How to Perform John Cage February 9, 1976

What contemporary composer has suffered the most from poor performances? Gordon Mumma once suggested that the composer who has been most often misrepresented in performance is John Cage. Cage might seem like a poor candidate for this particular distinction, since his scores are usually undemanding technically and since he has personally supervised so many of his own performances, yet it is quite possible that Mumma was right.

It’s true that Cage’s works do not lock the players into specific technical difficulties, but they do offer a great deal of freedom, and most performers can handle technical difficulties better than they can handle freedom. What do you do, for example, if you are sitting in a violin section and find yourself faced with a rather vague instruction to make a sound on the bridge of your instrument? The biggest temptation always used to be, and perhaps still is, to simply shrug off the whole thing and figure, ‘If that’s all I have to do, why bother at all? It will only throw my strings out of tune.’ The 1976/charles-ives-in-brooklyn level of enlightenment is the player who reasons, ‘Hey, far out. This guy is willing to let me do just about anything.’ Seeing the potential for humor, the player then attempts to bite the bridge with his teeth, tap on it with an umbrella, or something like that. And sometimes conductors, fearful of audience reactions to begin with, allow things like that to happen, figuring that it will be better to pass the piece off as a joke rather than to overtly offend the subscribers, who are really only there to hear the Beethoven symphony anyway.

Cage’s real intention in a case like this would be of course that the violinist take this moment of freedom and do something sensitive with it. That means watching what the other players are doing, listening to the results, and doing something on the bridge of his instrument that fits into the context and adds to the general musical effect. But constructive approaches of this sort are seldom applied to Cage’s works, and I don’t mean just in those conservative centers where Cage’s ideas still seem radical, but even among experimental groups.

For example, I once heard an adventurous group of young composers from Buffalo attempt to present Cage’s complete Song Books in a single evening. They weren’t really presenting the Song Books, of course. It would take at least three evenings to do any kind of justice to all that material. They were simply using the Song Books, and the freedom which they offer, as an excuse to present some inept theater of their own, and the result was one of the most tedious evenings I have ever attempted to sit through. I suspect that many in the audience, most of whom left far earlier than I did, assumed that it was all Cage’s fault.

After experiences like that, I particularly appreciated the all-Cage concert presented by Dennis Russell Davies and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra at the Kitchen on January 24. I understand that Cage spent quite a bit of time in St. Paul last season, and that the orchestra has performed quite a bit of his music, and it shows. There was no balking, no clowning, and no resentment. The players simply played their parts, exercising their freedom in responsible, sensitive ways, and everything came together quite musically.

This was particularly good to hear in the case of ‘Atlas Eclipticalis,’ which has been loudly complained about ever since Leonard Bernstein tried to present it with the New York Philharmonic in February of 1964. The third and worst of those four performances could easily have been the most unsympathetic performance any piece of music has ever had. According to Calvin Tompkins, ‘The musicians laughed and talked among themselves throughout ‘Atlas Eclipticalis’ ; some of them played scales or melodies instead of the notes written, sang or whistled into their contact microphones, and in a couple of instances smashed the electronic equipment.’ But the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra’s interpretation was a model of sensitive music making. The unconventional sounds were carefully made; Davies saw to it that ‘Atlas Eclipticalis’ was neatly paced, with an appealing beginning and ending; and the random amplification added a fascinating dimension. I found myself frequently glancing around the orchestra trying to figure out which musician was being amplified through the loudspeakers at a particular moment.

A recent Cage work called ‘12 Haiku’ was also presented. In this case, the score is a set of Thoreau’s drawings, which Cage translated into a set of parts for chamber orchestra. The music consists of dense scatterings of unconventional instrumental sounds, which represent the drawings, separated by long silences, which represent the space between drawings. But that is only the first half of the piece. The second half consists solely of a tape recording of birds, other natural sounds, and a little traffic, which Cage recorded out of his window early one morning at Stony Point, New York. The interesting thing for me was the similarity between the music and the tape, both of which shift between activity and inactivity in a pleasant and unpredictable way.

Also on the program were a quintet and a duo. ‘Music for Wind Instruments’ is a 12-tone piece, written at the age of 25, which charges through tricky rhythms in a rather uninteresting, and a not yet very Cagelike way. But the ‘Six Melodies for Violin and Keyboard (Piano)’ was a pleasant discovery for me. It comes from the same period as the String Quartet, and works with modal melodies in that same striking, unharmonized way.

The curious thing about all four of these brash, controversial Cage works is that, when they are performed as they were on this concert, they no longer seem at all brash or controversial. They don’t sound pretty either. Cage is never pretty. But they do become highly musical, balanced compositions, and even take on a degree of refinement. It is staggering to think what different turns Cage’s career would be taking, and how different his reputation would be, if his works were always performed the way they were at this concert. But that’s an awfully big if.