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30 November 2009

John Cage Arrangements

While arrangements are not uncommon in musical practice -- the reworking of a composition written for one instrument or a set of instruments for another -- in John Cage's case they are quite unusual. There are really only two works in his lengthy catalog that fit neatly into this category: his Cheap Imitation (1969) for piano, deriving from a 1918 dramatic composition by the French composer Erik Satie entitled Socrate, originally conceived for voice and orchestra, and his Hymns and Variations (1979) for 12 amplified voices, based solely upon two early American hymn tunes by William Billings, Old North and Heath.

While both works are remarkable purely as arrangements, they're also noteworthy for their sheer melodiousness, not an adjective commonly applied to Cage's works of their time. And Cheap Imitation is also unusual for its history, spanning as it does some 30 peregrinating years, which is all beautifully recounted in James Pritchett's liner notes for the Mode Records 1998 CD, "Cage: The Works for Piano 3", capturing the magnificent keyboard artistry of Stephen Drury.

But here's a bit of archival footage of Cage himself playing the work in 1975 in a classroom setting at Broward Community College in Dade County, Florida, shared courtesy of Gustavo Matamoros, Director of Miami's Interdisciplinary Sound Arts Workshop.

Given the paucity of arrangements in his own catalog, one might wonder what Cage would think of the two works that make use of his works that were featured at last month's John Cage at Bard College Symposium. Of all of the pieces included in the two evening programs (this is a pdf file) at the Fisher Center for the Performing Arts on Oct. 30 and 31, these little-known arrangements were clear audience favorites.

The first, Eric Salzman's Five Dances (1996-97), is an arrangement for string quartet of five works by Cage originally composed for prepared piano: Our Spring Will Come (1943), Dream (1948), Totem Ancestor (1943), In a Landscape (1948), and A Room (1943). While long available from C.F. Peters as EP 67725, the work is rarely performed. Here's the third movement from the feisty performance by four of Bard College's finest Conservatory musicians -- Fanghue He, Yue Sun, Leah Gastler, and Laura Hendrickson.

The second, Brian Nozny's Chess Pieces (2008), is an arrangement for percussion quintet of Cage's work by the same name that began life not as a piece of music, but as a painting, one created for the 1944 exhibition "The Imagery of Chess," organized by Max Ernst and Marcel Duchamp at the Julien Levy Gallery in NYC. As an art work, Chess Pieces is somewhat unremarkable: a 19" x 19" square painting in ink and gouache on Masonite, its 64 squares filled with music notation in Cage's hand in alternating black and white ink, its 22 systems reading sensibly from left to right. Despite its obvious relation to a musical score, albeit sans instrumentation, tempi, or dynamic indications, no documentation exists of its ever having been "played".
In 2005, Chess Pieces went on public display for the first time in more than 60 years in an exhibition entitled "The Imagery of Chess Revisited", the brainchild of its curator, Larry List, at the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City, New York. Musing upon its "playability," the pianist Margaret Leng Tan was engaged by the John Cage Trust and C.F. Peters to try her hand at a transcription. Once completed, she promptly recorded it, first to be heard via headphones at the exhibition, and later for release by Mode Records as "Cage: The Works for Piano 7" (2006).

The performance heard here is by Nexus -- Bob Becker, Bill Cahn, Russell Hartenberger, and Garry Kvistad -- with special guest artist Jason Treuting (on loan from So Percussion), who kindly substituted for Robin Engelman.

I don't know about you, but I find nothing quite as sexy as a bunch of middle-aged men romping about on a stage making glorious noises...

And, for added fun, given that this concert took place on Halloween, the performers donned blue jeans for the occasion, a la John Cage, and at their final curtain call, took their bows wearing silly John Cage masks.

12 November 2009

Cage in the Kitchen

Anyone familiar with John Cage knows that late in life he became an avid macrobiotic cook. Some mourned the loss of his coq au vin and his creme brulee, reputed specialties from a decade before, but anyone lucky enough to experience just one of his impromptu macrobiotic lunches -- sans butter or flesh -- didn't complain for long!

The John Cage Trust takes the opportunities wherever they arise to spread his culinary gospel, so click here for a few words from Cage himself about the diet as well as a healthy sampling of his favorite recipes.

In 1997, at the 35th annual Belfast Festival at Queens, we were invited into the Festival House kitchen to prepare a macrobiotic feast for some 80 invited guests after a glorious performance of Ocean by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. On the menu were Cage's hummus, red beans and hijiki-spotted rice, an arame-shitake stirfry, and, of course, the celebrated "John Cage Cookies."

This was also the occasion of the first installation of Cage's Roaratorio: An Irish Circus on Finnegans Wake, carefully (re)constructed from original recordings by Klaus Schoening and John David Fulleman. The work was reprised this past month in a beautiful new version by Bob Bielecki (with an able assist from Tom Mark) in the Chapel of the Holy Innocents at the John Cage at Bard College Symposium.

More recently, February 20-23, 2009, in one of its semi-annual contributions to the Merce Cunningham Dance Company's residencies at Dia:Beacon, the John Cage Trust transformed its little cafe into a macrobiotic eatery.

Dia:Beacon's staff was encouraged to contribute recipes of their own, and their Maple Pecan Cookies actually replaced Cage's for months afterwards as the Cunningham household favorite.

And this month, Barcelona's Bar Seco -- purveyor of "ethically-friendly, Italian-Spanish vegetarian dishes and tapas" -- is including a number of Cage-inspired edibles on its menu to celebrate "The Anarchy of Silence," a significant exhibition devoted to Cage's life and work at the nearby Museu d'Art Contemporani (MACBA), curated by Julia Robinson. For more on this, see Alex Ross's excellent blog, "Cage in Barcelona".

And, to close, here's a really recent "find" -- an important (and sweetly vigorous) missive written (slyly) by Cage for his partner Merce. This was discovered nestled inside a very dusty file folder, tucked safely behind a small wooden desk in the bedroom of their shared Manhattan loft.

If this isn't love, I don't know what is.

Laura Kuhn

02 November 2009

About the John Cage Trust

It's remarkable to me that after 16 years in existence, I continue to receive inquiries as to what the John Cage Trust actually is and does.

The John Cage Trust is a not-for-profit organization founded shortly after Cage's death to support and nurture his legacy. It functions in two interrelated ways -- as an administrative entity and as a physical archive, which, for a time was situated in New York City, in the historic "archive building" on Greenwich St., then was somewhat nomadic after losing its lease in 2001 (shortly after 9/11), and then, in 2007, went into residency at Bard College.

While the work involved in managing Cage's life and works consumes nearly half of my time, our physical archives are of greater interest to most. Our holdings are various, and include extensive print libraries (our own and Cage's personal, including cookbooks, collectively some 1,800+ items), photographs (some 1,000+), media collections, both audio and video (commercial and archival), text manuscripts (relating to Cage's writings), and a permanent art collection comprising some 80 works by Cage that are lent to museums and galleries around the world. We also maintain a copy of the John Cage Music Manuscript Collection, which, in its original, is housed at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. There's also a lot of what we loosely call "ephemera" -- childhood Christmas ornaments, appointment books, sets of piano preparations, old passports, etc. -- that is still, in a sense, being discovered.

And as we discover things, they become available. An image of Cage's transistor radio, for example, was recently used as stage decors for a performance of Cage's Radio Music and Variations IV, produced by Robert Worby as part of London's "Late at Tate Britain" program.

And both Cage's wristwatch and stopwatch were used this past weekend within the John Cage at Bard College Symposium, wherein Dwane Decker, resident biologist and watchsmith, delivered a fascinating talk entitled "Replicable Chance: Time as Structure in Aleatory Composition".
And we work closely and variously with our sibling repositories and business concerns, including the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, which houses the John Cage Music Manuscript Collection, Northwestern University, the repository of Cage's Correspondence Collection, Wesleyan University, home to a goodly amount of Cage's original text manuscripts, and C.F. Peters/Peters Edition, whose staffs in New York, London, and Frankfurt work tirelessly to see that Cage's compositions stay in the light of day.

And, speaking of Peters, they're close to releasing a new publication: the first in a series of performable text editions, John Cage's Indeterminacy: New Aspect of Form in Instrumental and Electronic Music, beautifully edited by Eddie Kohler.

To celebrate, Marina Rosenfeld and I performed this work this past weekend at the John Cage at Bard College Symposium, with Marina performing a beautiful remix of what are now-historic LPs of Cage's music.

Visitors from around the world visit the John Cage Trust for the purpose of conducting research (or just to partake of amiable, like-minded conversation). But those geographically remote may be happy to know that much of our holdings will soon be available as integrated, fully searchable databases at Thanks here to our glorious websters Larry Larson, Didier Garcia, and Jack Freudenheim, and also to Andre Chaudron, whose incredible efforts with his own John Cage website, served early on (and continues to serve) as a tremendous resource to our own. In the near future, both sites will merge, remaining for a time accessible via both addresses. In the interim, do visit and help us to populate the John Cage Folksonomy, which is now up and running.

The John Cage Trust continually augments its holdings, sometimes quite by chance. We've become a repository for all manner of surprising things people have collected or discovered over the years, like the sizable amount of (very moldy) correspondence found under the floorboards of Cage's Stony Point home in the Gate Hill Co-Op, which includes letters from Peggy Guggenheim, George Brecht, Buckminster Fuller, and others. Or this wonderful recording of Cage playing his own Totem Ancestor at Ohio State University in a program he gave with Merce Cunningham in 1947.

Thanks to Karl Braun for this, who lovingly cared for this recording for over 60 years. Braun conducted an interview with both Cage and Cunningham in the setting as well, but, alas, that portion of the recording didn't really survive.

And in going through Merce Cunningham's effects recently, closing up the Manhattan loft he and Cage shared for some thirty years, we found this very sweet collage made by Xenia Cage for her long ex-husband, dated 25 June 1969.

This could go on and on, but for the moment, I'll stop. Check back later this week for a recap of our John Cage at Bard College Symposium, wherein I'll thank the many participants who made our first foray into our still-new academic environment a modest but resounding success.