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26 September 2011

Lou Harrison & John Cage at Bard College

Lou Harrison (1917-2003) and John Cage (1912-1992) will be celebrated this season at Bard College's Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, courtesy of New Albion Records, with concerts on Oct. 15 (Harrison) and Nov. 11 & 12 (Cage). Featured will be two rarely performed works by both: Harrison's La Koro Sutro (1972) and Cage's James Joyce, Marcel Duchamp, Erik Satie: An Alphabet (1982).

La Koro Sutro is one of Harrison's most lavish and optimistic works, scored for 100-voice chorus, American Gamelan, harp, and pump organ. The title reflects the composer's long-time advocacy of the artificial "world language" known as Esperanto, being an Esperanto translation of the 'Heart Sutra,' the essence of the Perfect Wisdom Scriptures belonging to Mahayana Buddhism.

Harrison grew up in the culturally diverse San Francisco Bay Area, where he was exposed to Cantonese opera, Gregorian chant, and the music of both Spanish and Mexican cultures. His music avoids for the most part the traditional trappings of Western functional harmony, substituting with gorgeous melodies, unexpected rhythms, and a flow of unusual tone colors.

With regard to matters of overall style and choice of instruments, in La Koro Sutro as elsewhere, Leta E. Miller sums it up nicely by noting that

"When Lou Harrison couldn't find the sound he imagined within the Western orchestra, he looked elsewhere for inspiration -- to other cultures (Korea, Indonesia, Mexico), other sound sources (flower pots, brake drums, oxygen tanks), or other disciplines (dance, drama, literature). And if he still couldn't find it, he made it. ... He delights in combining disparate styles into untried syntheses; for instance, writing for Chinese instruments tuned in Just Intonation; composing concerti for Western instruments accompanied by Indonesian ensembles; using Esperanto for Buddhist tests; or requiring home made instruments to join the standard symphony orchestra." (from Lou Harrison: Composer a World, with Fredric Lieberman, Oxford University Press, 1998)
Performers for the Harrison program -- which will include his Solo to Anthony Cirone (1972) and Suite for Violin and American Gamelan (a collaboration with Richard Dee, 1973) -- will be the Riverside Choral Society, American Gamelan (William Winant, Ches Smith, Ben Paysen, Shayna Dunkelman), Jacqueline Kerrod, and Krista Bennion Feeney, joined by Bard College Conservatory of Music students, all conducted by Patrick Gardner, long-time director of the Riverside Choral Society.
"New Albion is honored to be a spoke in the wheel of friends, composers, musicians, conductors, labels, publishers, artists, and creative individuals who have been inspired by the deep spirituality and indomitable melodic line Lou offered the world. He is held close to many hearts, a hero in life and art, a courageous iconoclast, a person whose motto was his role on the earth: to cherish, conserve, consider, create." -- Foster and Tricia Reed, New Albion Records
New Albion Records was founded in San Francisco in 1984, dedicated to the exploration of new music. To date its catalog numbers some 138 releases (with many works of Harrison and Cage among them), but in recent years its activity has moved from recordings to concerts. With its relocation to Tivoli in 2007, very near to Bard College, New Albion now greatly enlivens the cultural life of this part of the Hudson Valley. These upcoming performances mark their fourth and fifth events collaborative with and for Bard College's Fisher Center, respectively.

John Cage's James Joyce, Marcel Duchamp, Erik Satie: An Alphabet (1982) began life as a radio on a commission from the composer's long-time friend, Klaus Schoning, and Cologne's WDR. Working on the principles of collage, Cage brings together a cast of 14 unlikely characters, some near and dear to his heart -- the title characters, along with Vocoder, Mao Tse Tung (as a child), Henry David Thoreau, Rrose Selavy, Thorstein Veblen, Buckminster Fuller, Robert Rauschenberg, Jonathan Albert, Oppian, Brigham Young, and a Narrator, orchestrator of them all -- who are made to speak together, their dialogue comprised of literal quotations, freely adapted historical materials, and lines that Cage has simply made up.

What is modern is surely collage, Cage once said, referring both to the art of juxtaposition itself and to the interactivity heard here between the living and the dead. Alphabet demonstrates a remarkably democratic intermingling of perspectives, an unmitigated humor, and an unmistakable irreverence for the particulars of history.

Performers for this production of Alphabet, a re-staging of the John Cage Trust's original theatrical realization seen in venues around the world throughout the 2001-2002 season, include John Kelly (Narrator), Mikel Rouse (James Joyce), who also constructed the multifaceted sound score from Cage's incomplete manuscripts, Joan Retallack (Buckminster Fuller), Richard Teitelbaum (Robert Rauschenberg), Trevor Carlson (Brigham Young), and others. Merce Cunningham and Jasper Johns are heard as aural spectors (on tape) in the roles of Erik Satie and Rrose Selavy, respectively, created for the original production.

Lou Harrison and John Cage were very good friends for a very long time. This is a little-known item held in the archives of the John Cage Trust, framed and hung very near to Laura Kuhn's hideously cluttered desk.

Laura Kuhn

Playing Duchamp

Laura Kuhn

07 September 2011

John Cage: On & Off the Air!

John Cage's interest in radio began in childhood with original broadcasts created on behalf of his Boy Scouts of America troop and culminated, the year before his death, with his Europera 5 (1991), one of three mixed-media works created for the operatic stage. John Cage: On & Off the Air! -- a touring program under development by the John Cage Trust that will premiere at Bard College's Fisher Center for the Performing Arts in Fall 2012-- means to celebrate this engagement with an ever-changing program of works wrapped around a newly-staged revival of Cage's peripatetic The City Wears a Slouch Hat (CBS Radio Workshop, 1942). Based on a play by Kenneth Patchen, this new staging will feature a new film of light and shadows by Mikel Rouse.

Uniquely, the four elements comprising this revival -- music, sound effects, readers/actors, and film -- will be brought together variously from venue to venue, depending on local resources and talent. Other works on the program will include such of Cage's works as Imaginary Landscape No. 1 (1939), Radio Music (1956), Credo in US (1942), Water Music (1952), 27'10.554 for a Percussionist (1956), Water Walk (1959), Speech (1955), and Rocks (1986), among others.

In conjunction with this newly-created program and the staggering number of events in the works worldwide that mean to celebrate John Cage's 2012 Centennial, free103point9 and the John Cage Trust are pleased to announce 120 Hours for John Cage, an open call for proposals involving Cage's compositions with, for, and about radio. Selected proposals will be broadcast on free103point9's FM radio station, WGXC 90.7 FM in upstate New York, and streamed online throughout a month-long program (120 hours!) scheduled for September 2012.

free103point9 is a New York State-based nonprofit arts organization establishing and cultivating the genre of transmission arts by promoting artists and works informed by the intentional use of space -- often the airwaves. Their major programs include the Transmission Art Archive, an in-progress resource featuring artists, works, exhibitions, and events that define the genre and place it in historical context, and WGXC 90.7 FM: Hands-on Radio, a creative community FM radio station serving Greene and Columbia counties in upstate New York.

The proposal categories are as follows:

1. Recordings of a specific Cage radio composition (old or new)
2. Live performances of a specific Cage radio composition (remote or on-site)
3. Original works in homage or inspired by Cage's radio compositions

The submission deadline is March 1, 2012. For more information, please visit If you're uncertain about the extent of Cage's works for, with, and about radio, or if you'd simply like to discuss possible project proposals, feel free to contact Laura Kuhn, Director of the John Cage Trust.

Key to the liveliness of both WGXC 90.7 FM and free103point9 is Galen Joseph-Hunter, editor of the recently published Transmission Arts: Artists and Airwaves (PAJ Publications, 2011), which features 150 artists notable for their sonic, visual, and live works spanning early radio experiments of the 1880s to the present day. Dealing with performance, composition, installation, broadcast, public works, and interactive network projects, it places transmission arts in historical context and lays the groundwork for the definition of a new art genre.

You can join free103point9, PAJ Publications, and the Electronic Music Foundation in celebrating this important release at the Brooklyn Book Celebration at the Issue Project Room on Oct. 18, 2011, 7 pm. Featured performers will include Todd Merrell, Kabir Carter, Terry Nauheim, Lazaro Valiente, Joel Chadabe, and others. Admission is free!

On Saturday, September 3, Galen Joseph-Hunter and Laura Kuhn engaged in a spirited, hour-long public conversation about the history and current activities of the John Cage Trust, some of the 2012 events in the worldwide pipeline, and their upcoming work together via WGXC 90.7 FM. Have a listen here!

Laura Kuhn

Photo credits: John Cage's Airborne Radio © Emily Martin, John Cage, Listening © James Klosty

06 September 2011

Music to Our Ears!

As everyone knows, percussion was near and dear to John Cage's heart. So, I'm especially proud to announce that Bard College, home to the John Cage Trust, has instituted a brand new percussion program within The Bard College Conservatory of Music. The John Cage Trust Scholarship -- the first of what we hope will be many to come -- was awarded to incoming percussion student, Zihan Yi.

Congratulations, Zihan!

The resident ensemble is none other than So Percussion. Yes, you read it right! Josh Quillen, Jason Treuting, Adam Sliwinski, and Eric Beach (from left to right above) have officially joined the Conservatory's undergraduate-only percussion faculty, along with their stellar, non-resident colleagues Greg Zuber, Daniel Druckman, and Jonathan Haas.

So Percussion is up to so many things so much of the time, it's virtually impossible to properly tout them here. They recently wrapped up their annual So Percussion Summer Institute (SoSI) at Princeton University, where special guests, in ad
dition to Princeton faculty composers Steven Mackey and Paul Lansky, included Matmos, Dan Deacon, guitarist Grey McMurray, and the composer Cenk Ergun (whose website I particularly enjoy).

And I know of at least seven So Percussion concerts in the upcoming season in which Cage's music will be performed: Bard College (Sept. 18), Stanford University (Oct. 26), U.C. Davis (Oct. 29, 30), Boston's Longy School (Feb. 9), Toronto's Royal Conservatory (March 2), the University of Texas at Austin (March 7, 8), and Carnegie's Zankel Hall (March 26). See So Percussion's website for complete details.

This seems a perfect opportunity to also tout Budapest's Amadinda Percussion Group, an ensemble of four Hungarian musicians -- Zoltan Racz, Zoltan Vacz, Aurel Holo, and Karoly Bojtos, all graduates of the Ferenc Liszt Academy of Music -- who came together in 1984 to present masterpieces of percussion music to Hungarian audiences and to stimulate the creation of new works by composers internationally. Considered one of the most original and versatile percussion ensembles in the world, Amadinda Percussion Group has to date produced no less than six compilation CDs featuring nearly* every known John Cage percussion work.

Here's the impressive line-up of recordings, with associated images and audio clips provided courtesy of Amadinda:

Volume 1 (1935-1942): Quartet (1935), Imaginary Landscape No. 1 (1939), Second Construction (1940), Living Room Music (1940), Double Music (Cage-Harrison, 1941)

Volume 2 (1941-1950): Third Construction (1941), Credo in US (1942), Imaginary Landscape No. 3 (1942) , Imaginary Landscape No. 2 (1942), The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs (1942), Amores (1943), She is Asleep (1943), A Flower (1950)

Volume 3 (1991)
: Four4 (1991)

Volume 4 (1940-1956)
: 27'10.554" for a Percussionist (1956), Fads and Fancies in the Academy (1940), Four Dances [What so proudly we hail] (1942-43)

Volume 5 (1935-1991): Six (1991), Quartet (1936), One4 (1990), Dance Music for Elfrid Ide (1940) , Three2 (1991)

Volume 6 (1975-1991): Haikai (1986), Child of Tree (1975), Branches (1976), Five4 (1991), cComposed Improvisation (bass guitar; 1987-90), cComposed Improvisation (snare drum; 1987-90), But What About the Noise of Crumpling Paper... (1985)

*While Cage aficionados may argue amongst themselves about what works should be definitively included in such a list, the only composition I'm really referring to here is the John Cage/Kenneth Patchen collaboration, The City Wears a Slouch Hat (1942), available from C.F. Peters as EP 67479. And Cage's ubiquitous 4'33", arguably scored for anything and everything, appears on Amadinda's 1988 CD entitled simply 4'33" (Hungaroton Classic 12991).

Interestingly, neither Cage's Quartet (1935) nor Trio (1935) was conceived with particular instruments in mind. As Cage himself elucidated in a 1988 interview with B. Michael Williams ("The Early Percussion Music of John Cage, 1935-1943," Percussive Notes, August 1993), it was partly due to this that early performances varied so widely. He would ultimately fix his Trio into a work for 3 percussionists, incorporating the third movement "Waltz" in his later Amores (1943), but the Quartet was allowed to (continue to) roam free.

Cage's Imaginary Landscape No. 4 (March No. 1) for 12 radios and ensemble (1951) and Imaginary Landscape No. 5 for 42 LP recordings (1952) pose particular problems. Leaving aside the question of how to best classify LP recordings and radios according to current organological standards, Cage's Imaginary Landscapes as a whole are still not fully settled with regard to chronological orderings, titles, and instrumentations. Cage himself felt compelled early on to clarify them in a letter to his California colleague, Peter Yates, as follows:

"Now for guidelines as you request on postcard. There are 5 Imaginary Landscapes. First is on the Town Hall record. Second, I hope has been lost. It was like the first as far as instrumentation goes but fancy rather than stark. The third is for percussion orchestra and a great deal of machinery and was done at the Museum of Modern Art in 1943. The 4th is for 12 radios and is also entitled March No. 2. The 5th is on tape and is fragments of 43 jazz records spliced together." (December 28, 1959)

But, as U.C. Santa Cruz Professor of Music Leta Miller* has argued, Cage's recollections sometimes serve to further muddy what are sometimes already quite muddy waters. Miller's scholarly emphasis is on mid-20th-century experimental music in the U.S., and two of her articles on John Cage bear noting here: "The Art of Noise," in Perspectives on American Music, 1900-1950, edited by Michael Saffle (Essays in American Music, Vol. 3, Garland Publications, 2000), and "Cultural Intersections: John Cage in Seattle (1938-1940)," in John Cage: Music, Philosophy, and Intention, 1933-1950, edited by David Patterson (Studies in Contemporary Music and Culture, Routledge, 2008).

*While a significant contributor to Cage scholarship, Miller is best known for her extensive writings on Lou Harrison, especially the heralded biography, with Fredric Lieberman, Lou Harrison: Composing a World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), which was released in an updated paperback edition in 2004 by the University of Illinois Press.

But, returning to Cage's Imaginary Landscape No. 4 and No. 5, confusion be damned, as both works are happily included in gorgeous new CD and DVD releases from Mode Records featuring the Percussion Group Cincinnati entitled John Cage: Works for Percussion, Vol. 1 (2011). Included on both are not only fine performances of all five of Cage's Imaginary Landscape works, but a very spirited realization of Credo in US as well, a bit of which can be seen and heard here.

All of this is, of course, music to our ears!

Laura Kuhn