Tag: experimental music

Paula Matthusen: Attention to Light

The work of composer Paula Matthusen draws attention to the way sound and space interact with one another. Her use of light within performance settings plays an important role in focusing the audience’s listening experience, and in creating a sense of space. Whether a composition is realized as an electronic installation or written out in a score for performance by other musicians, the physicality of whatever sounds may be involved—and specifically how they behave within a given context—are always important considerations.

Matthusen’s installation works often involve hand-built electronics in addition to extensive computer programming; she says that she enjoys the sort of “inefficiency” and “Pandora’s box” nature of the results. She likens soldering to knitting, explaining, “I like the repetition of it. I like the heat. I like the smell. It’s fun to see something physical come to life like that.” Her instrumental works, which are specially tailored to the personalities and abilities of the performers for whom they are written, also have a handmade aspect to them.

For portable, eight performers walk around a darkened space wielding flashlights as well as vintage suitcases fitted with radio receivers and transmitters that produce sound based on the location of the performers relative to one another. In nacht nacht nacht nacht nacht nacht nacht, three performers crank away at music boxes while four others strike matches, offering glimpses of the unfurling paper rolls and providing counterpoint to the fragile music box tones.

Given Matthusen’s aesthetic inclinations, she’s the ideal person to teach composition through an experiential approach involving listening, creation, and performance. The Experimental Music class at Wesleyan University (where she is an assistant professor of music) is the very same course that Alvin Lucier taught for over 40 years. (No pressure!) Matthusen actually considers Lucier to be one of her musical heroes. Her 2012 composition for the Bang on a Can All-Stars, the ontology of an echo, features field recordings from inside the Old Croton Aqueduct that were created by re-capturing recordings of the performers in a manner consistent with Lucier’s I am sitting in a room.

Flying in the face of what she calls the “cultural fantasy” of synchronization, the sense of pulse in Matthusen’s music is often irregular and broken. Events line up (or don’t) based on organic structures that are set rolling and allowed to run their course. By stepping aside and allowing the music to unfold naturally, she finds satisfaction in the resulting creative discoveries. “It’s a matter of being open to something that is completely surprising,” she explains, “but then also being aware enough to be able to appreciate when it actually happens.” By reveling in the small details and rough edges of her musical landscapes, she creates musical environments that heighten perceptions of the ephemeral nature of sound, and ensures that surprises can be found at practically every turn.

An Introduction to Experimentation

On Sunday, the first meeting of the Society of Experimental Musicians (affectionately abbreviated S.Ex.M.) convened in a warehouse art space in Los Angeles’ Atwater Village. Organized by composer-performer James Klopfleisch, part of S.Ex.M.’s stated mission is to bring together musicians and non-musicians with a common interest in “the exploration and realization of radical music, music on the fringe, and anything and everything that falls under the extremely vague category of ‘not in any concrete category’.”

What distinguished this event from many others of its kind was its informality and distinct lack of stuffiness, despite some of the academic trappings on display. Each meeting promises to feature different artists talking about and presenting their work, and Klopfleisch chose to present his own work for this first occasion. He did so in a jocular and easygoing way, closer to the delivery of a storyteller than a professor. Two pieces were presented: The Virgin Joke (in which your self-conscious narrator performed) and Landscape #4 (an electronic piece that played continuously in the background of Klopfleisch’s talk, sometimes to disruptive effect).

The Virgin Joke was written in an airport during a 12-hour layover, Klopfleisch explained, when he had little else to entertain himself with other than a script from an old episode of Roseanne. The piece is built around a single bit of dialogue from that episode, with an undetermined number of musicians in a pseudo-accompanimental role behind the three speaking parts. In some ways the piece engages very strongly with experimental traditions, employing a simple graphic notation in which high sustained tones and short percussive sounds are specified, but exact pitches and timings are free. In other ways the piece is explicitly conventional, particularly in its replication of the typical setup-punchline joke format. There’s even a musical punchline of sorts when the entire ensemble is asked to play something like an ascending scale in unison. (I chose to perform this part on the flexatone, because comedy! The other performers were Todd Lerew, Marcus Rubio, Colin Wambsgans, Christine Tavolacci, Andrew Young, Sepand Shahab, Nicholas Deyoe, and Mike Winter.)

The event concluded with a panel discussion about some of the issues raised with Anne LeBaron, Nicholas Deyoe, Casey Anderson, and Dorothy Fortenberry. As the sole non-musician on the panel, Fortenberry (a playwright and television writer) had a difficult and crucial role to fulfill, almost as a kind of audience proxy. She admitted to being frustrated by the way Landscape #4 was deployed, making it impossible to devote your full attention either to it, or to the talking that it would frequently interrupt.
While the audience of 30 or so people consisted mostly of other musicians, this was certainly not universally the case, and as discussion shifted away from the panel into the audience, the perspectives of non-musicians took on even greater importance. What I found heartening was that audience members were not afraid to express their lack of understanding of something, and they were not belittled or dismissed for doing so. There was no assumption of blame on the part of the musicians or the audience, simply an exploration, a search for reasons behind the disconnect. The feeling of openness that this engendered, and the distinct lack of judgmentalism all around, is something I’d like to see more of. When I think of what I want the experimental music scene to look like in the future, this would be an excellent model.

Sounds Heard: Joseph Byrd—NYC 1960-1963

Joseph Byrd is a tremendously imaginative composer who spent much of his life moving in the same circles as experimental music luminaries Terry Riley, La Monte Young, Morton Feldman, Steve Reich, and John Cage, yet has remained a somewhat lesser-known name in part because of his incredibly broad range of output. “I had always been eclectic as a composer,” Byrd admits in the notes to an album by his psychedelic rock band The United States of America; “Indeed it was a detriment to my finding a single distinctive voice in the avant-garde, as I changed styles with almost every piece.”

This undogmatic, uncommitted, exploratory spirit is one of Byrd’s chief virtues as an artist, although it’s easy to see how this same quality makes him difficult to pin down in our increasingly soundbyte-based world while also being absolute anathema to the marketeers who preach branding and the kind of “image” that is not character, but a consistent act. This fantastically-performed disc featuring ACME and percussionist Alan Zimmerman reveals Byrd’s seemingly unquenchable curiosity and delight in uncharted territory, rarely settling into one aesthetic or approach to composition for very long and always pursuing new ground even as some of his cohorts pursued a narrower range of musical experience, with more single-minded purpose. This disc—the first commercial recording of Byrd’s “concert” music—fills a gaping hole in the recorded history of experimental music and should be one of the most exciting releases of 2013 for anyone interested in experimentalism or the New York scene.

Featuring music composed during a few of Byrd’s NYC years (1960-63), the material on this disc is nonetheless typically wide-ranging, with a greater aesthetic variety than most composers develop in their entire lives. The gamelan-like Animals which opens the disc wells up from whispers of rhythm into a climax of great textural richness, with a prepared-piano part negotiated with assurance and sensitivity by Timothy Andres, whose playing enlivens several of the album’s finest moments (particularly in the manic acrobatics in the solo prepared piano work, Three Aphorisms). In Loops and Sequences, Andres is joined by cellist Clarice Jensen for some Feldmanesque semi-improvisations on the composer’s given parameters; this kind of piece can easily become an indulgent slog unless invested with real attention and heart, and the musicians of ACME deliver plenty of both throughout the disc.

Four Sound*Poems is one of my favorite works on this disc, a work which develops small snippets of text by Gertrude Stein via an imaginative array of devices. The result resembles a kind of tripped-out, stuttering/hocketing polyphony that stands at the intersection of linguistics and musique concrète—a great introduction to the kind of unexpected combinations that result from Byrd’s imagination at its most anarchic and fertile. Likewise, Byrd’s Water Music—given a haunting and ultimately ominous performance by percussionist Alan Zimmerman—makes effective use of a tape part designed to resemble and resonate with a carefully-chosen battery of percussion timbres.

I would be derelict if I failed to mention the work that closes this album, Prelude to “The Mystery Cheese-Ball” for antiphonal rubber balloons, which was originally a relic of one of Yoko Ono’s famous loft parties. Byrd is most compelling when he’s flying free beyond the orbit of strong personalities such as the aforementioned Feldman, yet this short bit of Fluxus/Dada-inspired silliness is genuinely winning in the hands of the ACME musicians, who understand that a lot of what makes slowly releasing air from rubber balloons so interesting/funny/bracing is in the “how” part. If more presenters of obscure and experimental music approached the matter with the combination of genial nonchalance and curious attention that the members of ACME have mustered for this release, then the fate of Joseph Byrd and his varied successors will rest in trusty hands.

Kingdom Come: Pere Ubu’s New Picnic Time

Blank Records Press Photo by Ebet Roberts

Pere Ubu Press Photo, taken at CBGB’s in 1977. Photo credit: Ebet Roberts.
(l to r) Tom Herman, Scott Krauss, David Thomas, Alan Ravenstine, Tony Maimone.

It has been some years now that I have been saying that the Pere Ubu album entitled New Picnic Time, from 1979, is the scariest album ever made, and perhaps the time has come now to back up this claim, to speak of the dark truths of New Picnic Time. Yes, I understand, there are a great many other scary albums out there. For example, there is The Flowers of Romance by Public Image Limited. That is a very scary album, based on a certain subjective notion of scary, which is that scary involves consciousness in the process of decay or confinement or miniaturization. Test Department were occasionally scary. Throbbing Gristle, definitely scary on occasion, and with some similarities of intent and mission with Pere Ubu. The first album by Einsturzende Neubauten, called Kollaps, plenty unsettling. Or what about some of those bands like Cannibal Corpse? They recorded a song called “Addicted to Vaginal Skin.” Well, actually, Cannibal Corpse is silly, and any band that features the heel-toe double bass drum sound is not capable of being more than silly. Or any band with that screaming thing, the death metal screaming pitch-shifted thing. Although I do in fact find Slipknot kind of disturbing. “Sister Ray,” by the Velvet Underground? Diamanda Galas’s Plague Mass? Yes, it can make the hair stand up on the back of my neck. (Although: I just noticed on iTunes that listeners who bought Plague Mass also bought Teenage Dream by Katy Perry.) Butthole Surfers? Legitimately terrifying on occasion, e.g., Locust Abortion Technician. You can come up with your own list. I will attempt to explain what I mean about New Picnic Time below, and in the process I will try to explain why music from the punk era is disturbing when, in fact, it’s a lot less intentionally menacing than Cannibal Corpse or Napalm Death.

So: it was the third album by the band (if you discount EPs and singles), and the second in the row to feature what was a rather stable lineup—David Thomas on vocals, Scott Krauss on drums, Tony Maimone on bass, Allen Ravenstine on synthesizer, and Tom Herman on guitar. The album that immediately preceded New Picnic Time was the album called Dub Housing, which by most criteria of the time was a masterpiece. It combined a quaint but relatively pure garage rock assault with tricky art rock restlessness, and then bits of pure sonic chaos as in the passages making especial use of Ravenstine’s synthesizer bleeps, which were not like anyone else’s, likewise Thomas’s unconventional vocal stylings, which had about them a bit of Appalachia and a bit of the twenties crooner. But what made Dub Housing especially indelible was the writing. The band played together with the seasoned tightness of musicians who had gigged a lot, and the compositions had a real group feel, as though generated collaboratively. Even Thomas’s vocals, not melodic exactly, often proceeded from (and even commented on) the music happening around him. On tracks like “Caligari’s Mirror” and “On the Surface,” Thomas is playful and sardonic, with a withering narratorial gaze. But on the title track, “Have you heard about this house?/Inside a thousand voices talk,/And their talk echoes around and around,/The windows reverberate,/The walls have ears,/A thousand saxophone voices talk,” he is more prophetic than sardonic. Or maybe it’s just the music, a saxophone wailing in the sonic distance and a backing vocal choir singing “We know” over and over. The song moves into a powerful crescendo, with some fine drumming by Scott Krauss. There’s something impenetrably dark about “Dub Housing,” in its haunted qualities; there’s something grim indicated beyond the confines of the song that is not in the song, but is felt in it.

New Picnic Time


If Dub Housing did not sell a lot of copies, which almost no album by Pere Ubu has done, it did nonetheless have a real impact, the way Double Knickles On the Dime did later, the way Pink Flag did, the way Slanted and Enchanted did, the way Entertainment! by Gang of Four did. It got under your skin. Okay, but surely this band, while teetering on the edge of something entirely non-commercial and wholly devoted to art, kind of wanted to sell a few records, too, or at least to have success on its own peculiar terms?

New Picnic Time was the rejoinder to any questions about what exactly Pere Ubu wanted, and the rejoinder was a mammoth stick in the eye. Gone, almost entirely, were the more user-friendly aspects of Dub Housing, and in their place we heard a willful insistence on experiment and double-crossing, but also expressive darkness. Let’s look closer.

“The Fabulous Sequel”

The first lyric uttered on the album is exactly contradictory: “It’s me again!” How could it be the narrator again if this is the first song? Unless the intention is to get right up in the face of the music-listening audience out there, the audience that found Dub Housing challenging. At the same time: the band is, to use a beleaguered term, smoking. Okay, it’s not a bad term, however beleaguered, because later in the song we have the couplet “Put out the cat/Put out the fire” sung over and over for a while. So there is a fire, which is the fire of burning down something, consigning domesticity to flames, which is the consumption of certainties in flame, which is the idea of rock and roll as an accessible, definable form, consumed in flames. The band is smoking, which means the groove is heavy, especially the groove that is about Tom Herman and Tony Maimone, locked in like they have in fact passed the last couple of years driving back and forth to New York City to play, and this groove is so catchy (note Scott Krauss’s rolls) that it almost dupes you into believing that Pere Ubu could be a good time kind of a band, because the groove keeps us from thinking about the spooky parts of the song. Part of what’s spooky is the fact that there are two lead tracks of David Thomas, the singer, going at the same time (“It was a tin can, it was a dream”), and these two tracks are not, it bears mentioning, singing harmony together (“Whistle in the dark/Whistle in the dark/Whistle in the dark/Whistle in the dark”), they are just flinging a lot of paint at the canvas and seeing what will stick. Thomas definitely could be improvising the lyric on the spot. Is he saying “Kick that dream” at the conclusion? And then there’s Ravenstine, who is playing something drenched in reverb that sounds like a Halloween sound effects recording from the early seventies, and just when you start to think that you like the song (while Thomas is singing “bye bye” for a while), it ends so abruptly that you

“49 Guitars and One Girl”

“It was a sound he heard/it was a funny thing to feel,” and what is the funny thing to feel on a record that is going to end with the apocalypse, with the Big Uncovering, especially since after singing the couplet, Thomas says “bubbles” several times, as if the excited way he is saying it could somehow suggest a bubble to someone who had never seen one? Don’t panic, don’t panic, which, yes, is like the injunction to relax. Being told not to panic almost always engenders incipient panic, and the panic in this case is spiritual, is the way that the linear thought, the verse/chorus way of thinking about things, is completely frustrated by Thomas/Ravenstine who play on this song like they are yelling randomly in your ear during a dinner conversation; nevertheless, “49 Guitars and One Girl” does not break down the entirety of rock music, not yet, although it starts. The bass seems to be playing a different composition from the rest of the band, and the synthesizer seems to be aping a two-year-old who has just been told no. What does “Yellow Walls” mean? Maybe that there were yellow walls in the studio that day? “All for the love of you” might refer to the one girl in the title, that emblem of rock and roll, the girl, or it might refer to the spiritual absence that is at the heart of the album.

Pere Ubu 1976-77. Pirate's Cove, Cleveland.

Pere Ubu 1976-77. Pirate’s Cove, Cleveland.

“A Small Dark Cloud”

There is something that is obviously synthetic under this cloud, the cloud named above, but which is meant to sound like a bird, or what a bird would sound like, a baby bird, if it were being dreamed by an inexpensive toy robot of Chinese manufacture, and this baby bird, or this flock, this nest of baby birds is present at the beginning of the song along with some timpani, or perhaps toms, and then a few luminous piano chords, suspended, and such is the action of the song until the vocals, wordless, and mixed back, erupt with what could be a theory of the entirety of New Picnic Time: “There’s a fly in the ointment! There’s a speck of a fly! There’s a fly in the ointment!” The bass comes in at 2:39, along with multi-tracked voices, keening, chirruping, not exactly coming clean with any discernible lyric. “Put out the cloth on the anthill.” Or: “We’ll sit around and sit around and sit around and wait.” And this could be some kind of demonic picnic, as referred to in the album title, which is also chanted here “Picnic time!” “Picnic time!” Which eventually gives way to the words “Don’t rock the boat!” sung by some massed chorus of David Thomases. But if it’s not a real picnic, what is it? The last song makes clear exactly what, but more on the last song when we get to the last song. It’s important from a musical perspective to remember that sometimes Pere Ubu went into the studio without any material, and “A Small Dark Cloud” feels like one of the songs—weighing in at a whopping 5:51—that was made up on the spot, but is no less ominous for all of that. The contribution of the bass, for example, so subtle, but so melodic, so destabilizing, is worthy of comment, and then Allen Ravenstine’s ability to make his very primitive EML synthesizer do some amazing things, some bird sounds, some industrial noise, some swooping stuff that was probably virtually impossible to get the device to do a second time, and in the pursuit of a very ominous theme, the fly in the ointment theme, he sounds on this cut very ominous indeed. Let us also note that almost no colloquial expression devoted to the idea that things will go wrong is as disturbing as: “There’s a fly in the ointment.” Partly because we sympathize with the fly, wriggling to its demise? Partly because ointment is one fucked up word? Would it be the same if there was a fly in the unguent? Would people know unguent well enough to use it in this kind of an expression? Actually unguent and ointment come from the same Latin, as I understand it—unguentem—but ointment comes via the French for same, oignement. What is the ointment doing in some place where it might attract flies? And is any smell as disturbing, in the abstract, as the smell summoned in the words “There’s a fly in the ointment”? The small dark cloud of this song is the small dark cloud of doubt about the outcome of things, which is a millenarian anxiety, but what is terrifying about this song is that, for the course of this lyric, there is no mitigation of the anxiety, just the dense, stifling, constricting fear.

Pere Ubu 1978-79. Location unknown.

Pere Ubu 1978-79. Location unknown.

“Small Was Fast”

Later on, when Pere Ubu imploded for a good stretch, David Thomas was in a period when he resisted rock and roll, even disliked it volubly, and New Picnic Time vacillates between a love of the incredibly perfect band sound that was this group of players, and pieces that are like an arsonist in the house of the popular song. This is one of the former songs. It has the beautiful rhythm section of Krauss/Maimone/Herman, and they are playing something that sounds like rock and roll, and over this there is some falsetto Thomas (“I waited for you!”), and some synthesizer noise. It is somehow plausibly punk and plausibly art-oriented, until the big organ chord at 1:21, which sounds like it was overdubbed without listening to what had already been recorded, and this in turns gives way to something like a chorus—the words “I want sleep! I want sleep!” As if New Picnic Time were not recorded inside of sleep, and were not a depiction of the inside of a dream. And to reinforce this, the song abruptly stops at 2:50, and there are some very reverberant children’s toys, or perhaps a dog toy, squishable in the mouth of some dog, and the sound of wind, and Thomas singing “I waited for you,” which means waited for what exactly? For a person or personages to come? For a millenarian remission of facts of this earthly life? The rhythm section returns for a few sprung iterations, and then “Small Was Fast” collapses into an uncertainty about how to close itself.

“All the Dogs Are Barking”

“You gotta have happiness, you gotta have happiness, you gotta have home, homes, you gotta have heart, head, you gotta have hands, you gotta have horns, you gotta have heart, you gotta have hope, you gotta have happiness, you gotta have . . .  help, you gotta have help, you gotta have . . .”  Even in the most recondite and unusual of bands—and there are few more so than this—there is the moment in which one must employ the one-four chord progression, and this is the song that does so on this grim document, and there are no drums, and Tony Maimone would seem to be playing the prepared piano, and Scott Krauss is on shaker, and there are no dogs barking, despite the title of the song, and it’s all happening—whatever it is that’s happening—in the guitar, and the organ, and the improvised lyrics, in the piling up of disbelief, because there’s not a moment in the litany above when you believe that this singer, this lyricist, has any of these things, the things he is after, or is perhaps never in danger of having these things (“Help!” he says matter-of-factly), and so the dogs are barking over some kind of emergency, they are the dogs barking at sirens, inaudible to the human ear, the cry of things to come, the cry of a supersonic immanence of destruction and judgment . . .

“One Less Worry”

And so: “Here it goes, somebody . . . help . . . ” because the album has not gotten onto its feet, is still in need of help, and the lyric here is mainly concerned with the inability of the song to start, as though the band cannot be bothered (“How’s it look? Not too good!”). Not that one, not that one, not that one. Sort of a reggae groove here, not real reggae, but the sort of groove by a band that was listening to the deep sounds of Lee “Scratch” Perry, and almost everyone was listening to Lee “Scratch” Perry in those days, but it’s likewise as if Thomas is daring the band to keep going, while he utterly disdains the necessity of song composition. In fact, the song starts with negation, nope nope, and what is being negated? The rock and roll idiom is being negated, but also the consistent or unitary or confident lead singer, in possession of a consistent or unitary or undisturbed point of view, which is mainly the province of the rock and roll song (“pretty bleak . . . pretty bleak”), or as though he is commenting on the band’s project as a whole. And it’s odd, when you bear down on the Thomas of more recent years, how vulnerable, how completely in danger of some kind of emotional collapse (“I don’t think about it anymore, no more, not that one again, not that one again”) this Thomas sounds. Maybe it’s just the slightly warbly jazz-age crooner about his voice that makes this the case, but on this song, the desperation catches up with, and eventually overwhelms the attempts of the band to complete its work, even though its labors are appealing.

“Make Hay”

Tom Herman was the first to go after New Picnic Time, and I will get to some of the reasons why later on, but “Make Hay” is the song on which he best shines. It’s therefore possible to imagine that he wrote much of the music here, which is part psychedelic and part surf rock, but coming as it does, after the grim, ominous mess of “One Less Worry,” which should probably be called “One More Worry,” it’s sort of too little, too late. Moreover, this song is sequenced near the trio of songs that end this album, in which almost all human hope is scraped away and replaced with nothing but the expectation of annihilation. This song is therefore anomalous. Tom Herman was a beautiful guitar player, and when the band hired Mayo Thompson, next, to be its guitar player, their sound changed utterly, acquired a certain R&B influence, and, dare I say it, a little jazz, and this is the end of the most rock and roll period of Pere Ubu, and it was largely rock and roll because of Herman’s dependable grooves, against which the artier and more recalcitrant agents in the band could bash their heads. Herman, in this period, made it possible for people to think they were still listening to rock and roll and not sound art, or minimalist electronic music, but David Thomas had more appetite for generic destruction, and so this is the last time Herman was allowed to bust out and play. Hail and farewell.

Pere Ubu 1978. Xerox from lost photo session, London

Pere Ubu 1978. Xerox from lost photo session, London.
(l to r) David Thomas, Tony Maimone, Alan Ravenstine, Scott Krauss, Tom Herman.


And now things get really scary. The title alone is pretty terrifying in any pop song in which you are willing to pay close attention, the farewell being one of the tropes of the deeply suicidal person, but if you pay close enough attention to any farewell, or the way in which kids think about the word goodbye, that the word is a cudgel that is going to be used upon them, then it is a deeply upsetting word, and Thomas seems to know what he means by the title, and by the repetitions of the lines: “This does not seem to be a very happy person.” The words are mumbled, really, and somewhat occluded by some organ and some Allen Ravenstine noise, but the message is there for anyone who wants to listen closely—the imminent farewell (“Useless,” “Give up,” “Come home”) that creeps in and out of the creepy, reverb-drenched organ. What we have here is not an unusual chord progression for Pere Ubu, whose “Humor Me” from The Art of Walking was a slightly more up-tempo version of a similar mood, and that song summoned the death of the band’s original guitarist, in which the refrain, “Humor me! Humor me! Humor me!” meant just the opposite, but this is later on, and there is more giving up involved. So to what is the narrator saying goodbye? Not a person, I would contend, but, rather, to an entire culture and an entire time, to an entire way of being and seeming in, for example, the Midwest of the United States of America, whose flaming rivers and dilapidated factories are the stuff of the backdrop that is Pere Ubu (they named one live album Terminal Tower, after a building in their hometown). So this is about letting ago, which is about religious vision, but the thing about religious vision is that it is lonely, and so the David Thomas who would have some truck with a millenarian vision, an apocalyptic, is trying to believe he needs to be this lonely, comforted only by a power that you can’t put your hand on, or even talk to, not in an constructive dialogue-oriented way. He’s trying to talk himself into it, into leaving behind all of this stuff, this Cleveland, around him. He both believes and, in the context of the album and in the band’s group dynamics, doesn’t believe, and the album wants it both ways: the end of everything, and the intense regret about letting go over everything. Religious vision. Probably kills more people than it helps.

“Voice of the Sand”

The lyric here is based on a poem by Vachel Lindsay, I believe. The song, such as it is (for it clocks in at 1:29), consists of almost nothing but analogue synthesizer noise over which Thomas whispers, and I mean whispers, close-mic style: “This is the voice of sand/the sailors understand/There is far more sea than sand/There is far more sea than man.” Then some more synthesizer noise. Like the kind of stuff you would hear on an album of early electronic music from the sixties. Really beautiful, not musical in any conventional way, and of a piece with the annihilation of the Thomas lyric, which is about the absolute insignificance, numerical and otherwise quantitative, of all that man is when considered in the panorama of creation. It’s a very short piece, involving only Thomas and Ravenstine, who was perhaps his only ally in the band at this moment, and it will make your skin crawl if you really listen to it. In a good way. It’s impossible to listen to this and not feel yourself in the ocean of the insignificance it’s selling.

“Jehovah’s Kingdom Come”

Pere Ubu May 5 1978. Brussels, Theatre 140. Photo Credit: Marcus Portee

Pere Ubu May 5 1978. Brussels, Theatre 140. Photo Credit: Marcus Portee

Which brings us to the apocalypse. The apocalypse is so fraught with peril, and the behavior of particles during the apocalypse is so strange that all the reliable facts become unreliable as you approach it, and so, for example, even the name of the song in question is thoroughly contested. Or: on New Picnic Time, this last song is called “Jehovah’s Kingdom Come,” and the implications here are pretty clear. Later, on the compilation of the early albums Ubu called Datapanik In Year Zero, the song is listed as “Kingdom Come,” which peels away some of the doctrinal heavy-handedness of the other title. But: on the Ubu Projex web site (as of February 2012), in which David Thomas exerts a fair amount of justifiable sway (being the only original member left in the band), where lyrics to all the Pere Ubu albums are catalogued, the song is not included on the New Picnic Time page at all under either title, and is instead called “Hand a Face a Feeling.” And the lyric, as inscribed therein, leaves out the refrain on the song, which is simply “Jehovah’s Kingdome Come,” and to excise this portion would seem to me to miss some of what the song is about, though I am also very interested in Thomas’s recalibration of the song from this late date. And so to consider mining the unreliable: the way I have heard it, Herman and/or Maimone wrote the music to this track (and since Herman is credited with the organ on the album, it would make sense to suppose that the track, which has plenty of organ, is his), and they thought they had a pretty good rock song, maybe one of the best the band had written in a while. Then David came back with the lyric—which is nothing but one big long invitation for the End Times that Thomas was imbibing in his Jehovah’s Witness period, “These are the best times of all”—and Herman decided he would leave on the spot. An oversimplification, maybe even a fabrication, or a reading of the album’s themes back against the lives of the principal actors in the story, and that is never entirely fair. But let’s say it has some marginal accuracy. Thomas’s temporary adherence to the Jehovah’s Witness movement must have caused a fair amount of dissension in the ranks. Herman left, and the band, as it was, was over. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have reckoned on the end of this world many times, that’s the short version of this particular belief system, and have constantly had to renegotiate the date of the end. At the time Thomas would have “joined,” however briefly, in the late seventies, the church was in something of a crisis, because predictions about the End Times at all, which the leaders of the movement had believed were imminent in 1975, had failed to bring about any End Times. Unless you happen to believe that Cleveland in the late seventies was some kind of representation of apocalypse. This is an album about preoccupation with the end, and this is the song that crystallizes and makes apparent that preoccupation with the end—the eschaton, as David Foster Wallace called it—and a preoccupation with the end is terrifying in all cases. No wait, that’s not it. If a preoccupation with the end were terrifying, then a lot of contemporary evangelical nonsense would be terrifying, and it’s not. I don’t find the hellfire vision of a Pat Robertson or a Jimmy Swaggart terrifying. I find it ridiculous, unsupported scripturally, and I don’t believe they believe it either, because they are primarily motivated by the accumulation of power and the monetization of that power. On the other hand, the millenarian movement that, in 2011, predicted the imminent end of the world, which then caused a bunch of evangelicals to give up their jobs and abandon their possessions, and so on, that I do find terrifying. What is terrifying is the entirely self-destructive belief, and the kind of imagination that gives to this vision a fertility, a kind of imagination that is primarily a sort of isolation. And Jehovah’s Witnesses, who shun people who leave the faith (Thomas must have been heavily shunned at one point), and who do not consort with the outlanders of American culture, are heavily isolated, and experience a real ideological constraint in their daily lives. All of that outside stuff, the seductions of what happens out here in the world, must feel considerably threatening. David Thomas believed in the line he was being sold, and unlike Patti Smith, who drank a little bit of the same Kool-Aid, or so I am told, around Wave, and Michael Jackson, who was also observant, Thomas made a recording from inside the belief, because he was vulnerable in this way, human in this way, and because he understood something about art, something that Patti Smith no longer understood by the time of Wave, something Michael Jackson, or Dave Mustaine, for that matter, never understood, namely that art is about consciousness. So “Jehovah’s Kingdom Come,” and indeed all of New Picnic Time as a whole, is about the inside of this belief, the psychology of the millenarian, the apocalyptic, and the doubt that must adhere to millenarian conviction, doubt that the ideological system is accurate. In this case, the doubt, and the belief, are coincident with garage rock, with Cleveland, with some of what punk was about, a sense of the militancy of outsider art, a sense of the aggression of rock and roll, the purpose of rock and roll. And, as in high art, the result is a complex of feelings, not a simple feeling, and for me, the best word for that complex is: dread.

What it was the end of, actually, was this band. Nothing else, really, although many things change. Cleveland changes. Whatever punk was in its infancy changes, and the guys in the band get older and move on, become airline pilots or what have you. But New Picnic Time was the end of a certain idea about Pere Ubu, because, in truth, it’s impossible to go any further in this direction than this album. There are other albums like this, Trout Mask Replica, let’s say. Or Metal Box. Or Suicide. Or A Love Supreme. Where everything you have done you have now done, and there’s no going on, unless you dramatically reinvent. Many of these albums are significantly scary, scary because they risk everything artistically, but for me New Picnic Time towers above the other scary albums, because the subject matter and the absolute lack of compromise in the approach are one and the same. Pere Ubu had little to lose, they were willing to lose what little they had, and they lost it, at least for a time. They even lost each other for a while. And at the time almost no one understood what was here, even the people who liked this sort of thing. It has taken me years to fully understand this album myself. And as with most great albums, each of those years was worth it.

Rick Moody is the author of five novels, three collections of stories, a memoir, and, most recently, a volume of essays, On Celestial Music. He also plays and writes songs in The Wingdale Community Singers. He’s at work on a new novel.

Sounds Heard: Untravelled Path—Work in Progress

Back in the autumn of 2005, a mysterious recording from a duo I had not been aware of before called Untravelled Path arrived in the mail. It was provocatively titled Sweet Heresy and the disc and its packaging offered only scant information—only the duo’s first names were listed and tracks were untitled and identified only by instrumentation, all of the homemade variety. But something about it called out to me from the piles of music I’m surrounded by and I felt compelled to listen to it. The more time I spent with this unearthly music—which was inspired by various world music traditions yet ultimately beholden to none—the more I wanted to know about it. Luckily in addition to the duo’s first names and the names of their instruments, a URL was provided. So I began surfing around their website and soon found out that Untravelled Path was the work of Mitsuko and Arthur Fankuchen, who are based in Taos, New Mexico. I read their philosophy of making music, which eschews specialization, aims to be different from the rest of the music around them, and is created specifically for dissemination via audio recordings rather than in live performance. I also learned quite a bit more about their instrumentarium, which includes a very low bowed monochord, a 48-keyed lamellophone even more elaborate than the largest Zimbabwean mbiras, and various end-blown bamboo flutes—all of which were built specifically to create music outside of the realm of standard 12-tone equal temperament.

This was truly adventurous music that deserved some attention in NewMusicBox, so I briefly jotted down my impressions about that recording—this was back when we were posting single paragraphs about recordings every week day. Soon thereafter I received both a very nice voice message and a letter from Mitsuko and Arthur thanking me for my words. And six years went by.

Then a few months ago, I received a second disc from Untravelled Path with an extremely unassuming title, Work in Progress, together with a note from Mitsuko and Arthur explaining to me how their music had evolved in the intervening years. In addition to the instrumental music they perform on their own hand-made creations, they also now sing—although to use the word “song” for the four vocal tracks on Work in Progress does not quite accurately describe these free-form mini-epics fusing words and music which last between 5 ½ and 7 minutes. (The CD booklet includes all of the lyrics.) The album’s nine tracks alternate between instrumental and vocal pieces.

The disc’s opener, “bbqq” (all the tracks now have titles, although the titles for all of the instrumentals are named either after specific instruments or are acronyms combining the instruments used), is an eerie soundscape in the spirit of Untravelled Path’s earlier work which I had described back in 2005 as “uncompromising, slow, and inward.” Single lamellophone pitches occasionally punctuate the long, low tones of the bowed monochord, which sounds like the breathing of alien life forms. “Dynasties Fall” introduces Untravelled Path’s new vocal gambit—Arthur’s quasi-sprechtstimme comes across as a latter day Harry Partch with the requisite accompanying plucks. The lyrics, though couched in poetic metaphors that seem more otherworldly than Partch’s corporeal concerns, reveal the duo’s anti-authoritarian, anti-establishment political agenda, e.g.

one more time those who never work
come home from vacation,
turn around, go out to grab a bite to eat
that’s cooked by someone else.

Next, “qdss” pairs various scrapes with the haunting shakuhachi-esque sounds of the Fankuchens’ homemade end blown flutes which they call shoki, their only appearance on the present recording. In “I’m a Little Worried,” Mitsuko sings a subtle microtonal melody over a series of stark, pointillistic instrumental utterances which punctuate her phrases. These musical punctuations, which function similarly to the cadences of a harpsichord continuo in a Baroque recitative but ultimately sound nothing like them, serve to further emphasize the message of her lyrics:

the too proud dude in the tailored suit,
stuffed from a power lunch, tired from a hardtrip on business class,
at home in jeans and a bandana, plays blues on his concert grand,
and dreams he’s right down there with the struggling masses.
he’s so much smaller than the humble glowing bloom.
if it’s humans like these who now truly hold the reins,
if such “masters of the universe” really are the ones in charge,
well I’m a little worried.

The ensuing instrumental, “bowus–quartus,” uses the “boardus quartus” lamellophone melodically, albeit for an extremely slow-moving melody that hovers over the sustained growls of the bass bowus. Isolated lamellophone and plucked bass tones accompany Arthur’s vocals in “Dark Clouds,” another missive about the ills of our society. Although the accompaniment retains its austerity throughout, the lyric ends on a positive, poignant, and downright romantic note:

twenty years now our shared life has grown in magic,
where she ends and I begin, we long ago forgot.

A portentous tremolo opens “bowus—bowus,” which stays predominantly in a very low register throughout. Mitsuko returns again for the final vocal track, “Hand in Hand,” which is almost a love song, albeit one of the strangest ones you’ll ever hear in your life. In the concluding “quartus—quartus,” various thuds in a variety of registers float in sonic space, conjuring the infinite.

Last month Arthur and Mitsuko wrote to me describing the reactions of people in their community to Work in Progress—grocery store cashiers, bank tellers, gas station attendants, postal clerks, etc., folks who are fall outside the usual “new music demographic,” to whom they gave free copies of the disc. According to them, everyone listened to the disc again and again, while driving or working, one even listened in a hot tub. They believe that “maybe we’ve created some of the very first New Music for the 99%.”

I, for one, am totally a fan of their work. But I hope they don’t wait another six years before making their next recording.

From No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage’s 4’33”

Reprinted from No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage’s 4′33″ Copyright © 2010 by Yale University Press. Used with permission of the author and publisher.

From Chapter One, 4′33″ at First Listening

John Cage’s 4′33″ is one of the most misunderstood pieces of music ever written and yet, at times, one of the avant-garde’s best understood as well. Many presume that the piece’s purpose was deliberate provocation, an attempt to insult, or get a reaction from, the audience. For others, though, it was a logical turning point to which other musical developments had inevitably led, and from which new ones would spring. For many, it was a kind of artistic prayer, a bit of Zen performance theater that opened the ears and allowed one to hear the world anew. To Cage it seemed, at least from what he wrote about it, to have been an act of framing, of enclosing environmental and unintended sounds in a moment of attention in order to open the mind to the fact that all sounds are music. It begged for a new approach to listening, perhaps even a new understanding of music itself, a blurring of the conventional boundaries between art and life. But to beg is not always to receive.

What was this piece, this “composition” 4′33″? For so famous and recent a work, the number of questions that still surround it is extraordinary—from its lost original manuscript, to its multiple notations, to unexplained deviations in the lengths of the movements, to the peculiar process of adding up silences with which it was composed, to the biggest ambiguity of all: How are we supposed to understand it? In what sense is it a composition? Is it a hoax? A joke? A bit of Dada? A piece of theater? A thought experiment? A kind of apotheosis of 20th-century music? An example of Zen practice? An attempt to change basic human behavior? Let’s try the hoax hypothesis. Here are some definitions for hoax:

1. An act intended to deceive or trick;
2. Something that has been established or accepted by fraudulent means;
3. Deliberate trickery intended to gain an advantage (synonym: fraud);
4. A deception for mockery or mischief.

In what was Cage trying to deceive the audience? Attempting to make them think they had heard something when they hadn’t? The audience was fully aware that Tudor was sitting onstage and neither touching the keyboard nor making any audible sounds. If Cage was trying to fool the audience into thinking he had written a piece when he really hadn’t, who was deceived? One could argue that Cage was mocking the audience, but he wasn’t doing so by deceiving them. There was no attempt to cover up what 4′33″ was: a man sitting at a piano for four and a half minutes without playing. There was no moment following the performance at which listeners learned that what they’d heard was not what they thought.

Perhaps it was trickery intended to gain an advantage? Ah yes, the advantage! And what was that advantage? Why, money, of course! Every time I have ever played or explained 4′33″ to a class, one student has always exclaimed indignantly, “You mean he got paid for that?” According to the common understanding of how musicians lead their careers, the musician makes some music, it gets played, and the musician is given some money through some means or another. But Cage wasn’t paid for writing 4′33″; the piece wasn’t commissioned. The concert was a benefit for a good cause. The money people paid to hear David Tudor play did not go to Cage, or even to Tudor.

And in fact, while songwriters usually get paid for their performances and receive royalties for the use of their songs, classical composers like Cage sometimes compose for commissions, but also often write pieces with no commission at all. Often they compose simply because they have an idea, or they’re building up a portfolio for future performances, or they’re trying to advance their careers by doing something impressive, or—quite often—they compose for the sheer love of composing, which can be an enjoyable and fulfilling activity. At that time, Cage was, as he said, “poor as a church mouse,” and he had been so for many years. He had spent the year 1951 composing his piano piece Music of Changes on the sidewalk and on the subway, and asking friends and strangers to support him by buying shares in his music in case it ever did actually make some money. The year following the 4′33″ premiere, the old Lower West Side apartment house Cage was living in was scheduled for demolition, and he was forced to relocate. Not affluent enough to find another place in the city (even with cheap 1950s rents), he eventually moved with friends to an artists’ collective upstate at the community of Stony Point, where he could enjoy two small rooms for $24.15 a month (about $194 in 2008 dollars).1 Not until the 1960s would Cage gain any measure of financial security. The idea that he might have made any money off an avant-garde gesture like 4′33″ is a raw caricature of a composer’s life. (In the 1960s, however, when he was much more famous, Cage did sell the manuscript of 4′33″ for a large sum of money, much as one might sell any document that had come to have historical significance.)

Or perhaps Cage was just lazy, “writing” a piece that took no work at all and hoping to make some money off it later. Any such impression is belied by the sheer volume of Cage’s lifelong output, the detailed complexity of many of his scores, and the loving care he put into copying his manuscripts. He would later say that 4′33″ took longer for him to write than any other piece, because he worked on it, as a concept, for four years. And in 1951 he had written the tremendously virtuosic and complex Music of Changes, more difficult to conceive and compose than anything a lazy person would have ever contemplated.

In 2004 the BBC broadcast an orchestral version of 4′33″—which meant that the BBC Symphony Orchestra sat onstage for four and a half minutes without making sounds, and people listened to their silence in the hall and over the radio. Some of the comments the BBC received over the Internet played into the “hoax” theme:

I’m sorry, but this is absolutely ridiculous. The rock ‘n’ rollers and the punks were wrongly bashed in their day, but this genuinely deserves a big thumbs down.

This is clearly a gimmick, when he ‘wrote’ this piece he was testing who was stupid enough to fall for it. I think you’ll find he wrote it on 01 April 1952.

I find it quite patronising and disturbing that self proclaimed intellectuals are trying to convince us that this is art—just another nail in the coffin for the world of art!

Is this how our licence fee money is being used? I’ve never heard of such a stupid thing in my life! God rest his soul, but this ‘composition’ by Cage smacks of arrogance and self importance . . .

Emperor’s new clothes anyone?2

Yet for the rest of his life, Cage talked about 4′33″ as his most important work, the one he returned to again and again as the basis for his other new works. He knew what it consisted of and was well aware of the range of receptions it generated.

How about the “joke” theory? Well, Cage was certainly afraid it would be taken as a joke, which is why it took him four and a half years (nice coincidence) from conceiving the piece to actually presenting it publicly. (“I have a horror of appearing an idiot,” he once told a critic.)3 In a 1973 interview he admitted, “I was afraid that my making a piece that had no sounds in it would appear as if I were making a joke. In fact, I probably worked longer on my ‘silent’ piece than I worked on any other.”4 Cage explained the “joke”: “I think perhaps my own best piece, at least the one I like the most, is the silent piece. It has three movements, and in all of the movements there are no sounds. I wanted my work to be free of my own likes and dislikes, because I think music should be free of the feelings and ideas of the composer. I have felt and hoped to have led other people to feel that the sounds of their environment constitute a music which is more interesting than the music which they would hear if they went into a concert hall.”5 For a joke, this is an awfully earnest philosophical program.

How about Dada? Dada was an art movement, or perhaps anti-art movement, associated with the period during and after World War I. Disillusioned by the great world of European culture being plunged into war, artists like Tristan Tzara, Hugo Ball, Hans Arp, Sophie Tauber, Erik Satie, and others dove into a world of nonsensical art that eschewed reason and logic in favor of chaos, randomness, and paradox. In the foreword to his seminal early book Silence, Cage acknowledges a debt to Dada, and Satie was one of his favorite composers. Cage also notes that “what was Dada in Duchamp’s day is now just art,” but on Cage’s own authority the possibility that 4′33″ was a Dada-inspired gesture, even if also more than that, cannot be entirely dismissed.

How about theater? One of the crucial aspects of 4′33″, at least in the first performances, is that there was a pianist onstage, whose presence, and whose behavior in the previous pieces on the program, clearly led the audience to expect that his hands would at some point engage the keyboard, and that they would hear deliberately made sounds coming from the stage. That this did not happen, that the listeners’ expectations were deliberately flouted, cannot be entirely divorced from the sonic identity of the piece, even though the way Cage talked about 4′33″ later in life—claiming, for instance, that he often “performed” the piece while alone—seems to suggest that it can. As New York Times critic Edward Rothstein suggested in a rather unsympathetic obituary of Cage, had Cage simply wanted his audience to listen, he could always have instructed them to do so.6 In fact, following 4′33″, Cage’s music, by his own enthusiastic admission, began tending more and more toward theater, and during the 1960s in particular he became very interested in the physical and cognitive relationship between performers and audience members.

The description of 4′33″‘s theatrical recontextualization can hardly be phrased more delicately and thoroughly, I think, than Douglas Kahn has done:

Ostensibly, even an audience comprised of reverential listeners would have plenty to hear, but in every performance I’ve attended the silence has been broken by the audience and become ironically noisy. It should be noted that each performance was held in a concert setting, where any muttering or clearing one’s throat, let alone heckling, was a breach of decorum. Thus, there was already in place in these settings, as in other settings for Western art music, a culturally specific mandate to be silent, a mandate regulating the behavior that precedes and accompanies musical performance. As with prayer, which has not always been silent, concertgoers were at one time more boisterous; this association was not lost on Luigi Russolo, who remarked on “the cretinous religious emotion of the Buddha-like listeners, drunk with repeating for the thousandth time their more or less acquired and snobbish ecstasy.” 4′33″, by tacitly instructing the performer to remain quiet in all respects, muted the site of centralized and privileged utterance, disrupted the unspoken audience code to remain unspoken, transposed the performance onto the audience members both in their utterances and in the acts of shifting perception toward other sounds, and legitimated bad behavior that in any number of other settings (including musical ones) would have been perfectly acceptable. 4′33″ achieved this involution through the act of silencing the performer. That is, Cagean silence followed and was dependent on a silencing. Indeed, it can also be understood that he extended the decorum of silencing by extending the silence imposed on the audience to the performer, asking the audience to continue to be obedient listeners and not to engage in the utterances that would distract them from shifting their perception toward other sounds. Extending the musical silencing, then, set into motion the process by which the realm of musical sounds would itself be extended.7

Kahn is right: 4′33″ cannot be bracketed as a purely sonic phenomenon. It called upon the audience members to remain obediently silent under unusual conditions. The pianist’s refusal to play calls a whole network of social connections into question and is likely to be reflected in equally unconventional responses on the part of the audience.

How about a “thought experiment,” a kind of “metamusic” that makes a statement about music itself? For many people, including me, 4′33″ is certainly that, if not only that. One story about Cage recounts his sitting in a restaurant with the painter Willem de Kooning, who, for the sake of argument, placed his fingers in such a way as to frame some bread crumbs on the table and said, “If I put a frame around these bread crumbs, that isn’t art.” Cage argued that it indeed was art, which tells us something about 4′33″.8 Certainly, through the conventional and well-understood acts of placing the title of a composition on a program and arranging the audience in chairs facing a pianist, Cage was framing the sounds that the audience heard in an experimental attempt to make people perceive as art sounds that were not usually so perceived. One of the most common effects of 4′33″—possibly the most important and widespread effect—was to seduce people into considering as art phenomena that were normally not associated with art. Perhaps even more, its effect was to drive home the point that the difference between “art” and “non-art” is merely one of perception, and that we can control how we organize our perceptions. A person who took away nothing from 4′33″ but this realization would, in my view, already be taking home something revolutionary.

From a broader perspective, how about 4′33″ as the apotheosis of twentieth-century music? There is something intriguing about the piece’s position as a kind of midpoint of the century. The years just following World War II had seen a resurgence of the twelve-tone music invented by Arnold Schoenberg. Composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, and Milton Babbitt were expanding the twelve-tone idea from the realm of pitch to include rhythm, dynamics, and timbre, and in the process creating music of unprecedented complexity. Such hyperstructured music began to verge on the realm of incomprehensibility, a kind of perceptual chaos arising paradoxically from rational processes.

It’s true that most of this development appeared in the years just following 4′33″, but in the 1960s it became common to talk about how little different the super-controlled music of Stockhausen and Babbitt sounded from the totally chance-controlled music Cage was writing. And indirectly 4′33″ led to the developments from which grew the simpler and more accessible new style of minimalism. As a locus of historical hermeneutics, 4′33″ can be seen as a result of the exhaustion of the overgrown classical tradition that preceded it, a clearing of the ground that allowed a new musical era to start from scratch.

And how about 4′33″ as an example of Zen practice? This, I think, may be the most directly fertile suggestion. Cage first spoke of the possibility of a silent piece in 1948, and several steps in his thinking led him, over the next four years, to the inevitability of presenting such a work in public. There are many levels on which 4′33″ can be understood, and many simultaneous meanings to be grasped within it—which, after all, is one of the signs by which any great work of art can be recognized as such.9


1. Revill, The Roaring Silence, pp. 179-80.

2. “Radio 3 Plays Silent Symphony,” BBC News, January 19, 2004, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/3401901.stm (accessed April 9, 2009).

3. Donal Henahan, “Who Throws Dice, Reads I Ching, and Composes?” New York Times, September 3, 1972; quoted in Revill, The Roaring Silence, p. 12.

4. Interview with Alan Gillmor and Roger Shattuck, quoted in Kostelanetz, Conversing with Cage, p. 67.

5. Jeff Goldberg, “John Cage Interview,” Soho Weekly News, September 12, 1974.

6. Edward Rothstein, “Cage Played His Anarchy by the Rules,” New York Times, September 20, 1992.

7. Kahn, “John Cage: Silence and Silencing,” p. 7.

8. Interview with Robin White, quoted in Kostelanetz, Conversing with Cage, pp. 211-212.

9. Philip Gentry has theorized that 4′33″ might have represented for Cage, or for some of the audience, an appropriation or expression of the silence that gay men were forced to maintain (even more than usual) during the repression of the McCarthy era, when gays were being fired from government and institutional jobs—and that the audience’s anger may have had to do with the inherent homosexuality of the gesture, given Cage’s persona. However this may be, the anger does seem disproportionate in a way that begs for further explanation. See Gentry, “Cultural Politics of 4′33″.”