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 splendid effort to create a new kind of tragedy. And as for the Cage-Hiller HPSCHD, it was already on sale as a musical recording, completely shorn of its visual incidents and compacted down to twenty-one minutes of playing-time, when the great mixed show of it all was put on in Urbana.
In 1937, thirty years before this work was started, Cage had proclaimed his credo regarding the future of music: “I believe that the use of noise to make music will continue and increase until we reach a music produced through the aid of electrical instruments which will make available for musical purposes any and all sounds that can be heard.” The composer, in these prophesied times, will not limit himself to instruments or concepts based on the overtone series but “will be faced with the entire field of sound.” And new methods for composing with this vast vocabulary, he also stated, were already beginning to be developed, methods which were free and forever to remain free, I quote, “from the concept of a fundamental tone.”
The idea of making compositions out of noise, that is to say of sounds not responsible to a common fundamental, had been in the air ever since the futurist painter Luigi Russolo in 1913 praised as sources for an “art of noises” “booms, thunderclaps, explosions, clashes, splashes, and roars.” Busoni too saw music as moving toward the machine. And Varèse was dreaming of electrical help by 1920 certainly. Also George Antheil, Leo Ornstein, and Darius Milhaud had very early composed passages for non-tonal percussion. Cage, however, when he began to compose in 1933, was virtually alone in following out the futurist noise principle as a career. Others had worked occasionally in that vein, but none other seemed really to believe in it as a destiny or to be able to perfect for its mastery devices for giving it style, structure, and variety. Cage’s own music over the last thirty years, though not entirely free of interrelated pitches, has nevertheless followed a straighter line in its evolution toward an art of collage based on nonmusical sounds than that of any other artist of his time. He seems to have known by instinct everything to avoid that might turn him aside from his goal and everything that could be of use toward achieving it. Precious little service, naturally, was to be expected out of music’s classical models.
The ultimate aim was to produce a homogenized chaos that would carry no program, no plot, no reminders of the history of beauty, and no personal statement. Nowadays, of course, we can recognize in such an ideal the whole effort of pop art. But I do not think that pop art’s obvious jokes and facile sentiments were a major motive. I think Cage wanted, had always wanted, to save music from itself by removing its narcotic qualities and its personalized pretentiousness, as well as all identifiable structure and rhetoric. In this regard his aim has been close to that of Erik Satie, whose music he adores. But its consistent pursuit presents a story so utterly American, even West Coast American, that this Frenchman from Normandy with a Scottish mother, though he might well have delighted in Cage’s salt-sprayed humor, would have lacked sympathy, I suspect, for his doctrinaire determination.
John Cage is a Californian born in Los Angeles in 1912, whose father had come there from Tennessee. A lanky redhead with white skin that freckles, a constant walker, a woodsman, and a tinkerer, he has all the tough qualities of the traditional mountaineer submissive to no authorities academic or federal. He had good lessons in piano playing and in composition, the latter from Arnold Schoenberg among others. Teaching during the late 1930s at the Cornish School in Seattle, he made friendships in the Northwest that stimulated his take-off as a composer toward East Asian art principles. The painter Morris Graves, the composer Lou Harrison, and the dancer Merce Cunningham all came into his life at this time; and so did the young Russian woman from Alaska whom he married.
He also conducted percussion concerts and composed percussion works. His Construction in Metals, of 1939, for bells, thundersheets, gongs, anvils, automobile-brake drums, and similar metallic objects, is organized rhythmically after the Indian tala, in which the whole has as many parts as each section has small parts; and in Cage these parts, large and small, are related to each other in lengths of time as square and square root. In 1938 he also began to “prepare” pianos by inserting coins, bits of rubber or wood, bolts, and other small objects between the strings at nodal points, producing a gamut of delicate twangs, pings, and thuds that constitutes for each piece its vocabulary.
At this time, and for the next decade, Cage’s music continued to be organized for phraseology and length after the square-and-square-root principle. Its melodic structure, if one may use this term for music so far removed from modes and scales, is expressive, in the Indian manner, of “permanent” emotions (heroic, erotic, and so forth) though in some cases he does not hesitate, as in Amores (1943), to describe things personally experienced, in this case a lovers’ triangle. But his melody remains aware of Schoenberg’s teaching about tetrachordal structure, and it also observes a serial integrity. Since music without a thoroughbass can seek no structure for harmony, and since Cage’s orientalizing proclivities inclined his expression toward “permanent” emotions, as opposed to those which by their progress and change might suggest a beginning, a middle, and an ending, he had available to him no structural device save what he could invent through rhythm.
Now rhythm, being the free, the spontaneous, the uncontrolled element in Schoenberg’s music and in that of his Viennese companion-pupils Berg and Webern, appealed strongly to Cage’s inventive mind as a domain offering a chance for innovation. The Schoenberg school had made few serious attempts to solve problems of structure; they had remained hung up, as we say, on their twelve-tone row, which by abolishing the consonance-dissonance antithesis had relieved them of an age-old problem in harmony. The fact that in doing so it had also abolished the scalar hierarchies, previously the source of all harmony-based form, led them to substitute for harmonic structure an interior cohesion achieved through canonic applications of the twelve-tone row, but not to any original efforts at all regarding organic form. Rhythm they never considered for this role, since rhythm, in the European tradition, had long before been judged a contributory element, not a basic one like melody or harmony. And besides, the Germanic practice, in which they had all grown up, had lost its rhythmic vitality after Beethoven’s death, and no longer distinguished with any rigor between rhythms of length and rhythms of stress, as Beethoven and his predecessors had done to so remarkable a result.
What the Schoenberg school actually used as a substitute for structure was the evocation of certain kinds of emotional drama familiar to them from the Romantic masters. This is why their music, though radical in its interval relations, is on the inside just good old Vienna. Even Italians like Luigi Dallapiccola and Frenchmen like Pierre Boulez, who took up the twelve-tone method after World War II, being not attached atavistically to Vienna, could not hold their works together without a libretto. Their best ones are operas, oratorios, cantatas. And their only substitute for organic structure was the sérialisme intégral actually achieved by Boulez in a few works, a complete organization into rows of all the variables—of tones, lengths, heights, timbres, loudnesses, and methods of instrumental attack. The result was so complex to compose, to play, and above all to follow that little effort was made to continue the practice.
The experiment had its effect on Cage, all the same, almost the only direct musical influence one can find since his early lessons with Cowell and Schoenberg and his percussion-orchestra experiments with Lou Harrison. For Cage, like everybody else, was deeply impressed by Pierre Boulez, both the music and the mentality of the man. Knowing well that twelve-tone music lacked both rhythm and structure, Cage had early aspired in his works for percussion groups and for prepared piano to supply both. Whether he had ever thought to serialize the rhythmic element I do not know; he may have considered his tala structure more effective. But he was impressed by the Boulez achievement in total control, and Boulez in return was not without respect for Cage’s forcefulness.
Copyright © 1970 by Virgil Thomson