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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

19 April 2016

John Cage at the Grammy's!



SANTA MONICA, Calif. (March 29, 2016) —The Recording Academy®  will honor its 2016 Special Merit Awards recipients with an awards ceremony and live tribute concert on Saturday, April 23, 2016 at The Dolby Theater in Los Angeles. Dubbed "GRAMMY Salute to Music Legends," the event will be produced in partnership with THIRTEEN as part of the "Great Performances" series on PBS, set to air later this year. Led by music industry icon Don Was as musical director, the tribute concert will feature rare performances by honorees and never-seen renditions by those they've inspired. Tickets for the event will be on sale via Ticketmaster beginning Tuesday, March 29, 2016 at 10:00 am PST.

This year's Lifetime Achievement Award honorees include Ruth BrownCelia CruzEarth, Wind & FireHerbie HancockJefferson AirplaneLinda Ronstadt, and RUN DMCJohn CageFred Foster, and Chris Strachwitz are Trustees Award honorees; and EMT and Dr. Harvey Fletcher are Technical GRAMMY® Award recipients. Also being honored is Phillip Riggs, this year's recipient of the GRAMMY Foundation Music Educator Award. Performers will be announced shortly. 

Previously held during GRAMMY Week, this is the first time that The Recording Academy has celebrated the Special Merit Awards with a stand-alone event and musical tribute. In addition to the tribute concert, special celebrity guests will present recipients their award statues and guests will enjoy never-before-seen video packages celebrating each of the honorees' contributions to the music industry and our cultural heritage.

"For many years now, we've wanted to honor Special Merit Awards recipients on a larger scale with an event like 'GRAMMY Salute to Music Legends,' so I'm delighted to partner with THIRTEEN Productions and PBS to bring this worthy celebration to a bigger stage," said Neil Portnow, President/CEO of The Recording Academy. "The contributions of our honorees are innumerable, and we look forward to an unforgettable evening as we pay tribute to their exceptional accomplishments."

A production of THIRTEEN Productions LLC for WNET, "GRAMMY Salute to Music Legends" will be written by David Wild and directed for television by David Horn, with Mitch Owgang as producer, and David Horn and Neil Portnow as executive producers.

The Lifetime Achievement Award honors performers who have made contributions of outstanding artistic significance to the field of recording, while the Trustees Award recognizes such contributions in areas other than performance. Both awards are determined by vote of The Recording Academy's National Board of Trustees. Technical GRAMMY Award recipients are determined by vote of The Academy's Producers & Engineers Wing® Advisory Council and Chapter Committees, and are ratified by The Academy's Trustees. The award is presented to individuals and companies who have made contributions of outstanding technical significance to the recording field.

About the Lifetime Achievement Award Honorees:

Ruth Brown* began her musical career in the church choir at the tender age of 4. A singer/songwriter, record producer, composer, and actress noted for bringing a pop music style to R&B music, Brown became one of the undisputed architects of the genre. She recorded a number of hit songs, including "I'll Wait For You," "I Know," "5-10-15 Hours," and "Mambo Baby." She later went on to have a successful theater career.

Celia Cruz* was one of the most popular salsa singers and performers in history. Known internationally as the "Queen of Salsa," the Cuban-American Cruz was a larger-than life-personality. She recorded 23 gold albums and was a recipient of the United States National Medal of Arts. Cruz received three GRAMMY Awards and four Latin GRAMMY Awards.

Six-time GRAMMY winners Earth, Wind & Fire were one of the most important and innovative contemporary pop/R&B musical forces of the 20th century. Members Philip Bailey, Larry Dunn, Johnny Graham, Ralph Johnson, Al McKay, Fred White, Maurice White*, Verdine White, and Andrew Woolfolk built the group's distinctive signature sound, which has remained profoundly influential. Successfully breaking down all musical genre boundaries since forming in 1969, they recorded seven #1 R&B singles and eight Top 10 pop albums. Earth Wind & Fire earned more than 50 gold and platinum album certifications and more than 90 million albums worldwide, placing them on the list of best-selling musical artists of all time.  

One of the most revered and idiosyncratic figures in jazz, Herbie Hancock has been at the forefront almost every development in electronic and acoustic jazz and R&B. A stylistically diverse and ever-intriguing canon of songs, including "Maiden Voyage" and "Rockit," has helped earn him 14 GRAMMY Awards during his impressive five-decade-plus professional solo career.

Marty Balin, Jack Casady, Spencer Dryden*, Paul Kantner*, Jorma Kaukonen, and Grace Slick comprised Jefferson Airplane, pioneers of counterculture-era psychedelic rock. Emerging from the San Francisco scene to achieve international mainstream success, performing at the three most famous American rock festivals of the 1960s — Monterey (1967), Woodstock (1969), and Altamont (1969). Their 1967 album Surrealistic Pillow is regarded as one of the key recordings of the "Summer of Love." Two hits from that album, "Somebody To Love" and "White Rabbit," are among Rolling Stone's "500 Greatest Songs of All Time."

With roots in the Los Angeles country and folk-rock scenes, Linda Ronstadt is one of the most popular interpretive singers of all time, earning a string of platinum-selling albums and Top 40 singles. Throughout the 1970s, her laid-back pop never lost sight of her folky roots, yet as Ronstadt moved into the 1980s, she began to change her sound with the times, adding new wave influences. Her later years saw the 10-time GRAMMY winner exploring traditional pop, Latin, and musical theater. 

RUN DMC, comprising of Darryl "DMC" McDaniels, Jason "Jam Master Jay" Mizell*, and Joseph "Reverend Run" Simmons, were one of the most influential and best-known acts in the history of rap. They were the first group in the genre to have a gold album (RUN DMC., 1984) and to be nominated for a GRAMMY Award. They were also the first hip-hop group to earn a platinum record (King Of Rock, 1985), and the first to earn multiplatinum certification (Raising Hell, 1986).

About the Trustees Award Honorees:

John Cage* was an avant-garde composer whose inventive works and unorthodox ideas profoundly influenced the entire music industry. His innovative ideas on composition and performance influenced a broad spectrum of artists including fellow musicians, dancers, choreographers, painters and more. Cage remained on the leading edge of both playful and profound experimentalism for the greater part of his career. One of Cage's best-known and most sonically intriguing innovations, the prepared piano, has become an almost commonplace compositional resource. 
Music entrepreneur Fred Foster contributed a great deal to the Nashville music scene of the 1960s and 1970s as a producer and as the head of one of the city's strongest independent labels, Monument Records. He is best known for producing many classic hits by Roy Orbison. He also played a vital role in the career of Kris Kristofferson, and worked with Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Ray Stevens, among others. From 1960 to 1964, Foster produced the overwhelming bulk of hit songs with which Orbison is associated: "Only The Lonely," "In Dreams," "Running Scared," "Blue Bayou," "Blue Angel," "Dream Baby," "Crying," "Candy Man," "Mean Woman Blues," "It's Over," and "Oh, Pretty Woman."  

Chris Strachwitz has made his living celebrating the music he loves – music that forms the fabric of both American and international culture.  He is the founder of Arhoolie Records and produces much of the content he releases. To blues fans he is a legend, releasing seminal works by Mississippi Fred McDowell, Mance Lipscomb, Charlie Musselwhite, Rebirth Brass Band, Big Joe Williams, Big Mama Thornton, Lightnin' Hopkins, Earl Hooker, and Elizabeth Cotten, and many others. Strachwitz also produces Cajun music, highlighted by his releases by Clifton Chenier, and also focused on Mexican recordings, especially Norteño music.

About the Technical GRAMMY Award Recipients:

Known as the father of stereophonic sound, Dr. Harvey Fletcher* was a prominent physicist, credited with inventing the hearing aid and the first audiometer. Through his research, he was able to document and demonstrate the spatial effects of sound, which he called auditory perspective, or stereo. However, it was his profound interest in music that led Fletcher to partner with Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra, and this collaboration produced more than 100 stereo recordings. In his tests, listeners were often unable to distinguish the difference between the live orchestra and the recordings. 

EMT (Elektro-Mess-Technik) was founded in Berlin in 1940, originally manufacturing high-end pro measuring devices and turntables for broadcast, television, and recording studios. In 1957, the company made a huge breakthrough with the release of the EMT 140 Reverberation Unit — the first plate reverb. Upon its introduction, the EMT 140 Reverberation Unit quickly garnered popularity, providing a smoother substitute to spring reverb systems, simplifying the process of affecting recorded sound while providing the engineer with a more versatile and customizable interface than acoustic chambers. With the plates' introduction, the sound of popular music changed dramatically as evident in English recordings made at Abbey Road by the Beatles and Pink Floyd, as well as RCA Victor recordings by Nashville’s Chet Atkins and many others.

*Denotes posthumous award

Established in 1957, The Recording Academy is an organization of musicians, songwriters, producers, engineers, and recording professionals dedicated to improving the cultural condition and quality of life for music and its makers. Internationally known for the GRAMMY Awards — the preeminent peer-recognized award for musical excellence and the most credible brand in music — The Recording Academy is responsible for groundbreaking professional development, cultural enrichment, advocacy, education, and human services programs. The Academy continues to focus on its mission of recognizing musical excellence, advocating for the well-being of music makers and ensuring music remains an indelible part of our culture. For more information about The Academy, please visit For breaking news and exclusive content, follow @TheGRAMMYs on Twitter, "like" The GRAMMYs on Facebook  and join The GRAMMYs' social communities on Google+InstagramTumblr, and YouTube

# # # 

Media Contacts:
Neda Azarfar                                                                           
The Recording Academy                                             

Andie Cox
The Recording Academy

18 April 2016

John Cage's "How to Get Started" (1989-)

On August 20, 1989, John Cage finished up at the Telluride “Composer-to-Composer Festival” and headed for the Skywalker Ranch in Nicasio, California, where he would participate in “Sound Design: An Invitational Conference on the Uses of Sound for Radio Drama, Film, Video, Theater and Music” (Aug. 29-31), hosted by Bay Area Radio Drama. He planned to present a portion of his James Joyce, Marcel Duchamp, Erik Satie: An Alphabet (1982), a whimsical radio play he’d earlier created for Klaus Schöning and Cologne’s WDR. 

Cage left Telluride feeling slightly unsettled by an altercation he’d had with a fellow composer – Anthony Davis.  Each of the composers was given time to speak about their current work, addressing the group with particular problems they were encountering and eliciting advice. At his designated afternoon session, Davis wanted to talk about incorporating improvisation within the context of an otherwise fully notated score. Uncharacteristically, Cage dismissed this as an unimportant concern.

Most folks think that Cage was summarily against improvisation. From his vantage point, and as generally practiced, there were all manner of things to overcome: control, emotion, style, personality, hierarchy, intuition, celebrity, habit, intention. On the surface, then, Cage's dismissal of Davis's preoccupation seems entirely sensible.  If history is witness, however, it might be truer to say that Cage was interested in improvisation, but in a kind of improvisation whereby one's actions, indeed one's end result, couldn’t be entirely controlled or foreseen. This was certainly the case with his co-called “music of contingency,” exemplified by such compositions as his Child of Tree (Improvisation I) (1975) and Branches (1976). Both of these works make use of unruly plant matter as musical instruments, and Cage aptly described them as a kind of "improvisation in which there is a discontinuity between cause and effect."

And two of the so-called "number" pieces from 1992, the last year of his life – Four6 and One12 – were described by Cage as "structural improvisations."

For the Bay Area Radio Drama conference, Cage abandoned his idea to present Alphabet, and instead devised a new work. Eliciting the collaboration of two on-site recording engineers, Dennis Leonard and Bob Schumacher, he made a proposition.  Having written ten topics of concern on ten index cards, Cage wanted to extemporize in turn on each one, their order determined by chance, while the engineers recorded and played back his performances. And so it went. For his performance, Cage extemporized on topic one, which was duly recorded.  While he extemporized on topic two, topic one was played back in the room, and both were recorded.  While he extemporized on topic three, topics one and two combined were played back in the room, and all three were recorded.  And so forth.  Cage's extemporizations along the way were inevitably altered by what he was hearing.  In one, he clearly loses his train of thought, laughs, then forges ahead. At the end, all ten were simultaneously played back, layered upon one another in a happy, McLuhanesque jumble. 

When Cage returned to New York, he went back to work on his Harvard lectures, making no mention of his time in Nicasio. Weeks later, a cassette arrived from Eva Soltes at Bay Area Radio Drama, marked simply “J. Cage, How to Get Started.”  Cage acknowledged this likely contained his Nicasio presentation, and without further conversation the cassette was shelved. 

Long after Cage’s death, I rediscovered the recording in the archives of the John Cage Trust and set to work transcribing it. Having both the tape and transcription in hand, I approached Aaron Levy at Slought Foundation in Philadelphia to explore the possibility of a collaboration between our two organizations that might somehow extend its life. What resulted is a permanent interactive installation at Slought that enables the public to create their own realizations, adding yet another layer of recordings to the historical mix. A dedicated website was quickly created, which serves as an evolving digital repository and archive for the recordings being ongoingly generated.  

The website also hosts Cage’s introduction to the work as well as audio portions of his one and only performance.  Cage’s topics ran the gamut between nearly life-long interests on the one hand – silence (60), harmony (10), time (8) – and, on the other, emerging ideas about new compositions (1, 3).  His experiences at “Composer-to-Composer” are brought to bear on several (1, 2, 6), while others emphasize specific extant compositions, considered in the present tense (2, 4, 5, 7, 8, 9).  And more than two dozen individuals who were relevant to his thinking at the time are sprinkled throughout. Here's a little Wordle Cloud of all ten of Cage's extemporized texts:

To date, we’ve performed the work live, with the public, several times, most recently April 8-9, 2016, here at Bard College, in the Conservatory of Music’s Bito Auditorium. Participants were Roger Berkowitz, Olive Carrollhach, David Degge, Brian Dewan, John Kelly, Chris Mann, Pauline Oliveros, Jamie Parry, and Bobby Previte.  Our usual technical team -- Aaron Levy and myself, curators/producers, Peter Price, collaborating sound engineer, and Ken Saylor, staging and design -- was augmented by Emily Martin, photographer, and Seth Chrisman, a composer and resident sound engineer at Bard.

The realizations were stupendous and remarkably different!  While these are all available on our website, to whet your appetite I've included three here, randomly selected:

And just for fun, 

Pauline Oliveros (who was present at Cage's performance in Nicasio and who garnered a standing ovation at Bard)

How to Get Started is an amazing work, both to hear and to perform.  Realizations are as distinct as snowflakes, and always disarmingly honest and complex.  Each reveals the performer's willingness to share, and to experiment with thinking out loud.  To arrange a visit to Slought, or to schedule your own realization, click here.

All photos ©Emily Martin

Laura Kuhn