Tag: indeterminacy

Indeterminacy 2.0: How to Burn Your Harpsichord


Image from variant:blue by Joshue Ott and Kenneth Kirschner

Do you know the Brandenburg Concerto where Bach kicks over the harpsichord and lights it on fire? You know, No. 5, with its ripping keyboard solo that can only be described as a sort of “Baroque shredding.” I’ve heard that solo referred to as an audition piece for Bach himself, who was known as a fearsome improviser and may have used it to pummel prospective patrons into submission.

I open a discussion of indeterminacy and digital technology with this anecdote because I think it’s important to remember that indeterminacy’s country cousin—improvisation—goes to the very roots of music as we know it and beyond. In fact, the question to ask may rather be one of where our notions of fixity and certainty in music come from. We barely even have a word for it—we don’t exactly talk much about “determinacy”—and yet beneath all our ideas about music runs this assumption: that a piece of music is a stable thing, that it has a fixed essence, that when we talk about the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 we’re talking about THE Brandenburg Concerto No. 5. Not some crazy ephemeral solo Bach might have thrown in there one day.

Which is too bad, really, because it is only through chance, chaos, and the unexpected that music, like life, evolves. Perhaps there was once a time when music seemed less rigid, less fixed—a liquid, not a solid. Perhaps in an age of folk songs, of an unpredictably malleable oral tradition, a more fluid image of music might have held. But something changed that, and I would suggest that it was the advent of the score—of a written tradition in music. With that, the possibility of a true text, a stable essence of a fixed piece of music, locked down once and for all forever, comes into being. And the fixity of the score, the perceived tyranny of its certainty and stability, was very much what Feldman, Cage, and the composers of the New York School of the 1950s were rebelling against when they pioneered our modern ideas of indeterminate music.

But there is another form of stability in music as we know it today, another kind of “determinacy” that underlies our sense of what music is, and can be: the recording. From 1877’s first needle drop onwards, we have known music as much from recordings as we have from scores—and for non-musicians, much more so. The recording has conquered the world, and in doing so has become music’s new fixity—its new certainty.

But why should a recording be the same every time you listen to it? Until recently, this question wouldn’t even have made sense. You had to physically scratch the sound onto those old wax cylinders, and one can only imagine the mess it would have been to try un-scratching it. You can’t re-lathe a vinyl record, or reach into an old-fashioned compact disc and start moving those microscopic pits around. But our notions of what our recordings are have not kept up with what our recordings actually are: digital data. Code. Our recordings are no longer hardware—they’re software. And yet we listen to an mp3 or an online music stream in the exact same way in which we have listened to CDs, vinyl records, cassettes, 78 rpm phonographs, wax cylinders—starting at the beginning, playing linearly to the end, and hearing music that’s exactly the same on each listen.

But there’s no reason why this must be the case. With digital music, it’s possible to build complexity, chance, and intelligence into the recording itself, to create a music that is ever-changing and open-ended, indefinite in duration and indeterminate in composition—to create an indeterminate recording. A listener can press play on a piece of recorded music that will be different on every listen, that can be heard for as long or as short a time as they wish, and that will continually grow and evolve for as long as they choose to listen.

On and off over the last decade, I’ve been experimenting with developing just this sort of music—with some successes, plenty of failures, and hopefully a little insight along the way. This series of articles will describe some of those experiments, others that haven’t yet been tried, and the hopes and ideas underlying them, all on the theme of the possibilities that exist at the intersection of technology and indeterminacy. Tune in next week for an attempt to figure out exactly what it is we’re talking about here.


Ken Kirschner

Kenneth Kirschner
Photo by Molly Sheridan

Composer Kenneth Kirschner was born in 1970 and lives in New York City. His music is freely available at kennethkirschner.com.

Why Not Include the Bird—Tudorfest, 1964

In the spring of 1964 in beautiful San Francisco, Pauline Oliveros decided it was time for her new music organization, the San Francisco Tape Music Center, to put on a festival. She had recently met David Tudor and asked him to choose three programs of music to be performed twice each for a total of six concerts. The festival—curated by Tudor, performed by Tudor, in celebration of Tudor—became (obviously, inevitably) known as the Tudorfest.

In a characteristic move, Tudor chose pieces by his friends and collaborators: John Cage, Toshi Ichiyanagi, Alvin Lucier, George Brecht, and Oliveros herself. It was a hodgepodge of styles, a perfect representation of the sheer range of 1960s experimental music. Ichiyangi’s Music for Piano #4, Electronic Version cuddled up to Cage’s Music for Amplified Toy Piano. Lucier’s Action Music for Piano, Book I provided a nice contrast to Brecht’s Card-Piece for Voice. And if you were particularly in the mood for every variety of Cage, you could hear Atlas Eclipticalis, Winter Music, Concert for Piano and Orchestra, Cartridge Music, and Music Walk all on the same program.

But the piece that everyone seems to talk about—even now, fifty-plus years later—is Pauline Oliveros’s Duo for Accordion and Bandoneon with Possible Mynah Bird Obbligato. Here’s the set-up: there’s a giant seesaw on the stage. It goes up and down, as seesaws do, but it also moves side to side and roundabout. Seated on one side, strapped in with a seatbelt, is Pauline Oliveros and her giant accordion. On the other side is David Tudor and his more moderately sized bandoneon. Hanging directly over the center is a cage containing a brown-black mynah bird named Ahmed. There was no hard and fast score to follow, though Tudor and Oliveros had worked through improvisation techniques and styles in rehearsal. Instead, the audience experienced a literal whirl of music and motion, a blur of performers and instruments up high and then down low, a constantly shifting understanding of how sight and sound worked in space and over time.

Duo for Accordion and Bandoneon with Possible Mynah Bird Obbligato was only ever performed on those two concerts at Tudorfest, and Tudorfest was only ever put on that one year. (Personally, I want to know what happened to the seesaw. Did it become a sculpture in somebody’s garden? Was it dismantled and repurposed into other Tape Music Center musical props? Is it still languishing in a basement somewhere, waiting for a reprise of the Duo?) This was a much smaller operation than something like the New York Avant Garde Festival—which isn’t to say it didn’t attract the same sorts of interested audiences or the attentions of the press. There were critics at the event, and they did write about the performances they attended for their respective papers. These largely positive Tudorfest reviews were a part of the reason that the San Francisco Tape Music Center became known as a mover and shaker on the experimental music scene; in some ways, this was the festival that started it all.

Tudorfest was more than what you could read in the reviews, though. It was more than its success. It was a scramble, a stretch, a compromise—the usual behind-the-scenes madness. (You all know what I’m talking about.) If the festival was put on well (and it was), the critics almost certainly couldn’t have known what took place beyond the clean façade of onstage performance. But that’s what composer Pauline Oliveros remembers—that’s part of what makes this festival so interesting.

The cover of the University of California Press book, The San Francisco Tape Music Center: 1960s Counterculture and the Avant-Garde

David Bernstein (ed), The San Francisco Tape Music Center: 1960s Counterculture and the Avant-Garde. University of California Press, 2008.

I’ve spent a long time trying to track down what people have already said about Tudorfest. Most of the good stuff—a kind of best-of collection of interviews, retrospective essays, and scholarship—can be found in David Bernstein’s book on the larger group and its doings, The San Francisco Tape Music Center: 1960s Counterculture and the Avant-Garde (go read it—it’s good), and in the program notes by David Bernstein and John Holzaepfel included with the recently released three-disc set on New World Records, Music from the Tudorfest: San Francisco Tape Music Center 1964 (go listen to it—it’s good). Oliveros is all over these sources; her words are on the record and they give us a different perspective than the reviews.

The cover of the CD booklet for New World Records' Tudorfest featuring a photo of David Tudor wearing a jacket and tie

New World Records’ 2014 release of archival recordings from the 1964 Tudorfest.

At the beginning of this article, I wrote that Oliveros had recently met Tudor when she asked him to curate the festival. That’s true, but I didn’t tell you that Oliveros wrote about how she met Tudor at the house of Olive Cowell (aunt of Henry Cowell). I didn’t tell you that Oliveros remembers John Cage, Toshi Ichiyanagi, and Toru Takemitsu all attending the final performances. I didn’t tell you that she invited dancer-choreographer Elizabeth Harris to stage her Duo, or that she asked Tony Martin to provide the lighting, or that Morton Subotnick, Stuart Dempster, and Ramon Sender (among others) all agreed to be part of the performing ensemble. Oliveros remembers these people because they were friends and colleagues, and because this was the support system that she had in place to produce a festival. This was really the only support system she had in place; she had to rely on this art world of musicians and composers—because mainstream grant foundations weren’t always clamoring to expand or develop experimental music.

To put it plainly: the Tudorfest was a stretch on the resources of the San Francisco Tape Music Center generally speaking, and that meant it was a stretch on the resources of its individual producers and organizers. “In those days,” Oliveros told one interviewer, “I taught a string of students: accordion and French horn. I copied music. I played in a variety of situations…. I have no idea how I did it in a way. And yes, I did do it. You know, you look back on it, and it wasn’t easy. I had maybe $250 dollars a month to get by on.”[1]

And yet, she did produce Tudorfest. She scraped by on $250. She called on all of her friends to help out. She got support from like-minded organizations including KPFA, the public radio station that shared building space with the Center and often allowed Oliveros and her colleagues to record improvisations using their equipment. Maybe the end result was everything Oliveros dreamed of; maybe she had grander plans she had to cut back due to space and time and money constraints. In the end, though, it was a success in the same way that her Duo for Accordion and Bandoneon with Possible Mynah Bird Obbligato was a success.

But even that piece, as Oliveros writes in a retrospective essay, was a series of compromises. The first time Oliveros and Tudor rehearsed the piece she was writing for Tudorfest, the composer-accordionist met the pianist-bandoneonist with a score in hand:

David and I rehearsed at my home in Hunter’s Point, which I shared with Laurel Johnson and her mynah bird, Ahmed,” Oliveros remembered. “As David and I rehearsed the music, Ahmed got very excited. I tried covering Ahmed’s cage to quiet him. Nothing worked. Ahmed insisted on joining our rehearsal. I realized that the bird was picking up on the sounds we were making. So I thought, ‘Why not include the bird?’ The duo became a trio: Duo for Accordion and Bandoneon with Possible Mynah Bird Obbligato (1964).[2]

Trio format established, Oliveros asked Elizabeth Harris to find a way to stage the piece…and Harris came up with the infamous aforementioned seesaw. By this point, it would have been hard for anybody to deny that the music was theater, and the theater was music. Oliveros wanted choreography, ways of manipulating the seesaw as a counterpoint to the sounds of the free reed instruments. First, there was the problem of playing an instrument and moving around at the same time: “I had to employ a safety belt to negotiate the swivel chair because of the imbalance of the motion of my accordion bellows,” Oliveros noted.[3] Second, there was the problem of reading a score while playing an instrument and moving around at the same time: “I swallowed hard and abandoned the written score that I had composed and decided on improvisational instructions.”[4] (The draft score still exists, by the way; it lives in the Pauline Oliveros archive at the University of California, San Diego.) A compromise, a collaboration: the line was always very thin—which worked out just fine, given that the experimentalists did their best to walk a thin line.

We can think of these behind-the-scenes challenges as part of the essential nature of Tudorfest, as part of what made the San Francisco Tape Music Center stronger, as part of what influenced the composers both at the time and maybe in their later years—these were the materials they had available, this was their experience, this was what they learned. As for me, I like to imagine that moment when Ahmed the mynah bird first squawked in rehearsal. I can imagine being frustrated, feeling like nothing was going as planned. Then: a moment of appreciation that sometimes the world just works this way, a dim thought, space to let it grow, and finally: What if…? What if the mynah bird became part of the piece? What if we brought him onstage? What will the people say? It’s only fitting to give Pauline Oliveros the last word: “I remember this period as a lot of fun.”[5]

1. David Bernstein (ed), The San Francisco Tape Music Center: 1960s Counterculture and the Avant-Garde. University of California Press, 2008, p105.

2. Ibid, p.86.

3. Ibid, p.87.

4. Ibid, p.86.

5. John Holzaepfel, Program Notes for Music from the Tudorfest: San Francisco Tape Music Center 1964, New World Records, 2014, p22.

Sounds Heard: Taylor Ho Bynum—Navigation

[Ed. Note: Last week at New Music USA, we hosted Caio Higginson from the Welsh Music Information Centre, Tŷ Cerdd, as part of the staff exchange program of the International Association of Music Information Centres. During the week, I arranged for Caio to visit a variety of music organizations in the city as well as to hear live performances of American music every night in venues ranging from Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Opera to (le) poisson rouge, the Jazz Standard, and the Church of St. Luke in the Fields. Caio also worked with each of our departments here, learning about what we do and how we do it. As part of a way to understand what we do at NewMusicBox, I put a pile of new CD releases in front of him and told him he could write about one of them for us if he was so moved. After an afternoon listening bonanza, Navigation by the Taylor Ho Bynum’s 7-tette, inspired these thoughts from him.—FJO]
Taylor Ho Bynum 7-tette: Navigation
(firehouse 12 FH-12-04-01-019)
Taylor Ho Bynum: cornet; Jim Hobbs: alto saxophone;
Bill Lowe: bass trombone, tuba; Mary Halvorson: electric guitar;
Ken Filiano: acoustic bass; Tomas Fujiwara and Chad Taylor: drums, vibraphone

Navigation, Taylor Ho Bynum’s recent CD release, seems particularly relevant to my own experience of visiting New York this week. I can bare no claim to navigating the airplane over the Atlantic, of course, but to me at least, this improvisatory multi-sectioned work reflects the adventure of experiencing a specific city for the first time.

Bynum has laid this work out in six movements—ISH, WUK, ZADE, TRIST, MANCH, and KID—each with some predetermined elements planned, but from there the music relies on the independence of the performers as it weaves from one scenario to another. These movements can be played in any order, simultaneously, and even multiple times within a single performance, as they are in the two realizations featured on this Firehouse 12 2-CD release. Diagrams printed on the digipack outline the specific paths taken.

In the first track, MANCH, Tim Hobbs’s alto saxophone and Bill Lowe’s tuba spar with one another before Mary Halvorson’s electric guitar and Tomas Fujiwara’s snare drum and cymbals kick in; it reminded me of my arrival to this city—e.g. depending heavily on maps at first and gradually feeling more confident of where I was going. This sets the stage for the second track, MANCH-ISH, which, after the heaviness of the proceeding interplay between the musicians, sounds relatively tranquil. It begins with an electric guitar solo that made me think of the sounds of dial-up internet connections from the 1990s. As a backdrop, bell-like percussion sounds kick in occasionally; although it might not have been the musicians’ intent, to me it felt like the subway rumbling underneath me from time to time! But there is a constant gradual build-up to a flurry of passion from Lowe’s saxophone and then Bynum’s cornet. The MANCH movement reappears on the last track of the second disc. In that performance there is a calm sense of confidence, with the saxophone taking the lead accompanied by the cornet while in the background the guitar lays back and strums away as if just observing the world go by.

The ZADE and WUK movements are each performed twice on the first CD. In the first performance of ZADE-WUK, the vibraphone (played by Fujiwara) is very prominent in deciding the path that the sax and cornet then follow. The subtlety of the vibraphone and bass (played by Ken Filiano) contrasts very effectively with the harsh and brash interferences, particularly from the guitar and tuba. The second performance, which opens with a bleak bowed bass solo, eventually builds to an ensemble interplay that has an almost traditional jazz feel to it, but not for long. In this performance, however, the navigation of the journey seems clearer and more confident due to its familiar landmarks.

There is an additional performance of ZADE on its own on the second CD. Here is a barren and sobering version of the movement with low and hanging sounds from the bass countered by both low and screeching expressions by the cornet which create a weird sense of uneasiness. About midway through, the saxophone enters and the tensions that had been building up to that point finally evaporate.

Throughout the piece, Bynum doesn’t allow the listener to dwell too long in any moment, choosing to steer back and forth from the traditional to newer waters. In my view, of the six movements it is TRIST and MANCH that reflect the traditional and fond essence of travelling and the confidence in your navigation that allows for a pleasurable journey.

In the first performance of TRIST there’s almost a sense of a strong, cold wind blowing across the landscape, but shelter is provided in the form of the guitar and warmth from the bass and drums. These foundations allow the performance of the wind instruments to thrive in a carnival-like atmosphere, yet at the end we are still made aware of the raging storm. But in the second performance of TRIST, there is no lingering threat from Mother Nature; this is reflected in a colorful cornet solo. It is the wind instruments rather than the guitar that take the initiative at the beginning of this performance. Those festive sax and cornet elements are more subdued in this performance, allowing the guitar to take center stage midway through the track.
The KID-WUK movement begins with the guitar and cornet playing in tandem, both shadowing the other. Suddenly the bass trombone appears (played by Lowe) which gradually builds a sense of tension. The cornet plays over it, responding differently throughout the movement, sometimes challenging the tension and sometimes embracing it.

From the beginning, this album challenged ideas that I’ve had about jazz and made me realize that there is a lot that I have to learn. I’ve listened to it many times during the last five days, and though it is a cliché to say it, every time it evokes a different emotion in me. This is actually the intention of Taylor Ho Bynum. In addition to having recorded two versions of most movements, he states in the CD’s program notes that he “wants to ask listeners to consider the composition as a set of possibilities rather than a fixed document.” And it is just that.

I Vote For Change(s)

Once a week I put on the hat of journalist and begin what, for me, is the painstaking process of focusing my thoughts on something long enough to be considered a topic and then writing a few paragraphs on it. Fortunately, I submit the manuscripts of my labor to the virtual hands of a team of veritable authorities on the subjects I write about. I say fortunately because, left to my own devices, punctuation, spelling, and rhetoric become the inventory of a china shop that I run through with bovine grace. I’m actually twice-blessed because when errors about historical record enter my monographic treatises, Team NewMusicBox gives them their sorely-needed reality check and delivers me from the jaws of debunkery. With that said, I now confess that I feel sorry for the composer who was left out to dry by The Huffington Post when trashing the legacy of John Cage earlier this month. While I will not deny Daniel Asia’s, or anyone else’s, dislike of Cage’s, or anyone else’s, music—provided, of course, that the opinion is based on a piece-by-piece assessment and not on a blanket one (if one hasn’t listened to a piece of music, one shouldn’t pass judgment on it), I admit that I agree with Isaac Schankler and Dan Joseph’s condemnation of Asia’s article, but for a different reason.

When I read Asia’s description of “harmony, and thus counterpoint,” as “central to Western music for over a thousand years,” I found myself almost as angry at Huffington’s editorial staff as I was at the New York Times when they let an Andrew Solomon interview of Keith Jarrett include comments by Wynton Marsalis, whom Jarrett had disparaged in the interview. Although I cannot say with any authority exactly when harmony became the distinctive property of Western art music, I’m pretty sure that harmony as we know it wasn’t practiced in 1013. Zarlino and Palestrina notwithstanding, harmony as an independent field of study didn’t occur until the 1600s, with Rameau writing the first treatise dedicated exclusively to the subject in 1722. Pushing the practice of harmony—and “thus” counterpoint—to the time of free organum is like pushing the practice of jazz back into the 19th century, when the word probably didn’t exist. Besides, if the idea of harmony as a way of establishing a tonal hierarchy is being invoked, then counterpoint, the practice of creating simultaneously voiced independent voices, should probably not be.
This is all a preamble for a discussion of a topic that was suggested by a few readers of last week’s post; that writing a part for a performance that is largely improvised is not out of line with the idea or the practice of improvisation. I’ve pointed out several times that Louis Armstrong copyrighted his entire part to “Cornet Chop Suey” years before he recorded the piece. Similarly, the practice of transcribing and even memorizing solos from recordings of the masters is a necessary part of learning to play jazz. So when I was confronted with putting together an hour-and-a-half long accompaniment to a one-person theater piece last week, I knew that I would have to not only learn to play the sketches that the previous bassist had supplied to the play’s author, but that I would have to be able to reference the entire recorded performance to make artistically viable choices. I admit that while I’m not a great memorizer (although I can do so if the situation demands it), I’m pretty good at taking musical dictation. (I haven’t developed perfect pitch, so it goes slowly.) I took the script that the author sent to me and inserted a transcription of the accompaniment into it. I then took out any long stretches of text that weren’t accompanied and used that result as a score to reference for my improvisations. The excerpt below covers about fifteen minutes of the performance. Music notated on traditional staves shows a starting-off point (six measures followed by “(etc.)”) and five motivic elements that are introduced as the improvisation leads to the final major-10th diad. The number “30” in brackets is the page number from the original script that didn’t get deleted. (The entire script is 36 pages without the musical cues inserted.)

Looking for Louie

Excerpt from p. 5 of my score for Stacie Chaiken’s Looking for Louie.

Because I was expected to improvise my part, I was able to take liberties with the original score. I could develop what I considered motives and themes, as long as it didn’t interfere with the flow of the action; something that was discussed in rehearsals. In a way, the music for Looking for Louie is a continual work-in-progress. Each time it’s performed, new material is introduced and some old material is discarded. When (or if) I perform it again, I know I’ll change much of what was done. Some of this change is programmed into the score; I have no expectation of repeating verbatim what was improvised during the “Dirge.” Some I might re-notate (and, thus, “recompose”) with more, or less, specific instructions. Indeed, some of what was played while I was reading from the part shown above had little to do with what was on the page. My sole guidance for future performances will be the reaction from my collaborator.

This type of collaboration is pretty common in jazz performance. Musicians will get together to rehearse for a concert, gig, whatever, and work things out. Sometimes “things” can be pretty specific and the pencils, and sometimes music paper, come out to write down what the performers need to know to do what they need to do. What is interesting is that the lines between what would be considered “jazz” and what would be considered “aleatoric” improvisation are becoming increasingly blurred. When I performed earlier this month at ABC No Rio with Ingrid Laubrock, David Taylor, and Jay Rosen, I knew that everyone was familiar with free-improvisation, improvising over chord changes, and improvising inside generic frameworks. As a result, I used a combination of notated music that was to be played as correctly as possible and written directions. Another approach that crossover jazz/avant-gardists deploy is using graphic notation with symbols that might or might not be legended for interpretation in performance. This might, or might not, be accepted as real jazz playing, but it’s important to remember that the musicians who played the music that was originally called “jazz” rejected the term, sometimes vehemently. Max Roach, Duke Ellington, and Louis Armstrong all went on record as wishing the term wasn’t used for their music and artists like Nicholas Payton are calling for their music to be re-labeled as Black American Music. I find myself leaning more towards using “jazz” to describe the huge amount of music created by improvising musicians—especially, but not limited to, American improvising musicians—who negotiate chord changes, even when there are none to negotiate, and trans-genre groove-oriented musical styles. The artists who started creating music this way were bringing a new way of listening to the Great American Culture Machine’s consumer class, a class that was largely bored to tears with what the GACM had been offering. The trap that needs to be avoided is the one where the same performance is repeated over and over again.

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).

Cage = 100: Provenance and Process—100 Waltzes for John Cage

Cage in 1992

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

Sit. Think. Remember. Do a Google search or two. Read. Research. Listen. Hear the hum of the fans. Locate their points of convergence. Remember. Try not to repeat the things you already know about. Ignore your talents. Follow your most impish curiosity. Dwell on an unpleasant memory. Grind the coffee beans. Sort the pile of neglected mail. Make a cup of perfect espresso. Write.

On August 12, 1992, I was sitting in the yard of a small villa not far outside of Siena, Italy, with a group of brass players (of all people) when the word came that John Cage had died. I didn’t read his obituary on that day. I read it today. For the first time.

Find a place you trust and then try trusting it for awhile.

In many ways, this sort of unordered, untethered moment defines my connection to Cage and his work. I remember my mother once asking about him. “He had an amazing influence on so many artists,” she said, “but I understand that he did something with music too. Have you heard of him?”

Consider everything an experiment.

Reread. Highlight. Erase. Replace. Don’t you wonder what’s not here?

In 1992 I had heard an eclectic smattering of Cage’s works, compared to the enormity of his oeuvre—a handful of the prepared piano works, several of his percussion pieces, a fantastic few of his vocal puzzles, a variety of others. I had met him briefly on two or three occasions over the preceding few years, and I was always charmed by his just-finished-digging-mushrooms appearance and his completely affable demeanor.

100 years is a very long time.

Consider. Read. Research. 1912—Mahler’s 9th, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” Pierrot Lunaire. Woody Guthrie. Source material for unread theses, but not why we’re here, is it? Dwell on an unpleasant memory.

There is no win and no fail. There is only make.

I consider it one of the highlights of my performing career to have participated in the 2005 Lincoln Center presentation of Ocean, finally realized as Cage and Cunningham had envisioned it, with the orchestra surrounding the audience. Merce looked very old.

13 years is a very long time.

The only rule is work. If you work it will lead to something. It is the people who do all the work all the time who eventually catch on to new things.

Reread. Highlight. Erase. Replace. I promise, I’ll stop doing that. I can tell it’s annoying you now.

In college my friends all called me by my initials, KJ, which through time, use, and the laconic habits of college students was eventually shortened by many, to a pronunciation more like “cage.” When the ridiculously talented and humble pianist, Jenny Lin, asked me why I didn’t have my own ensemble yet, it seemed like a pretty good question.

Be happy whenever you can manage it. Enjoy yourself. It’s lighter than you think.

When it became obvious that the currents pushing my ensemble (the [kāj] ensemble—you get it now, right?) into outlandish existence would converge with the inevitability of the 36,500th revolution of the Earth since the breaking of silence by one John Milton Cage, it was once again time to sit, think, read, research, consider, talk, laugh, listen, plan.

We are breaking all of the rules. Even our own rules and how do we do that? By leaving plenty of room for “x” qualities.

I first approached the concept joining the parade of centenary performances much as anyone/everyone else. I focused on his 49 Waltzes for the Five Boroughs because it represented such strong points of connection for Cage and me—specifically, a love for New York City and the opportunity for the inclusion of field recordings and ambient sounds in the mix.

Go to the library. Search. Sit. Wait. Read.

Find a place you trust and then try trusting it for awhile.

Sometimes, the thoughtful and respectful recreation of a work is the deepest form respect. Other times, taking that work, using it as a diving board to bounce on and leap from, and landing in a cannonball to splash the snoozing pool-side adults is a much more fitting nod. I think Cage would prefer the latter.

Be happy whenever you can manage it. Enjoy yourself. It’s lighter than you think.

I don’t think that Cage chose to create (is “invent” a better word?) out of a sense of inspiration, or a desire to inspire his audiences, as much as a desire to connect. He chose to connect by listening, and by creating works that offered his audiences the same opportunity. He found great joy in sound. And he found great joy in the opportunity to connect to people. To be able to use one to accomplish the other is nothing less than sublime.

Find an I Ching website. O.K., I take it back. Ask your super-human assistant, Whitney, to find the website. She will then make six virtual rolls of the three coins five times over to find the longitude down to the sixth decimal place of the “seconds” (you know—degrees, minutes, seconds). She’ll repeat that process for the latitude. Then she’ll mark and map the location using Google Earth. Repeat 147 times.

“The [kāj] ensemble is an eclectic group of all-stars and icons from the New York new music scene. Under the direction of composer and trombonist Kevin James, the ensemble embodies the ethic and aesthetic of its namesake. Unabashed in its search for originality, guided by a love of improvisation, drawn to risk-taking, unafraid of theatrics, the [kāj] ensemble fuses the unique virtuosity of its members into a tightly unified whole, at once subtle and spontaneous, gritty and urbane, intimate and overpowering.”

The only rule is work. If you work it will lead to something. It is the people who do all the work all the time who eventually catch on to new things.

Print all the Google maps and all the attendant directions. Make a 24-hour reservation for a Zipcar. Midnight to midnight. Ask your craziest musician friends to volunteer to keep you company. Get your favorite mic plugged into your super duper state-of-the-art HD recorder. Stock up on batteries and bring an extra hard drive. Start in Staten Island. End in the Bronx. Stop at 80 locations in between for 3 minutes and 20 seconds each. Don’t forget to turn the mic on. Don’t fall asleep. Don’t be late with the car. Rest two days. Repeat (ten hours this time around). Rest two days. Strap a camera to your bike helmet. Strap your recorder to your chest. Mount your mic in a backpack. Pack extra water, fruit, and Cliff bars. Don’t forget your map and list of locations. Ride for ten hours—Governor’s Island is the midpoint. Time Square means you’re done. When you finish, it won’t be your legs that hurt.

Google “the world’s 100 most favorite waltzes.” Compare the lists in order to come up with your own super-cool, completely definitive list. Download all of the scores in PDF format. Go back to that I Ching site you like so much. Do six rolls each to determine page number, staff number (or bar number) and number of bars to include. Repeat 900 times (nine musicians—they’re funny about wanting to have their own part to play). Create slides for each of the 900 excerpts.

Do not try to create and analyze at the same time. They are different processes.

Send all the slides and all the audio samples to your software engineers. Give clear instructions. Practice trust. Give clearer instructions. Now practice trust. O.K., one more time. Give the really clear instructions. Get excited. You’re almost done.

Surround yourself with the eight other most talented, adventuresome, soulful musicians you can find. Give them permission to act on their talent, have an adventure, expose their soul.

There is no win and no fail. There is only make.

What exactly is 100 Waltzes for John Cage? It is a randomly evolving soundscape made up of nine transient iPad-equipped musicians, 100 waltzes, quad speakers, and audio from those recordings we made at the 147 New York City locations in a sublime expression of “the 10,000 things.”

O.K., I’ll break that down for you a little. Cage actually didn’t like the word “random.” He preferred “indeterminacy” and “chance operations.” But now we’ve got these nine musicians with iPads (that’s three trios worth). And on their iPads are slides with fragments of music from 100 different waltzes (remember those zillions of coin tosses). Here’s where we get to the “random” part—the slide show on the iPad is controlled by a randomizing algorithm which determines how long that particular slide remains visible to the individual musician and the order that the slides appear. The audio samples become a soundscape when loaded onto a computer and fed through a randomizing algorithm (there’s that term again) which determines how long each sample is heard, when it begins, and which of the four speakers at each corner of the room the sound will emanate from. And just to be fair, we invite the audience to get up and wander around as they please as well. Trust.

We are breaking all of the rules. Even our own rules and how do we do that? By leaving plenty of room for “x” qualities.

One of Cage’s more famous moments of clarity involved the realization that the street sounds entering the window of his studio were far more interesting than anything he was trying to put on paper that day. I think later his thinking would evolve to the understanding that the sounds themselves—timbre, rhythm, diversity, contrapuntal interactions and whatnot—despite their inherent fascinating qualities, required his window to be open and his mind to be willing in order for any connection, clarity, understanding, joy, to take place. 100 Waltzes for John Cage celebrates that window and invites its audience to experience that connection.


Kevin James

Kevin James

Composer, performer and educator Kevin James explores a broad palette in his creative work, spanning free jazz and improvisation, audience participation and multi-media to traditional forms and modal harmonies. His compositions include The Portraits Project, a 90-minute multimedia “opera-lingua” commissioned through the Meet The Composer/New Residencies Program, for which he recorded over 700 interviews with homeless New Yorkers. James is now in his second year as Director of Education for the American Composers Orchestra where he is working to increase the visibility and impact of composers in the world of New York City arts and education.

Cage = 100: As Influential as Wagner, as Interpretable as Mozart

John Cage

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

[Ed. Note: This week marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of American composer John Cage (Los Angeles, CA, September 5, 1912 – New York, NY, August 12, 1992).

To celebrate John Cage and his enormous impact on music and culture in the United States as well as abroad, we are featuring Cage related content all week. Visit NewMusicBox each day to read, watch, and/or listen to a different aspect of his legacy which, although Cage himself is no longer with us, is still central to new music. – FJO]

Since as far back as I can remember, John Cage’s music has been placed on the outside, and always, the issues of performance practice were tied to “special considerations”. I’ve never felt comfortable about that. Let’s try a different approach.

Cage is one of the composers whose works have had a defining influence on music history. I would compare him to Jean-Philippe Rameau and Richard Wagner, two composers who had a similar impact on the way people thought about music. It was not just their music that was significant; their writings were equally important. The combination of the music and the writings of Rameau, Wagner, and Cage shaped the music of their respective time periods. When Rameau published his Treatise on Harmony in the early 18th century, it influenced several generations of composers. The writings of Wagner not only redefined opera, they also helped establish the concept of a modern orchestra and the role of the conductor. Cage’s writing made a definitive break with the musical thinking of the past, specifically with the aesthetics of late Romanticism. (Cage’s rejection of the persistent residue of the 19th century might be the source of the often virulent hostility towards him.)

The Wagner-Cage comparison is quite fascinating. Both Wagner (b. 1813) and Cage (b. 1912) created their milestone compositions at the midpoint of the centuries in which they lived—Tristan and Isolde in 1856, the Concert for Piano and Orchestra in 1957—and both works still remained controversial half a century after their creation. Tristan was performed for the first time without cuts by Gustav Mahler in the early 20th century. Wagner didn’t live to see it. Performances of the Concert for Piano and Orchestra with a musically engaged and knowledgeable orchestra started only in the mid-1980s. The one truly great performance at Lincoln Center by David Tudor and Joseph Kubera was in 1993, and the first complete Atlas Eclipticalis was performed at Carnegie Hall in late 1992—performances that the composer didn’t live to attend.

Tudor & SEM at Carnegie Hall

The Orchestra of the S.E.M. Ensemble performing Atlas Eclipticalis, at Carnegie Hall / Stern Auditorium in October 1992; David Tudor, piano; Petr Kotik, conducting. Photo by Wolfgang Träger, courtesy S.E.M. Ensemble.

The idea of comparing Cage to Rameau and Wagner, should lead us to think about Cage the same way as we look at any other composer from the past or present. What should the path then be for a would-be interpreter of Cage’s music? Should he or she follow a tradition, or use an entirely new experience? What can I say?

Music is specific, not universal, and the ability to “understand” or “interpret” a score requires education—learning, and often breaking old habits. To do justice to the music of Cage, one needs to know as much about him as one knows, say, about Mozart. To be educated on how to play the music of Brahms and other 19th century composers does not make one automatically capable of playing Cage, since Cage’s music often requires a different way of reading the score and following the instructions. The most important information about how to perform music, be it by Cage or any other composer, does not come from the score; it comes from a thorough understanding of the style the music has been written in! Style is impossible to write into the score, yet, the knowledge of a style is the most important aspect for successful performance (taking the technical ability for granted, of course). Namely, every style is traced back to the composer, either through the composer’s own performances or through the performances of close collaborators and interpreters. The way we perform Chopin goes directly back to Chopin’s performances and was established by observing, listening, performing, and passing this knowledge from one generation to the next. When this chain is interrupted, as happened with early music, it is almost impossible to figure out how to perform it again, although the scores are available as they left the composer’s writing desk. Chopin’s scores do not look different from Bach’s of Mozart’s, but they surely are played differently. Ninety-nine percent of those differences are not written anywhere. How then should a would-be interpreter learn to perform Cage? He or she should associate with someone who worked with Cage and/or who has worked with musicians associated with Cage, listen to recordings, and read his writings. Playing the notes and reading the instructions is not enough. (Some of the instructions even need an interpretation.) A direct experience, performing the music in a knowledgeable environment—this is the only way to play it properly.

Do we need to “honor Cage’s legacy”? I don’t think so. The legacy of Cage exists on its own, regardless of us honoring it or not. One simply performs the music as best as one can. The legacy of anyone’s work happens through performances (exhibits, publications, etc.). Presenting the work in the best possible way creates its legacy, not arranged “celebrations.”

Cage & Kotik

John Cage and Petr Kotik, August 1992. Photo by John Maggiotto, courtesy S.E.M. Ensemble

I first encountered Cage’s ideas in 1960, when I read the Darmstädter Beiträge zur neuen Musik 1959 which contained some texts by him. Encounters with his music followed, and when we met in 1964 and performed together (first in Vienna and then a few months later in Prague, also traveling to Warsaw), I was ready to perform his music with a degree of understanding that helped forge a close musical relationship. These early experiences were very important for me and influenced the way I have been looking at his music to this day. I became convinced already then that, generally, Cage’s music is not all that different from Mozart’s. Both composers’ scores offer elements of freedom as well as elements that are precisely determined. The difference between a score by Cage and Mozart is in the nature of these elements. While the concept is similar—we are making sounds within a set of time-constrains—the details diametrically differ. This was my conclusion after performing Atlas Eclipticalis with Cage and Tudor in 1964. In fact, I believe that Atlas is a masterpiece that perfectly balances the relationship between what is given and what is open to interpretation. I have been performing this piece ever since.

When Cage started to use a stopwatch instead of counting beats, he referred to the rhythm of getting from one place to another. (Isn’t this what happens during a performance?) In the past, you traveled by horse—clap, clap, clap, clap; today, you take an airplane. It is not so simple, of course, but I like this remark very much. Since the early 20th century, we can universally observe in the music of this epoch the need to weaken—or remove entirely—the sense of the beat, especially the sense of the downbeat. You can find such ideas already in the music of Richard Strauss. In their compositions from the ’50s, Cage, Earle Brown, Christian Wolff, and Morton Feldman completely abandoned any sense, or even any indication of the beat. Feldman later returned to using bar lines, but his complex and changing time signatures completely confuse any sense of ongoing periodicities. Atlas Eclipticalis uses proportional time-organization that depends on the conductor’s signs. In this sense, it is no different from a piece by Mozart, except for the mechanics of the execution. As in a Mozart score, you will find pitches exactly notated, to be exactly performed. The difference is that Cage is giving the choice of the pitch sequence (or sounds in percussion parts), but the notes are written as exactly as Mozart’s. In Atlas Eclipticalis, the notes have to be played without the slightest deviation regarding phrasing, crescendos, etc. Mozart, on the other hand, gives you many choices to interpret the notes, create phrases and make small deviations here and there (within the confines of the style, of course).

The last issue I would like to briefly mention is the business of chance operations in music. If you go to a grocery store and pick up the box of cereal you happen to be standing nearest to, it’s up to chance what you end up buying. This is one kind of chance operation. When Cage (and other composers) decide to use chance in the compositional process (and perhaps in the performance as well), this is an entirely different kind of chance. Here, it is not about chance per se! These chance operations serve only as means to arrive at an unpredictable situation. One step does not predict the next step, and still the result fulfills the vision of the composer (or musician). And in order for these musical processes to remain unpredictable, the results (the actual music composed and performed) have to be executed with precision. The musician must be focused and execute the score with exactness. (You must not “let go” the way you would when performing Chopin—if you learned the style.) Playing Cage requires focus on the music and a state of utter devotion to the performance, the same as with any other composer. The horrors we so often encounter with performances of Cage’s music occur when the musicians believe that, because of chance operations, it makes no difference what they do. It can be this or that—like picking up a box of cereal.

Let us leave the conventional, entrenched conservatism behind. This attitude presupposes that the knowledge of performing Brahms (or beyond Brahms–composers coming out of the tradition of Brahms) is a norm that can universally be applied to every other music. This attitude lacks intelligence, musicality, and liveliness and often turns music into a dead corpse. Lately, I feel optimistic as I see rapid changes around, not just among musicians, but audiences as well. What a difference rehearsing Atlas Eclipticalis now compared to 1992! The John Cage centennial couldn’t have come at a better moment.


Petr Kotik

Petr Kotik, photo courtesy of the Ostrava Center for New Music

Composer, conductor and flutist Petr Kotík divides his time between his native Prague, Ostrava, and New York City. In New York, he continues to serve as the artistic director of the S.E.M. Ensemble which he founded in 1970. In 1992, he expanded the S.E.M. Ensemble to the Orchestra of the S.E.M. Ensemble; their debut concert at Carnegie Hall was a tribute to John Cage featuring David Tudor. In 2001, Kotík founded the Ostrava Days Institute and Festival, of which he is also the Artistic Director.


As I prepare for a semi-improvised performance at the NIME conference this week, I find myself thinking a great deal about improvisation and indeterminacy (more on the distinction between the two in a bit). Specifically, why is indeterminacy still looked upon with such suspicion in the new music world, 100 years after John Cage’s birth? Oh sure, certain aleatoricisms have been tamed and have found their way into the standard notational vocabulary—familiar gambits like box notation and feathered beaming. At this point almost no one objects to their use, and they’ve entered into common performance practice. But paradoxically, this renders them almost wholly determinate in sound, encouraging rote and mechanical use. Casually deployed, they can become conspicuous signposts that announce “this is a new music piece” and not much else.

Thankfully, thoughtful composers continue to develop new notational gambits, but this presents its own challenges, and puts an extra burden on performers to absorb this new information. Composers can try to take on as much of that burden as possible by making the notation as clear and vivid as they can; in this respect, I admire David Smooke’s approach. In a recent post on his toy piano concerto, Smooke describes a subtle and flexible notational system capable of loosening some musical parameters (e.g. rhythm, time) in order to make other parameters (e.g. texture, ensemble coordination) easier to control. Of course, some aspects of this notation are not exactly new (the unmeasured preludes of Couperin and Pandolfi come to mind).

So far, so good. But when indeterminacy gets bigger and scarier, people’s attitudes start to change. We can distinguish between indeterminate notation meant to evoke a specific sound, and indeterminate notation that is meant to prompt or provoke the performer in some way. The former is almost universally sanctioned; the latter is still controversial. I wish it wasn’t, because it’s a powerful locus of creativity. Too often I’ve encountered the attitude that, by leaving too much up to the performer, the composer has abdicated his or her professional duties. I hope that this is mostly due to misunderstanding, but I worry that it’s an impossible ideological divide. In this provocative model of indeterminacy, a little willful notational obscurity is even desired, because it compels the performer to engage with the piece deeply. That is, if they’re not put off right away—it’s a tactic that requires great trust between performer and composer.

I wonder if the resistance to indeterminacy is somehow a part of the long hangover from the musical culture of deliriously extreme specificity which dominated the last century. Perhaps ironically, even this musical movement culminates in a kind of indeterminacy of ability in the music of Brian Ferneyhough. Here, the notation is about as specific as you can get, but the near-impossibility of it shifts the nexus of indeterminacy from the details of the notation to the capabilities of the performer.

Some of my music also ends up occupying an awkward middle ground between indeterminacy and specificity, and I’d like to defend this awkwardness if I can. In Mobile I for violin and electronics, the pitch content of the electronics is unspecified, but descended from the spectral content of the violin, ensuring that it remains musically connected to the violinist’s performance. Like Smooke’s concerto, the end result has a particular texture that is unique to the piece. I wonder, though, if it’s too vague to satisfy those fixated on specificity, and too predictable to appease those who prioritize exploration.

This also raises questions about the distinction between indeterminacy and improvisation. Often this distinction seems more semantic to me than anything, and this is especially true when it comes to music with live electronics. If we view the computer as a willed agent, then surely it is improvising. On the other hand, if you break the program down into its rule-based or stochastic components, then it is merely another layer of notation, this time in the form of code. Part of this is due to technological limitations; often the tools are not as reliable or predictable as we would like.

But working with these limitations can also lead to novel, inventive solutions. This crosses my mind many times while working with Mimi (Multi-modal Interaction for Musical Improvisation, a software system for live human-machine improvisation designed by Alexandre François). As I practice with Mimi, the fear of a less-than-perfect improvisation is often present, and so there is a strong temptation to make the performance as predictable as possible. However, Mimi won’t let me. Every time I sit down with the system, it does things I don’t expect and can’t predict. In the end, I think this is why I like indeterminacy—it compels me to do the things I am afraid of.

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″.”