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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

01 May 2016

"Grammy Salute to Music Legends"

John Cage is best known as a composer, but he was also a philosopher, a poet, a chess master, a visual artist, a diarist, a mycologist, and an enthusiastic macrobiotic cook. As his biographer Ken Silverman once put it, turn over any rock and there's John Cage.

Cage was influential from the start, his radical new ideas reaching creative individuals across generations and disciplines. His prepared piano of the 1940s gave rise to beautiful and enduring compositions, and his notoriously tacit 4'33" of 1952 -- a composition in which no sounds are intentionally made by the performer -- continues to spark imaginations around the world.

His Black Mountain mixed media "event" of the same year was the progenitor of the popular theatrical form later known as the "happening." And the implications to the whole of Western music history of Cage's late-life time-bracket notation -- resulting in works that can never be played the same way twice -- have yet to be fully felt.

From 1950 John Cage adapted Buddhist practices to composition and performance, allowing complex chance operations to guide all of his work. In this way, he succeeded in bringing both authentic spiritual ideas and a liberating attitude of play to the enterprise of Western art. I am honored to accept this Special Merit Award from The Recording Academy on his behalf.

Acceptance Remarks by Laura Kuhn, "Grammy Salute to Music Legends," 
Dolby Theater, Los Angeles, April 23, 2016

The "Grammy Salute to Music Legends" ceremony in Los Angeles, which ran for nearly four hours, was spirited and lavish. There were 13 recipients, across four categories -- Lifetime Achievement Awards, Trustees Awards (Cage, Fred Foster, Chris Strachwitz), Technical Grammy Awards (both individuals and companies), and Music Educator Awards.  In addition to John Cage, awards were given to a diverse group of individuals and ensembles: Ruth Brown, Celia Cruz, Earth, Wind & Fire, Herbie Hancock, Jefferson Airplane, Linda Ronstadt, Run DMC, Fred Foster, Chris Strachwitz, EMT, Dr. Harvey Fletcher, and Phillip Riggs.  Many of the recipients were further honored with a staged performance of one kind or another of their work -- for Cage, we were treated to excellent renditions of Water Walk (Anthony Parce) and The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs (J'nai Bridges and Richard Valitutto).  And the Cage portion of the program, including my acceptance remarks, was preceded by a beautiful videotaped introduction by our great friend, the extraordinary conductor and composer Michael Tilson Thomas.

John Cage is once again in interesting company. Past individuals to receive the Trustees Award have included George Avakian (2009), The Beatles (1972), Hoagy Carmichael (2005), Alan Lomax (2003), George Martin (1996), Cole Porter (1989), Phil Spector (2000), and Leopold Stokowski (1977), among many others.

The Grammy Award itself is very beautiful -- small and surprisingly heavy -- and now has a pride of place at the John Cage Trust. I'm not at all sure what Cage himself would have thought about all of this, but I like to think that acknowledgement of any kind is to be both appreciated and cherished.  Thank you again to The Recording Academy, on his behalf.

Laura Kuhn