampus" (launching the song to #8 on the iTunes Top 10 Rock Songs chart and #50 on the UK Singles Chart in 2009), "April in Quahog," and "Welcome Back, Carter" -- and in a single episode of the beloved Spongebob Squarepants -- "I Love Dancing." It's at work in Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket as well as in John Waters' Pink Flamingo, and it's a soundtrack option in the popular video game Battlefield Vietnam.

But back to John Cage.

Last Monday the recording of 4'33" finally happened, with a Who's Who-worthy line-up of largely Indie artists packed into Studio One of London's legendary Dean Street Studios in London.

The latest tally (drawn from conflicting reports) includes Adam F., Aeroplane, Alexander Wolfe, Alice Russell, Anne Pigalle, Barry Ashworth, Billy Bragg, Big Pink, Bishi, Bo Ningen, Chas Smash, Coldcut, Crystal Fighters, Dan Le Sac, Does It Offend You Yeah?, Dub Pistols, Enter Shikari, Fenech Soler, Fyfe Dangerfield, Gallows, Guillemots, Heaven 17, Imogen Heap, Infadels, Japanese Popsters, Jarra York, John Foxx, John McLure, Kilford the Music Painter, Kooks, Loose Cannons, Man Like Me, Rix Mc, Monarchy, Mr. Hudson, Napolean IIIrd, Olly Wride Orbital, Ou Est Le Swimming Pool, Penguin Prison, Scroobius Pip, South Central, Suggs, Teeth!!!, Tom Alison, Tom Milsom, Unkle, Venus in Furs, Whitey...

The producers were Paul Epworth (Friendly Fires/Florence & The Machine), Clive Langer (Madness's producer), and Charlie Rapino (That That, Kylie Minogue). The event was also apparently filmed for a documentary and promo release by music film legend Dick Curruthers (Oasis, Manics, Rolling Stones).


The press has been relentless. Check out this, or this, or this, or this, or this, or this, or this (which, curiously, also finally reveals what really happened between Cage & Batt...), and then search anew tomorrow morning over coffee. As different as Cage's 4'33" is from whatever song emerges as victorious from The X Factor this weekend, it can't possibly be any more different than The Trashmen's "Surfin' Bird." Come what may (and be careful what you wish for), it's been pretty amazing to watch so many imaginations captured by Cage's work. What a world.

Laura Kuhn

10 November 2010

John Cage, "How to Get Started" (1989- )

Slought Foundation and the John Cage Trust have joined forces to present How to Get Started, a unique and permanent interactive installation featuring a rarely heard performance by John Cage.

John Cage's first and only performance of How to Get Started in 1989 was conceived of almost as an afterthought--a performance substituting for another that had been previously planned. In the performance, delivered at a sound design conference in Nicasio, California, Cage talks about the difficulty of initiating the creative process, and about improvisation, a subject about which he had long been deeply ambivalent. He proposes a collaborative framework in which sound engineers capture and subsequently layer his extemporized monologue, which consisted of ten brief commentaries on topics then of interest. This amounted to an experiment having to do with thinking in public before a live audience.

Twenty years after the initial performance, the John Cage Trust and Slought Foundation have created an interactive installation enabling the public to participate in its further life at Slought Foundation by adding their voice to the mix. The John Cage Trust turned to Slought Foundation for this collaboration in part because its range of projects has often referenced Cage and those he worked with or influenced during his long career. It is our joint intent that this installation will allow Slought Foundation to become a node of activity for artists, scholars, and others interested in Cage's life and work and ideas.

The project's website will become an evolving digital repository and archive for the recordings generated at Slought Foundation by invited artists and others.

For more information:

What You Can Do

1. familiarize yourself with Cage's realization by visiting the website, attending the exhibition, or
purchasing the project publication
2. get out ten index cards and write down ten topics of interest
3. practice extemporizing on each topic, in random order
4. notice that Cage never spoke for more than three minutes on a single topic
5. visit
Slought Foundation and schedule a session

Curated by Laura Kuhn, Director of the John Cage Trust, Aaron Levy, Executive Director of Slought Foundation, and Arthur Sabatini, professor of Performance Studies at Arizona State University. Exhibition design by Ken Saylor, sound design by Peter Price, and exhibition graphics by Project Projects. Engineering of John Cage's recording by Chris Andersen, Nevessa Production. Photograph of John Cage by Loren Robare.

This program is made possible in part through the generous support of The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage through the Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative. Support has also been provided by the Samuel S. Fels Fund, the John Cage Trust, and the Society of Friends of the Slought Foundation.

12 September 2010

Two Words

Sister Mary Katherine entered the Monastery of Silence.

The Priest said, 'Sister, this is a silent monastery. You are welcome here as long as you like, but you may not speak until directed to do so.'

Sister Mary Katherine lived in the monastery for 5 years before the Priest said to her, 'Sister Mary Katherine, you have been here for 5 years. You may speak two words.'

Sister Mary Katherine said, 'Hard bed.'

'I'm sorry to hear that,' the Priest said. 'We will get you a better bed.'

After another 5 years, Sister Mary Katherine was summoned by the Priest. 'You may say another two words, Sister Mary Katherine.'

'Cold food,' said Sister Mary Katherine, and the Priest assured her that the food would be better in the future.

On her 15th anniversary at the monastery, the Priest again called Sister Mary Katherine into his office. 'You may say two words today.'

'I quit,' said Sister Mary Katherine.

'It's probably for the best,' said the Priest. 'You've done nothing but bitch ever since you got here.'

Laura Kuhn

03 September 2010

Foraging at the John Cage Trust

Summer is upon us with a vengeance here in the Hudson Valley, and it was with great delight that I discovered a virtual forest of mushrooms in our very own expansive backyard. And not one but two different kinds! Does anyone know what these are?????

Cage was, of course, a more than amateur mycologist, one who, with Guy Nearing and others, founded the New York Mycological Society in 1962. He loved everything about mushrooms, but maybe especially their culinary possibilities. He nearly killed himself on one once, a mishap recounted with wry humor in one of the stories for Indeterminacy that didn't make it into the Smithsonian Folkways recording:

"When I first moved to the country, David Tudor, M.C. Richards, the Weinribs, and I all lived in the same small farmhouse. In order to get some privacy I started taking walks in the woods. It was August. I began collecting the mushrooms which were growing more or less everywhere. Then I bought some books and tried to find out which mushroom was which. Realizing I needed to get to know someone who knew something about mushrooms, I called the 4-H Club in New City. I spoke to a secretary. She said they'd call me back. They never did.

The following spring, after reading about the edibility of skunk cabbage in Medsger's book on wild plants, I gathered a mess of what I took to be skunk cabbage, gave some to my mother and father (who were visiting) to take home, cooked the rest in three waters with a pinch of soda as Medsger advises, and served it to six people, one of whom, I remember, was from the Museum of Modern Art. I ate more than the others did in an attempt to convey my enthusiasm over edible wild plants. After coffee, poker was proposed. I began winning heavily. M.C. Richards left the table. After a while she came back and whispered in my ear, "Do you feel all right?" I said, "No, I don't. My throat is burning and I can hardly breathe." I told the others to divide my winnings, that I was folding. I went outside and retched. Vomiting with diarrhea continued for about two hours. Before I lost my will, I told M.C. Richards to call Mother and Dad and tell them not to eat the skunk cabbage. I asked her how the others were. She said, "They're not as bad off as you are." Later, when friends lifted me off the ground to put a blanket under me, I just said, "Leave me alone." Someone called Dr. Zukor. He prescribed milk and salt. I couldn't take it. He said, "Get him here immediately." They did. He pumped my stomach and gave adrenalin to keep my heart beating. Among other things, he said, "Fifteen minutes more and he would have been dead."

I was removed to the Spring Valley hospital. There during the night I was kept supplied with adrenalin and I was thoroughly cleaned out. In the morning I felt like a million dollars. I rang the bell for the nurse to tell her I was ready to go. No one came. I read a notice on the wall which said that unless one left by noon he would be charged for an extra day. When I saw one of the nurses passing by I yelled something to the effect that she should get me out since I had no money for a second day. Shortly the room was filled with doctors and nurses and in no time at all I was hustled out.

I called up the 4-H Club and told them what had happened. I emphasized by determination to go on with wild mushrooms. They said, "Call Mrs. Clark on South Mountain Drive." She said, "I can't help you. Call Mr. So-and-so." I called him. He said, "I can't help you, but call So-and-so who works in the A&P in Suffern. He knows someone in Ramsey who knows the mushrooms." Eventually, I got the name and telephone of Guy G. Nearing. When I called him, he said, "Come over any time you like. I'm almost always here, and I'll name your mushrooms for you."

I wrote a letter to Medsger telling him skunk cabbage was poisonous. He never replied. Some time later I read about the need to distinguish between skunk cabbage and the poisonous hellebore. They grow at the same time in the same places. Hellebore has pleated leaves. Skunk cabbage does not."

And years later he gambled with the lives of many of us attending the 1989 "Composer-to-Composer Festival" in Telluride, Colorado, when he cooked up a batch he couldn't quite identify for a communal, post-concert dinner. We gobbled them down and, obviously, lived to tell. By the way, in case you don't know it, the Telluride Mushroom Festival is a very big deal in the Rocky Mountain West, being a celebration of "all things fungal & entheogenic" whose 30th annual just passed.

Cage's personal library, housed here at the John Cage Trust, was full of books about mushrooms, many for use in the kitchen. One of his favorites was this one here -- Wild Mushroom Recipes (1976), put out by the Puget Sound Mycological Society, edited by Pauline Shiosaki -- obviously pre-dating his devotion to macrobiotics. Look below for three randomly drawn recipes from this sweet little collection.

Anyone interested in the subject will want to peruse the holdings of the John Cage Mycology Collection, gifted in 1971 by Cage himself to the University of California, Santa Cruz, and long lovingly administered by Rita Bottoms. Alas, the materials comprising this collection are not available online, but there is quite a bit of detail about what's there (photographs, correspondence, newsletters, historical records) should you want to consider a visit. And don't miss one of the most beautiful compilation essays written to date on the subject that appeared in a little-known magazine called Fungi (Volume 1, Winter 2008), entitled "A Plurality of One: John Cage and the People-to-People Committee on Fungi," authored by David W. Rose. Really, really good reading!

Laura Kuhn

01 September 2010

Fun Things Abroad

This summer has been especially rich with travel, most of it for the sheer pleasure of attending Cage-related events in Europe. Since June, I've visited Newcastle, Florence, and Halberstadt, and while each of the host organizations and/or venues has fairly extensive expository Web materials to browse, I thought I'd share some unique photos, a few words about highlights, and some links. Each was lovely, in its own unique way.

First stop, Newcastle, in the north of England, for the first of five venues of "Every Day is Good Day," the brainchild of Roger Malbert and Jeremy Millar brought forth as a touring exhibition under the auspices of London's Southbank Centre (where Malbert is senior curator). This is an exhibition deeply inspired by John Cage, since the use of chance operations determines the layout of the exhibition from venue to venue. More than 100 works, most borrowed from the permanent collection of the John Cage Trust and including drawings, watercolors, and prints, are seen in ever-changing configurations. And although the exhibition itself focuses on Cage's visual art, each venue is programming ancillary events that explore other aspects of Cage's practices -- music, to be sure, but also writings, dance, performance, and film. The exhibition catalog is the first to touch upon all aspects of Cage's work as a visual artist, and it includes more than 60 plates. It also incorporates a substantial extract from Irving Sandler's thoughtful 1966 interview with Cage on the subject of visual art.

Newcastle's Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art is grand, and the collection breathes beautifully here. I especially loved its installation of Cage's HPSCHD (seen above). While the Baltic iteration closes on Sept. 5, others can be seen successively at Kettle's Yard in Cambridge (Sept. 25-Nov. 14), the Huddersfield Museum and Art Gallery (Nov. 20-Jan. 8), Glasgow's Hunterian Art Gallery (Feb. 19-Apr. 2), and the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill on Sea (Apr. 16-June 5). There may be a culminating event at Southbank itself, in September 2011, so stay tuned.

Second stop*, Florence, for a lively "musicircus" (June 24, 2010) at the exquisite national museum of the Palazzo Vecchio. Imagine some 80 of Cage's compositions sounding variously (and simultaneously) throughout these hallowed halls -- really, one could only marvel at the sheer presence of electronic sound in the Salone dei Cinquecento! The event was entitled "Music Exposed" and involved roughly 40 musicians of the seasoned Flamensemble, headed up by Andrea Cavallari. Their performances ran for over eight hours (attended by literally thousands of people), which were beautifully captured by the remarkable photographer Riccardo Cavallari (incidentally, Andrea's twin brother!). Check out his slideshow here.

*An asterisk here because technically my second stop was Lyon for discussions with Thierry Raspail, director of the Musee d'art contemporain de Lyon, about bringing France into the John Cage 2012 fold. With luck, more about this later in the year.

Third stop, Halberstadt, to not only bear witness (July 5, 2010) to a note change in Cage's elongated Organ2/ASLSP in the Church of St. Buchardi but to execute it! While the work was launched by the John Cage Organ Project on Cage's birthday in 2001, this was my first visit and it was something of an epiphany. I usually arrive only for the bittersweet culmination of people's engagement with Cage, but in Halberstadt it was I who was ephemeral, since the work will be ongoing long after any of us is here to witness. It was an extremely moving experience -- as much for the people involved as for the sounding of the work. And in case you missed it, here's Daniel Wakin's piece as it appeared in the New York Times (2007), sweetly entitled "An Organ Recital for the Very, Very Patient."

The image just above, by the way, is of the gateway to a garden situated behind the home of one of the key participants of the John Cage Organ Project, where many meals were shared. In my experience, such gathering spots are critical, since they not only provide necessary respites for weary travelers, but the even more necessary space to communally reflect and converse. I am reminded of the many, many impromptu late-night, post-concert suppers at the Cage-Cunningham loft, for which I will always be grateful. New York City can be a lonely place without them.

Laura Kuhn

25 August 2010

John Cage's Lonely Grant Application

There were many, many dinner parties at Merce Cunningham's loft over the years, but one in particular comes to mind with regard to the subject of the present blog.

I was preparing food at the long wooden block just inside the kitchen, greeting guests as they came in the front door. Merce was seated on one of the barstools just across from me, and Jasper Johns, one of the first guests to arrive, lingered as he came in to chat. I was in a particularly disgruntled mood, sharing my thoughts with the composer Mikel Rouse, another early guest, about the difficulties of being an artist in today's society. It was a mundane conversation, one of many, this time on the heels, if memory serves, of the dissolution of the N.E.A.'s program of awarding grants to individual artists. "It's virtually impossible to be an artist today" we jointly bemoaned to anyone who'd listen. Jasper snorted a bit, rolled his eyes, and turned to Merce with an aside. "Yes," he said. "It was so easy when we were starting out!"

I was humbled, to say the least, since it is of course true that any artist worth his or her salt finds life difficult for any number of reasons, be it 50 years ago or today. So, apropros this little anecdote, I thought it might interest people to take a look at John Cage's only grant application, submitted sometime around 1940, when he was not yet 30 years old, to the Guggenheim Foundation.  He was requesting support for a Center of Experimental Music at Mills College with the stated purpose of undertaking "research in the field of sounds and rhythms formerly considered not music."

I'm not sure if this will make you feel better or worse, but his application was denied.

Laura Kuhn

29 July 2010

3 Good Reads

All manner of books come to my notice here at the John Cage Trust, and some want far wider attention than they might otherwise receive from normal channels of publisher distribution and advertising.  Hence, here are three mini-reviews of my summer reading thus far!

The biggest surprise is Jannika Bock's Concord in Massachusetts, Discord in the World: The Writings of Henry Thoreau and John Cage, a dissertation completed at the University of Hamburg (2008) and published as Volume 6 in the "American Cultures Series" by Peter Lang.  Barring the obstacles to pure reading pleasure inherent in any academic writing -- text that argues incessantly with itself, the repetitive reiteration of what's been said and what will be said -- this is an extremely useful book, fairly comprehensive of an extremely important topic.  I say fairly because Bock's coverage is limited to Cage's published writings, without benefit of the lesser-known manuscripts housed here at the John Cage Trust.  Nonetheless, I found this book extremely illuminating, but maybe less for what is said about John Cage than for what is said about Henry David Thoreau.  The author is German born, and her work is further testament, if any is needed, to the value of outside eyes that look pointedly in.  We know that Thoreau was important to Cage, evidenced by the many works by Cage that rely in one way or another upon the work of Thoreau, but after reading this book I'm tempted to go further and say that Cage may in fact have been Thoreau's embodiment in music.

Another remarkable book that I've watched long in the making is Renee Levine Packer's The Life of Sounds: Evenings for New Music in Buffalo (2010), now available from Oxford University Press.  This is a compelling account of the lively new music scene that began at the State University of Buffalo in the 1960s that culminated with the appointment of Morton Feldman as director in the 1970s (following in the formidable wake of Lukas Foss and Lejaren Hiller). The text is authoritative and insightful (Levine Packer was a key official with the Center of the Creative and Performing Arts), and also beautifully written. Cage figures nicely here, of course, alongside the veritable who's who that was Buffalo at the time: George Crumb, Terry Riley, Cornelius Cardew, Maryanne Amacher, Frederic Rzewski, David Tudor, Julius Eastman, Jim Tenney, Iannis Xenakis, and many, many others.  The book provides valuable accounts of the Center's influential concert series, "Evenings for New Music," and the extensive appendix materials include a useful timeline, interviews, a roster of the Creative Associates (and graduate fellows) from 1964 to 1980, and a selected discography of recordings by members of the Center.  Brava, Renee!

And, I'm happy to say that I was privileged last week to read the galley proofs of Kenneth Silverman's long-awaited and now forthcoming Begin Again: A Biography of John Cage, soon to be published by Knopf.  Silverman is a well seasoned biographer, whose previous works have focused on the likes of Samuel Morse, Houdini (Ehrich Weiss), Edgar A. Poe, and Cotton Mather.  He's clearly inclined toward the experimental and iconoclastic, and he situates Cage squarely within a camp that includes Gertrude Stein, Charles Ives, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and, perhaps especially, Walt Whitman.  I expect this book to greatly diminish at least a bit of my work here at the John Cage Trust, in that it answers many a biographical question.  (Not to sound immodest, but even I learned a lot from its innumerable anecdotes!)  It's extremely well researched evidenced by the meticulous substantiations that comprise its "Documentation" section.  Add to this is a lively little CD of a dozen or so excerpts of works by Cage previously released on Mode Records, provided courtesy of Brian Brandt, and featuring such stellar performers as Philipp Vandre, Martine Joste, Ensemble Modern, Irvine Arditti, Stephen Drury, and even Cage himself.  Excellent work, Ken, and may this first exemplary biography of John Cage set the bar for many more to come!

And just a little heads-up that the John Cage Book of Days 2011 is now available!  My favorite Cage quote of this new edition?

"We can't know when, but being cheerful helps."

Laura Kuhn

20 May 2010

3 Noteworthy Things

Sometimes the workload here at the John Cage Trust is such that important things sort of flit by, almost unnoticed. Once they finally attraction proper attention, however, they simply won't leave my head until I manage to pass them along to others. Such is the case with three distinct items from the past week or so, which I'm sharing here, below, in no particular order of import.

First, in case anyone's missed it: Kyle Gann's latest book, No Such Thing As Silence: John Cage's 4'33", is now available from Yale University Press. This book is really, really marvelous, and should be quickly devoured by any and all Cage enthusiasts, novice and seasoned alike. (I particularly loved the materials on Cage and Muzak, which I found both charming and enlightening.) Kyle is a colleague here at Bard College, but we've been friends for years, dating back to the days when he was the heralded music critic for The Village Voice. Gann's latest effort is really impressive, as much for what it is as for what it isn't: this is a reasoned, concise, playful, and soundly comprehensive book about John Cage's 4'33", without critical obfuscation -- no side bars, no witty anecdotal meanderings, no cheeky offhand remarks. Just a very good read about a very important work.

Second, virtually everyone knows John Cage's Water Walk, as performed by the master himself on the 1960 American TV quiz show "I've Got a Secret." While it hasn't garnered as much press as, say, Halberstadt's 639-year unfolding of Cage's ASLSP, or the kerfuffle that ensued over Mike Batt's alleged appropriation of Cage's 4'33" for The Planets' first CD, "Classical Graffiti," it is definitely the work by Cage, at present and to date, with the greatest World Wide Web presence.

But what may have gone virtually unnoticed is a very nice article by the Toronto-based artist Laura Paolini on the subject of this performance within the context of what was arguably something of the best of prime-time American television in the early 1960s, entitled "John Cage's Secret". This is a really nice piece that digs a little deeper into Cage's forays into contemporary (dare I say pop) culture than most. It appeared in an interesting if little-known magazine emanating out of Montreal called Les Fleurs du Mal (specifically, Vol. 3, No., in an issue entitled "Secret"), which serves as a creative forum for emerging and professional artists. It's published only occasionally, with all of its content open to the public, so keep an eye out for the next edition.

Third, and last, and a bit of a surprise, is the lovely Reverend Colin Bossen, Minister of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland, who recently gave a church worship service entitled "The Buddha Should be as Useful as a Can: Meditations on the Spirituality of John Cage" (Sunday, May 16, 2010, 11am-12noon). Not only did Reverend Bossen incorporate into his service readings from Cage's Anarchy and Lecture on Nothing, but Karin Tooley, church musician (and, interestingly, extensively engaged as a pianist for dancers), interpolated performances of Cage's Two Pieces for Piano, Ophelia, In A Landscape, and 4'33" as well. Reverend Bossen's sermon was so thoughtful, and his context for reflection so unusual by standard Cage measures, I can't resist sharing this with you, here, in transcript. Rumor has it that there'll be an mp3 audio version of this sermon available soon, accessed through the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland's website, so do check back.

Laura Kuhn

17 May 2010

Lecture on the Weather: John Cage in Buffalo

Last February, Emy Martin, who works here at the John Cage Trust at Bard College, attended The Burchfield Penney Art Center at Buffalo State College's closing weekend of Lecture on the Weather: John Cage in Buffalo, a marathon 23-day theatrical event organized by its Associate Director, Don Metz.

The title of this event refers, of course, to Cage's Lecture on the Weather, a multimedia stage work composed in collaboration with Maryanne Amacher and Luis Frangella on commission from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 1975 in observance of America's bicentennial. Based on texts of Henry David Thoreau, it's a work that brings together various elements -- speech, music, film, lighting, and a weather soundscape -- to form a softly political piece as relevant today as the year it was written. It was the work chosen for inclusion at the commemoratve 2007 concerts celebrating the placement of the John Cage Trust at Bard College, hosting an all-star cast: John Ashbery, Ralph Benko, Leon Botstein, Sage Cowles, Merce Cunningham, Jasper Johns, John Kelly, Garry Kvistad, Joan Retallack, Mikel Rouse, John Ralston Saul, Richard Teitelbaum, and a select number of extremely talented students from Bard's Conservatory of Music and Music Program. The work was performed twice, separated by a brief intermission, with a subtle change of cast. While we wait for an angel to sprinkle upon us the funds needed for a commercial release (and thanks in the meantime to Chris Andersen at Nevessa Production in Saugerties for painstakingly beautiful recordings -- stereo *and* Dolby surround!), click here for a slideshow of images from the Bard College performances captured by Donald Dietz, accompanied by Cage's reading of his introductory "Preface" to the work, as heard in the premiere CBC performance.

But, returning to Lecture on the Weather: John Cage in Buffalo, Cage was in Buffalo nearly 20 times between 1960 and 1991, participating in concerts and residencies involving the Center for the Creative and Performing Arts, June in Buffalo, Evenings for New Music at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, the S.E.M. Ensemble, and the North American New Music Festival. As Martin notes, what made this festival so unique was that Buffalo itself was included as a guest artist, since this event showcased talent from Western New York, many of whom were inspired by the work of John Cage (see participants list below). Don Metz tells how the event came to be:

"The catalyst for this exhibition was a chance conversation with Jan and Diane Williams while walking through the east gallery at the Burchfield Penney. Jan had just participated in two distinct performances of Lecture on the Weather presented by the John Cage Trust: one at Bard College's Fisher Performing Arts Center and the other, co-sponsored by the Electronic Music Foundation, at the Chelsea Art Museum in New York City. Jan and Diane thought that the East Gallery would be an ideal performance venue for the work -- the 28' ceiling height for the film projections by Luis Frangella and the 5 1/2" reverberation for sound by Maryanne Amacher would work well here, we thought, if we could open up the gallery for a weekend sometime in-between exhibitions. As chance would have it, a change in our exhibition schedule provided an opportunity for a 23-day exhibition. After numerous conversations, it was decidedLecture on the Weathercould be performed four times during the exhibition's run, and we would project Frangella's film and Amacher's sounds that accompany the performance at non-performance times. After the customary research into copyright issues, the exhibition was set.

It became evident that we would need a computer to send the images and sounds throughout the gallery utilizing some kind of random playback system. I asked Brian Milbrand if he would be interested in assisting with this and he said yes. He told me that he and Kyle Price had recently created a piece for toy piano, interactive multimedia, and female voice in honor of John Cage. I asked him if he would be interested in performing it during the run of the exhibition. Brian spoke to Kyle and they readily agreed.

I began contemplating other performances and thought about Sixty Two Mesostics re: Merce Cunningham. A pattern was evolving, and as I began talking to other Cage fans about the project, I would ask them if they would like to be involved. The enthusiasm was sensational, and as artists were added to perform both Cage's music and their own, I began imagining the exhibition as a 23-day theatrical performance. As works were selected, they were added to the random playback system to be presented at various intervals during gallery hours. At times, these recordings would overlap with live performances. As in a Cage "musicircus," the audience was situated in the center of the Gallery and free to move around while experiencing sounds from other galleries as they bleed into various spaces.

In selecting artists and their proposed works, there was no real thought as to what would fit 'best.' I simply mentioned the project to people that I ran into who I knew were interested in Cage. If they asked to be involved, I simply said, Yes!"

As Emy recounted, the feeling in the air over the course of the weekend was both incredibly organized and incredibly relaxed. So that there was enough discipline to listen, but also enough space to simply let your mind wander. As she put it, "Structurally everything was at ease, and those of us in the audience, like the performers themselves, had an unmistakeable calm about them". Which was no small feat, given the density of the programming. Click here for a PDF of the complete schedule of performances, and here for the final weekend's rendezblue "Chance Operations" program booklet.

with works by: John Cage, Michael Basinki, John Bacon, Brian Milbrand, Andrew Deutsch, Kyle Price, J.T. Rinker, Tom Kostusiak, Jeff Proctor, John Toth, Bill Sack, David Lampe, Peter Ramos, Michael Colquhoun, Elliot Caplan, David Felder, Bohuslav Martinu, Jacob Druckman, Erik Satie, and Ron Ehmke. with performances by: A Musical Feast, Bugallo/Williams Duo, Bufffluxus, Buffalo State College Percussion Ensemble, Michael Basinki, John Bacon, Brian Milbrand, Andrew Deutsch, Kyle Price, J.T. Rinker, Tom Kostusiak, David Lampe, Ed Cardoni, Tony Conrad, Peter Ramos, Brad Fuster, Don Metz, Bill Sack, Ron Emke, Jeff Proctor, Michael Miskuly, Diane Williams, Jan Williams, Pam Swarts, Alan Kryszak, Michael Colquhoun, Daniel Darnley, Peter Evans, Jacob Frasier, Xiaohang Li, Mathew Tate, Cris Fritton, Jeannie Hoag, Mike Mahoney, Holly Meldard, and Steve Zultanski.

Embedded Photos ©Emily Martin.

Laura Kuhn

27 April 2010

Something About Cage's Time

I alluded late last year, on the heels of our John Cage Symposium at Bard College, to an interesting talk given at one of the sessions by Bard's resident biologist and (more than) amateur watchsmith, Dwane Decker, entitled "Replicable Chance: Time as Structure in Aleatory Composition" (11/1/09, 10 a.m., Olin Hall).

The audience was modest, as was the case for virtually all of the Symposium sessions, but the response in this case was particularly enthusiastic. Of course, any lecture on the subject of "Cage and Time" piques the interest of any Cage enthusiast, and even the laziest among us showed up for Decker's early morning talk. But no one could have anticipated Decker's unique vantage point, which was to explore Cage's use of (and interest in) time through an in-depth look at his personal timepieces.

Decker's presentation has stayed with me for months -- perhaps as much for its intimacy as its originality -- and I'm very happy to say that he's agreed to let us link to a transcript of his complete presentation here. Well, not quite complete. What's *not* included here is his really elucidating closing demonstration: a screening of Cage's performance of Water Walk (courtesy of the ubiquitous 1960 episode of "I've Got a Secret"), while at the same time manipulating, as Cage may well have done, the two synchronized second hands of Cage's own A.R. and J.E. Meylan stopwatch, which we were able to witness via microscope projections to screen. The audience was, to say the least, enthralled.

In addition to Cage's watches -- both his A.R. and J.E. Meylan Swiss stopwatch and his workaday Accutron Spaceview from America's own Bulova Watch Company, both of which are covered in great detail in Decker's talk -- the John Cage Trust is home to two other well-known Cage timepieces:

The doubled-faced, dual-action clock he used whenever engaged in competitive chess matches at home, and

his doubles-as-a-doorstop, metal-encased Kodak Timer, reportedly used in several performances of his Concerto for Piano and Orchestra.

The Kodak Timer, of course, has been memorialized in Jack Mitchell's well known and quite marvelous photograph of John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and "clock" (c.1968).

But while I'm on the subject of the John Cage at Bard College Symposium, let me share a slide show of some 90-odd images taken across the three days by the amazing photographer Donald Dietz.

The presenters, performers, and all-around essential participants, many of whom you'll recognize, were Katherine Adamov, James Bagwell, Bob Bielecki, David Bloom, Jo Brand, Frank Corliss, Dwane Decker, Kyle Gann, Kayo Iwama, Michael Ives, Rebeccah Johnson, Erica Kiesewetter, Laura Kuhn, Peter Laki, Tom Mark, Emy Martin, Julie Martin, Robert Martin, Blair McMillen, Rufus Muller, NEXUS (Bob Becker, Bill Cahn, Russell Hartenberger, Garry Kvistad), John Pruitt, Joan Retallack, Marina Rosenfeld, Sandra Skurvida, Jenni Sorkin, Richard Teitelbaum, and Jason Treuting. And, of course, the many, many incredible students from the Bard College Conservatory, Music Program, Graduate Vocal Arts Program, and Center for Curatorial Studies. And thank you to Brian Nozny for his beautiful arrangement of Cage's Chess Pieces, reprised here, and Leon Botstein for the sumptuous opening day lunch.

Laura Kuhn

10 February 2010

The John Cage Prepared Piano Project

One of the very real pleasures of running the John Cage Trust is learning early on about interesting, under-the-radar projects going on around the world involving John Cage's work. This one was brought to my attention late last year by its producer, Ju-Ping Song.

Ms. Song is a pianist at the Pennsylvania Academy of Music in Lancaster. In August 2008 she was charged with creating a new music department, and to "...come up with a first project that would bring new sounds to [students'] ears without alienating them. The works to be performed needed to be interesting enough without being too stylistically or technically difficult. And the end result -- the performance -- had to make a statement, not be just another student recital.

"The Academy is responsible for more than 300 pre-college level students, and as her first project, Ms. Song prepared 16 children aged 6 to 18, along with two adults, for a tag-team performance of Cage's Sonatas & Interludes for Prepared Piano.

This was reportedly the children's first exposure to Cage's music. They learned first about preparing a piano, Ms. Song recounts, along the way being exposed to a kind of music that does not necessarily have a classical tonal center or regular meters. While skeptical at first, the participants were soon won over, and ended up revealing themselves to be children with "open minds and dedicated hearts".

The John Cage Prepared Piano Project was testing ground for a New Sounds Concert Series at Penn Academy, its mission "to create and nurture a need for contemporary art music in our daily lives." With its success came the formation of two new ensembles, both with flexible instrumentation, and a three-concert series planned for this coming spring. The second, performed by NakedEye Ensemble (faculty-based), slated for March 26, will include works by David Lang, Kengo Tokusashi, Luciano Berio, Louis Andriessen, and Kim Helweg. On April 18, the third concert will feature Barefoot Ensemble (student-based) in its first-ever concert of works by Charles Ives, Frederic Rzewski, Peter Hatch, Steve Reich, and John Pamintuan, this last a New Sounds commission for children's choir and ensemble.

But the first concert of the Series, scheduled for February 26, will be given by none other than Ju-Ping Song herself, Founder-Director of the Series, performing works by Cage, Stephen Montague, George Crumb, Peter Hatch, and Rzewski. In addition to her work at the Penn Academy, Ms. Song is a founding member of FLAMEnsemble, an eclectic and flexible group that organizes and performs in a yearly contemporary music festival in Florence. This year FLAMEnsemble's "Musica Esposta" at the Museo Nazionale del Bargello plans to include a non-stop "John Cage Day" on June 24, which, at last count, will feature nearly 50 works!

In addition to its regular concert series, future projects at the Academy include a biannual "Composer Portrait Series", commencing Spring 2010 with a live performance of Philip Glass's music to accompany a rare screening of Godfrey Reggio's complete "Qatsi Trilogy": Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, and Nagoyqatsi. In the Spring of 2012, we'll feast upon an ambitious three-day John Cage Centennial Festival, featuring not only Cage's music, but also writings, artworks, and films.

Laura Kuhn