In light of my coming May concert with the Sissy-Eared Mollycoddles, the arrival of spring, and a John Cage festival here in Chicago hosted by Aperiodic (for whose work I am grateful but whose punctuational oddities I will not reproduce), I've found my thoughts returning to a concert in Austin last May with Line Upon Line and Thad Anderson. I wrote on it briefly as part of perhaps my finest diatribe of 2011; it was time for some further, belated thoughts on the matter.
Springtime in Texas can be an awfully dramatic business. Those first hot, humid days are like a dream of summer, heavy, thick, with kilned clay sunsets. But then sometimes the clouds roll in and suddenly there's a furious thunderstorm, the sky turns green and spits hail, the wind blows branches from the trees.
One day last May I was in Austin, out for an extremely sweaty run in the ninety-degree heat. That afternoon I went to a friend's recital, and by the time we left, the temperature had dropped to around fifty. The change occurred over the course of roughly two hours. No one was prepared. This was Texas, after all, where such temperatures are Yule-worthy.
And there was no time to go home and add layers, because we had only a few minutes to head next door to the art building, climb the steps to the roof, and hear our friends from Line Upon Line Percussion play John Cage's Four4.
We arrived to see four musicians situated around the rooftop, each with a whimsical percussion setup. The instruments included a bicycle, a large tree branch, and a power saw. The players explained the piece would last 72 minutes and we were welcome to sit anywhere, move around, and come and go as we pleased. They each had an iPhone that would function as a stopwatch; their parts cued them to play given instruments for given lengths of time (say, 8'15" to 10'30") -- the instruments themselves Cage did not specify.
It appears that most of the ensemble's prep time for the performance consisted in choosing the instruments.
They thanked us for coming, they started their stopwatches, and the piece began.
It was a few minutes before any of the players did anything. We all sat, enjoyed the genial absurdity of the situation, and began to tune our perceptions to the unusual surroundings.
It's a curious and wonderful thing, isn't it, to go sit somewhere and listen to people make noise for an hour? That's all we ever do. Sometimes it's a beautiful day and other times it's cold; sometimes it's a bustling concert hall, other times you're on a rooftop with fifteen or twenty people. Sometimes you've even heard of the noisemakers before! How exciting. At times the noise thrills, at others it disappoints; the relationship of these reactions to intrinsic qualities of the noise rather than, say, to our body chemistry at the time of the performance, is uncertain.
Four4, more so than any other "piece" I've heard, was an experience utterly irrelevant to normal value judgments. It was just four guys making noise on a rooftop. How could anyone laud or criticize that? It made me wonder why we pain ourselves to laud or criticize a pianist who plays a recital, or an orchestra that performs a symphony. It's not so difficult to turn up, sit there and listen for an hour, and then go home. In any case, "good" or "bad," what these musicians have done is from an evolutionary standpoint remarkable and from a humanistic standpoint clearly beneficent.
That last point will be thought stupidly reductive if not genuinely nihilistic, but all I mean to suggest is that music is not a thing to get upset about--and I'm saying this to myself as much as anyone else, because let's be honest here, I get really, really, really upset about music almost every single day. There's just no way to say the next thing without sounding maudlin, so here we go: music is a gift from God. It really is.
And we surround it with such words, don't we.
It was really quite chilly and blustery on that rooftop. I was more fortunate than some, had a hoodie or something, but still I had to move around and keep warm. Not everyone stayed to the end; ten of us, perhaps. We huddled inside for a brief reception, chips, cookies, a vegetable tray. We shared impressions, laughed about the helicopters and sirens that had punctuated the music in unexpected ways. And then we all went home.
We probably played Bohnanza later on. I don't remember. I do recall that later that evening President Obama announced that U.S. forces had killed Osama bin Laden. I'll refrain from any sort of commentary on this truly bizarre coincidence of events.
Now, I've done a bit of meditating, not a ton by any calculation, but I do get irritated when people with no experience in the activity throw the word "meditative" all over any music that is superficially calm and relaxing or related in any tenuous manner to the minimalist tradition. Yes, meditation is initially about relaxation and quiet, but anyone who has had a profound meditative experience will tell you that at the root of it, meditation is deeply, profoundly energizing. It's not about getting drowsy and zoning out, oh god, not at all. It's about awareness, the power and velocity that lies in the space between thoughts, the wholeness of things that clarifies itself as you begin to relinquish attachments, oppositions, divisions.
These are thrilling things to experience.
It is in this regard that I refer, tentatively, to the experience of Four4 as a meditative one. Because all of us just shut the hell up for an hour. I've already pointed out that it was like all concerts in this respect, except more so, far more so, because no one had any intention of judging the experience. Expectations were slim or perhaps nonexistent; I don't think anyone anticipated transcendence and the ensemble certainly never promised it, so there was little space for disappointment--but at the same time, we also didn't expect it to be bad, we really expected only to hear some noise on a rooftop for a while, and that much, we can agree in all objectivity, was clearly provided.
What else can I say about the performance? Can I provide some highlights? What does one say about classically trained percussionists with doctorates smashing plates on top of a building? It was music, that's what I can say. The whole damn thing was music, from the temperature and the tense, gray sky to the traffic, the wind, and the listeners walking around, repositioning themselves, having a look out at the trees.
And I can say this: in music as in life, it is as crucial as it is endlessly difficult to attain the proper balance between gravity and levity, and here I can commend the ensemble, because they absolutely took the piece seriously… but not too seriously. They recognized that the funny stuff was funny, they embraced the light-hearted and silly aspects of the experience, but at the heart of it was a belief that what they were doing was music, and that music is actually kind of a serious thing, because again like living you probably only get one shot at it, so you'd better damn well do it right while you have the chance.
It will be drawn to my attention that the next time I declare a concert lame and boring (as often happens) or exciting and gorgeous (as also occurs from time to time), I will be contradicting the ideas here propounded.
This is true.
Cage's music is often described as emanating from and imbued with Eastern mysticism--perhaps correctly, but also lazily and by Western musicians who don't give a shit about Eastern mysticism. My own admittedly paltry explorations of admittedly bastardized Eastern mystic traditions here in the Occident have yielded two major lessons:
1. Appreciate ambiguity and contradiction. They're fascinating.
2. Shut the hell up when you can. It's beautiful out there.
Playing a John Cage number piece "well" is as much a matter of tuning one's attitude as of tuning one's instrument.
Those in Chicago, check out the Aperiodic John Cage festival on the 13th-15th.
…and the Mollycoddles on 18 May.
It would be wise for today's composers never to attempt to out-Cage Cage. This will never work. He was way too good at being John Cage. None of the rest of us stand a chance.
He also said most of the coolest stuff said by any recent composer, barring of course that which was said by his friend Morton Feldman. A new favorite of mine was offered as an epigraph at the lovely Sonatas and Interludes concert with Eliza Garth the other night:
"One should never go to the woods looking for something, but rather to see what is there."
Let's all agree to remember this next time we're in the woods.
Or to reflect on it right now if we're presently there.
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