Sunday, July 15, 2012

Remembering John Cage II

Northwestern University Contemporary Music Ensemble Concert Program

I joined Northwestern University's Contemporary Music Ensemble in 1974, within a month after arriving on campus for graduate study in composition. There was no audition. My composition teacher, the late Bill Karlins, a co-director of the ensemble, asked what my major instrument was. When I said, "Voice," he wanted to know if I sang contemporary music.  As soon as I told him I did, I was in.

By the end of the fall term, the ensemble learned that John Cage was going to be on campus during the last week of January, and that we were going to give a concert of his works.

Since I was the lone vocalist in the group, I was assigned the task of preparing two of Cage's pieces, The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs, based on a text from Finnegan's Wake by James Joyce, and the Aria.

There's always a level of trepidation associated with performing music by and for a living composer, particularly if the composer hasn't been available for questions and coaching.  You're eager to please; you want to be more than note-perfect: you want your interpretation to reflect the composer's aesthetic and vision; you want the performance to replicate the sound they had in their head when they were writing the piece. When the composer is as famous as John Cage,  the trepidation arising from those desires is magnified.

My trepidation was magnified by more than just Cage's absence and fame.  I kept remembering a story one of my undergraduate professors told me about how angry Cage had become during a rehearsal of one of his chance pieces because the performers were not taking the music seriously enough. That was one mistake I did not want to make.  But how was I going to avoid it?

My initial concerns about The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs quickly disappeared after I got the score and saw that the piece was not only traditionally notated, it was lovely, with the gentle and hypnotic quality of a lullaby.  The vocal line consists of three pitches accompanied by rhythms which are tapped or knocked on a closed piano. While the score has the pitches set at B, E, and A,  Cage instructs the singer to transpose them, if desired,  into any "low and comfortable range."  For me, that put them down a perfect fifth, to E, A, and D.  All I had to do was learn the music and enjoy it.

But the Aria was another story.  The piece uses a combination of graphic notation, sparsely placed traditional notation, real words, fabricated words, and letters.  As in Widow, the traditional notation serves as a reference point for intervals and rhythms the singer should use, whereas the graphic notation—arcs, squiggles, colors—represents specific vocal events and styles, all of which the performer must determine in advance, and then adhere to during the performance.  Even though I  had written music with graphic notation,  this was the first time I had to perform from it.  If I was going to do the Aria justice, I would have to take Cage's instructions literally: assign specific styles, extended vocal techniques, and events to the graphics, and then stick with them.

I was just grateful that I would not be on stage alone: the entire ensemble would be backing me up with Fontana Mix as an accompaniment.

My memories of the concert itself are sketchy, with only a handful of moments that are clear.  I remember that the hall was packed—standing room only, and that a couple of music critics, who hadn't come early enough to find seats, were in the wings, sitting on the floor, with their notepads on their laps.  I can't remember singing The Wonderful Widow, but I do remember watching the saxophonists in 4'33", and trying to hear In a Landscape over the occasional eruptions of Cartridge Music, which went on through the entire concert. When it was time to perform the Aria, my nerves suddenly settled with the confidence that comes from going through a piece so many times that there are no more conscious decisions to be made. I went out on stage and let the performance happen.

When the last note faded,  the hall filled with the sound of applause.  I bowed, then looked around and saw John Cage walking up on stage.  Fortunately, a photographer was there to catch what happened next.

Photo by Uldis Saule
Evanston, IL

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