John Cage 2012

John Cage came into the forefront of my life in 1991. My grad school professor Wieslaw Woszczyk called me one day after I graduated in 1991 with a phone number to call for a job opportunity in New York City. I was told to call it and ask for David Tudor. I did and John Cage picked up the phone. As it turns out I was calling John Cage and Merce Cunningham’s apartment in New York. David Tudor was there… hanging out, I suppose.

It wasn’t long after this that I got the job as audio engineer for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company (MCDC) and my relationship with John Cage commenced. At this moment in 1991, John Cage was the Music Director for MCDC so I guess that made him my boss… as much as John Cage could be ANYONE’s boss!

At that time John was no longer touring with the company. It was David Tudor who ran the “pit” while we were on the road (which was probably 6-8 months of the year). But certainly Cage’s living presence as Music Director was critical to the importance that was paid to the music element of MCDC repertoire. There was one tour he did come on. We were in Madrid performing and one of the pieces was Four3, which was performed simultaneously with Cunningham’s Beach Birds. This was my first experience performing Cage’s music with Cage present in the audience. I was nervous! After the performance he came to the edge of the pit where we would setup all of our music equipment and I asked him if he liked our interpretation of Four3. He did! So there you go.

Soon after joining the ranks of MCDC, Cage employed me to help him out on a new composition, Muoyce II. I was asked to collect traffic sounds from around the world as I toured with MCDC. While on the road, I’d find time to sling the portable DAT recorder and a pair of mics over my shoulder and I’d head out to find an intersection which had an interesting quality of traffic. Over a few months I had accumulated a fair number tapes. I thought maybe I had enough for John Cage’s needs, but I was asked to continue collecting traffic sounds. After another tour had finished, John Cage asked me to deliver the tapes to him at his apartment at 181 West 18th Street. He buzzed me up and met me at his front door. He seems quite happy to see me and invited me in. He had some other artists visiting to show him their work as he often did. As I walked past with John to his studio, I observed reams of numbers printed out on perforated computer paper. The type of computer paper that forms one big long piece of paper if you don’t tear the pages apart. Perhaps Mr. Cage wasn’t all that excited by this particular project and I was a welcome diversion. Who knows. Cage never did tell me directly what he was using the recordings I made for. I did find it interesting to find out that this piece was premiered in September 1992 just following his death in August.

August 12, 1992 was a sad day.

One other memory I have of Cage’s music is the interpretation and performance of “Sculptures Musicales”. The score consists of 88 words and there quite a bit left up to the interpreter. The version we performed with MCDC, along side the dance “Inventions”, I figured was the ultimate interpretation. One that was interpreted by the composer, David Tudor and Takehisa Kosugi… a heavy cast indeed. We realized it via 16 loudspeakers distributed throughout the venue. The speakers were fed from a 16 x 16 programmable analogue matrix. I created the score fresh for each performance. All the variables were determined by chance: duration, loudness, and when the sound sculptures were formed. With the roll of several dice, I determined all the parameters which formulated the 30 minute piece. Each performer was responsible for the source material and the volume (all the volumes were determined in rehearsal before the show).  I have to admit some manipulation of the chance operations. When a fortissimo sculpture came up on the dice, I usually manipulated it’s duration to be short. Cage really wanted an extreme dynamic range but there’s only so long you can maintain a fortissimo event (the sound that make up the sculptures have no variation and “each in a single envelope”) before people get disturbingly upset. I remember talking to one of the dancers about this piece. It was always nerve racking for them because they never knew when the loud events would occur… only that they would! Take a look and the score signed by John Cage.

It includes an annotation: “The dark side of silence”.  It was indeed one of the most controversial pieces we performed.

John Cage sincerely believed in what he did and how he did it and had a an amazing curiosity about what was going on around him.