Tag: Cage centenary

Cage = 100: Cage and Zen, Perspectives from Two Recent Books

John Cage

John Cage in August 1992, the last month of his life. Photo by John Maggiotto, courtesy S.E.M. Ensemble.

There’s a tendency to acknowledge a certain area of John Cage’s aesthetic without overly considering it. The bright-eyed and necktied young man so eager to define art for the 20th century seems generally to have weathered better than the mushroom-collecting Zen enthusiast, bearded and dressed in denim, that Cage became in later years. There seems to be, in other words, an effort (collective-subconsciously, perhaps) to protect Cage from being seen as hokey, or (equally incriminatingly) proto New Age.

But much of what makes Cage Cage also makes New Age New Age. Consider by way of example a strip from the reliably wryly observant comic Doonesbury. The no-nonsense football and military hero BD comes home to find his former cheerleader wife Boopsie listening to a New Age record. She asks him if he likes it and he says he can’t hear anything. Isn’t it wonderful?, she replies, it’s called “Air Pudding.” Boopsie could just as easily have been listening to the work Cage will always be most famous for.

That discussion—framed around New Age sensibilities or not—is key to an honest portrait of John Cage. And the root of that particular conversation is Cage’s deep interest in Buddhism. It’s not ignored in most profiles of him, but often it is treated—like being gay or being from L.A.—as a biographical detail, an interesting aside. Kay Larson, in her Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Buddhism and the Inner Life of Artists, attempts to provide a fresh perspective on Cage by viewing him through a Zen lens.

Where The Heart Beats

Kay Larson, Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Buddhism and the Inner Life of Artists (The Penguin Press, 474 pp., cloth $29.95)

It’s a delicate task to take on. Cage loved knowledge and even sought outside input into the creation of his work to the extent of actively ceding decision-making power in his own compositions in order to make room for external influences. And certainly Buddhist thought was one of the principle external influences that guided his life and work. But a tight focus on a figure as complex as Cage is likely to lead to tunnel vision-induced errors. One could, for example, construct a biography of Cage based on his love for Thoreau and the natural world or say that the whole of his work was a reaction against Schoenberg. In neither case would the biographical details be wrong exactly, but both would fail in getting the whole picture. Defining a figure as complex as Cage in terms of his influences runs the risk of seeing the thinness of a dime without noticing that it’s also round.

This is the trap Larson falls into. Her writings about art have appeared in ARTnews, The Village Voice, and The New York Times, and she has been a practicing Buddhist since 1994, so she’s well equipped for the task she’s taken on. But in a sense, she fails to see the trees for the forest.

Larson takes a keen interest in Cage’s personal life, more than most biographers have in the past. Other writers have shied away from Cage’s homosexuality perhaps because he himself never spoke about it. While he and choreographer Merce Cunningham lived and worked together for most of their lives, their private life was kept private. The rules change, of course, after a public figure’s death, and consideration of the details of Cage’s sexuality and how repressing it during repressed times might have affected him is at this point fair game. But Larson romanticizes it. She describes their first meeting, when Cage was hired to accompany dance classes at Cornish College in Seattle, saying: “The two men met in that moment, even if neither of them quite realized it.” Later, in discussing Cage’s closeted homosexuality, she writes, “The heart-issues that Cage had never resolved were now beating like the undead on the locked doors of his awareness.”

It comes off as a bit prurient, and all the more so given the fact that she seems to have little to say about the actual music. She gives historical details but generally avoids any reactions to or analysis of the works. (She does call the mesmerizing cacophony of HPSCHD “excruciating,” however, and makes reference to Schoenberg’s “agonizing dissonance.”) It’s more than a little telling that the one piece she discusses at any length is 4’33”, the piece for which Cage famously wrote no music.

Larson’s interest in Zen, however, and her interest in Cage as a person, give her rather specialized biography some interesting angles. She provides a nice consideration to the philosopher and author D. T. Suzuki, a scholar respected in his time for bringing Buddhist thought to the West. He isn’t a major figure in the history of Buddhist practice, but he was one of the most profound influences in Cage’s understanding of Eastern thought. While Cage biographies tend not to give him much more than a passing mention, Larson gives him the page space to become a character in his own right. Likewise, her concern for knowing the passions of her subject lead her to give a more complete picture of Xenia Kashevaroff, Cage’s wife from 1935 to 1945, and of the circle of painters and composers he surrounded himself with in New York in the 1950s.

While Larson’s interest in Cage as a practitioner—an applied philosopher perhaps—is clear, one can’t help but imagine her wishing Cage had stopped with the so-called silent piece so she wouldn’t have had to listen to anything more. And in fact, she pretty much skips over the last 30 years of his life. Ultimately, the assignment she’s given herself is a curious one. Buddhism was one of Cage’s lifelong interests, but he never called himself a “Buddhist,” so while her accounts of his life and of the tenets of Buddhism aren’t wrong, she can never quite be all the way right. The fit is a bit forced from the outset.

Haskins Cage

Rob Haskins, John Cage (Reaktion Books, 178 pp., paper, $16.95)

Cage’s relationship with Buddhist thought isn’t the driving force behind Rob Haskins’ concise biography, simply titled John Cage, but he gives a more balanced assessment in a ten-page section on the subject than Larson does in her whole book. Haskins, an assistant professor in the department of music at the University of New Hampshire, Durham, does a fine job of dealing with Cage’s many facets—his use of chance and thoughts about the ego and individualism, his flair for populism, his poetry and visual art—in much the same way he handles the Buddhist element: he deals with them intelligently and succinctly and then moves along. He also manages what Larson doesn’t quite find in herself, which is to deal with the music. In discussing Cartridge Music, one of Cage’s least “musical” works, he quite candidly writes, “At first, one hardly knows how to listen to such music: the electronics lend a certain harshness to the sounds that makes them seem overly mechanical. Soon enough, though, the complexity of the sounds becomes noticeable.” This is exactly how Cage listened to the forest, or traffic, and how we must listen to him.

Whether or not the world needs another John Cage biography is an open question. Haskins doesn’t best David Revill’s excellent 1993 bio The Roaring Silence: John Cage—a Life in any way except for brevity: at 180 pages, it’s about half the length and so might hold more appeal to the casual centenary celebrator. In that regard, Haskins does a laudably thorough job. It’s a quick, intelligent, and quite readable book.

In his epilogue, Haskins addresses quite nicely the problem of considering Cage as too much of any one thing:

Cage’s complexity resides not least in his own heterogeneity—his famous, cheerful restlessness—which in turn accounts for the great number of extraordinary misunderstandings his work has provoked and for the tendency to view askance or to minimize one or another of his creative activities. […] Cage cannot be, and will never be, explained completely: he will always retain the capacity to infuriate and confound, and even his most poetic achievements will perhaps amuse many more than they inspire.

Why should we study John Cage? Because we can never understand him. And there lies the Zen of Cage.


Kurt Gottschalk’s writing about jazz, rock and new music has appeared in All About Jazz, Time Out, The Village Voice, and The Wire as well as publications in France, Ireland, Portugal and Russia. He is the host of the weekly program Miniature Minotaurs on WFMU and recently published a collection of poetry, Sentences. His occasionally-updated blog can be found at spearmintmusic.blogspot.com.

A Bird Uncaged

In last week’s post I wrote about my impressions of two organizations that regularly present jazz performances in New York City at no cost to their audiences: the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival and Jazzmobile. The post opened with the telling of how I was introduced to Parker’s music and how that experience has subsequently informed my musical life. The post generated a comment that included five points I hadn’t mentioned, but which are important: (1) Charlie Parker was one of the greatest improvisers of the 20th century; (2) there has been a long-held misconception that Parker used drugs to enhance his music; (3) the recording ban of 1942-44 left some of Parker’s best work undocumented; (4) that better versions of “Just Friends” exist than the Charlie Parker with Strings version; and that (5) Parker’s performance on his most famous version of “Lover Man” was the result of drug withdrawal, not inspiration. I want to briefly respond with a few observations.

(1) Parker, a brilliant and gifted saxophonist and improviser, practiced incessantly and memorized (composed?) his solos. There is a recording of “Just Friends” from a 1952 Carnegie Hall concert where someone near the microphone can be heard singing along with his regurgitation of the Parker w/ Strings solo. This wasn’t peculiar to Parker. As a sideman, I’ve witnessed saxophonists Joe Henderson, Jim Pepper, and Chris Hunter, as well as pianists Kenny Werner and Joanne Brackeen, quote entire choruses of their recorded solos. One of Parker’s associates, bassist Charles Mingus, described improvisation as spontaneous composition. Parker’s improvising was, though, groundbreaking. Musicians the world over have been influenced by his playing and writing.

(2) Parker’s addiction to drugs was all-consuming; it negatively impacted his personal and business dealings, and was the principal factor contributing to his early death. Parker himself admitted that his use of drugs was not a healthy practice and, not altogether successfully, urged his acolytes to not follow his example. However, there can be no question that his music was strongly influenced by his use of opiates. It cannot be definitively ascertained whether or not Parker would have been a better musician had he not been an addict, but he certainly didn’t think that drugs made his playing better. There are many examples of musicians who kicked their drug habits—John Coltrane, Hampton Hawes, Art Pepper, Elvin Jones, Sonny Stitt, Sonny Rollins, and, for a time, Miles Davis and Bill Evans, for instance—and one can’t argue that their playing suffered for their effort. In fact, their playing improved dramatically.

(3) The recording ban not only left Parker’s work undocumented, but it also left nearly all of the music created by be-bop’s pioneers during these formative years unavailable for study. All told, there are eight extant recordings of Parker from this period, two being his last recordings with the Jay McShann Orchestra and the rest being jam sessions at Clark Monroe’s Uptown House in New York City, room 305 of the Savoy Hotel in Chicago (with Billy Eckstein playing trumpet), and other undisclosed Chicago locations (with Benny Goodman, Hazel Scott, and several “unknowns”).

(4) Parker wasn’t happy with the arrangements for the Charlie Parker with Strings recordings and went as far as to fire members of the ensemble in hopes of changing the static nature of the composed music. He unsuccessfully petitioned Norman Granz to commission Stefan Wolpe to write music for the group in hopes of having something he felt would be more artistically compatible with his “avant-garde” nature, but his need for drug money kept him from doing much more with his career after 1950 than rehashing the music he made in the 1940s. What Parker played on the recording in question of “Just Friends” was, without a doubt, a classic solo, but when compared to his small-group recordings, not particularly inspired. To my thinking Granz’s refusal to support Parker’s artistic savvy cheated history much more than the recording ban of 1942-44.

(5) As long as Parker had enough of the right kind of drugs in his system, he could perform at a level of proficiency that his public had come to expect. It is well-known that Parker was withdrawing from heroin when the version of “Lover Man” referred to in the comment was recorded. He was drinking heavily to counter the withdrawal symptoms and, as a result, his performance was not up to par (which is putting it mildly, as the producer of the date was holding Parker up during the recording!). Still, bassist-composer Charles Mingus thought this was one of Parker’s best recordings. I understand why Mingus would believe this. When listening to it, one hears Charlie Parker working harder than ever to play his best. It’s almost as if he was breaking new ground; uncaged, but not free. While Parker wasn’t happy with the recording, it is an indelible part of his legacy and one that has informed many of his musical descendants. It’s interesting to note that the comment mentions a 1974 version of “Just Friends” by Lee Konitz that exhibits much of the phrasing of Parker’s botched “Lover Man.”

A person I know, who will remain unidentified, said that he/she could “listen to Bird play for hours on end, but as soon as he stopped” would get as far away as possible because, when dealing with Parker on a personal level, he was about nothing more than getting drugs. It reminded me of something attributed to another drug addicted but excellent saxophonist (who will also remain nameless): “When I’m not doing drugs, I have a complicated life; I have debts to clear up, bills to pay. But when I’m strung out [on drugs], life is simple; all I have to do is get [more drugs].” While this sentiment reflects what some (including myself) would consider a truly pathetic way to live, a sense of noblesse oblige might be extracted from it. For both of these musicians, the most important things in life were playing music and getting high. To get high, though, both of them relied on habit-forming narcotics that produce intense withdrawal symptoms. To reduce one’s life to this level entails a great degree of dedication and sacrifice, especially in a culture that enacts severe penalties of ostracization for such behavior. But this same culture idolizes the creative fury of the antisocial, narcissistic, obsessive/compulsive, addicted personality. Mozart, Poe, Byron, Tesla, Bach, Wagner, Davis, Hendrix, Rembrandt, and Bukowski are just a few names from history whose predilection for unorthodox behavior appears to be part and parcel of their seemingly effortless artistic excellence.*

Philosopher Gilles Deleuze said, “We are habits, nothing but habits—the habit of saying ‘I’. Perhaps there is no more striking answer to the problem of the Self” (Empiricism and Subjectivity, p. x). Without going into further explanation of a subject that I’m just beginning to grok, I will say that I agree with the notion. I know that I feel most comfortable inside boxes and surrounded by simple geometric shapes. I know that I’m habituated to this most unnatural way of living, as are most of my fellow humans. (And, although being something of a hoarder, I have a certain amount of squalor that I try to maintain control over; I know that this, too, is a function of habit.) I’m sure that we all can look at our lives and find plenty of examples of habits that make up our reality. I know that when I make music, it is habit that dictates at least 90% of what I do. When I recognize the playing of other musicians—say, John Coltrane or Ornette Coleman—I know that what distinguishes their playing are the choices that became habitual to them. So I see how Deleuze can conjecture that “we are habits.” Yet artistic creativity demands that we make a habit of breaking those habits, which can become a habit that, for some, becomes hard to break! It is a process of inventing new habits that define, or redefine, the Self. In music, this would be the development of a “voice.” I believe that the brightest stars that the arts produces are those who, in the process of developing their voices, tap deeply into the collective Self and give it a new habit to expect and identify with. This was the case for Charlie Parker, Mozart, Poe, Byron, Bach, Wagner, Davis, Hendrix, Rembrandt and Bukowski. This was also the case for John Cage, a rather unique man of habits and addictions, whose music, according to Dr. Martin E. Rosenberg, crosses disciplines into philosophy and science.

I mentioned Dr. Rosenberg in a previous post. He is a scholar, musician, author, as well as an HCI (human-computer interaction) and hypermedia specialist. (His online CV offers more information about him and his projects.) One of these projects is a questionnaire that was sent out to current and former alumni of the Rutgers University Jazz History and Research program. This questionnaire is titled “Jazz Musicians and Educators: Embodied Cognition; Distributed Cognition and Improvisation,” and was intended to be used in a presentation he is giving at Manchester Metropolitan University on September 6, 2012, which is the same day that I’m writing this. I received the questionnaire four days after the requested August 10 return date (I actually didn’t get to read the email until August 16), but found the premise of his research rather interesting. I began to fill out the questionnaire and realized that it would be much more involved than the standard multiple-choice forms I used fill out for extra credit in psychology 101. At one point, the questionnaire directs the participant to refer to an article Rosenberg wrote, “Jazz and Emergence (Part One) From Calculus to Cage, and from Charlie Parker to Ornette Coleman: Complexity and the Aesthetics and Politics of Emergent Form in Jazz,” that appeared in the December 2010 issue of Inflexions. That is where I ran into a problem: I didn’t really understand the article very well, which cast doubt on my understanding of the questionnaire. I just couldn’t finish answering the questionnaire until I had a better grasp of the article that was recommended to be read. My attempt at filling out Dr. Rosenberg’s questionnaire was a failure!

The main problem for me was that the paper is written for the academic, not the jazz musician. While I truly don’t believe that the two are incompatible (although some of my colleagues do believe that), it takes a bit of patience to take it all in. For one thing, Dr. Rosenberg’s work is steeped in the writing of Deleuze and Felix Guattari, two multi-disciplinary philosophers whom I had never read before. (I took one semester of philosophy as an undergrad and came to the conclusion that Nietzsche went mad because he realized he was wrong!) So I have been reading the works of Deleuze and Guattari in what little spare time is available to a professional musician who travels by car to different cities regularly. (If you’re in the Woodstock area tonight [Friday, September 7], come by the Photosensualis Studio at 15 Rock City Road [845-679-5695], where I’ll be performing with guitarist Dom Minasi, vibraphonist-pianist Karl Berger, vocalist-poet Ingrid Sertso, and drummer extraordinaire Harvey Sorgen!)

I was heartened to read in their magnum opus, A Thousand Plateaus, that “[it] is inevitable that the Plan(e) [a term used to suggest the plateaus of the Balanese landscape that are at once physical, structural, temporal, and ritual], thus conceived [referring to the writing of Nietzche as an example of ‘nonpulsed time’], will always fail…. As [John] Cage says, it is of the nature of the plan(e) that it fail” (p. 269). Deleuze, thankfully, footnotes Cage’s exact words:

“Where did the title of your second book, A Year From Monday, come from?” “From a plan a group of friends and I made to meet each other again in Mexico ‘a year from next Monday.’ We were together on a Saturday. And we were never able to fulfill that plan. It’s a form of silence…. The very fact that our plan failed, the fact we were unable to meet does not mean that everything failed. The plan wasn’t a failure.”—John Cage and Daniel Charles, For the Birds (Boston: Marion Boyers, 1981), pp. 116-117.

So in failure, I have not failed! (Francesca—It ain’t Christmas yet, but I hear Handel’s Messiah coming from somewhere!.)

I think that Deleuze was examining the difference between a conception of music where there “is a transcendent compositional principal that is not of the nature of sound, that is not ‘audible’ by itself or for itself” with one where

[There] are no longer any forms or … subjects. There is no structure, any more than there is genesis. There are only relations of movement and rest, speed and slowness between unformed [or relatively unformed] elements … molecules and particles of all kinds. There are only haecceities, affects, subjectless individuations that constitute collective assemblages (p. 266).

To illustrate the former, Deleuze refers to Karlheinz Stockhausen, who was “obliged to describe the structure of his sound forms as existing ‘alongside’ them, since he is unable to make it audible.” For the latter he attributes Cage as the one who “first and most perfectly deployed this fixed sound plane, which affirms a process against all structure and genesis, a floating time against pulsed time or tempo, experimentation against any kind of interpretation, and in which silence as sonorous rest also marks the absolute state of movement” (p. 267). But wasn’t it Cage who said of music, “composing’s one thing, performing’s another, listening’s a third. What can they have to do with one another?” (“Experimental Music,” The Score and I. M. A. Magazine [London, June 1955]). In felicitatis parum non deficere! But Deleuze wasn’t suggesting a plan(e) where “anything goes”:

This synthesis of disparate elements is not without ambiguity.… the same ambiguity, perhaps, as the modern valorization of children’s drawings, texts by the mad, and concerts of noise. Sometimes one overdoes it … then instead of producing a cosmic machine capable of “rendering sonorous,” one lapses back to a machine … that ends up reproducing nothing but a scribble effacing all lines, a scramble effacing all sounds. The claim is that one is opening music to all events, all irruptions, but one ends up reproducing a scrambling that prevents any event from happening. All one has left is a resonance chamber well on the way to forming a black hole. A material that is too rich remains too “territorialized”: on noise sources, on the nature of the objects … (this even applies to Cage’s prepared piano) (pp. 333-34).

Clearly Deleuze is a proponent of the doctrine of “less is more.” This becomes clear in his other magnum opus, also co-written with Guattari:

But on the other, the schizorevolutionary, pole, the value of art is no longer measured except in terms of the decoded and deterritorial-ized flows that it causes to circulate beneath a signifier reduced to silence, beneath the conditions of identity of the parameters, across a structure reduced to impotence; a writing with pneumatic, electronic, or gaseous indifferent supports, and that appears all the more difficult and intellectual to intellectuals as it is accessible to the infirm, the illiterate, and the schizos, embracing all that flows and counterflows, the gushings of mercy and pity knowing nothing of meanings and aims (the Artaud experiment, the Burroughs experiment). It is here that art accedes to its authentic modernity, which simply consists in liberating what was present in art from its beginnings, but was hidden underneath aims and objects, even if aesthetic, and underneath recodings or axiomatics: the pure process that fulfills itself, and that never ceases to reach fulfillment as it proceeds—art as “experimentation.”* (pp. 370-71) *See all of John Cage’s work, and his book Silence (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1961): “The word experimental is apt, providing it is understood not as descriptive of an act to be later judged in terms of success and failure, but simply as of an act the outcome of which is unknown” (p. 13). And regarding the active or practical notions of decoding, of deconstruction, and of the work as a process, the reader is referred to the excellent commentaries of Daniel Charles on Cage, “Musique et anarchie,” in Bulletin de la Societefrancaise de philosophie, July 1971, where there is violent anger on the part of some participants in the discussion, reacting to the idea that there is no longer any code. (p. 371, n.)

This is where Deleuze, Cage, and I—for now—part company; partially because I don’t agree that the best music is simple, or that music that is indeterminate as to form—i.e., with an unknown outcome—is necessarily experimental, and principally because I have digressed from Dr. Rosenberg’s article.

I wanted to return to Rosenberg’s paper for many reasons. The most important in my eyes being that he suggests that the realm he addresses might be “too quick to efface the continued conditions of suppression with respect to the complex intertwinings of political, economic and social forces—especially where the condition of African-Americans in the United States is concerned.” In the footnote, which is far too long to include, Rosenberg refers to Foucault’s recognition in 1995 “that Western ‘democracies’ were moving away from regimes of power based on power, as exemplified by institutions, to conditions where ‘continuous control and communication’ enables power to remain immanent, beneath the threshold of awareness.” (Which might be my problem with academy-speak, which disallows serious consideration of George Orwell saying the same thing at least eleven years before!) But the real reason is that Dr. Rosenberg describes a cross-disciplinary application of phase space diagramming, whereby many possible outcomes can be represented as “clouds” of points in a two-dimensional plane.

Without going into his well thought out and articulated examination of scales, remelodicization and chord substitution (that include an interesting correlation with Baroque contrapuntal terminologies that I believe are indispensible to the presentation of jazz theory to a Eurocentric non-jazz literate academic reception)—or going beyond the mention of his novel approach of associating bifurcation theory to the art of chord progression substitution, which can convert choices or options (depending on whether one is analyzing or improvising) to graphic points in space phase diagrams—I believe that Dr. Rosenberg is onto something vital in his inclusion of the ensemble as possessing a disembodied, or “distributed,” cognitive process. In Beneath the Underdog Mingus describes how he and Parker could communicate precise ideas with each other when playing music together. My own experience with this was limited to once with Kenny Werner and two times with Joe Henderson and was very brief because I wasn’t quite ready for it. (When I asked Joanne Brackeen about it, she told me that “whatever you feel onstage with Joe is true!”). However, the halls of academe are probably about as ready to accept a functioning subaltern collective consciousness as it is to accept chi as life-force. Still, Rosenberg is adroit in observing that:

We can find direct echoes of phase space diagrams of thermodynamic processes such as equilibrium and periodic attractors, in the music score of Concert for Piano and Orchestra by John Cage. Compare the bizarre revamping of the rules for music notation in this score with the phase space diagram of the Evolution in phase space of a cell corresponding to a mixing system. Again, here is another score of John Cage to compare with a phase space diagram. (pp. 235-36)

Rosenberg on Cage 1

John Cage, Concert for Piano and Orchestra © 1960 by Henmar Press / Edition Peters. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from C.F. Peters Corp.

Rosenberg On Cage 2

Typical Evolution in Phase Space of a Cell Corresponding to a “Mixing” System. “Order Out of Chaos” by Ilya Prigogine and Isabella Stengers (Bantam, 1984)

Rosenberg’s reference to the music of Cage has little bearing on jazz-rooted improvisation except to compare his process of deconstructing the “calculus of music notation,” which he sees as parallel innovations (calculus and music notation). He makes important note that jazz musicians approach deconstruction according to a tradition not afforded Cage because of Cage’s “complicity with respect to top-down European aesthetic sensibilities.” Indeed, the history of how Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra as outlined in Isaac Schankler’s excellent monograph is rife with examples of non-functioning disembodied cognition of the work. Rosenberg does not present Cage as existing in a vacuum, however. He reminds his reader that Cage had a network of like-minded individuals that included Marcel DuChamp and Merce Cunningham. Shankler points out that Cage also had a champion in pianist David Tudor, who might be the source for a Cagean performance practice. I found his disclosure that Tudor used different interpretative materials in the rehearsals than were used in performances of Concert to be absolutely in line with how jazz musicians “practice” improvisation. But Cage was a maverick in his field. He was running against the grain, breaking with a hegemonic tradition that was at odds with his Zen-informed principles. Parker, Coltrane, and Ornette Coleman, while innovative, were part of a culture that was, and mostly still is, excluded from being part of that tradition’s world view. Dr. Rosenberg’s research suggests an inclusion of a recalibrating impetus for the machine that regulates this, and I say more power to him. There’s a long tradition of bad habits associated with reversible time that needs to be dealt with. Just the idea that jazz is an African American music with no concrete inclusion of original Americans makes for a long road to hoe: longer than forty acres!

When I think of John Cage, I remember my only meeting with him. I was about 25 years old, absolutely broke and wandering around Greenwich Village with an electric bass I had bought from Dennis Irwin (which is why I was broke!). At the time I was habitually drinking, taking drugs, smoking cigarettes, and weighed 100 pounds less than I do now. I heard that John Cage was signing copies of his new book, For the Birds at B. Dalton on 6th Avenue and 8th Street. I had read his other books and decided to go, even though I couldn’t buy his new one. It was an uncommonly, for then, hot day in September and I was wearing a t-shirt and cutoffs. I was expecting to see a long line of people and hoped that I might, somehow, fall into a situation where I could get a copy of his new book and get it signed. Instead I found an empty store with a table occupied by John Cage and another person, probably a store manager, and a pile of books. I approached the table and introduced myself as someone who really liked his other books, but was unable to buy the new one. He looked at me very oddly, I thought, like he was hoping for something. I was so flustered by his gaze that I didn’t even think to ask him to autograph my electric bass, but in retrospective consideration of our habits, it was probably good that I didn’t. It is important, I think, to remember that Cage was the kind of guy who would poison himself with mushrooms! Yes, we all have our habits that define Self. But when these habits are denied us, we become incredibly creative, like Charlie Parker playing “Lover Man.” I’ve been told that when Cecil Taylor plays a concert, he refrains from any imbibing or smoking for a day or two before hand, to keep his creative edge keen, and then afterwards goes on a rampage!

*I’m not suggesting that artistic excellence is an outcome of drug addiction. There are many, many cases of addicts not deemed to be admirable people: Göring, Henry VIII, François (a.k.a. Marquis de Sade), and, in our time, Rush Limbaugh come to mind.

Cage = 100: Walking Along Paths the Outcome of Which I Didn’t Know…

John Cage

John Cage in August 1992, the last month of his life. Photo by John Maggiotto, courtesy S.E.M. Ensemble.

Five days after the death of colleague and friend John Cage, I produced and hosted a two-hour tribute broadcast on the New York City radio station WBAI-FM. Only a few of the many, many friends who were also close to him could be invited. As you’ll hear, the emotions of the moment are still raw. Everyone is working to come to terms with this sudden absence at the center of our community. Cage was such a friendly, welcoming, and challenging presence in our lives and in the music scene—for everyone—that even now, all this time later, it’s hard to believe he’s no longer with us.

In the WBAI studio with me were artist William Anastasi (at the time co-artistic advisor to the Merce Cunningham Dance Company), composer Earle Brown, Don Gillespie (who worked with Cage for decades at C.F. Peters, Cage’s publisher), R.I.P. Hayman (composer and a founder of EAR Magazine), Mark Swed (a music critic who is probably more knowledgeable about Cage than almost anyone else alive), and Margaret Leng Tan (a pianist who worked with Cage intensively, especially on annotating his works for prepared piano). Speaking by telephone sequentially (WBAI only had a single line) were: Christian Wolff, Pauline Oliveros, and David Tudor. The engineer and in-line producer for WBAI was Peter Schmideg, who was the regular host of the station’s weekly program “Soundscapes: Explorations in Radio Sound & Music.” He graciously offered his timeslot for this special tribute broadcast which can be heard in the following audio file.

This program was the initial broadcast of a year-long radio series I produced for Source Music, Inc., called 0’00” – after the piece Cage described as his 4’33” No. 2: “In a situation provided with maximum amplification (no feedback), perform a disciplined action, with any interruptions, fulfilling in whole, or in part, an obligation to others…” The series went on to include, with permission, the first complete rebroadcast of Cage’s complete Harvard Norton Lectures and Seminars of 1988-1989, plus all of Morton Feldman’s WBAI “Radio Happenings” with John Cage, not heard since the 1960s. Each program of the series also had an interview with a different Cage-related guest. Half of the programs in my 0’00” series were broadcast on WBAI, and the other half on WKCR.

With this 0’00” series, I was working to fulfill not only the obligation we all felt to Cage himself, for having been the center of the entire music community for musicians of all stripes—and doing so with inspiration and an infectious joie de vivre—but also for the extremely thoughtful professional encouragement of having written me an encomium about my own music. In addition, it was one small way to show my appreciation for having been awarded two grants from the Foundation for Contemporary Performance Arts—a philanthropic organization Jasper Johns co-founded with Cage and others which helped support so much new and creative work in our community. (To the surprise and delight of all grantees, the awards arrived in the mail in the form of Foundation checks personally co-signed by Cage and Johns.)

Adding an element of chance to the proceedings, as this broadcast took place, that year’s Republican Convention was just getting underway, and we were supposed to be prepared to cut away at a moment’s notice to former President Ronald Reagan, who was scheduled to speak after the keynote speaker. Fortunately the speech went on so long that Reagan came on late, and our tribute wound up lasting only slightly less than the intended full two hours. Towards the end of the recording, you’ll hear increasingly frequent references to the convention going on as we are speaking, and there are a couple of fake-out cut-aways to the convention feed before we finally go out, allowing the last words of this historic recording to be spoken by Reagan. Odd as this juxtaposition is, the contrast between the visions represented by this politician and by this composer makes perfect poetic (and Cageian) sense.

Near the end of the program, in my protest against the formulaic last sentence of The New York Times’ obituary, “There are no immediate survivors,” we seconded John Schaefer’s heartfelt exclamation on his radio program that, on the contrary, all of the thousands in our new music community are Cage’s children. I meant no slight to Allan Kozinn’s excellent writing of the obit. He wrote it under extremely difficult circumstances, which I am happy to take this opportunity to underline and especially to note the grievous mistake inserted into it by his editors without Kozinn’s knowledge or consent: that the headline and its lead incorrectly labeled Cage a “minimalist.” The newspaper got it right though, in putting the obit on its front page. (Kozinn told me Cage benefited from the outrage that had erupted when the horse Secretariat died on the same day that Virgil Thomson had—and the editors had chosen Secretariat’s obit for the front page, rather than Thomson’s!) While he was alive, John Cage often had to deal with much disrespect and consternation. When I wrote for The New York Times myself, the editors would not allow me to describe him as one of the most influential composers of our time, suggesting I substitute “musical philosopher.” With much difficulty, I held my ground, but had to compromise with an added equivocation, referring to him as “this most influential and elusive composer.” Since his death, however, the proper estimation of his work has now grown apparent even to the most hidebound naysayers. The range, reach, and depth of his work is enormous.

A word for those who did not have the good fortune or opportunity to interact one-on-one with Cage as a person: he gave generously of himself to everyone, always with diligence and patience. In New York City, one could often run into him, whether shopping at the Union Square Farmers’ Market or attending concerts at Phill Niblock’s loft. Despite his unbelievably busy schedule, he always had time for everyone. And it was rare for anyone to speak with him and not come away enriched. His famous “Eleventh Commandment” was “Thou shalt not have an answering machine”—which meant, if anyone called him (his number was listed in the phone book), they would likely find him at the other end of the line. (Even John Ashbery once told me Cage had transformed his life by advising him, rather than getting upset, to include the telephone interruptions in his poetry.)

Cage was protean, and without question the most influential composer since Wagner—and for entirely opposite reasons. No one since has come anywhere near to taking his place.


Thanks are especially due to Peter Schmideg; to WBAI/Radio Pacifica; and to Laurie Spiegel for archiving and transferring the broadcast to digital form.

Radio image via Bigstock


Raphael Mostel 1985 Photo

Composer Raphael Mostel with Tibetan singing bowls, 1985. Photo by Michael Sullivan.

Raphael Mostel is a composer, writer and lecturer based in New York City. His work has been performed by musicians of the Royal Concertgebouw and Chicago Symphony orchestras and New York City Opera. To realize his very different compositions revivifying ancient ideas of sound, Mostel created the Tibetan Singing Bowl Ensemble: New Music for Old Instruments℠.

Cage = 100: Tudor and the Performance Practice of Concert for Piano and Orchestra

Cage in 1992

John Cage in August 1992, the last month of his life. Photo by John Maggiotto, courtesy S.E.M. Ensemble

In 1958, the premiere of John Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra was marred by disruptive behavior from both audience members and musicians. By Cage’s own account, “some of [the musicians]—not all—introduced in the actual performance sounds of a nature not found in my notations, characterized for the most part by their intentions which had become foolish and unprofessional.”[1] These intrusions included, among other things, exaggerated corny blues riffs, prolonged and sarcastic applause, and a tuba ostinato from Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps.[2] This was certainly not the only incident of this kind in Cage’s life. In a 1975 performance of Song Books, soloist Julius Eastman proceeded to slowly undress his boyfriend onstage, and then to attempt to do the same to his own sister, who stopped him by protesting, “No Julius, no!” The next day, this prompted Cage to pronounce in a rare moment of anger, “I’m tired of people who think that they could do whatever they want with my music!”[3]

Scenarios like these bring to light a particular recurring problem in the interpretation of Cage’s music. Many of Cage’s scores seem to allow performers a degree of freedom that often leads to interpretations that, by the composer’s own admission, do not reflect the spirit of the work. This is a problem of both attitude and notation. In the first example, nothing in the notation of the Concert would allow for the Stravinsky tuba excerpt, so the event could be simply explained as the “unprofessional” actions of a disgruntled performer. However, in the second example, Eastman’s interpretation could in fact be, technically speaking, a valid reading of the score. Song Books consists of eighty-five solo pieces with various combinations of song, theatre and electronic accompaniment. Some of the theatrical solos ask the performers to make a list of verbs and nouns and perform actions based on those choices and indications in the score. If Eastman chose the verb “undress” and nouns “boyfriend” and “sister,” then his actions could have been perfectly within the bounds of Cage’s written notation. But both Cage and Petr Kotik, who directed the performance, denounced Eastman’s performance, Kotik declaring it a deliberate, malicious act of sabotage.

This incident had a profound effect on Kotik, who came to believe that Cage’s music demands a particular kind of performance practice that is not contained in the notation, and that in this respect, Cage’s music is “not much different from a Mozart score.”[4] The problem is that, as we have seen, even during Cage’s lifetime people had substantial difficulties with the performance practice of Cage’s music. Now, when there are few left who had direct contact with Cage, and fewer still who have lectured or written about it, much of this performance practice is in danger of being lost entirely. If we are to continue or reconstruct the tradition, we must look to the one performer in particular who defined and was defined by the performance practice of Cage’s music – the pianist, composer, and electronic musician David Tudor.

Tudor played a crucial role in the development of Cage’s music in the 1950s. Over and over, Cage acknowledges his debt to Tudor, as in this representative statement from 1970:

In all my works since 1952, I have tried to achieve what would seem interesting and vibrant to David Tudor. Whatever succeeds in the works I have done has been determined in relationship to him… Tudor was present in everything I was doing.[5]

There is a tendency to view the relationship between composer and performer as one way only, as a vector through which the composer’s intentions are transmitted to the performer, but Cage describes his relationship with Tudor as one through which the composer’s direction and determination was in fact defined by the performer’s interests and aspirations. If we are to understand Cage’s music from this period, Tudor is the key.

Because so much of his music in the 1950s was written specifically for Tudor, Cage’s notation is frequently opaque or hard to understand. Tudor’s rapport with Cage, not to mention Tudor’s serious devotion and meticulous attention to detail, may have made Cage less aware of the potential pitfalls involved in performance. Certainly, this was an issue with the premiere of Concert for Piano and Orchestra. As in most of Cage’s work from the 1950s, Concert employs indeterminate notation that gives the performers a certain degree of freedom, but Cage was not interested in just any kind of freedom: “I must find a way to let people be free without their becoming foolish. So that their freedom will make them noble. How will I do this?”[6] This is also one of the central questions that every interpreter, listener, or scholar of Cage’s music must eventually come up against: “How will my freedom make me noble?”

In many ways, Tudor was the embodiment of this “noble” freedom (as distinct from other, “foolish” kinds of freedom). Not surprisingly, he discovered how to be “free” while working on one of Cage’s first scores for Tudor, Music of Changes, written in 1951. (While Cage used chance procedures in composing Music of Changes, it predates his experiments with indeterminate notation.) Here is Tudor’s own description of the discovery:

Music of Changes was a great discipline, because you can’t do it unless you’re ready for anything at each instant. You can’t carry over any emotional impediments, though at the same time you have to be ready to accept them each instant, as they arise. Being an instrumentalist carries with it the job of making physical preparations for the next instant, so I had to learn to put myself in the right frame of mind. I had to learn how to be able to cancel my consciousness of any previous moment, in order to be able to produce the next one. What this did for me was to bring about freedom, the freedom to do anything, and that’s how I learned to be free for a whole hour at a time.[7]

Tudor’s freedom actually arose from an unprecedented array of constraints, and the physical and mental discipline needed to obey those constraints. Tellingly, when asked about the proper interpretation of Cage’s music, Petr Kotik also refers to David Tudor and “discipline”:

The most important thing to understand about Cage’s music is the discipline required which is the exact opposite of the popular perception about chance music. It is the discipline, the exactness, the precision, the focus, the concentration, all of which Cage takes for granted when he writes his music. Everything that Cage wrote from the early 1950s until the early 1970s was written for or with David Tudor in mind. This is why these pieces are so difficult. Without a “Cageian discipline” the application of chance turns the music into nonsense.[8]

In many ways, the Concert for Piano and Orchestra provides an ideal framework to explore what “Cageian discipline” might mean in terms of Tudor’s performance practice. As we have already seen, it is problematic, uncovering some of the more unruly aesthetic issues in Cage’s work. It is imposing, as few performers have even attempted to take on the mammoth piano part. It is exemplary, a colossal compilation of Cage’s various notational gambits. It is transitional, paving the way for Tudor’s forays into electronic music. And it is perennial, as Tudor continued to revisit the piece even after he had largely left the piano behind, recording it a total of four times between 1958 and 1992, a time span that covers most of Tudor’s career.

The Concert has 14 instrumental parts and no overall score. While there is also a “part for conductor” that can in theory be used to alter the piece’s timing, Kotik asserts that Cage never used this part, at least not since 1964 when Cage and Kotik first met.[9] The instrumental parts can be used in any combination, with according changes in title, from the full complement (Concert for Piano and Orchestra) to smaller ensembles (e.g. Concert for Piano, 2 Violins and Bassoon) to single instruments (e.g. Solo for Cello, Solo for Sliding Trombone, etc.). Of these parts, the Solo for Piano is by far the largest and most difficult.[10]

The Solo for Piano was in many ways the culmination of Cage’s experiments with indeterminate notation. A kaleidoscopic compendium of graphic notational systems, it asks the pianist to compile a performance using selections from 84 different kinds of notation spread across 63 pages. Cage refers to these notations using letters A through CF in the key at the beginning of the score, which also gives instructions on how to interpret each kind of notation. This facilitates both identifying and executing the notation, since there are multiple instances of some kinds of notation. Tudor referred to these instances as graphs, presumably because each instance “constitutes a discrete graphic object,”[11] but also for the mathematical implications of the term, as we will see.

Rather than reading directly from the score, Tudor wrote out his own realizations to read from in performance. This is by far a more practical approach, since reading from the score would require internalizing all the different types of notation and being able to execute them instantaneously, a next to impossible task. But making realizations was also Tudor’s standard practice for indeterminate music. Christian Wolff, another composer fond of graphic notation, attempted to curb this tendency of Tudor’s by writing scores for Tudor that required spontaneous action in performance—but in the end Tudor simply wrote out all the possible choices.[12] For Tudor it was the only way: “Nothing else could work. When you’re looking at graphic notation, how are you going to do it? Either you make the realizations, the way I did, or you decide that whatever happens at the moment is the music. And that’s the way many people are looking at those graphic scores right now.”[13] Tudor is almost blasé about the idea of a spur-of-the-moment performance, but Kotik suggests that Cage might not have been happy with such a result:

[Cage] had absolute faith in what Tudor would make of it, and Tudor always made it what it ought to be… Their connection was perfect and Cage deliberately left some things open. But of course this presents us with a problem today… One of the basic foundations of Cage’s thought was the rejection of value judgments. He completely refused to judge things, and was utterly consistent about it. So when someone “messed up” his music in some ghastly way he wouldn’t stand up and start shouting “How dare you?” but would just sit there saying nothing, and then leave. The problem is that this attitude has often been regarded as agreement. It got to such a point that there are musicians Cage simply couldn’t stand who still think he was terribly fond of them.[14]

Initially, Tudor’s meticulous, ordered approach may seem like the antithesis of Cage’s carnival of possibility, but Tudor’s fastidious tendencies actually allowed him a great deal of flexibility. Each one of the four widely available recordings of Concert for Piano and Orchestra/Solo for Piano is quite distinct in both content and character. To fully understand how Tudor achieved this flexibility, one must look at two steps of the process: 1) the conversion from Cage’s score to Tudor’s written realization (interpretation), and 2) the conversion of the written realization into sound (performance).

Tudor eventually made two different written realizations of the Concert for Piano and Orchestra/Solo for Piano. The first realization was used for the 1958 Town Hall premiere, a few subsequent performances, and to accompany Merce Cunningham’s dance Antic Meet. To make this realization, first Tudor made a list of all occurrences of each kind of graph and their corresponding page numbers. Next he made a selection of which particular graphs to use. The justification for this is in Cage’s key: “The whole is to be taken as a body of material presentable at any point between minimum (nothing played) and maximum (everything played), both horizontally and vertically.” In other words, Tudor could use as many or as few graphs as he wished. John Holzaepfel suggests that Tudor made his selections so that he would have at least one of each “graph type,” since some kinds of notation were closely related to others.[15] (For instance, the instructions for AB specify “clusters as in Z,” and instructions for Z specify “dynamics as in T,” making T, Z and AB one “graph type” in Tudor’s estimation.) After a preliminary sketch, Tudor made a performance plan of which graphs to use in rehearsal and performance for the Town Hall concert (Figure 1).

Figure 1

Figure 1. Tudor, first realization of Concert for Piano and Orchestra: performance plans for May 15, 1958 rehearsal and performance. Image reproduced courtesy of the Getty Research Institute.

These performance plans also included predetermined gaps where Tudor would play silence. Approximate durations of graph readings are given in increments of 5 seconds (the longest is 45 seconds, while many are as short as 10 seconds). The fact that Tudor made separate plans for rehearsal and performance is telling. Cage himself preferred not to have any rehearsals whatsoever, since they might cause performers to interact with one another in intentional ways. But when rehearsals were obligatory, Tudor’s differing performance plans were one method of disrupting this tendency.

For the realization itself, Tudor transcribed his readings of graphs onto separate small loose-leaf sheets of manuscript paper, which were then compiled in a ring binder notebook. This allowed Tudor to “vary both the internal order and the overall duration of his subsequent performances of the realization simply by adding, removing, and rearranging the pages in the notebook.”[16] Thus Tudor was able to be both very specific and flexible regarding timings and length of the piece. However, because each graph reading was bound to a specific length of time, in effect this put a cap on the maximum duration of the piece (without adding additional graph readings).

This became an issue when Cage asked Tudor to provide musical accompaniment derived from Concert/Solo for Cage’s Indeterminacy lectures, a series of 90 stories each one-minute long. The flexibility afforded by Concert/Solo was ideal for such a task, but Tudor did not have enough time to transcribe the many, many more graph readings this would have required (the longest previous performance of Concert was scarcely more than thirty minutes). This called for a new realization, and a new approach.

In creating this realization, Tudor was able to draw on his unique understanding of musical time, which he first developed while working on Pierre Boulez’s Second Sonata and Cage’s Music of Changes. Boulez’s Second Sonata employs conflicting rhythms to frustrate a sense of meter, and Tudor initially struggled with the performance of Boulez’s work:

I recall how my mind had to change… I realized that I could play everything, but I had to stop every two measures. I couldn’t put it together. And I wondered, What is wrong? Why not? … I saw that there was a different way of looking at musical continuity, having to deal with what [Antonin] Artaud called the affective athleticism. It has to do with the disciplines that an actor goes through. So all of a sudden I found I could play a movement through. It was a real breakthrough for me, because my musical consciousness in the meantime changed completely… I put my mind in a state of non-continuity, not remembering what had passed, so that each moment is alive.[17]

This sense of “non-continuity” is crucial not just to Boulez and Cage, but to all the composers who worked most closely with Tudor, including Karlheinz Stockhausen, Morton Feldman, Christian Wolff, Earle Brown, Henri Posseur, and others. While the Second Sonata predates Boulez’s work with electronics, Cage and others were at that time greatly influenced by the advent of magnetic tape music, which engendered a new and different understanding of time. Specifically, it caused composers to move away from the idea of rhythms that could be counted and move into what Boulez called “amorphous time” (as opposed to “pulsed time”) and what Cage called “time itself”:

Counting is no longer necessary for magnetic tape music (where so many inches or centimeters equal so many seconds): magnetic tape music makes it clear that we are in time itself, not in measures of two, three, or four or any other number.[18]

Composers tried various methods to make this new conception of time comprehensible to human performers. For example, Stockhausen developed a theory of “time-fields” to examine the psychology of time, while Feldman employed carefully notated shifting meters to create the feeling of “durational” (as opposed to “rhythmic”) time. But it was Tudor who first learned how to perform without counting beats, and showed that this time-conception was humanly executable, in his work with the Second Sonata and Music of Changes.

Cage wrote Music of Changes for Tudor after hearing his performance of Boulez’s Second Sonata, and the two works share a sense of temporal “non-continuity.” In some ways, Music of Changes takes this idea further, by using a prototypical version of proportional notation, here described by Eric Smigel: “A conspicuous notational feature of Music of Changes is the presence of evenly-spaced barlines in a non-metric context… the barlines simply articulate exact intervals of time-space, irrespective of the musical content of each measure.”[19] While there are tempo changes that disrupt this proportion, according to Cage, they apply to the “rhythmic structure, rather than with the sounds that happen in it.”[20]

While proportional notation is familiar, even ordinary, to any student or performer of contemporary music today, it is worth exploring why the idea was so radical at the time of its inception. Composers of the older generation, in particular, seemed to be bothered by it. Tudor describes the reaction of Stefan Wolpe, one of Tudor’s teachers, after studying a score of Music of Changes:

[Wolpe] met Cage at a party and he told him, “I love your music, but you’re a liar!” … What he meant to say was that he couldn’t feel it. But I could… I was watching time rather than experiencing it. That difference is basic. Even playing pieces which last an indefinite length of time your relationship to time is different, because you are now able to telescope some periods and to microscope others at will.[21]

This ability to “telescope” and “microscope” time, first developed while working on Music of Changes, became the key to the second realization of Solo for Piano:

I had already prepared a great deal of material from the Concerto [sic] for Piano and Orchestra but for John’s lecture he wanted quite a length of time, so taking the notion that the time of the performance had to be adjustable, I then looked over the material that I had and I even made more. The method was that I looked over all the graphs from the Concerto [sic] which would only produce single ictii [sic] (accents)… Then I looked at all the graphs containing single points or which would produce single ictii [sic] and I expanded each graph to the same proportion. I made a notation of this proportion like a book… With that in mind, I could play the whole thing in fifteen minutes if I were a genius or thirty minutes, or forty-five minutes, or an hour. Eventually we performed it for three hours and there was always plenty of sound material.[22]

That is, Tudor made a new selection of graph readings, with the criterion that they must be graphs that could produce single attack points, avoiding graphs that produce sequences of notes or other linear implications. This would allow Tudor to expand or contract the space between attack points, granting even greater flexibility of duration. Thus Tudor was able to play the entirety of Solo for Piano (i.e. every page of his realization) over various lengths of time. Though both realizations employ proportional notation, the complex, often dense graph readings employed in the first realization (what Tudor called “cursive figurations”) would be very difficult to expand or contract temporally. The single ictuses in the second realization present no such problem.

But how did Tudor choose where to place the attack points? Tudor hints at this when he mentions expanding “each graph to the same proportion.” Holzaepfel explains:

To determine the attack points of his readings of Cage’s graphs within the 90-minute time frame of his realization, Tudor measured the area or length of each graph, using whatever means of measurement he found appropriate to a graph’s individual form. Usually a decimal ruler, or sometimes a circular slide rule, would suffice… This gave him an area or length A for each graph. Next, Tudor measured the position of each ictus within the graph, usually in terms of its distance from the beginning of the graph. He then multiplied each position measurement by the total duration of his realization (5400 seconds) and divided the result by the A number. The quotient was the ap [attack point], in Tudor’s realization, of the ictus in Cage’s score. In other words, what was constant to each graph was not a multiplier but a divider which was, in fact, the area or length, depending on a particular morphology, of the graph itself… in this way, Tudor, devised the internal temporal structure of his new realization in terms of both specific attack points and order of occurrence of the source material from Cage’s score.[23]

The linear, sequential format of graph readings in the first realization gave way to a format where graph readings were superimposed. Essentially, all graphs were performed simultaneously. To use Tudor’s analogy of expansion, it is as if each graph was magnified (or shrunk) until all the graphs were all the same size, and then laid on top of each other. (Interestingly, this is at around the same time that Cage started to experiment with using transparencies in his scores, as in Fontana Mix, Cartridge Music, and others.) Tudor saw Cage’s notations literally as graphs that could be measured and plotted in space. This equivalency of the spatial and temporal dimensions is consistent with Tudor’s approach to performance as “watching” (not “experiencing”) time. In fact, in his notes for a lecture given at Darmstadt, Tudor describes the basic formula for interpreting graphic notation as “starting out from space = time.”[24]

Tudor’s next step was to create a Master Table listing the locations of all attack points in the new realization (the first page of which can be seen in Figure 2). The first column of the table shows the location of the attack point (in seconds), the second column identifies the kind of graph that the attack point came from and what part of the graph (e.g. T-1 refers to the first attack point found in a graph labeled T), and the third column gives the page number where the graph is found in Cage’s score. Tudor was then ready to transcribe his readings from content sketches into the realization.

Figure 2

Figure 2. First page of Tudor’s Master Table for second realization of Concert for Piano and Orchestra/Solo for Piano. Image reproduced courtesy of the Getty Research Institute.

From the 787 total attack points, Tudor actually made two versions of this realization, one containing 472 attack points and the other using the remaining 315 attack points. Version 1 is on loose sheets of manuscript paper, while Version 2, like Tudor’s first realization, uses a ring binder. (Version 1 was used for the initial performance of the Indeterminacy collaboration at Columbia Teachers College, but Version 2 was used for the recording and all other subsequent recordings. Therefore, whenever I refer to “the second realization” I am generally referring to Version 2 of the second realization, unless otherwise specified.) But unlike the first realization, this time Tudor used blank paper instead of manuscript paper. Holzaepfel offers an explanation why:

The contents of both versions of the second realization, consisting as they do entirely of discrete events, no longer needed a continuous staff of lines and spaces but only a means of denoting the time scale… If the notation of a reading was in graphic or verbal form, Tudor could also dispense with the lines and spaces.[25]

Using blank paper had the added advantage of making the realization easier to read, since the notation “pops” more against the white space surrounding it.

Tudor’s second realization takes up 90 pages, making it ideal for accompanying Cage’s lecture at a rate of 1 page per minute. There are also several sets of numbers written on the second realization that suggest he worked out many possible timings for other performances. Each set of numbers is consistently placed on its own area of the page (e.g. upper-right corner, end of every third system, etc.), and each set generates a different total time for the piece. The quickest of these adds up to 22’30”, and requires the performer to play two pages every thirty seconds. Since the preparation of some attack points may take several seconds (allowing time for picking up or putting down beaters, preparing harmonics in advance, etc.), it is easy to see why Tudor would balk at performing the whole thing in fifteen minutes.

As a result, Tudor had to look for other ways to condense the piece without dramatically increasing the density or difficulty of the material. Fortunately, the ring-bound format of Tudor’s realizations made it extremely easy to simply omit pages: “You simply turn the pages and … select what material you want.”[26] Another set of numbers in the realization indicate one possible 30-minute version, which includes a selection of 30 pages played at a rate of one minute each. Tudor gives the timings at the right edge of each of those pages, sometimes with arrows leading to the next page number when the next page is not clear (presumably, where there are not arrows Tudor simply removed the intervening pages from the booklet). In this way, with these various sets of timings Tudor gave himself several possible courses of action for executing the realization (see Figure 3 for a table of these timings). None of the available recordings, however, use any of these timings.

Currently, there are four widely available recordings of Tudor performing the Concert for Piano and Orchestra or Solo for Piano. The earliest is a recording of the infamous 1958 Town Hall premiere, and can be found on The 25-Year Retrospective Concert of the Music of John Cage, a three-CD set released by Wergo. The next is a recording of the 1959 Tudor/Cage collaboration, Indeterminacy, on the Smithsonian Folkways label. The third is a 1982 recording of Solo for Piano made in Amsterdam and released in 1993 on David Tudor Plays Cage and Tudor by the Atonal label (out of print but still obtainable). The last is a 1992 recording of Concert for Piano and Orchestra with conductor Ingo Metzmacher and Ensemble Modern which appears on The Piano Concertos from the Mode label. Each recording is remarkably distinct from the others, and when taken together, they trace an evolutionary trajectory in Tudor’s performance practice, so it is worth describing the general features of each.

Figure 3

Tabulation of page numbers (left column) and various timings written in Tudor’s second realization of Concert for Piano and Orchestra/Solo for Piano.

In the recording of the Town Hall premiere, the “foolish behavior” of the musicians and scattered laughter and applause from audience members is clearly audible. The overall impression is quite busy and raucous. For Tudor’s part, there are periods of frantic, virtuosic activity interspersed with gulfs of silence. The result is less than ideal. Tudor’s playing, while infallible from a technical standpoint, presents a dialectic between silence and sound that seems jerky and forced. It is easy to see why listeners and performers could have mistaken it for comedy. This is the only recording of the four that uses the first realization; after he made the second realization, he seemed to vastly prefer it.

The version heard on Indeterminacy uses the 90-minute version of the second realization to accompany Cage’s lectures. Possibly because Tudor was worried his new accompaniment would be too sparse, he supplemented his performance with tracks from Cage’s tape piece Fontana Mix. These are triggered on and off at specific points corresponding to Tudor’s readings of graph BY, for which Cage’s instructions read: “Any noises, their relative pitch given graphically (up = high, down = low).” Obviously, Tudor took “any noises” to include electronic noises. However, Tudor seemed to pay no attention to the specified relative pitch, and he departs from the idea of each reading as a single ictus. In the realization, Tudor penciled in “on” and “off” beneath or above various instances of BY. In other words, each reading of BY would either activate or deactivate an electronic sound source. As a result, unlike most attack points in Tudor’s realization, these sounds could continue for quite some time. The end result on the recording is almost as busy as the Town Hall premiere, but in the context of Cage’s engaging and often witty lectures, the accompaniment seems more appropriate, with many extraordinary coincidences of word and sound (such as the fortissimo chord cluster that follows Cage’s utterance of “My problems have become social, rather than musical”).[27]

Holzaepfel also points out that on the Indeterminacy recording, when readings of multiple graphs coincided, Tudor modified his performance practice out of necessity:

Simultaneous occurrences of graph readings were interpreted with considerable flexibility, even freedom… Tudor sometimes spreads the contents of coincident readings over one or two full seconds. In fact, at times the effect is not that of a discrete sonority but something very like a phrase.[28]

Other than this, however, on this recording Tudor follows closely the timings laid out by the realization.

In some ways the 1982 recording of Solo for Piano hews most closely to Tudor’s second realization as written, with no electronic or verbal accompaniment. It is not difficult to follow along with the recording as if one were reading a conventional score. However, Tudor occasionally omits graph readings in his performance. There seems to be no systematization to the readings that he omits, though he tends to ignore graphs like BY that have vaguely specified pitch. This may have been due to Tudor’s reluctance to do anything unprepared, anything improvisatory that might lead to an undesired sense of intention. He certainly showed no reluctance to perform unpitched events if they were clearly specified in the realization (e.g. percussive effects on the body of the piano).

Furthermore, on this recording it seems as though Tudor allowed himself to be more liberal with time. The realization proceeds at a much faster rate than in Indeterminacy, with Tudor playing all 90 pages in less than 40 minutes. He also does not appear to be consistent about time corresponding to spatial proportion. The time scale is initially obscured on the recording by the first sound event taking place immediately (in the realization it comes after a system and a half of silence), but regardless, it is clear that here Tudor is no longer strictly following the “space = time” principle. Sound events that are spaced far apart on the page are sometimes performed in quick succession, and some that are spaced close together are often separated by large gulfs of silence (or other forms of sonic space, like long uninterrupted reverberations). If he is expanding and contracting time in a systematic way, it is not clearly audible, and I have found nothing in his notes to suggest such a systemization.

In the 1992 recording of Concert for Piano and Orchestra, Tudor seems to allow himself even more artistic license. He omits more graph readings, and often omits parts of graph readings (e.g. he may only play the top three notes of a five-note chord, or the outer tones of a cluster chord). This is well within the bounds of Cage’s notation (recall his instruction that any selection of material can be made “horizontally or vertically”). Tudor also rolls many chords rather than playing them as single attack points. Additionally, this is the only recording of the second realization that does not use the whole 90 pages. Tudor begins at page 1, but skips to page 18 a minute and a half later. From that point on, he reads pages sequentially until the end of page 61, when the piece ends. The duration of performance is almost exactly 30 minutes, suggesting that the time was predetermined but not the number of pages, and Tudor simply stopped when the conductor signaled the end of the piece.

Other changes made by Tudor on this recording are more baffling. At a few points, Tudor plays attack points in a different order than they appear on the page. Even stranger, occasionally Tudor plays a sonority that does not seem to appear anywhere in the written realization. The realization contains many additional graph readings in pencil, presumably tacked on throughout the years (most carried over from Version 1 of the realization), and the thinness of the paper also sometimes makes it possible to see notations on the opposite side of the page, or even the next page. It is possible that Tudor was deliberately reading through the page to create new sonorities. It is also possible that Tudor mistook some sonorities on the other side of the page for penciled additions, since both are faintly visible. (Austin Clarkson reports that in 1993, Tudor’s eyesight was beginning to fail.)[29] It is even possible that Tudor is operating on some plane of thought that transcends my understanding. At any rate, whatever the cause, it adds a new level of indeterminacy to the proceedings!

Tracing a path through Tudor’s recordings of Concert for Piano and Orchestra/Solo for Piano, Tudor appears to allow himself more freedom as the years progress, particularly with respect to the dimension of time. In the later recordings, Tudor no longer seems bound to the visual or spatial dimension as a guiding temporal principle. It is my belief that this is a result of his experiences with making electronic music. To illustrate this, I will closely examine a few graphs and how their interpretation evolved over time.[30]

T is one of the graphs that appears in both of Tudor’s realizations, and one where it is relatively easy to see the relationship between Cage’s notation and Tudor’s interpretation. Cage’s instructions for T read: “Influence in pitch and time notated as shapes with center points, to be audible as clusters, a single one changing in its course. Numbers refer to loudness (1-64) (soft to loud or loud to soft).” Figure 4 shows an instance of T on page 12 of Cage’s score, and Figure 5 shows its interpretation in Tudor’s first realization. Tudor’s interpretation is fairly literal here, except that he uses Cage’s “center points” to put the clusters in order from left to right, instead of using the leftmost points of the shapes. Tudor also chooses to move from one end of a shape to another and re-orient that into a left-to-right trajectory. For example, the rightmost shape curves around to the left at the top, but Tudor chooses to transcribe it as if it were continuing to the right, i.e. moving forward in time. Tudor also translates Cage’s numbers into his own dynamic scale, which runs from 0.0 to 10.5.

Figure 4

Figure 4. Graph T from page 12 of Cage’s Solo for Piano. John Cage, Concert for Piano and Orchestra © 1960 by Henmar Press / Edition Peters. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from C.F. Peters Corp.

Figure 5

Figure 5. Interpretation of graph 12 T from Tudor’s first realization of Concert for Piano and Orchestra/Solo for Piano. Tudor converts the 10 shapes in Cage’s score into specific clusters, here spread across two systems. Image reproduced courtesy of the Getty Research Institute.

This graph (12 T in Tudor’s notation) does not, strictly speaking, consist of single attack points, but Cage’s “center points” make it possible for Tudor to measure and plot them as if they were. Initially, 12 T appeared in Version 1 of Tudor’s second realization, but not Version 2, and so it does not appear on the Indeterminacy recording. However, Tudor at some point must have decided he liked the results of this graph, and made it one of the penciled additions to Version 2. Figure 6 shows the eighth shape from 12 T as it appears in Version 2 of the second realization. It can be heard on both the 1982 Solo and 1992 Concert recordings, but Tudor interprets it differently each time. On the 1982 recording, he plays the full figure at its written dynamic level (quite loud in Tudor’s scale). On the 1992 recording, it is the last sound heard, and Tudor only plays the very end of the gesture, a short rolled cluster ending on A-sharp.[31] Tudor also ignores the dynamic marking, and the gesture as it is performed is quite hushed, somewhere between piano and mezzo-piano.

Figure 6

Figure 6. Page 61 from Tudor’s second realization of Concert for Piano and Orchestra/Solo for Piano. A later addition at bottom right is penciled in, corresponding to the eighth shape from 12 T. Read-through from the next two pages is also faintly visible. Image reproduced courtesy of the Getty Research Institute.

BT is another graph used in both realizations, and it is one of the most unusual notations in Cage’s score. His instructions state that “notes give place of performance with respect to the piano,” but the drawing shows the outline of two grand pianos and a collection of points that, for the most part, do not intersect either piano (Figure 7).

Figure 7

Figure 7. Graph BT from page 54 of Cage’s Solo for Piano. John Cage, Concert for Piano and Orchestra © 1960 by Henmar Press / Edition Peters. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from C.F. Peters Corp.

Tudor chose to interpret those points which intersect the curve of the first piano as effects on the strings or body of the piano, points which come close to the keyboard of the second piano as effects on the keys, and points away from both as auxiliary sounds, non-pianistic in origin. Figure 8 shows the interpretation of graph BT 54 as it appears in Tudor’s first realization.

Figure 8

Figure 8. Interpretation of graph 54 BT from Tudor’s first realization of Concert for Piano and Orchestra/Solo for Piano. Top-to-bottom in Cage’s score becomes left-to-right. Image reproduced courtesy of the Getty Research Institute.

In Tudor’s notation, a rectangle containing a left-facing arrow indicates an auxiliary sound source placed to his left, while a rectangle with a right-facing arrow indicates a sound source to his right. Unfortunately, on the 1958 premiere recording, most of Tudor’s reading of BT 54 is not audible over the raucous sounds of orchestra and audience, except for the use of an amplified Slinky toy (referred to as “coil” in Tudor’s notes). Holzaepfel describes Tudor’s use of this device:

Not until I recently saw… Tudor performing [Concert for Piano and Orchestra] did I realize that one of the most “abstract” electronic sounds… is produced simply by hanging a “Slinky” toy from a microphone stand, attaching a contact microphone to it, manipulating it by hand, and amplifying the resulting sounds.[32]

This distinctive sound is one of the few common elements between almost all the recorded versions of Concert/Solo. In Indeterminacy, it is again associated with graph BT 54. Figure 9 shows page 84 of the second realization, which contains one such reading from BT 54 (corresponding to the second-to-last reading in the first realization). On the 1982 recording of Solo, Tudor skips over this particular reading of BT 54. The reason why involves an unusual interpretation of graph P.

Figure 9

Figure 9. Page 84 from Tudor’s second realization of Concert for Piano and Orchestra/Solo for Piano. The rectangle containing a right-facing arrow is a reading from 54 BT. The Y-shape with the number above it is a reading from 9 P. Image reproduced courtesy of the Getty Research Institute.

Graph P is similar to the previously mentioned BY, and like BY, it is one of Cage’s least specific graphs (see Figures 10-11). Instead of specifying pitch area, P only specifies dynamics. Readings of P can also include “any noises (including auxiliary).” Instances of graph P are ignored more than any other graph in Tudor’s second realization. It is not linked to the activation of electronic sources, so it is not used in Indeterminacy. For the most part, it is completely ignored in the 1982 recording of Solo as well, with one exception. After Tudor skips over the reading of graph BT 54 on page 84, he activates a sound of unknown origin at the reading of P 9 on the same page. The sound can be described as a cross between a loud motor and a ratchet, with noise focused around the low end of the frequency spectrum. The sound is preceded by about 40 seconds of silence, and Tudor lets the sound continue uninterrupted for over a full minute, during which it winds down, becomes quieter and more textured. There is no other sound on the recording like it, before or after. After the sound has mostly faded away, Tudor compresses the next four sound events into six seconds, even though they are spread out over two pages. In the 1992 Concert recording, the “coil” sound serves a similar function; he ignores the readings of BT 54 and uses readings of P 9 to trigger the amplified coil at a similarly climactic moment near the end of the piece.

Figure 10

Figure 11

Figures 10-11. Graph P from page 9 and its continuation on page 10 from Cage’s Solo for Piano. John Cage, Concert for Piano and Orchestra © 1960 by Henmar Press / Edition Peters. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from C.F. Peters Corp.

Here, Tudor seems to break with Cageian tradition by exerting intention over sounds, and to break with his own tradition by letting time pass without “watching” it. But this may have been an outgrowth of Tudor’s experience working with electronics in his own compositions. Tudor was drawn to unpredictable sounds that took on a life of their own, which accurately describes the character of the climactic sounds in his last two recordings of Concert/Solo. Tudor was not averse to including climaxes in his own work, according to Matt Rogalsky:

Tudor had much more of a romantic soul than Cage and was quite shameless (his word) about deploying very traditional musical gestures—for example, his instruction to John D.S. Adams regarding Neural Network Plus (1992), that there should be from four to six climaxes within the performance. Perhaps this is not surprising, given Tudor’s love of nineteenth-century piano repertoire, which friends recall him playing during the 1950s for his own enjoyment late into the night.[33]

This is at odds with the perception of Tudor as the performer who chose not to maintain a repertoire of classical music because the time-conception of contemporary music was so radically different.[34] How is it possible to reconcile this contradiction?

Cage also had a knack for the contradictory, for crafting koan-like aphorisms that initially seem nonsensical before revealing meaning. One that seems especially relevant here is “Permission granted, but not to do what you want.” In the Concert for Piano and Orchestra, Cage’s goal was to open up a universe of possibility not driven by desire or intention. But even for Tudor, it was impossible to completely eliminate intention from his performance. In practice the goal became the practice itself, the process rather than the end result. (Why else, after all, would Tudor continue to perform and Cage continue to compose?) In the midst of this non-linear process, it makes perfect sense for the radically rational Tudor and the retro-Romantic Tudor to peacefully coexist. Or, if permission is granted for me to bastardize an aphorism for Tudor: “Let sounds be themselves, but some more than others.”


1. John Cage, “Indeterminacy,” Little Cambridge Design Factory, p. 17.

2. John Holzaepfel, David Tudor and the Performance of American Experimental Music, 1950-1959 (Ph.D. dissertation, City University of New York, 1994), p. 208.

3. Joe Panzner, “Crises of Authenticity,” Stylus Magazine.

4. Petr Kotik, April 1992 interview with Eric Salzman, contained in CD booklet notes to Concert for Piano and Orchestra/Atlas Eclipticalis, Wergo WER6216-2.

5. John Cage, For the Birds (Salem, NH: Marion Boyars, 1981), p. 178.

6. John Cage, “Indeterminacy,” p. 17.

7. David Tudor, “From Piano to Electronics,” Music and Musicians 20, no.12 (1972), p. 24.

8. Kotik, CD booklet notes for Concert, pp. 25-26.

9. Petr Kotik, personal communication with author, Feb. 5, 2009. The conductor’s part contains a column labeled “clock time” and one labeled “effective time,” and the conductor, acting as a “human clock,” converts the former into the latter. For example, converting a clock time of 1’30” to effective time of 15” would require the conductor to move his left hand from directly above his head (the position for 0 seconds) to pointing directly left (the position for 15 seconds) over the span of a minute and a half. The part also contains a third column of “omission numbers,” but even Kotik admits that he has “no idea” what Cage meant by this, and Kotik’s advice is to simply ignore it.

10. Since Tudor recorded the piece both with orchestra and without, for purposes of this paper the titles Concert for Piano and Orchestra and Solo for Piano are basically interchangeable.

11. Holzaepfel, “David Tudor and Performance,” p. 205.

12. Holzaepfel, “Reminiscences of a Twentieth-Century Pianist: an Interview with Tudor,“ Musical Quarterly 78, no. 3 (1994), p. 636.

13. Ibid., p. 634.

14. Tereza Havelkova, “Petr Kotik’s Umbilical Cord,” Czech Music (Jan-Feb. 2003).

15. Holzaepfel, “David Tudor and Performance,” p. 212.

16. Ibid., p. 216.

17. Austin Clarkson, “Composing the Performer: David Tudor and Stefan Wolpe’s Battle Piece,” Musicworks 73 (Winter 1999), p. 31.

18. John Cage, “History of Experimental Music in the United States,” Silence (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1961), p. 70.

19. Eric Smigel, Alchemy of the Avant-Garde: David Tudor and the new Music of the 1950s (Ph.D. diss., University of Southern California, 2003), p. 113.

20. John Cage, Music of Changes, New York, London: Henmar Press / C. F. Peters Corporation, 1961.

21. David Tudor, “From Piano to Electronics,” p. 24

22. David Tudor, interview with Teddy Hultberg, Electronic Music Foundation.

23. Holzaepfel, “David Tudor and Performance,” pp. 239-40.

24. David Tudor Archive, Getty Research Institute, Box 107, Folder 10.

25. Holzaepfel, “David Tudor and Performance,” p. 243.

26. David Tudor, “From Piano to Electronics” p. 24.

27. John Cage, “Indeterminacy” p. 18.

28. Holzaepfel, “David Tudor and Performance” p. 309.

29. Austin Clarkson, “Composing the Performer,” p. 27. In fact, many of the modifications and omissions Tudor makes to his realization may be justified by his increasing physical frailty.

30. An exhaustive catalog of all graphs interpreted by Tudor is beyond the scope of this paper, but chapter 4 of Holzaepfel’s “David Tudor and Performance” covers one reading of each graph type from Version 2 of the second realization.

31. The note written is a G-sharp, but Tudor either misreads it, or consciously chooses to extend it, since the edge of the outline does extend slightly higher.

32. Holzaepfel, “David Tudor and Performance,” p. 312.

33. Matt Rogalsky, “David Tudor’s Virtual Focus,” Musicworks 73 (Winter 1999), p. 21.

34. Eric Smigel, “Alchemist of the Avant-Garde,” p. 148.

Bibliography and Discography

The David Tudor Papers, 1994-1998 (bulk 1940-1996), Getty Research Institute, Research Library, Accession no. 980039.

Books and Articles

Cage, John. For the Birds. Salem, NH: Marion Boyars, 1981.

______. “Indeterminacy.” Little Cambridge Design Factory, www.lcdf.org/indeterminacy/.

______. Silence. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1961.

Clarkson, Austin. “Composing the Performer: David Tudor and Stefan Wolpe’s Battle Piece.” Musicworks 73 (Winter 1999): 26-31.

Havelkova, Tereza. “Petr Kotik’s Umbilical Cord.” Czech Music (Jan-Feb. 2003), http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_hb074/is_2003_Jan-Feb/ai_n28990068.

Holzaepfel, John. “David Tudor and the Performance of American Experimental Music, 1950-1959.” PhD diss., City University of New York, 1994.

______. “Reminiscences of a Twentieth-Century Pianist: An Interview with David Tudor.” The Musical Quarterly 78, no. 3 (Autumn 1994): 626-36.

Panzner, Joe. “Crises of Authenticity.” Stylus Magazine, www.stylusmagazine.com/articles/weekly_article/john-cage-crises-of-authenticity.htm.

Rogalsky, Matt. “David Tudor’s Virtual Focus.” Musicworks 73 (Winter 1999): 21-23.

Smigel, Eric. “Alchemy of the Avant-Garde: David Tudor and the New Music of the 1950s.” PhD diss., University of Southern California, 2003.

Tudor, David. “From Piano to Electronics.” Music and Musicians 20, no.12 (1972): 24-26.

______. Interview with Teddy Hultberg. Electronic Music Foundation, www.emf.org/tudor/Articles/hultberg.html.


Petr Kotik, e-mail correspondence, 5 Feb 2009.


Cage, John. The 25-Year Retrospective Concert of the Music of John Cage (Wergo WER 62472).

______. Concert for Piano and Orchestra/Atlas Eclipticalis (Wergo WER6216-2).

______. The Piano Concertos (Mode 57).

Cage, John and David Tudor. Indeterminacy: New Aspect of Form in Instrumental and Electronic Music (Smithsonian Folkways SFW40804).

Tudor, David. David Tudor Plays Cage and Tudor (Atonal ACD3027).