American composer Alvin Curran was a colleague of 20th century pioneer John Cage. As part of a world wide 100th anniversary celebration of Cage, Curran shared ”some uncaged thoughts and doing of recent origins” following an 8 day treck in the Tarn Valley, France in the summer of 2012.
Western Front New Music hosted Alvin Curran in residence in November 2012 for a solo concert entitled The Alvin Curran Fake Book – a lifelong project, now being documented in a Real Book of sketches, compositions, and improvisations. He also contributed his work Brass Mob Steals AC (Alvin Curran) Fake Book to a community event celebrating Vancouver’s 125th anniversary featuring over 150 lower mainland students and community members.
There Went Everybody: A Centennial Reflection
By Alvin Curran
Here comes Cage – under his left arm, a paper bag full of recycled chance operations – in his right hand, a copy of The Book of Bosons – the new-found perhaps key to matter which the Italian press calls la particella di Dio – the god-particle. On his way home he stops off at his favorite natural food store and buys some dried bulgur to make a refreshing supper of tabouleh. It’s hot, the merciless August sun beats through the large open skylight in his kitchen – an oven outside the oven. He had no idea when he would die, nor did it matter much to him – like most artists obsessed with the ephemeral, social justice, and pure poetry (often called “my work’), death was only another bureaucratic hassle for the living; whether it came or went, you never even noticed. That relentless work was enough reason to pursue the transformation of musical thinking, composition, and practice in his own lifetime. It never stopped, and if he ran out of ideas he would consult his paramount inspirations and rewrite them – Thoreau, Joyce, Satie, himself, Buckminster Fuller, the NY Times – all infinite sources for his musical sound, along with concepts of creating an equilibrium between anything and anything else, of bringing human birthrates under control, or of accepting the totality of the confusion we live in… He assured me one broiling summer night at his place on the corner of Sixth Avenue and 18th Street, with the average level of ambient noise hanging around 90 decibels, and where one could simply not shut the windows, god forbid install air conditioning, that the street was so musical, varied and so imaginatively evolving and unpredictable, he’d come to hear it as a magnificent natural symphony with no end or beginning. (Just 3 years later, with Cage now gone, I sat at his desk recording that very street symphony he loved.)
One does not need stories about Cage to tell over and over, just stop what you are doing and listen. Listen to anything, or try not to listen, think about it or do not think about it, and you will have a John Cage story.
In this centennial year of John Cage’s birth there are 75 special events (announced at the John Cage Trust site as of July 15th) happening around the world. Just like the continual anniversaries of Mozart or Bach – all figures who have become the objects of curiosity, affection, love, contention, celebrities of the human imagination, global purveyors of nonstop entertainment, joie de vivre, and mythical transcendental powers.
Some of Cage’s numerous detractors will be eating crow, as they see that the John Cage phenomenon is not just a passing fancy but a genuine addition to the history, the architecture, and even the bumbling economy of the contemporary musical experience. Cage’s music has not only been heard by untold numbers of people but it has amazingly provided employment to thousands of people engaged in writing, broadcasting, photographing, publishing, selling, promoting, wiring, sound reinforcing, lighting, practicing, photocopying, rehearsing, piano tuning, blogging, performing, lecturing, selling T-shirts-CDs-books-MP3 downloads, cleaning, and cooking.
It has above all provided discovery and joy in the ability to make and appreciate sounds liberated from ego, emotion, and even meaning.
Already at the Angelica Festival in Bologna 2008 with Boletus Edulis: Musica Pendolare for the Take the Cage Train project, and on to 2009 and 2010 when the Huddersfield New Music Festival took a jump start to this years Cage year, I was happy to participate in all of these rich programs, on trains, in pubs, on icy plazas, with roving accordion bands, and porcini pig-outs.
During this Year Of Cage, my music and I are involved in several celebrative events:
Gardening With John 1.1 at both the….Museums Quartier (Membra Disjecta) in Vienna, the Dox Center for Contemporary Art in Prague;
Oh Brass on the Grass Alas, at Serralves em Festa , May 24th, Porto Portugal;
Gardening With John 1.2 at the Flanders Festival (Sounding City) in Kortrijk;
Maritime Rites in Central Park for Make Music New York, June 25th;
Maritime Rites Rome: Floating with John for the Teatro Valle Occupato, July 1st;
Boletus Edulis-Take the Cage Train 2 and Smistamenti Generali, Angelica Festival, Bologna;
Symphony 1.1 Angelica Festival, L’Orchestra del Teatro Communale di Bologna Maritime Rites 4:33, Forte/Piano Sound Art Festival, Parco della Musica Rome July 19th-October 31st;
DJ Albert Spins Cage and Cardew – sound installation/walk for the Music Walk, BBC Proms, London, August 17th;
Empty Words – an 8 hour solo reading/performance at the Kolumba Museum, August 26th Cologne and rebroadcasts of Cage-inspired radio works including Erat Verbum John and Caged Notes- RAI radio, Italy.
Does that make me a shill for the John Cage Medicine-Oil Circus? Or someone who through numerous flukes and fortuitous circumstances came into the Cage circle through the side, back, and front doors at different times?
In principio Erat Verbum John – and where would I be without his Word? His furious banging on the door of the Kitchen in NYC, when he showed up to a solo concert of mine there in 1989, two hours early. His arrival at my basement studio in Rome to hear in childlike delight my Bluthner midi-grand piano sounding with samples of bison, elk, loons and wolves and Narragansett Bay Fog Horns. His asking to hear my Opern Mix of some 76 lyric operas which he thought he might use in his own Europeras, if he did not have the time to make his own mix…alas, he found the time. Telling me how he ran out of the Frankfurt Opera House (where he was staying and working) when it caught fire. His recording for me 5 monosyllabic words to be used in my Maritime Rites pieces for National Public Radio…perplexed he kept asking, “Only 5 words, Alvin, is that all you want?” His sitting down on the floor of my apartment at Mills College to get closer to the surrounding students… His wanting to try every flavor – all 50 some-odd – at the Giolitti ice-cream shop in Rome, if David Tudor would only help him.
Speaking of all the flavors, I’ve played several “Events” for the Merce Cunningham Dance Co., with Kosugi and others. The Cage score says: create a time plan of 70 minutes in which you do not play for 15 minutes, portioned anywhere in any number of durations throughout the 70 minute piece; while playing, do not listen to anyone or anything else around you; do not take cues from the dancers, better not look at them at all. Cage’s dangerous embrace of everything is here in its fullest force, and as a composer I have found no other work so elegant, so perfectly composed. There is simply no other piece in the entire western musical literature that requires such trust, commitment, artistry, humility, madness, disembodied counterpoint and natural spontaneous music making. Go home and try that one out with your friends.
Just as Schoenberg’s brilliant subversion of Western music’s tonal foundations successfully caught the imagination of modernist 20th Century composers, Cage’s call for the equality of all sounds, for abolishing the “compositional” connective tissues of sonic events – their goal-seeking, their ritual, their emotional content – challenged and fired the imaginations of a large number of post-WWII composers and listeners. But he found only a few dedicated adherents, simply because of the rigors required in the extreme renunciation of instinct, tradition and all the conventions of our 2000 year old music practice. Cage’s call to scrap our ancestral expressivity in music was much too demanding for most people to assimilate and master. In the current new music practices of 2012, an understandably cyclical re-embracing of past musical conventions (broadly tonal, pulsed, virtuosic and espressivo) has all but cancelled the memory of 100 years of avant-garde modernism and experimentalism in music – now upholding Cage lovingly as the world’s greatest musical madcap, no longer a threat to himself or others. Or so they think.
On occasion even I have been known to react negatively to some of the more aggravating musical demands Cage made on his audience by creating music that goes nowhere so intentionally. Who needs this, this kind of discipline? Today, we are improvisers, maximal-minimalists, tonal-detonalists, Tristan-Zara-upstarts, post-Fluxus bean-droppers, ambient-fakirs, neo-Marx brother-inlaws – free of all rules, cultural conditions, latter day saints and ignus, anarchist fake-books! So what’s with Cage’s incessant questioning, his Zen-Talmud? Thoreau-inspired ablutions? Joycean polyglotterei? Hindustani exotics, Satie-labeled sofa stuffings? Brilliant Royanji stone glissandi on raked sand? It’s the questions, these and more!
But the work stands! stands large like a grandstand bandstand! Taken in its visual, musical, poetic and philosophical entirety it’s the bozo of bosons, a grand canyon, cut smack though the middle of the bourgeois modernist garden, through the whole 20th century park of mad destruction and alcoholic invention; with walls so high so jagged, so wide and deep and bewildering in shape, as to guarantee permanent vertigo – a drive-by find of a big trunk of Urmusik in the middle of nowhere – full of works spawned by the dice-throwing gods who started it all, the original hawkers of Empty Words.
John Milton Cage Jr. (September 5, 1912 – August 12, 1992) was an American composer, music theorist, writer, and artist. A pioneer of indeterminacy in music, electroacoustic music, and non-standard use of musical instruments, Cage was one of the leading figures of the post-war avant-garde. Critics have lauded him as one of the most influential American composers of the 20th century. He was also instrumental in the development of modern dance, mostly through his association with choreographer Merce Cunningham, who was also Cage’s romantic partner for most of their lives.