A Year from Monday: New Lectures and Writings
Silence: Lectures and Writings
Virgil Thomson: His Life and Music
In 1967 John Cage, working at the University of Illinois in Urbana with the engineer-composer Lejaren Hiller, began to plan, design, and move toward the final realization in sound (with visual admixtures) of a work lasting four and a half hours and involving a very large number of mechanical devices controlled by engineers, along with seven harpsichords played by hand. Nearly two years later this work, entitled HPSCHD (a six-letter version, suited to computer programming, of the word harpsichord) was produced on May 16, 1969 in the university’s Assembly Hall, seating 18,000 people.
By this time the work had come to include as sources of sound not only the keyboard instruments of its title (which Cage pronounces harpsichord) but also 52 tape machines, 59 power amplifiers, 59 loud-speakers, and 208 computer-generated tapes. The visual contributions to this performance employed 64 slide projectors showing 6,400 slides and 8 moving-picture projectors using 40 cinematographic films, probably silent in view of the general auditory complexities just mentioned.
Richard Kostelanetz, reviewing the event for The New York Times, reported further that “flashing on the outside under-walls of the huge double-saucer Assembly Hall…were an endless number of slides from 52 projectors” (a part of the 64?). Inside “in the middle of the circular sports arena were suspended several parallel sheets of semi-transparent material, each 100 by 400 feet; and from both sides were projected numerous films and slides whose collaged imagery passed through several sheets. Running around a circular ceiling was a continuous 340-foot screen, and from a hidden point inside were projected slides with imagery as various as outer-space scenes, pages of Mozart music, computer instructions, and nonrepresentational blotches. Beams of light were aimed across the undulated interior roof. In several upper locations mirrored balls were spinning, reflecting dots of light in all directions…. The audience,” he adds, “milled about the floor while hundreds took seats in the bleachers.”
The auditory continuity he describes as “an atonal and structural chaos…continually in flux.” However, “fading in and out through the mix were snatches of harpsichord music that sounded…like Mozart;…these came from the seven instrumentalists visible on platforms in the center of the Assembly Hall.” The sound appealed to him as in general “rather mellow, except for occasional blasts of ear-piercing feedback that became more frequent toward the end.”
Mr. Kostelanetz identifies the aesthetic species to which this work belongs as “that peculiarly contemporary art, the kinetic environment, or an artistically activated enclosed space.” Actually this “artistically activated” space is not very different from the Wagnerian gesamtkunstwerk, or music drama (also a mixed-media affair), except for a very modern emphasis on the mechanics of show business. Wagner took these for granted, preferring to use them less as glamor items than for underlining myths and morals. In both cases, I think, the production of ecstasy was the aim; and in both cases surely music (or sound, in any case) was the main merchandise. For Wagner’s music is what has survived best out of his whole…
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Copyright © 1970 by Virgil Thomson