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09 February 2022

John Cage's Joke

This is not what you think. Rather, it's literally John Cage's joke, only one of the two he ever told me. It arose spontaneously from my memory in an email exchange today with Alex Ross, who, in case you missed it, has just published a beautiful essay on John Cage in the Oct. 4 issue of The New Yorker.
The joke goes like this:
A congregation of the great religious leaders of the world convened in Boston for an annual conference on the subject of world peace. As the opening reception drew to a close, each of the men moved to take his assigned seat at the long wooden table that had been set up for the occasion. The esteemed Rabbi, chosen to serve as conference leader, began to sit, but then abruptly rose and looked worriedly around the room.
"Is there a Christian Scientist in the house?" he asked hoarsely, noisily clearing his phlegmy throat.
The Christian Scientist rose quickly from his seat at the opposite end of the table, his chest swelling with pride. "I am a Christian Scientist," he solemnly declared.
"Oh, thank goodness!" the Rabbi said, visibly relieved, gathering up his things. "Can we change seats? There seems to be a draft here."
Laura Kuhn

The Halberstadt/Bayreuth Diaries

We're about to go back to Halberstadt at last! We've wanted to return ever since our first visit last year, when Laura Kuhn of the John Cage Trust was responsible for the note-change on the organ. Just prior to that July 2010 visit, we joined Laura and her partner Ralph Benko for a sleepover at the Dornroschenschloss Sababurg -- the inspiration for Sleeping Beauty's Castle -- which was everything you could want from a fairy tale location. We might have thought this would be the fun part of the trip, since, looking back, I think we all approached Halberstadt with a bit of trepidation. What kind of strange event would we be attending? Was this to be some kind of wild-eyed geeky wonderment or some ponderous, painfully earnest musicologist's private fantasy??
What we quickly found was as far from both as one could get: the most wonderfully warm, generous, and delightful people, who completely knocked us out with their commitment and hospitality, in a thoroughly charming small town with wonderful places and sights, and a musical project which, in spite of moving at the slowest pace any musical performance has yet achieved, was at once vibrant, historic, and curiously emotional.
There was a note-change earlier this year, but we couldn't go. The Edition Peters companies have been for the last 70 years or so just a loose association of sometimes cooperative firms broken up by both the Holocaust and the establishment of the DDR. Last August, after 17 arduous years of directed effort, they merged into one harmonious business. We had thought our lives might be a little quieter after that, but we couldn't have been more wrong. The last note-change fell on Nicholas's birthday, as it happens, but even that didn't give us the freedom to attend.
Thursday, August 4
After a morning's work, we headed off to Heathrow Airport for the short hop to Berlin, where we'll stay overnight. We're booked into a Suite Novotel, an extraordinary chain of hotels across Germany in which every room in every hotel is identical. All the "services" (bath/shower rooms, closets, loos, and so on) are in a self-contained "pod" built into one part of the room. After you've been to a few of these hotels, you really have to check your itinerary when you wake up each morning to establish which city you're in because the identical nature of every room throughout the chain is extremely disorienting. On the other hand, the rooms are a good size, perfectly comfortable (in a kind of German business hotel way), and incredibly well thought through, so that everything you might has already been provided. It's like living the "optimized" life! We have dinner at a marvelous restaurant in what used to be the East German part of the city, which was recommended to us by the Berlin lawyer who got us through the Edition Peters reunification legalities. The decor is just as it must have been 25 years ago before the Wall came down, but the food is magnificent. Astonishingly, an excellent meal, with wine, cost only 50 euros (or about $70).
Friday, August 5
Woke up in Berlin -- a slight fight through the breakfast room, getting two tiny little tasty sausages with scrambled eggs, which neatly kills off the good effect of the muesli and fresh fruit -- and how we're on the train to Magdeburg. The landscape around Berlin is beautiful, and a constant reminder of the past. Outside our hotel was the magnificent facade of all that is left of the old Anhalterbahnhof, like a stage set, really, a la Billy Wilder's Symphonie einer Grossstadt, and now on the train we've passed Potsdam and surrounding lakes. We've also moved from sunshine to rain.
Just a moment ago, while working away at the laptop, we heard a faint sound, which we couldn't quite identify. Was it the computer's fan going wrong? We finally realized that it was the sound from the Halberstadt website, which we had recently opened and which was now quietly playing the music that is sounding in the Buchardi Kloster through the laptop speakers! John Cage, reaching out to us already.
Before we reach each station, one hears a happy little tun over the train speakers encouraging us to put on our walking boots and climb a big mountain and breathe in the healthy air. It's torture after the fifth time. At first we think it doesn't work at all with ORGAN2/ASLSP streaming from the laptop, but then we remember Cage's Musicircus and think may this is just fine after all.
Arriving at Halberstadt station we're greeted by Martje Hansen, who kindly ushers us to the breathtaking house in which she and her husband Rainer Neugebauer live on the Domplatz. It used to be the town library, and in a sense it still is. The official library may have been moved to specially converted space not far away, but there are probably nearly as many books in the collection still in place, stretching across the many bays that run along the front of the house, overflowing into side rooms and spaces. It is the most extraordinary living space, and simultaneously a magical and fascinating collection of literature, arts, and objets.
Rainer, who is one of the main organizers of the John Cage Organ Project, and who acts as Master of Ceremonies on the note-change days, has more or less lost his voice. Fortunately, a pharmacist has been called who has gone straight for a maximum chemical assault on the virus -- seemingly with good effect, because something of Rainer's voice has returned. He has a great deal of public speaking to do during the rest of the day, so we hope the recovery is sustained!
After lunch, another of the heroes of the Halbertstadt Cage Project joins us, Dr. Harriet Watts, originally from Texas, a member of a particularly select group of human beings: Americans Who Live in Europe. It doesn't make a great mnemonic, but its members have a remarkable combination of qualities: all the energetic "can-do" and "pizazz" that can make Americans so exciting and unnerving to Europeans, coupled with thorough immersion in European culture and style, which seem sometimes to baffle other Americans. In Harriet, it's a particularly powerful mix. Unlike the average English-speaker, she has thoroughly mastered German, and we speak the local language together far more than her native English. She is involved in all manner of important cultural projects around the area as well as with the Cage Organ Project, and evidently accepts no boundaries to what can be done! She lives in nearby Quadlinburg, possibly the prettiest and most delightful town in Germany, so she will also be staying with Martje and Rainer in Halberstadt tonight.