MTT on Cage
Making the Right Choices: A John Cage Centennial Celebration
by Michael Tilson Thomas, Artistic Director
John Cage genuinely wanted to open up the beauteous experience of sound for everyone. Much of his work could be described as kits to be used in the creation of a performance that relies on the perceptions, imaginations and choices of the musicians. It was a spiritual mission for him to create the opportunity for the performance to exist while at the same time to interfere with it as little or as subtly as possible.
It’s a fascinating conundrum that rehearsing a Cage piece from the ‘70s that has few or no notes or set specifications can take as long or longer than a piece by Stockhausen or other similarly blisteringly notated works of the same period. With Cage’s pieces, it’s not a question of “getting it right” (meaning congruent to the notation), but rather getting it in the right spirit. The preparation of a Cage piece feels less like rehearsing and more like sensitivity training.
But there is another telling aspect of Cage’s work that has been little commented upon in this centennial year...the choices that he did make. Cage wrote a lot of notes and up until the ‘50s they were chosen by him very, very personally. There are definitely recognizable moods in these pieces...confrontational, zany, hyper, parodistic, but most frequently whimsical, poetic, exotic and vaguely melancholy.
Cage wrote that emotions, even emotions like love, disturbed him. This perspective caused him to search for less emotional ways to determine what the notes, sounds or actions of his pieces would be. Perhaps he found the achy territories of his personally chosen works too costly to sustain, but I know he hoped that their sensitivity might serve as examples for others to discover and explore in their own ways.
However, even in his later works, where much of the music is the result of random procedures, Cage nevertheless seems to return to the haunted and spiritual quality that characterized much of his early work. Pieces like Seventy-Four, Dance 4/Orchestras, Litany for the Whale and Ryoanji all share in it. It’s difficult to have an overview of these pieces because so many of them have no scores and involve highly variable time factors. You can’t look at them and know what they’ll sound like. It’s only by playing them and entering into their “playspace” that one can discover what they are all about. In these pieces the role of the conductor—when there is one—is unusual. Sometimes he is simply an indicator of the passing of time, but more importantly he needs to be a kind of coach or guide who in rehearsals must help keep the ever-varying activities and events of the piece somehow consistent with the particular aesthetic of that piece and with Cage’s work in general. John was clear that he did not want his pieces to be “anything goes” or recklessly messy situations. Rather, he was giving the performers suggestions in notes, symbols and words of a situation they might explore together with him. The mindset of the performer for him was vital.
Often the scores of his pieces are accompanied by written instructions. These “explanations” are themselves mysterious and puzzling. It’s very common to read a sentence of his in which one understands every word clearly but has no idea, at first, of what those words in that particular sequence might mean. You have to ponder the instructions. I approach them like Zen parables. Somehow he means for us to consider and work our way through them as a part of discovering his unusual take for the work at hand. I think he delighted in creating puzzlements for us to work through. He doesn’t want to make it too easy at first.
When Cage was alive, he and his close collaborators created and communicated the sense of what the pieces were about. Now, only 60 years after his most pioneering works of the ‘40s and ‘50s and his death in 1992, there are very few living witnesses to his process. This festival has been programmed to give the musicians of the New World Symphony a chance to collaborate. It has also given the members of the orchestra the opportunity to perform many pieces in which John chose every elegant note and sound and then, inspired by those works, move on into pieces in which they must become responsible for making more of the choices that will determine what the pieces will sound like.
There are some moments in this festival that are exactingly aware of the “period instrument” aspect of much of Cage’s early works. We’ve gone to some effort whenever possible to assemble vintage sound materials from radio broadcasts, percussion and other instruments that Cage would have used and the archaic electronics which have the sound of his first performances. But, in keeping with Cage and Cunningham’s aesthetic, we have also created quite new “stagings,” “installations” and renderings of several works.
The most complex of these is Renga, a piece written to celebrate the American Bicentennial, which was performed at that time with another piece, Apartment House 1776. I sat with John at rehearsals and performances of this work in New York in 1976. In the page of instructions that accompany the piece, it says that the work could be “appropriate to another occasion than the bicentennial of the USA, an occasion, for example, such as the birth or death of another musically productive nation or person or the birthday of a society concerned with some aspect of creation productive of sound.”
I remarked to John that following his instructions, one day it might be played in his memory. He gave me his customary smile and laugh. When he died I began to think more and more about the possibility of doing just this. Essentially Renga is a rainforest of orchestra sounds and Apartment House 1776 is a montage of American revolutionary era music and also the contributions of four soloists who represented the religious traditions of the country at that time. The soloists were a gospel singer, a cantor, a Native American shaman and a singer of Protestant hymns. I began to imagine that the piece could be done by keeping the “orchestra rainforest” of Renga as it was, but replacing Apartment House 1776 ’s original material with sounds and songs both in audio and video formats of the America of Cage’s life. Then the role of the four original soloists would be taken by vocal and instrumental performers doing works of Cage himself. The memorial portrait would be completed by using John’s voice speaking parts of his most famous “Lecture on Nothing” as a kind of commentary on the cultural flotsam and jetsam of his life.
It was also a new decision to use graphic works of art made by Cage as the sources for a video installation to accompany Dance 4/Orchestras. Dance 4/Orchestras is a piece in which time and space are used to suggest the relationship between the future, the present and the past. Creating a visual dialogue for what is happening in the music seemed an attractive idea.
Developing this festival has been a real adventure. We sought it as the opportunity to explore and even push the boundaries of our hall’s flexibility. The whole New World Symphony team has been involved in this process, which has included video, lighting design, sound design and serious logistical planning as we figured out how the hall itself could be reconfigured for different nights or even in some cases for different pieces. My thanks go to the leaders and the members of these teams whose names you will find in this program book, and to the wonderful guest artists who have joined us in collaborations on specific pieces. I want to thank especially Laura Kuhn, Executive Director of the John Cage Trust, for her enthusiastic partnership and sleuthing that made realizing so much of this possible. My special thanks also to Alberto Ibargüen, who was a longtime friend of John Cage and Merce Cunningham, and to the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which made the leading grant that caused this festival to be possible here in Miami and also available online to people throughout the world in the future.
No other organization would attempt such an ambitious project as this. I am happy that it will be a tribute to how musical and beautiful John’s music can be and also an example of how a major part of the New World Symphony’s mission is to carry out research and development for the classical music world.
As I write this, we have just started rehearsals and I’m already thrilled with how my young colleagues are taking to the creative challenges this music presents. We can’t wait to share it with you.
—Michael Tilson Thomas