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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