Tag: John Cage

The Artful Toy: Toy Piano Influencers and The Making of an Album

A performer at a toy piano with chopsticks

The Accidental Instrument

I did not come to the toy piano deliberately. Instead, while doing research on John Cage, I went down a rather strange rabbit hole, where I stumbled across a wonderful instrument.

The toy piano is an avant-garde musician’s dream.

The toy piano is an avant-garde musician’s dream. It’s the accidental instrument that was never meant to see anything but oncoming erratic toddler movements; it was never meant to feel anything but the thumping of tiny fists and grubby fingers. It has no musical baggage, no weighty historical performance practice, no standard repertoire. It has nothing to hold you back, to tell you you’re doing it wrong; it exists only in the present and looks to the future. Even now, 70+ years since John Cage’s seminal Suite for Toy Piano from 1948, the toy piano still feels like Duchamp’s upside-down urinal (Fountain): out of place on stage, it elicits giggles and scoffs, is the star of the show, and at least promises a memorable experience, musical and otherwise.

I bought a small Schoenhut 25-key spinet and performed Cage’s Suite for Toy Piano in 2010 in Lancaster, PA, where I had moved from New York City. It was my first time playing the instrument. In a way, the newness of the experience helped me transition from a city that I loved and had been reluctant to leave, to one I thought was quaint but wouldn’t hold me for long. I subsequently became involved in more Cage events at home and abroad, performing Music for Amplified Toy Pianos, Sonatas and Interludes, and many other works. I thought the mahogany and black toy piano wouldn’t look too out of place as a piece of decoration in my apartment after I was finished with it. I hadn’t planned on using it much after the engagements were over.

Connecting the Dots

Nine years and ten pianos later, I’m preparing a CD release show for Toy, NakedEye Ensemble’s latest album on New Focus Recordings (2019), with music focused on – yes – the toy piano. What’s fascinating to me looking back at the slow, meandering making of this album, is how tenuous yet persistent my interactions with the instrument were. Those years were an on-and-off relationship, with the toy pulling me back each time I thought I was done with it. Like an annoyingly cloying ex, it refused to let me go, coming up with new tricks and shiny things that reeled me back in. At some point, I just had to admit that I was hooked. Not only by the instrument itself, but by the limitless creativity it promised, the untethered freedom of experimentation it allowed, the audience response to it, and a community the toy had woven around itself, ever tighter and wider and richer every year.

Like an annoyingly cloying ex, the toy piano refused to let me go, coming up with new tricks and shiny things that reeled me back in.

The making of this album owes much to that community, to the people and experiences I encountered along the way. This narrative is about exploring those relationships and connecting the dots in this maximalist miniaturist’s field. So here we are.

The “Outside World”

On November 5, 2005, Kyle Gann gave a keynote address at The Extensible Toy Piano Project at Clark University, Worcester, MA. The rather serious, somber tone of the address makes me uneasy.  It’s a puzzling read. His concluding lines, especially, sound almost like an admonition:

After a century of expanding possibilities, we find ourselves in a world of limitations – some of them self-imposed, others imposed against our will. We have more reasons than ever to use the toy piano. We use it because we can … and thanks to Cage, there is precedence for taking it seriously. What we can’t seem to do with it, though, is communicate to the outside world, the world outside our composing circles, that there’s been a repertoire of toy piano music now for 57+ years.

Since Cage’s Suite, repertoire for the instrument has grown tremendously, thanks in large part to festivals like The Annual Toy Piano Festival at UC San Diego (2000-present), UnCaged Toy Piano in NYC (2008-2017), The Florida International Toy Piano Festival (2015-2018), Non-Piano/Toy Piano Weekend in Hamburg, Germany (2014-present), and the recent 100-Note Toy Piano Project (2018-19) that have at their core a call for scores. I think Gann would agree that the little instrument has come a long way in the fourteen years since his address. But have we been able to reach “the outside world,” as he puts it? Or is the community still as insular as it was in 2005? And does it matter?

The Influencers

In the toy’s short history, you don’t have to look far to find inspiration and a way forward. Margaret Leng Tan and Wendy Mae Chambers both have a direct line to John Cage. Both are still active performers, leading by example and, it seems, channeling the creative spirit of Cage. That is uniquely valuable.

Wendy Chambers appeared on national TV networks with her toy piano…

In the ‘70s and ‘80s, Chambers appeared on national TV networks (CNN, PBS, Nickelodeon, BBC, CBS) with her toy piano and whimsical creations, and performed extensively in the U.S. In 1984, Alex Ross wrote in a New York Times review, that “Ms. Chambers is not only a composer, but also possibly the world’s foremost virtuoso on the toy piano.” On that program, Chambers performed works by William Schimmel, Jerome Kitzke, Daria Semegen, and Jed Distler, all of whom are still active in New York City. I heard Jerome perform The Animist Child, which he wrote for Chambers, at The DiMenna Center in 2015 on the occasion of his 60th birthday celebration. He is currently writing a new work for NakedEye Ensemble to be premiered in the Spring of 2020. Although I’ve never met Chambers, I feel a connection with her through Jerome and the toy piano.

Jay Leno standing next to Wendy Mae Chambers and her Car Horn Organ

Chambers and her Car Horn Organ on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Aug 2, 2000

I met Margaret at a Bang on a Can Festival early on when I was still a student. I found myself backstage waiting to turn pages for Tony DeMare, and she was waiting as well. We struck up a conversation, which led to her telling me about her toy pianos and then guiding me to a room where she kept her instruments and the custom-made boxes they traveled in. I was amused, amazed, and profoundly intrigued, both by her stories and her vivacity in telling them. There were boxes of many shapes and sizes, beautifully lined with plush, shiny material, and little pianos that lay in them like precious jewels. I couldn’t imagine anyone playing those diminutive instruments, but her enthusiasm was contagious, and I was captivated, at least for the duration of our conversation. I have to admit I didn’t rush out to find a toy piano or look for toy music. I wish I had. Who knows where that journey would have led me then!

I couldn’t imagine anyone playing those diminutive instruments, but Margaret Leng Tan’s enthusiasm was contagious.

However, the encounter stayed with me, and I recall it now with some amusement when students and audience members come up to me after performances to ask questions and touch the pianos. I, too, travel with a case. It is not hand-made, or beautiful like Margaret’s cases, but it is a solid metal box lined with dense foam (originally meant to house a Brompton bicycle) that can be thrown into the cargo of a plane and come out the other side with my instrument intact.

Margaret Leng Tan sitting outside with a toy grand piano.

Margaret Leng Tan

The oldest piece on NakedEye’s Toy album is Chinese composer Ge Ganru’s Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!, finished the year after Gann’s keynote, and the rest of the pieces span a decade from there. Ge Ganru—described in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians as “China’s first avant-garde composer”—wrote it for Margaret, “whose creative contributions,” he writes in the dedication, “made this piece possible.” It’s hard not to come across Margaret Leng Tan’s name when looking through the toy piano repertoire. As the first “professional toy pianist,” she has been crucial to the instrument’s repertoire, and NakedEye’s album recognizes her contributions by including two pieces originally written for her.

Margaret recorded Wrong, Wrong, Wrong! for a CD of the composer’s work titled Gan-ru: Lost Style (New Albion, 2009). My recording of it on Toy is the second for this piece, a decade later. Our versions are quite different. But great works accommodate the individuality of performers, and Wrong, Wrong, Wrong! has been adaptable to mine. I was fortunate to have her interpretation from which to deviate in order to find my own.

An array of toy keyboards, a toy zither, and a toy mallet instrument in a circle on the floor.

Ju-Ping Song’s instrument set-up for her performance of Ge Gan-ru’s composition Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!

Classical and Pop Toy Piano

Before embarking on its illustrious solo journey, the toy piano was a quirky color instrument in both classical and pop music.

Before embarking on its illustrious solo journey with Chambers and Tan, the toy piano was a quirky color instrument in both classical and pop music. In the sixties and seventies, musicians across styles found interesting ways to include the toy’s idiosyncratic sound in their songs and scores. In recent years, the list of NakedEye instruments available for commissions has included the toy piano, along with any and all toy instruments composers may want to experiment with. It’s been a fun and engaging process. Composers Monica Pearce, Stefanie Lubkowski, Randall Woolf, Richard Belcastro, and Rusty Banks have added toy sounds to their NakedEye commissions. Composer/performers like Moritz Eggert have also explored the theatricality the toy can bring to a pianist’s performance. Eggert, in his One-Man Band 2, does so in a refreshing and hilariously over-the-top manner.

Ju-Ping Song about to sit on the keys of a grand piano with a toy piano positioned 90 degrees away.

Me playing One-Man Band (Photo by Scott Bookman.)

Perhaps the most well-known classical example is George Crumb’s Ancient Voices of Children (1970), where he calls for amplified piano and toy piano. In his latest cycle of works for piano, Metamorphoses Book 1 (2015-17), Crumb makes extensive use of the toy piano as well.

Neil Diamond’s “Shilo,” a song about his childhood written and recorded in 1967, is arguably the first recorded pop song to use the toy piano (toy piano in the bridge at 2m30s).

And a fun example of, perhaps, the first toy piano solo in pop music is Richard Carpenter’s instrumental version of Edward Elzear “Zez” Confrey’s Dizzy Fingers. In the song, Carpenter features the toy piano in a full 10-second solo as one of five keyboard instruments he can be seen flitting to (toy piano at 1.29s).

An Unlikely Chamber Instrument

In spite of its high-profile cameos, the toy piano was never given equal partnership in an ensemble or chamber setting – until recently.

In spite of its high-profile cameos, the toy piano was never given equal partnership in an ensemble or chamber setting – until recently. Perhaps because of its oddity, its diminutive size, or the soloistic nature of its practitioners, it seemed to be more at home going it alone, developing a repertoire to fit itself and all that was part of its tiny world. However, in the last decade or so, the miniature piano has been involved in large scale outdoor events and paired with its bigger counterpart and other “grown-up” instruments.

Wendy Mae Chambers has a reputation for taking the listening experience outdoors, and her composition/happening Kun is a perfect example of that. Written for 64 toy grand pianos and structured on I-Ching, it was performed in NYC on June 21, 2012 with 64 toy pianists and 64 toy pianos dispersed in pairs along The East River Waterfront Esplanade between Piers 15 and 16, from 4:30 pm until sunset at 8:31pm.

Margaret Leng Tan explored a more concert stage approach to the repertoire. As I researched chamber music that included toy piano, I came across Erik Griswold’s Gossamer Wings (2013), written for Margaret on toy piano, alongside a small chamber group. The three-movement piece captivated me. It was charming and quirky, but most of all, the writing balanced the chamber group against toy piano perfectly. The “tanginess” of the toy sound gives the piece an unexpected but seductive flavor, in the way a skilled bartender will mix your favorite drink but manage to surprise you with a twist. And in true NakedEye fashion, we added a little twist of our own to the piece. The original instrumentation didn’t quite fit ours, so I suggested to Erik that we substitute the violin and clarinet with electric guitar and saxophone. He immediately took to the idea. The result is a subtle electric jazz vibe married with toy piano and toy drum set for a pretty unique listening experience.

Similar chamber works for toy piano are relatively hard to find. Frank J. Oteri’s wonderfully expressive The Other Side of the Window (1995), based on seven poems by Margaret Atwood (think The Handmaids Tale and its sequel The Testaments), and scored for female voice, two flutes, toy piano, guitar, and cello, comes to mind. Richard Belcastro’s Inner Strife (2016), written for NakedEye Ensemble and scored for clarinet, electric guitar, piano, toy piano, and percussion, is another piece in which the toy plays a central ensemble role.

Organizations like The Toy Piano Composers (2008-2018), based in Toronto, with a core group of instrumentalists, curated programs that included the toy as a key ensemble instrument. Among these are works by Elisha Denburg (Rondo and Street Noise) and Chris Thornborrow (This Changing View, which has a similar instrumentation to the original version of Gossamer Wings, without percussion) that are worth exploring.

Phyllis Chen, a Taiwanese-American toy pianist and composer, has written several amazing chamber works for the small instrument. What distinguishes her from Chambers and Tan is the way she seeks both innovative and traditional collaborations with classical and non-classical instruments. I think that’s the real test of the toy piano’s future. Can it exist within the broader environment of instrumental/electronic/collaborative music?

Chen’s Lullabies (2014), for string orchestra and toy piano with music box is a good example of the instrument inserted in a classical chamber setting. Like Griswold’s Gossamer Wings, the balance in this context is critical, and the result here is mesmerizing. Glass Clouds We Have Known (2011), written for ICE, is a more contemporary setting, and includes bowls, bass clarinet, flute, electronics, and video. But the piece that I absolutely love is The Matter Within (2016), written for deconstructed toy piano and the JACK Quartet. Chen writes,

The toy piano was never presented to me as a musical instrument. Instead I stumbled upon it as an unassuming object.  For The Matter Within, I decided to return to this original place of entry to examine and distill the toy piano as a found object. By exploring its elements, hearing its raw essences and noises, the bare materials of the toy piano are exposed and brought to light.

Beyond her contributions to new classical music, Phyllis has also explored using the toy piano and toy instruments in a pop/indie context through her collaboration with Cuddle Magic. In the album they made together (Cuddle Magic & Phyllis Chen, FYO Records, 2014), the toy piano imbues the material with sounds of futuristic nostalgia – an oxymoronic dance that is both mesmerizing and disquieting. It’s a departure that is perhaps an opening to other new exciting possibilities for the toy piano.

Experimenting with toy piano, electronics, and ensemble, Austrian composer Karlheinz Essl was one of the first composers I came across in my early days of touring solo with the instrument. Kalimba (2005), his first piece for toy piano and soundtrack, has been played all over the world by many, including myself. Since then, Essl has broadened his output and added works pairing the toy piano with harpsichord, computer, live electronics, ensemble, other toys, and ring modulator.

A natural extension of the toy piano as a solo and chamber instrument is the concerto form. Phyllis Chen’s Lullabies isn’t without precedent: Aaron Jay Kernis’s’ Toy Piano Concerto (2002), Matthew McConnell’s Concerto for Toy Piano (2008), and David Smooke’s Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death Vol. I (2012) for toy piano and chamber orchestra, and a Vol. II (2014) for toy piano and wind ensemble, all put the toy at the center of a very large, very traditional setting where it is customary to see a full-size concert grand: a Steinway, a Yamaha, or a Bösendörfer, perhaps. But a Schönhut?

Feeding the Toy Piano

Personal development as a toy pianist is a self-propelled adventure. There’s no book, or school, or how-to manual one can follow to “learn one’s craft.” We’re all, to a certain extent, self-taught experimenters. We learn from our peers, our colleagues, other toy pianists, in person, in collaboration, and by observation. That’s what’s exciting in this field, what makes possible an album that was really never meant to be made.

There’s no book, or school, or how-to manual one can follow to “learn one’s craft” on the toy piano.

I met toy pianist and composer David Smooke at the New Music Gathering in Baltimore in January 2016. I heard him use the toy piano in a way I’d never seen before, and knew right away that I wanted to collaborate with him. In September of that year, NakedEye organized its first (of two) toy piano events in Lancaster, PA, and I invited David to be our guest. Not only did he come up to do a set, but he pulled NakedEye guitarist Chad Kinsey and me into doing free improv with him. It was a fun, eye-opening afternoon. That encounter with David opened up a new avenue to “inside toy tinkering” and gave me the tools to experiment with modifications that I would later use in future commissions.

David Smooke leaning down toward a toy piano and Chad Kinsey sitting and playing electric guitar/

David and Chad rehearsing (photo by Ju-Ping Song).

The toy piano is a visually fascinating instrument best viewed from a distance but hard to resist getting close enough to poke. Like a carnivorous flower, it draws in its prey with unassuming charm; once hooked, composer and performer have no choice but to feed it the notes it craves. Or so I like to imagine.

In 2016, Richard Belcastro wrote not one, but two toy piano-focused pieces for NakedEye: Inner Strife, for four instruments, and Knock ‘Em Back, recorded on this album, for electric guitar and modified toy piano.

Knock Em Back grew out of Ricky’s desire to write something for electric guitar that wasn’t rock-inspired or loud (like his Smoke N Wid and Nepetalactone). Enter the toy piano. The thing about the instrument is, its sonic footprint needs to be respected. It’s actually not as quiet as one would think, and, with generous acoustics, can carry far. It can also be mic’ed or amplified. But its sounds need space to resolve and dissolve, otherwise they can end up like woodpecker drill over radio static. Basically, a bombastic blur. So pairing toy piano with electric guitar was a delicate but exciting dance we were eager to try. Ricky wrote the piece and we experimented with guitar pedals and toy piano hacks to find the sounds he wanted. I think we also found a few sounds he didn’t know he wanted.

Whatever model toy one uses for this piece, the tines (the metal bars that are struck by plastic hammers to produce sound) need to be fully accessible and labeled with stickers or chalk. I’ve used alternately Schoenhut’s Model 3798, a 37-key upright with the front panel removed, or Model 379, the 37-key concert grand with the top music rack and the protective board removed.

Ju-Ping Song sitting at a toy piano and Chad Kinsey standing playing electric guitar on a stage.

Ju-Ping Song and Chad Kinsey performing Belcastro’s Knock ‘Em Back at Klub Katarakt Experimental Music Festival in Hamburg, Germany on January 16, 2019 (photo by Jann Wilken).

The first thing that comes to people’s minds when they see a toy piano is that it’s a tiny acoustic piano. But when they hear it, they realize very quickly, the similarities are only plywood deep. The diminutive instrument has more in common with the celesta or xylophone than its larger older sibling and has been humorously described as “the poor man’s celesta.” But the celesta’s rich, round bell tones are still a far cry from the diminutive toy’s (comparatively) clangy sounds. If you sped up a recording of a celesta, would it sound like a toy piano?

When I asked my friend Jan Feddersen in 2011 if he would write a piece for me on toy piano, he happily agreed and wrote Ujoforyt, which, interestingly enough, he left open “for toy piano or celeste”. It’s a virtuoso perpetual motion in the vein of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumble Bee but with the grit and rhythmic energy of György Ligeti’s harpsichord piece Hungarian Rock.

Although they aren’t exactly comparable pieces in scope, Hungarian Rock and Ujoforyt are similar in their use of the instruments’ “secondary sounds.” Both works exploit the mechanical actions of their respective instruments, adding a layer of noise on top of the overtone buzzing created by fast, rhythmic articulations. I wasn’t able to play Jan’s piece on celesta until January 2019 at Klub Katarakt. For the celesta to speak, I had to slow down the notes quite a bit. The result was a beautiful tapestry of gentle pearl-like cascades of sounds—quite a different experience.

Su-Ping Song performing on celesta photographed from the back with a log for Klub Katarakt over her head.

Me on celesta at Klub Katarakt, January 16, 2019 (Photo by Jann Wilken).

—Are your cell phones plugged into the speakers?
—Ok, now let’s call each other. Make sure your ringer is on and loud.
—No, really, don’t worry about it; it’s part of the piece.

That’s typically how rehearsals for Rusty Banks’s Babbling Tower to Tower begin. Cell phones are used as transmitters, relayers, and lo-fi sound distortion devices amplified through small, portable speakers disseminated via “stations” throughout the audience. I’ve found the ideal setup to be two or three stations, but I’ve also done it successfully with only one when cell connection was tenuous. In the score’s notes, Rusty writes,

For this piece I decided to eschew the many capabilities of the cel phone and use what might be the most neglected feature or “app” available on these devices – the actual ‘phone’ part of the cell phone. Actually, I am making use some of the limitations of cell phones, namely their low fidelity and that amount of delay it takes for sound to enter the phone, be transmitted to a tower, relayed to another tower, then back to another phone. While this low sound quality and lack of immediacy are probably things phone makers and service providers are working to remedy, there are some lovely sonic possibilities in these defects.

During the writing of Babbling, we tested all the different ways one could make cell phone calls, including over cellular data, WiFi, and via apps like Skype, looking for the least efficient calling method – the most buggy, delayed, and distorted. Basically the opposite of what you’d want in a phone. We found that calls over WiFi were too clean and didn’t have enough delay to suit our needs, whereas calls over cellular were less reliable and had distinctive sound distortion and delay we could work with. Back in 2010, we were still on 3G networks. With the introduction of 5G and faster, more efficient connections coming soon, we may need to go back and “update” (or downgrade?) Babbling.

Ju-Ping Song and two students in a reheasal room standing around a toy piano positioned on the floor. (In the background are timpani and stacked chairs.)

Rehearsing Babbling Tower to Tower with students at National Taiwan Normal University, 2012.

In 2011, Babbling Tower to Tower won the UnCaged Toy Piano Composition Competition with the theme “Music for Toy Piano and Toy Instrument(s)”.  Cell phones fit perfectly in the “toy” category. Recognition at UnCaged gave Babbling a good platform from which, for the next few years, it launched itself through people’s cell phones in many different countries.

Both Ujoforyt and Babbling Tower to Tower have had performances by other toy pianists all over the world. I’ve performed them in Germany, Switzerland, Taiwan, and the U.S. They’ve also reached audiences in Canada, Amsterdam, Croatia, and France, thanks to toy pianists Terizija Cukrov, Justin Badgerow, Adam Marks, Phyllis Chen, Jennifer Hymer, Bernhard Fograscher, Ninon Gloger, and others. The toy piano community is global, and it’s gratifying to see new work travel and reach people far and wide.


In an interview with Nick Galvin for The Sydney Morning Herald on August 27, 2019, Margaret Leng Tan acknowledges that “everything goes back to John Cage,” and affirms that “we are all spiritual children of John Cage, whether we know it or not.”

Who are the “spiritual children” of Cage’s toy piano legacy after Chambers and Tan?

Several younger toy pianists/composers, having dedicated most of their creativity to the toy piano, are performing/composing really exciting works for the instrument, developing the field in interesting directions. Among them, Xenia Pestova, Isabel Ettenauer, Alexa Dexa, Scott Paulson (Toy Piano Festival at UCSD, the longest-running of its kind, organized each year since 2000 around John Cage’s birthday), Elizabeth Baker (Florida International Toy Piano Festival), Jennifer Hymer (Toy Piano/Non-Piano), and Phyllis Chen (UnCaged Toy Piano) help establish a regenerative environment through organizations, festivals, events, and performances aimed at expanding the toy repertoire and reaching a wider audience.

There are now far too many toy pianists and pianists who play toy piano and composers who write for toy piano to list here. And that’s a good problem to have, I think.

In fact, everyone contributing to the field is in some significant way part of the lineage and I’m of course leaving out many names that deserve to be mentioned here. But there are now far too many toy pianists and pianists who play toy piano and composers who write for toy piano to list here. And that’s a good problem to have, I think.

Inside the Rabbit Hole

I didn’t come to the toy piano deliberately, but it’s become an important instrument in my repertoire. It’s part of the family now. Through it, I feel connected to a small but global community. The quality of the compositions is astounding and matched only by their inventiveness. The toy piano, unlike most other instruments, is not an end in itself, but an invitation to something else. And that something else is anything you want to happen. Cage wrote his Suite for Toy Piano during a period when he was writing quieter music – works for muted string piano (a.k.a. prepared piano) and his notoriously silent/unsilent 4’33”, for example. He went small, he says in Lecture on Nothing, because “when the war came along, I decided to use only quiet sounds. There seemed to me to be no truth, no good, in anything big in society.”

For Cage, finding the toy piano was a protest against world events and a turning inward. But he unwittingly (or did he know all along?) started a movement that has grown and matured, reaching far across the globe (Tokyo held its first toy piano concert in 2007, featuring Cage, Tan, Arai, Nakamizo, Amemiya, and Kawai). It is responsible for some of the most visually and sonically beautiful music ever created.  I don’t know if, fourteen years after Kyle Gann’s address, the toy music community has been able to “communicate to the outside world” in the way he seemed to think it should. The number of festivals, events, organizations, and performances devoted worldwide to the toy piano since then make me think that it has. But to me, it doesn’t matter.

I became, unwittingly, part of a make-believe world that is in truth real.

What I know is this: I went down a rabbit hole ten years ago and accidentally discovered a surprising instrument. I encountered strange and amazing people who taught me things I needed to learn, toy-related and otherwise. I became, unwittingly, part of a make-believe world that is in truth real. This album holds the story of my unexpected evolution as a toy pianist. The collection of recorded pieces in Toy exists because of some mysterious alchemy that brought them all together. Who knows where the toy piano will lead me next? I’m excited to find out. If I stay in this rabbit hole long enough, I’ll be ready for it.

The Cover for the NakedEye ensemble's CD Toy.

Emotion, Through Music, As Weather

In this article, I will leave emotion ungraspable; I do not wish to speak about it definitively. Rather, I would like to focus personally on the relationship, in my life, between music and emotion, blending these two unique realms into one cohabitating discussion. What is emotion? Singularly, I do not know, but combined with music, I do have some feelings…

The secrets behind emotion have been long sought. In 1962, psychologist Robert Plutchik wrote about emotion that “there is serious question about the reliability and meaningfulness of the verbal report. In the history of psychology, it has been pointed out many times that introspecting about our own emotions often changes them.”[1] The emotional appeal of music has been equally enchanting. In ca. 397 C.E., Saint Augustine wrote, “I must testify for myself that when I am moved more by the music than by its meaning, I feel this offense should be punished, and wish I had not listened to the cantor […] But you, Lord my God, hear me, heed, look on with pity, and heal me, before whom I am made a riddle to myself, which is the symptom of my sins.”[2]

And finally, in 2008, scientist Daniel Levitin embraced mystery in his explanation of music:

Scientists are in the business of wanting proof for everything, and I find myself caught somewhere in the metaphorical middle on this issue. As a musician, I’m reminded on a daily basis of the utterly ineffable, indescribable powers of music. […] Our scientific theories have to be able to reconcile this common experience and the strong intuition that music is—dare I say it?—magical.[3]

Emotion—a thing that Robert Plutchik found impossible to scientifically report—is expressed through music in a way that a daring Daniel Levitin called “magical,” and what a conflicted Saint Augustine called a “riddle.” Perhaps “magical” “riddle” is a good working definition for emotion in music. Like Levitin and Augustine, I am baffled too.

Perhaps “magical” “riddle” is a good working definition for emotion in music.

In the 1970s, composer John Cage used the weather to describe artistic process, observing that “many composers no longer make musical structures.  Instead, they set processes going.  A structure is like a piece of furniture, whereas a process is like the weather.”[4] Like Cage’s use of this creative and non-technical definition, I will similarly use the weather as a way to discuss emotion expressed through music. This article will move like weather. And like a forecast, I hope to address what swirls around.[5]

Swirling air represents the meeting of diverse parts. Robert Plutchik acknowledged that there is a difference between “laboratory studies of pure, momentary emotions” and the “persistent mixed emotions of clinical experience.”[6] That is to say, the real-world application of emotion deals primarily in mixtures of emotions, rather than single, pure ones. Weather on Earth is complex, too: a mixing of cold and warm fronts, rainy on some days, stormy on others, partially rainy, partially stormy, partially cloudy, or partially sunny on others still. And there is no piece of music that is all any one emotion either. Good memories can be rendered only partially good through the loss of innocence; many find a deep comfort and contentment in feeling sadness. Emotion in music is an array of moving parts.

Like weather, emotions in music swirl wildly around. As disorienting as this whirlwind may be, we must never forget how fortunate we are to have the skies, the clouds, rain, thunder, lightning, and most importantly, the sun. The sustaining love of the sun is, after all, what makes all of this possible.

Nebulous as my approach may be, I hope this discussion will enrich our understanding of music, emotion, and our own selves. While I do not claim to hold technical qualifications to discuss the weather or emotional psychology, I do intend to write from my own experience, with sincerity and imagination. In the following sections, I will attempt to bring emotions to life, expressed in music, and retold as weather.

Clouds (Sadness)


Image: Mila Young

Clouds can weigh you down, but they can also help you focus.

Clouds can weigh you down: clouds can make you question the existence of the sun. When I was finishing grad school abroad, I received news from back home that my parents were divorcing. I went into a state of depression. I remember going to the practice room, taking scores out of my bag, placing them on the piano, closing the lid, resting head on my arm, and crying on my own shoulder. I would cry for hours, then pack up and leave, never touching a single key of the piano. I ended up having to reschedule my final degree recital, which in turn (through a string of incidents that would take too much space to describe), led me to an unexpected move back to the United States…

Clouds can make you question the existence of the sun.

…but clouds can also give you focus: clouds can give you a reason to not lay in the sun. When I moved back to the United States, I was left without a job, without a place to live, and without work. I was still paying rent for an apartment overseas that I was not living in, and I was struggling to maintain a long-distance relationship. I was deeply saddened by the circumstances. But, I met this dark time with fearless abandon, playing as many concerts as possible, and working tirelessly to rebuild my career in a new country. My own disenfranchisement fueled my desire to succeed.

Clouds can weigh you down, but they can also help you focus.

Rain (Tears)

A cloud in the sky can lead to rain. But tears are not just a singular cause-effect; rather, it is the grand accumulation of weight that becomes simply too heavy for a cloud to hold.

I remember the first time I heard my mother sing. She sang “Across the Universe” by the Beatles. I played the chords at the piano while she sang and played the melody with her right hand next to me. I was giving her a piano lesson, and I didn’t specifically ask her to sing, she just did it on her own. My mother brought me to tears because it was a rare joy to hear her shy, untrained voice sing without the least sense of self-consciousness. The song will never again be the same to me.

Rain is a fundamental process to the recycling of the vital element of water. Although rain is the losing of something, we need it to live.

Lightning (Shock)


Image: Elijah Hiett

Often before rain is the initial shock of lightning. The electricity of a storm is stunning—when it strikes, we are unable to do anything to counter its intensity. We can’t run towards, nor away, from lightning. Shock is the arrestation of movement, it is a primal reaction to first contact with something mysterious, powerful, and possibly dangerous.

The memory of a performance of a piece I wrote, called Accord, affected me deeply. At the first massive, crashing tone cluster that interrupts the sound of a tuning violin, I witnessed a gut reaction from an audience member in the front row. The listener’s arms, shoulders, and legs seized up, and the head pulled back as the neck tightened. The hands shot up reflexively towards the ears to cover them…

I immediately felt guilt and remorse. I was responsible for this lightning strike. I wrote this gesture in hopes that it would grab people’s attention—and I succeeded—but at what cost? As an emerging composer, I had often strived to grab attention as quickly as possible, and at any cost. It is the treasure hunt for the loudest, fastest, most terrific possible sound. (Or similarly, the softest, slowest one.)

But in this treasure hunt for the most shocking sound, I inadvertently flipped a sonic middle finger to the audience member. Did this terrifying and anxiety-inducing sound make this person into a fan of my music, or new music in general? It is doubtful.

Shock is a powerful element, and it should be used wisely and cautiously.

Shock is a powerful element, and it should be used wisely and cautiously. After seeing what my music had done to someone, I vowed to strive to genuinely affect listeners for the better, rather than to use shock as a ploy to garner attention at a most hollow, visceral level.

Storm (Anger)


Image: Michal Mancewicz

If lightning is the initial shock of potentially dangerous force, then the storm is the realization of that force. The storm is violent and intimidating. The storm is rain in excess.

Anger is a fleeting sensation that can be understood and referenced, but not used as a building block.

But there is little for me to say about storms in and of themselves: I have never used anger as a motivator in listening to or playing music. I personally find within me very little creativity that is fueled by anger. For me, anger is not a profound and sustaining enough emotion to fulfill me expressively as an artist. It is a fleeting sensation that can be understood and referenced, but not used as a building block. Anger is real, but for me, it must ultimately lead to something proud, hopeful, and ecstatic. This is the art I seek. The glorious arrival at “The Great Gate of Kiev” after “Baba Yaga” in Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. The “Cheerful and Thankful Feelings After the Storm” in the final movement of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony. The way Nina Simone completes the second half of the song “Ain’t Got No, I Got Life.” Anger should not go unacknowledged, but it should also be overcome with something more hopeful, peaceful, and productive.

Tornado (Disorientation)

A tornado takes the land and blows it about. A tornado is disorienting, but it can also create bliss.

I, in fact, take pleasure when I am unable to identify the key center, the meter, or the exact instrumentation of a piece of music: Since my career in music relies upon my ability to identify the aspects of music as quickly and efficiently as possible, the moments where I simply do not know give me great joy.

On one occasion, I saw this same joy in a six-year-old student who was having trouble identifying the note A on the keyboard. The student, whom I will call Lance, started on C and counted out loud up the C major scale. “C, D, E, F, G…” And when Lance reached G, he would accidentally go on to “H” and then “I” and then “J.” I stopped him just before the note E became an “L” and told him that the notes on the keyboard reset at “G,” that the next note after “G” is “A.” Perhaps I explained it poorly the first time, because when Lance tried again, he made the same exact mistake, and again, I corrected him. I wanted to let him try as many times as he needed to get it right, but Lance would get it wrong over and over again, always going from “G” to “H” to “I” to “J.” After about 15 minutes of this, I became nervous that Lance would become frustrated with his failures. But he did not. Instead, he grew happier with each try. There was something comforting to his realizing that there were such mysteries that enchant the keyboard of the piano, that after “G” some “magical riddle” occurs, leaving him in a state of wonder. Eventually, I’m sure Lance will learn to not be disoriented by the challenge of moving from “G” back to “A.” And when he does, I hope he finds a new mystery from which to achieve bliss.

Clear Skies (Innocent Love)


Image: Crawford Ifland

I know now that the color blue in the sky is a refraction of the sun’s rays on the dust in our atmosphere. A clear day is really not clear at all—it never was. But I still have the memory of thinking how open and free the world is on a clear day.

The version of Western music that I learned, both academically and casually, was rooted in the glorification of great men, and in my youth, I fell to this template’s allure. I idolized the music of Great Men, and truly, with all my heart, believed they were better-than-human: J.S. Bach, Mozart, Chopin, Schumann, Wagner, Prokofiev, Morton Feldman. But, upon closer examination, Bach sounded like a neglectful husband, Mozart seemed like a dysfunctional man-child, Chopin seemed like a caustic friend; Schumann seemed mentally ill, Wagner seemed anti-semitic, and Prokofiev seemed unnecessarily mean-spirited. And, based on some recent allegations, Morton Feldman seemed to be a sexual predator. Evidence shows that all of them were people, for better or worse.

While not a note of their music has changed, the innocent love I once had for these brilliant musical minds can never be regained. My personal overcast—clouds saturated with the knowledge and wisdom of life—have now permanently shrouded the music, re-painting the images of these fallen heroes into a murkier, more realistic, shade of humanity. It is sobering to realize the skies are no longer clear, and that they perhaps never were.

Certainly, Lance can be a lesson to us: While knowledge is power, there is still great bliss in not knowing. Ignorant, innocent love is indeed powerful. But ignorance and innocence are meant to be lost. My perspective on my innocent love is so different from the emotion as I remember it. Now, my past is viewed with the special lens a more informed perspective affords. But my pure feelings of love in the past were important, and they still travel with me.

Innocent love is a type of love you can only have once, and I am thankful for the formative memories it gave me.

The Sun (Sustaining Love)

I love the sun. The warmth of the sun is essential, and we must always acknowledge this. No matter the weather, we rely on the warmth of the sun to survive. The sun is a sustaining love.

Contemporary music sustains me in a different way: primarily, it fulfills my personal need for adventure.

My sustaining loves in music are only a handful of composers: J.S. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin, Schumann, and just individual pieces of Schubert, Debussy, Ravel, Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich and a few others. Contemporary music sustains me in a different way: primarily, it fulfills my personal need for adventure.

As I grow out of innocent love, I am starting to really see the true loves for who they are. Some innocent loves are not sustainable—a bright street light is no star. But, many of the musical loves that sustain me now were once innocent loves too: Not all innocent love is ignorant.

The sun is the mightiest source of inspiration. No matter the weather, we can always say, “Thank goodness for the sun.” And thank goodness for emotions. And thank goodness for music.

Rain (Tears) continued

rain with doll

Image: Rhendi Rukmana

Briefly revisiting the rain, I would like to highlight some of the musical moments in my life that have brought me to tears—a necessary physical overload of emotion.

There are so many more that have faded with time. But, at least the ones I remember can be recorded. There is a beautiful, sustaining love that runs through all of these memories—perhaps this is why I remember them, and perhaps this is why they made me cry.

  • The first time I ever heard an orchestra live: An open rehearsal of Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier
  • The funeral service for my childhood friend, Shumie, who committed suicide. I do remember music, but I don’t remember what it was.
  • I was taking a piano lesson with my teacher in grad school, and had just broken up with my significant other.
  • I was in a practice room, playing a section of Jerome Kitzke’s Sunflower Sutra. It was the section titled “Canticle for Mary.”
  • After finishing the first run-through of my debut album, Rounded Binary.
  • The first time I heard my mother sing, singing “Across the Universe” by The Beatles.
  • Later, in private, after playing for my fiancee’s mother who was dying of cancer. We played and sang “Let It Be” by The Beatles.

…I have just said the unspeakable. I have shared my deepest emotions with a general public. Does this make you uncomfortable? Why? Are we, as a culture of humans, unable to plainly and unapologetically articulate our emotions with one another? Within the arts, the domain charged with expressing the beauty in humanity, why is this such a challenge? What is this barrier, and why is it there?


still lake

Image: Dmitry Ermakov

How and why were the sun and the stars in the sky created; how and why are emotions and music what they are? One cannot answer this without asking a more fundamental question about the origin and purpose of human existence. According to Aristotle, “the soul” is “one of the hardest things to gain any conviction about.”[7] Charles Darwin felt that in studying human expression, “close observation is forgotten or rendered almost impossible.”[8] To Oscar Wilde, “The final mystery is oneself.”[9] The list of brilliant people who were baffled by their own self is long…

The further I discuss this, the more I am baffled by the mystery of emotion, and by humanity itself. There are really no words: while experientially known, these subjects are uniquely ungraspable through discourse. So then, we must be content with beauty that is imprecise—the beauty of weather, the beauty of emotion, and the beauty of the whole of humanity—and humbly appreciate that music can in some ways express it.

1. The Emotions, by Robert Plutchik.

2. Confessions, by Saint Augustine.

3. The World in Six Songs, by Daniel Levitin.

4. In Empty Words, John Cage writes, “Many composers no longer make musical structures.  Instead they set processes going.  A structure is like a piece of furniture, whereas a process is like the weather.  In the case of a table, the beginning and end of the whole and each of its parts are known.  In the case of weather, though we notice changes in it, we have no clear knowledge of its beginning or ending.  At a given moment, we are where we are.  The now moment.”

5. In The Cultural Politics of Emotion, Sara Ahmed writes, “Emotions don’t make the world go round. But they do in some sense go round.”

6. The Emotions.

7. In De Anima (On the Soul), Aristotle writes, “In general, and in all ways, it is one of the hardest of things to gain any conviction about the soul.”

8. In The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals, Charles Darwin writes, “The study of Expression is difficult […] When we witness any deep emotion, our sympathy is so strongly excited, that close observation is forgotten or rendered almost impossible.”

9. De Profundis, by Oscar Wilde.

How It Happened (said John Cage): A Moment of Silence

A couple of years ago as a New Year’s resolution I decided to take the plunge and start meditating. I’ve heard it’s healthy. I’ve heard it makes you sleep better. I’ve heard it can keep you calm. Highly productive people do it. Artists do it. Therefore I decided I’d give it a try with the hope that one day I would learn to completely clear my mind and find my bliss.

What I actually learned about meditation is that its purpose is not to clear my mind and help me find my bliss—it’s to allow me to become the almighty observer, one who lives in the present moment and merely observes their present moment thoughts and feelings. If you’re happy, it’s okay to be happy. If you’re sad, it’s okay to be sad. If you’re depressed or angry because the president’s FY 2019 budget eliminates the National Endowment for the Arts, it’s okay to feel this way too. Meditation advises us not to dwell on emotions or feelings, but rather to acknowledge them. And as your artistic guru, I would advise you to not only acknowledge your feelings, but also artistically express yourself and channel your emotions and thoughts into something creative. Just write. Just create. Be in the present moment. (Also breathe. Breathing is good.)

Just write. Just create. Be in the present moment. (Also breathe. Breathing is good.)

I look to John Cage when I feel like I should be creating mindful art. Granted, I was not introduced to Cage as a mindful composer. I was introduced to John Cage in the same way many generations of music students are taught about him: he’s the dude who created a piece about silence. We were taught that 4’33” is “the silent piece,” and we were asked (as part of an exercise) to discuss this question: is this a piece of music or not? Cage argued that there is no such thing as silence. “You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.”

I know why this is the quintessential John Cage piece: it is easy to teach. More importantly, it’s convenient. There are other pieces that John Cage wrote that experimented with silence (Sonatas and Interludes, Music of Changes, etc.), but 4’33” has made the most obvious use of silence as a piece of music.

I know that Cage was experimenting with silence in his pieces decades before the premiere of this work, but I do believe that because Cage was a mindful composer and was aware of the politics around him, there is an ounce of political protest that surfaced during its conception and performance.

A few years prior to the premiere of 4’33”, John Cage toyed with the fantasy that canned music would no longer plague the ears of a captive audience. (There was a general resentment growing against the Muzak in public spaces at the time.) Cage said during his lecture at Vassar College that he wanted “to compose a piece of uninterrupted silence and sell it to Muzak Co. It will be three or four-and-a-half minutes long—those being the standard lengths of ‘canned’ music and its title will be Silent Prayer.” In his 2010 book about 4’33”, No Such Thing as Silence, Kyle Gann implied that maybe Cage wanted to give listeners a “four-and-a-half minute respite from forced listening.”

Wistful thinking aside, it wasn’t until 1952 that I believe Cage lost it. The Supreme Court, in its case Public Utilities Commission of the District of Columbia v. Pollak, decided that piping musical radio programming into streetcars and busses did not interfere with communication between passengers, and therefore didn’t violate their first or fifth amendment rights.

I know that 4’33” is a piece about silence, or how there is never silence all around us, but now I’m more focused on why he wrote this piece. Yes, this piece culminated his experiments in silence (in which he finally goes for it unabashedly), but I believe he (and others at the time) were just flat-out angry and frustrated that people’s right to hear and not hear music was being infringed.

Is 4’33” a protest piece?

Is 4’33” a protest piece? Yes, I believe so. This is his most controversial and hostile piece, a piece that is neither transcendent nor sacred. It resonated with him and others at the time. It lived in the present. It was mindful of the Supreme Court ruling that was issued a few months before its premiere. Cage was echoing both his and the general public’s resentment over not having agency in their musical listening, and this surfaced in his music.

So, here’s a thought: are all of our artistic offerings political in nature? When a composer writes a piece that is of its time and moment, is it a commentary on the current state of affairs? Does it reflect our thoughts and emotions? Do we want our audience to feel what we’re feeling, or to help them see how we’re seeing things? I will say this—no matter what you think or feel, write music. Create music. Be aware of the world around you. Read more. Write more, whether you are feeling angry and frustrated about an injustice in the world or if you’re feeling loved by the tiny cat curled up next to you. Do all these things, then start the creative cycle again. Be in the present moment, write in the present moment, and breathe.

What 4’33” Teaches Us

I would like to begin anecdotally. My primary activity in music, aside from performing, is educating. I teach ferociously, intrepidly, and passionately. I teach 12-month olds, 24-month olds, 3-year olds, 4-year olds, pre-teens, teens, 20-somethings, 30-somethings, 40-somethings, retirees. I teach the mentally challenged, the exceptionally gifted, undergraduate music majors, undergraduates with a hobby in music, pre-collegiate young artists, and all ages under 18 as a glorified babysitter. I teach in classrooms, in lecture halls, in concert halls, in orchestra, choir, and band rooms, in my home, in students’ homes, in public libraries, on the street, in shopping malls, and remotely via Skype or email. I teach in English, in French, in Spanish, and sometimes in two at the same time. I teach piano, guitar, dramatic theater, voice, contemporary music, ear training, sightsinging, theory, harmony and counterpoint; I teach pop music, hip hop, jazz, classical, rock, R&B, boogie woogie, or a bizarre combination of all of the above at the student’s request; I teach friends, friends of friends, colleagues, fellow students, neighbors, lovers, family, strangers; I give career advice, school advice, work advice, relationship advice, marriage advice, family advice, tentative advice, adamant advice, and refuse to give advice at all;  I teach as early as 4 a.m, and as late as 1 a.m.; I teach 12 hours straight, I travel over an hour each way to teach for 30 minutes; I teach by course syllabus, by textbook, by photocopied handouts, by total free improvisation; I teach the hearing impaired solely by visual cues, linguistically impaired solely by ear… These are all the ways I’ve taught and continue to teach—this is a window into the lifestyle and profession of education. It is a living, breathing, shifting shape that transfers thought from one body to another, in real time and in real space. The act of teaching, that is, the dynamic means of transferring knowledge, mimics the shape—a shape that is perhaps unknowable, ungraspable, and unconquerable—of knowledge itself.

This introduction was meant to astound; I begin my discussion in this way because education truly is astounding. Astounded, I will position myself behind the work of Paulo Freire, whose book Pedagogy of the Oppressed I find relevant, profound, and articulate in expressing the need for education in the ongoing struggle for liberation of the unprivileged and oppressed peoples of the world.[1] This form of education takes shape beyond the restrictive nature of a classroom; pedagogy is indeed omnipresent, and potentially omnipotent. Pedagogy as a performative gesture can ignite political action, or embody a campaign for social justice in the good, raw form of the transmission and acquisition of knowledge, if we simply make the effort of acknowledging, receiving, and reinvigorating pedagogy’s potential role.

all performative acts are pedagogical in nature, and all art says something, even when that something happens to be nothing.

I will treat John Cage and, in particular, his momentous work 4’33”, which engages the performer(s) of the score to refrain from playing their instrument(s) for the entirety of four minutes and thirty-three seconds, as a pedagogical act. Willful silence, in all its performative manifestations, will be treated as pedagogical as well.

In order to understand the premise of this essay, the reader is required to welcome the assertion that all performative acts are pedagogical in nature, and that all art says something, even when that something happens to be nothing.

All performative acts are pedagogical in nature. Paulo Freire transgresses beyond the boundaries of the classroom in his discussion of pedagogy when he begins a chapter with the sentence: “A careful analysis of the teacher-student relationship at any level, inside or outside the school, [emphasis mine] reveals its fundamentally narrative character.” “At any level, inside or outside the school” is an attempt to transgress the classroom—that is, to move against and beyond the boundaries of what we properly view as education.[2]

Art is something even when it is nothing; silence is something. Cage did say, “I have nothing to say and I am saying it,” but he also said that art is a form of complaint.[3] A complaint is external negativity—an un-externalized complaint is not a complaint at all. The uttering of words or production of bodily sound is what launches a critical thought or gesture into the externalized world, thus giving birth to a complaint. As we will explore deeper through examples, silence can be employed when sound is expected, as well as subverted when one expects silence. Later in the essay, this will be referred to as subverting silence / silently subverting.[4]

4’33” is an externalization, and powerfully so, of a deliberately shared thing, even if that thing happens to be silence, even if that thing happens to be no-thing. The thing, in this context, is a classical music composition, and the willful absence of that thing—the nothing—is 4’33”. Silence in a performance of 4’33” is knowledge willfully shared, willfully externalized; in short, a complaint. Silence, too, is a form of complaint, when conventions expect sound.

Empty frame on the wall

In classical music, silence is a loud complaint against the expectation of sound. Equally so, in a climate that values and expects explication from the artist, to say nothing is a loud, theoretical critique of the desire/need for critical theory that legitimizes one’s own artwork.

In pedagogy, silence can be understood as a fundamental explicative absence. In The Ignorant Schoolmaster, Jacques Rancière acknowledges the role of teacher in conventional classroom education:

In short, the essential act of the master was to explicate: to disengage the simple elements of learning, and to reconcile their simplicity in principle with the factual simplicity that characterizes young and ignorant minds. To teach was to transmit learning and form minds simultaneously, by leading those minds, according to an ordered progression, from the most simple to the most complex.[5]

What happens when Rancière’s “essential act of the master” disappears? What happens when teachers—that is any individual or group of individuals who transmit knowledge (knowingly or not)—no longer explicate? Can the power of silence debunk the expectation for the (school)master’s explication? If silence and absence are powerful educational tools, what purpose will explication serve? What power structure does the need for explication promote and non-explication silently subvert? As Rancière asks, “Were the schoolmaster’s explications therefore superfluous? Or, if they weren’t, to whom and for what were they useful?”[6]

I will briefly read scripts of silence that have little to say and plenty to teach. The heroes and heroines of these performative lessons include: 1) House democrats in a moment of silence for the victims of the Orlando shooting, 2) Black Lives Matter activists at a Bernie Sanders rally, 3) Muhammad Ali’s famous protest of the Vietnam War, and 4) my personal experience as a middle school music teacher. The tenor of these tales is the notion of subverting silence / silently subverting—that is, the subversion of silence when externally imposed, and the use of silence in order to subvert the expectation of sound. These stories breathe new life into the memory of John Cage’s 4’33”, while suggesting relevant pedagogical acts we can learn from today, and use tomorrow.

Democrats (not) in the House

In this particular iteration of silence, the House conducts a moment of silence for the Orlando shooting victims. What is not fascinating is that there was indeed a moment of silence given to the Orlando shooting victims, nor was it fascinating that the House erupted in protest immediately following that silence; what is notable is what Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) did and said about the event, and why they were not there for it.

Announcing his boycott of the moment of silence the day before, Jim Himes contemned “silence. That is how the leadership of the most powerful country in the world will respond to this week’s massacre of its citizens […] Silence. Not me. Not anymore. I will no longer stand here absorbing the faux concern, contrived gravity, and tepid smugness of a House complicit in the weekly bloodshed.” Nancy Pelosi offered her view, “The fact is that a moment of silence is an act of respect, and we supported that. But it is not a license to do nothing.” By refusing to be silent, Himes and Pelosi create a vocal opposition; by creating absence where presence is expected, Himes and Pelosi become more performatively present than anyone else in the House.

“[A moment of silence] is not a license to do nothing” is an intriguing statement that illuminates the complexity of silence, subversion, and their dynamic pedagogical possibilities.

Moment of “Silence”

A common Black Lives Matter protest is 4.5 minutes of silence, to represent the 4.5 hours that Michael Brown’s body lay in the street following his murder. The moment of silence is not what is fascinating here—these moments of silence for Michael Brown were held throughout the country. What is fascinating is how Marissa Janae Johnson, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Seattle, and her fellow BLM activists use vocal dissent to coerce their way onto the stage and onto the microphone, only to again subvert expectation with silence. When obedience to the scheduled speaker (Bernie Sanders) was expected of them, they were most vocal. Once in control of the microphone and expected to speak, they employed silence. These events express their progression from subverting silence to silently subverting, using both presence and absence through their presence, and playing the role of non-explicative schoolmasters.

A meaningful use of breaking silence is shown in the privileged protest of anonymous hecklers. This is an iteration of 4’33” that perhaps Cage could have conceived of in his lifetime. Cage’s 4’33” originally subverted the establishment (at the time, Eurocentric, academic, classical music composition), while here at a 2015 rally, BLM Seattle’s 4 minutes and 30 seconds of silence was a subversive act against the will of the audience. It was met by hecklers that represent establishment’s response to being subverted upon, a complaint upon a complaint, art upon art. Would Cage welcome this? Here, he claims that he would simply listen to some rude bodily noise, so perhaps the answer is yes. A year ago on my blog, I was moved to transcribe the unintentional participatory performance from this particular camera perspective, in honor of John Cage and in solidarity with BLM.

The Silver Tongued Poet Exercises His Right To Remain Silent

With the recent passing of Muhammad Ali, it is more than appropriate to look back upon his legacy as a teacher through the willful silencing of his Black voice, specifically his trip to Houston, Texas, on April 28, 1967 (14 years after the premiere of 4’33”). Ali did not have to take this trip. After receiving a letter from the U.S. Army, Ali could have simply filed as a conscientious objector like many others silently did, but instead, he used his celebrity to stage an important and unforgettable lesson. Ali flew from Chicago to Houston, took all physical and mental examinations, was tormented by doctors and army personnel, only to remain silent and motionless when his name was called. His name was called many times as “Cassius Clay,” and once, finally, in desperation, as “Muhammad Ali.” Each time, Ali did not respond. Ali, a man with the most agile of bodies, remained motionless. Ali, a man with the quickest, sharpest, and most eloquent of tongues, remained silent. In that moment, his pedagogical practice transgressed words and movement, and the oppressors’ expectations of them.[7]

Me in Middle School

Now, in 2016, I taught a general music class to middle school kids at a private school in Chicago. In one class, I thought it important that they watch a performance of 4’33”. It failed miserably—the kids laughed at the performer and found nothing of value in the work. I explained to them that they were criticizing the piece before truly hearing it, so I offered them the challenge of performing 4’33” together as a group before they offer any critical feedback, and they unanimously agreed to the challenge. So, I told them we would officially begin the performance of 4’33” when I give them the cue. I set the timer for 33 seconds (the duration of the first movement), started the timer, and gave the cue to begin. Several of the students laughed and made silly noises within the first ten of those seconds, but I let the movement go on without reprimand. I then went on to the second movement, 2’40” in length, during which the students began to hit the desk loudly, throwing pencils and other small objects at one another. They were having a great time. Still, I said and did nothing to sway their sounds and actions. I then gave the last movement of 1’20”, during which the bravest of students stood up and began roaming around the classroom, sometimes running, sometimes crawling underneath the desks. One student narrated their actions to the rest of the class in a voice somewhat akin to the late Steve Irwin. At this point, six of the 15 kids left their seats, at least 10 of the 15 were audibly laughing and/or talking, and not a single one of them was looking or listening to me. This is how this performance of 4’33” came to an end.

education, elementary school, learning and people

I’ve thought a lot about that day. I thought about the willful silence on my part as the (school)master as my authority was subverted on a more and more profound level with each passing movement. I thought about the willful subversion of silence on the part of the classroom, despite their unanimous desire to take the challenge of remaining silent. And finally, I thought about $35,100—the cost of yearly tuition at that school. I thought about what these kids must have thought and felt when they laughed, talked, and threw objects across the room, during a moment we collectively agreed upon as “silence.” I wonder if some day, perhaps much much later from now, they and I will find clarity in this silent lesson. Or perhaps not. Perhaps we, as a classroom, already do understand the lesson as best we can. When the lesson willfully explicates nothing, is there anything up for regurgitation—the classical evidence of having learned? Like any performance of 4’33”, perhaps it is only the feeling and the experience itself that we can walk away with. Perhaps there is nothing to say, and I am saying it, as an educator, as a thinker, as an artist.

This sentence was written as I prepare in Chicago for the longest day of the year, and I can’t help but notice how much darkness looms around me: personally, two friends’ parents have suddenly died; citywide, a scandal erupts in the theater community by the way of misogyny and abuse; statewide, a debilitating standoff is occurring on the state budget level; and nationally, an armed civilian killed 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando. And another more banal, neutral—yet essential—piece of news: another school year has come to a close. This is all floating in the air as these words fall upon the page.

A pedagogical approach that aims to change society will be unsettling for all. Just as teaching is a challenge, learning is an equally great challenge.

Reflecting on pedagogy, as well as current events, it is perhaps now more than ever that we need a pedagogy that is simple, direct, and a fundamentally positive influence upon society. We need a pedagogy that uproots cowardice, questions authority, and subverts the angry, oppressive, harmful acts of the privileged classes in the oligarchical role they/we currently enjoy.[8] We need a new pedagogy that responds alongside the boundless dynamism of political struggles in wealth, race, gender, and sexuality, yet endeavors to liberate the circumscribed dynamism of power, currently—and wrongfully—defined by haves and have-nots.[9] Just as 4’33” incited negative reactions from its first audiences, truly liberatory education incites resentment and anger from many of those who already enjoy full liberty. A pedagogical approach that aims to change society will be unsettling for all. Just as teaching is a challenge, learning is an equally great challenge.

I believe this pedagogy can often manifest in silence, whether it is the silent subverting of the expectation of sound, or the subverting of silence itself by creating sound when it is not desired by an oppressor/oppressive force. Learning from 4’33” as a musician, performing silence can liberate or oppress, assuage or provoke, subvert or comply—education can do all of these things too. 4’33” mimics the unknowable, ungraspable, unconquerable shifting shape of knowledge itself. Whether Cage originally meant it in this way or not, 4’33” is an open invitation to critically engage with silence as a renewable pedagogical act.

Andy Costello

Andy Costello

Dedicated to the music of living composers, Andy Costello’s solo repertoire champions works by living composers all over the world. He is currently on the piano faculty of New Music School in Chicago, and he previously served as a visiting artist for the composition department at The Boston Conservatory and as a guest artist at Time Forms / Formes Temporelles, Columbia College Chicago, Laboratoire de Musique Contemporaine de Montréal, and Scotia Chamber Music Festival.

In Spring 2014, Andy founded the Morton Feldman Chamber Players (MFCP), a non-profit organization devoted to programming the solo and chamber works of Morton Feldman in the United States and Canada. Based in Chicago, MFCP has been partnered with the Experimental Sound Studio and Iarca Gallery since the Fall of 2014.

1. The related authors and books of the type of pedagogical theory I’m particularly interested in, arguing for the liberation for the oppressed, include Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire, bell hooks’s Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, and Jacques Rancière’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster.

2. I am particularly drawn to bell hooks’s definition of transgression in her work Teaching to Trangress: Education as the Practice of Freedom: “With these essays, I add my voice to the collective call for renewal and rejuvenation in our teaching practices. Urging all of us to open our minds and hearts so that we can know beyond the boundaries of what is acceptable, so that we can think and rethink, so that we can create new visions, I celebrate teaching that enables transgressions—a movement against and beyond boundaries. It is that movement which makes education the practice of freedom.”

3. The statement “I have nothing to say and I am saying it” is from page 109 of Silence: Lectures and Writings by John Cage. The notion of art as complaint comes to Cage, as far as I can tell, from Jasper Johns, whom Cage quotes as saying, “all art is either a complaint or an appeasement.” Subsequently, Cage writes a mesostic on the subject, “art is either a complaint or do something else.”

4. The baggage behind the word subversion is deep and complicated. Ali mentions on page 177 of his autobiography The Greatest: My Own Story that he was on a list of “undesirable subversives” by the House Un-American Activities Committee. The context, however, was amidst an experience with a college student, where the college student, in a particularly touching experience, encouraged Ali warmly: “See, you’re number one on the list.” (Though the list was simply in alphabetical order, as Ali noticed.) In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire argues that to the oppressor, “the pursuit of full humanity” is identified as subversion, and labeling someone a subversive is a denial of the basic need of the oppressed to achieve full human potential: “Humanity is a ‘thing,’ and they possess it as an exclusive right, as inherited property. To the oppressor consciousness, the humanization of the ‘others,’ of the people, appears not as the pur­suit of full humanity, but as subversion.”

5. Quote found on page 3 in The Ignorant Schoolmaster.

6. Quote found on page 4 of The Ignorant Schoolmaster.

7. A chapter in Embodying Black Experience: Stillness, Critical Memory, and the Black Body by Harvey Young deals brilliantly with the stillness and silence of Muhammad Ali in this particular event in Houston.

8. I say “they/we” to described the privileged class because I feel that I belong to this class at times, and at other times, I do not.

9. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire acknowledges oppressors for their “strictly materialistic concept of existence. For the oppressors, what is worthwhile is to have more—always more—even at the cost of the oppressed having less or having nothing. For them, to be is to have and to be the class of the ‘haves.’” On use of the word “power,” I do believe power has potential to be a liberatory word, but when defined in terms of to be is to have, it is a destructive notion for society.

We Are Sitting In (Another) Room: Improv with Architecture

Pea Soup To Go
Today marks the 40th anniversary of Nicolas Collins’s Pea Soup, a piece that uses electronics to “play” the signature acoustics of a space. In honor of that milestone, Collins today unveils Pea Soup To Go, a free virtual jukebox programed with recordings of 70 different versions of the work, iterations which span decades and continents.

Since the composition relies on linked microphones and loudspeakers in a “self-stabilizing feedback network” to map and respond to changes in the room and produce the sonic content featured in the piece, it might just be one of the purest forms of ambient music available. The jukebox shuffles the various collected recordings, masking transitions between each with long crossfades, allowing listeners to dip into this historic stock pot and feast until they are full.


Molly Sheridan: How do you tend to explain this piece to people who haven’t yet heard it, especially those without a great deal of technical background?

Nicolas Collins: Technically it’s pretty simple. Everybody seems to have heard the squeal of feedback at some point, and most are familiar with the fact that moving the microphone (or electric guitar) usually changes the pitch of the feedback. I explain that the phase shifter (the electronic gizmo at the heart of the piece) emulates a hand moving the mike every time the feedback starts to swell. The piece has a sufficiently dreamy, non-threatening quality that most people don’t worry too much about the how and why.

MS: And that idea led you to the title Pea Soup?

NC: The immersive quality of the sound field brought to mind the cliché of a fog “as thick as pea soup.” Rather silly, in retrospect, but I was pretty young and now I’m stuck with it.

MS: While reading up on the history of Pea Soup, I was surprised to discover that the work can involve (or always does?) live musicians. This was something I didn’t quite pick out in the first few iterations of the piece I heard via the jukebox. They are charged with interacting with the electronics (or later the software) in some specific ways. Can you explain why you prescribe their actions in the way that you do? And then this of course made me curious about the impact of the audience in the space and therefore on thework itself.

NC: Left to its own devices the Pea Soup feedback network creates simple, languid melodies whose pitches are derived from the resonant frequencies of the room (and the tempo reflects the reverberation time–larger rooms play slower tunes.) A small change in the room acoustics can cause a pitch to be added to or dropped from the melody, like some slow hocket music. I ask performers to “play” the acoustics by walking around the room, since interfering with the reflecting paths of the feedback often causes a change in the patterns. They play notes as well: playing a unison with a feedback pitch, then bending slightly out of tune, can stop the feedback; playing an octave or fifth above a feedback pitch can cause the feedback to break to the upper interval; and introducing a pitch that hasn’t been heard in the feedback from several minutes often brings it back into the melodic pattern.
Audience sounds and movement obviously influence the patterns as well–a performance in a noisy bar unfolds very differently than in a quiet, formal concert hall. I’ve also installed the work in gallery settings, where interaction with the audience becomes central.

In performance I usually let the feedback system stabilize for a few minutes, as a sort of alap introducing the scale of the room, before the players start. The web app (Pea Soup To Go) shuffles a library of around 70 performance recordings, with long fade-ins and fade-outs. The sequence is random (or as close as I can get), as is the selection of in- and out-points for each file, so the recordings always start at different times–sometimes one drops right in on a musician’s sounds, but sometimes you have to wait a few minutes to hear a player. Plus the players are instructed to play “inside” the feedback texture, rather than soloing on top, so it’s not always easy to distinguish the instrumental voices.
countryman phase shifter
MS: Okay, now for the gear snobs in the crowd, this piece offers some interesting insights into the punishment time can dish out on work that involves specific electronic components that can break down and become obsolete. This led you to some particular extremes—I especially loved the correspondence you exchanged with Carl Countryman, the maker of the phase shifter you originally employed in the piece. Can you tell us a bit about that evolution and how it affected the work?

NC: This will make me sound even older than I am, but back in 1974 there were no digital delays (or at least no affordable ones). The studio at Wesleyan had three Countryman Phase Shifters that Alvin Lucier had bought to do what’s called “Haas-effect Panning,” which is a way to pan sounds quite realistically using very short time delays. I had been working a lot with feedback, and discovered that changing the phase shifter’s delay setting could emulate moving a mike, opening up a whole new vista of quasi-automated feedback manipulation. Pea Soup emerged as one of the major products of my undergraduate education.
After college I moved on to other materials and technologies (early microcomputer music, live sampling and signal processing, collaboration with improvisers.) But I’d return to feedback from time to time, and when, through my day job in New York, I ran into Carl Countryman at trade shows I’d always ask if he had any of the Phase Shifters back at his warehouse. By the 1980s he was making very popular high-quality Direct Boxes and lavaliere microphones, and the phase shifters were long gone and, it seems, not missed–his answer was always “no.”

Then in the late 1990s I was in Berlin with a DAAD fellowship, and an ensemble with which I was working (Kammernesemble Neue Musik Berlin) asked if they could revive Pea Soup. At first I tried to reconstruct the original analog circuit. I emailed Mr. Countryman, who obviously still remembered my unwanted nagging, and he sent me the schematic with the explicit understanding that I was never to bother him about this device again. The circuit is not complicated, but it has one odd custom-made part that was difficult to duplicate. I did a few performances with my best attempt in the analog domain, but after a few years I wrote a software emulation of the original analog boxes that, with enough code tweaking, evolved into a pretty convincing substitute.

Software has allowed me to add a few features that would have been great to have back in 1974 but were out of reach then (such as a filter that automatically nulls pitches that would otherwise dominant in the texture.) Programs are not as cute as little metal boxes, but they’re lighter and can be distributed more freely, like old-fashioned paper scores: I’ve posted the program on my web site, where anyone who’s interested can download it and perform Pea Soup without the need fly in Nic and his gear.
Pea Soup software
MS: How does the experience of Pea Soup via this clever website relate the performance experience of hearing it live for you?

NC: In a big space with big speakers Pea Soup can be a very immersive and interactive experience—“church of sound,” as one friend once called it. The web app (Pea Soup To Go) is obviously more like listening to a recording of a concert than experiencing a live event, but this is a record that never ends, never repeats—a multi-disk CD changer in “shuffle mode” with a twist: the long crossfades knit the 70 files into one continuous performance. Since every room is in a different, architecturally determined “key,” you end up hearing a series of odd, vaguely modal chord changes that stretch out over an almost glacial time scale.

MS: Even before I started reading the background on Pea Soup, I kept thinking of Cage and Lucier associations related to “hearing” a space–using a space and its contents as so essential to the end sonic result. Do you hear this piece as in that evolutionary line? In what ways does it intersect and/or diverge?

NC: Yes, it certainly is in that line. I was a young, impressionable student of Lucier’s at the time I made Pea Soup. I was drawn to feedback under the twin influences of Lucier and Cage. I loved Lucier’s extraction of musical material from fundamental acoustical phenomena (think of Vespers and I Am Sitting In A Room). My parents were both architectural historians, and the link between music and architecture was critical to my finding a comfortable place to work. And feedback became the solution to my Cage-induced ambivalence about making personal musical decisions in a world where all sounds could be “musical sounds”: turn up the volume and let nature/god/architects do the rest—a sort of acoustical I Ching.

Divergence? I think my generation of musicians and composers is (and always was) much more comfortable with the idea of improvisation than our teachers were: Cage hated it; Lucier kept trying to come up with other words to describe it. In Pea Soup and most of my other work I embrace improvisation, I hand a lot of responsibility off to my players, and live with the consequences.

I also see each musical generation incorporating a new generation of technology. My peers and I embraced synthesizers, effect boxes, homemade circuitry, computers. And technological shifts often beget stylistic changes – some modest, some significant. There’s a certain kind of technological interactivity that I believe is, for better or for worse, the gift of my generation of experimental music composers.

MS: Even though this was originally a student piece, you note that the lessons of architectural acoustics have continued to engage you, making this piece of ongoing interest even 40 years later. What have some of those lessons been?

NC: I still have difficulty making certain musical decisions, and I often return to acoustics to clarify the edges or underpinnings of a piece. In the end no sound gets to the ear without engaging with acoustics, and the physical reality of sound keeps me grounded. There’s a certain primordial consonance or orderliness or reassuring “rightness” in it, that I find helpful when I’m feeling lost.
roomtone variations
Recently, while tweaking the software for Pea Soup, I discovered a simple way of mapping the resonant frequencies of a room to conventional music notation. I’ve written a piece (Roomtone Variations) that uses this technique to create a site-specific score for any concert space, in real time, in the presence of the audience. The score is projected on a screen for all to see as it unfolds, and after the analytical intro (which takes about two minutes) an ensemble performs purely acoustic variations on this “architectural tone row” – a kind of “Pea Soup Unplugged.”

Another new piece, Speak, Memory, uses room reverberation as short-term memory for image files and sound bites. In the course of the performance I display the transformation of the original pictures and sounds as they are “forgotten” by the room. (I hope to include both these pieces on my first concert in New York in many years, at Roulette on March 9.)

You could look at this obsession in one of two ways, I suppose: either I am somewhat pathetic for, at the age of 60, still being hung up on my first true love from age 20; or it’s a sign of deep commitment to one’s fundamental beliefs. Take your choice.

Guided By Sound: Crissy Broadcast Debuts in San Francisco


In San Francisco, even our fog posts regularly on Twitter. In real life, you never know for certain when Karl the Fog is going to roll into town, but once he does his presence can’t be ignored. A posse of foghorns mounted on the Golden Gate Bridge announces his entry into the city and the bay, each pitched and positioned differently to help guide vessels under the bridge.

Images from Crissy Broadcast

All photos by Sidney Chen

Karl the Fog was out in full strength on the morning of October 26 at the start of the first of three performances of Crissy Broadcast, described as a “spatial symphony” composed and directed by Lisa Bielawa. Gathered in the mist at the center of Crissy Field, right next to the Golden Gate Bridge, were hundreds of musicians drawn from a dozen or so local ensembles, including middle school and high school bands and orchestras, adult amateur musicians, two choruses, a traditional Chinese instrument orchestra, and a gaggle of electric guitarists with portable battery-powered speakers slung over their shoulders. They assembled in discrete groups in the center of the expansive, dew-laden grass field, surrounded by audience members and the fog.

At 10 a.m., the regularly sounding foghorns were joined by an instrument playing one of the foghorn pitches in a similar timbre, but the sound was both quieter and closer. Listeners began moving across the grass toward the new sound, trying to discern where it had come from and what was making it. That call of what was ultimately identified as a Tibetan longhorn (played by Karma Moffett) launched the hour-long event during which the act of listening became a physical activity involving more than just the ears.
Images from Crissy Broadcast
Bordering the San Francisco Bay, Crissy Field is a decommissioned airfield that has been converted into a park as part of the Golden Gate National Recreational Area (administered by the National Park Service). Due to its iconic views of the bridge and the extraordinarily successful restoration a dozen years ago of the field’s natural saltmarsh environment, Crissy Field is one of San Francisco’s most beloved and frequently used public spaces. While developing Templehof Broadcast, a performance event in Berlin involving hundreds of community musicians performing on another former airfield-turned-park, Bielawa was out for a run on Crissy Field, heard the foghorns, noted the pitches, and began to envision a similar work unfolding in the town where she was raised.
Images from Crissy Broadcast
Nearly three years later, Bielawa was walking in the wet grass among the listeners and musicians as each of the 14 groups announced its presence with short fanfares, initially on a single pitch and gradually expanding into compact motives that constantly drew the ear to different locations, coming from all directions. At the beginning of the work the sound was concentrated in the center of field, where it was possible to wander to each group in turn and hear individual group sounds in the context of the gathered masses.

Images from Crissy Broadcast

Aptos Middle School band, led by Bielawa collaborator Moritz Sembritzki and San Francisco Opera principal trumpet Adam Luftman

A few minutes into the work, listeners who had gotten oriented to the placement of the groups of musicians became aware of movement as the texture began to thin out and groups broke away from the center, starting their journey to the edge of the field. With a professional musician from the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players acting as a Pied Piper, each group had its own trajectory, which in many cases used one of the eight monumental steel sculptures by Mark di Suvero, temporarily installed on the field by SFMOMA, as a landmark. As the sound spread, listeners were obligated to make choices regarding whom they would follow, how close to get, whether they wanted to hear one group clearly or a multiplicity of voices less distinctly. There was no optimal seat in the house; every position created a different listening experience, and that experience changed continuously throughout the event.

Images from Crissy Broadcast

Musicians lining a path, passing motives in a game of musical telephone

A constant through most of the first performance of Crissy Broadcast was the foghorns, engaging in dialogue with the performers wherever they were on the field. Though the mist on land burned off as the event progressed, it lingered by the bridge for most of the hour, which allowed for listeners to become increasingly aware of the integration of the foghorn pitch set with Bielawa’s musical material. With so much distance between groups of musicians—walking from one end of the field to the other might take ten minutes—it was impossible to hear all of the music Bielawa composed. Instead fragments of melody, individual pitches, textures like a mass of glissandi would be transported across the field from one direction, be met by a coincidental antiphonal echo or congruous counterpoint, and be overtaken by a foghorn. Or the sounds would dissipate into Cageian “silence,” drawing one’s perception to wind, laughter, traffic, conversations and questions from passersby.

Images from Crissy Broadcast

Lowell High School Orchestra, led by San Francisco Contemporary Music Players violinist Roy Malan

As a large-scale public arts event, Crissy Broadcast was something of a marvel. Given the impact of the government shutdown on the National Park Service, the organizers weren’t sure if they even had a venue ten days before the performance. (During the shutdown, around a hundred events on Crissy Field had been canceled.) An integral member of the project’s production team was Marc Kasky, designated as the director for civic engagement, who has been charged with gaining the support of public stakeholders for seeing this public space as a gathering place for artistic activity. On the artistic side, Bielawa and her team, partnering with the San Francisco Symphony’s Community for Music Makers program, had to register and rehearse hundreds of school-age and amateur adult musicians, who had to play music in an unfamiliar format and a challenging environment. The number of musicians signed up to participate numbered over 800 (actual numbers on the field were likely somewhat less), and though musicians only played once they had stopped moving, music stands were not feasible, leading to many innovative solutions.
Images from Crissy Broadcast
Images from Crissy Broadcast
Crissy Broadcast took place three times—at 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. on Saturday, October 26, and at noon on Sunday, October 27. Since there are so many variables to how one might experience the piece, I went to the first and last performances, choosing to follow different groups of musicians and changing my own listening trajectory. The Sunday performance was much colder, windier, and much less foggy, and consequently the clear interactions between the performers and their environment took a different shape as the wind took the place of the foghorns, and carried more of the musical material away from the listeners’ ears.

About 15 minutes before the end of piece, a mass movement started to be perceptible at the edges of the field, where all the musicians had been broadly cast. Up to this point, the groups had remained individual entities, nomadic tribes calling across space to fellow travelers. The groups coalesced into three larger communities headed in different directions—out to the beach, toward the bridge, onto the road—each playing celebratory music to exit, leaving the audience on their own to listen to the quiet field.
Images from Crissy Broadcast
For more background information about Crissy Broadcast, the Airfield Broadcasts project has a particularly robust Tumblr which has video, photography, press, and background info about the lead-up to the event.
Images from Crissy Broadcast

Cage’s (More Than) Ten Thousand Things

The Ten Thousand Things is not, strictly speaking, the name of a composition by John Cage. Instead, it was the name Cage used in his own notes to refer to an open-ended series of works that could be played in any combination. Five of these works were completed between 1954 and 1957—two for a pianist, one for a string player, one for a percussionist, and one for a speaker. A new recording from Microfest Records presents these pieces all at once, with Aron Kallay and Vicki Ray on piano, Tom Peters on double bass, and William Winant on percussion. The performer of 45’ for a Speaker is John Cage himself, from a recently unearthed 1962 recording.

This in itself is quite an achievement, especially considering the sometimes extraordinary difficulty of Cage’s music here. The performances are crisp and crystalline, and the engineering and production (by John Schneider) are stellar, giving each musical idea its own sonic space even when several figures are overlapping. (The overall effect is similar to the 1959 recording of Indeterminacy with Cage and David Tudor, but with five moving parts instead of two.) Winant’s performance in particular is a joy to listen to, partly because of the diversity of materials that he incorporates, including some electronic sounds and what sounds like a radio playing brief, tantalizing fragments of pop songs.

But the “I Ching Edition” of the recording also includes a remarkable something extra, contained on a USB drive the size of a business card. This inconspicuous piece of technology comes with software designed by Aron Kallay that allows us to listen to the pieces in any combination—solos, duets, trios, and quartets (in addition to the full quintet), for 31 total possible combinations. The sections of the shorter pieces are automatically distributed to fit the length of the longest piece, with silence interpolated between. The software also realizes Cage’s instructions for shuffling the 28 sections of each individual piece (except for 45’ for a Speaker, which doesn’t use these divisions). That means that there are a dizzying number of possible versions just for each solo, a 30-digit number if my math is right. It turns out that Cage vastly undersold the number of things contained in his compositions!
The software is Mac-only for now, though I’m told a PC version is in progress. The interface was a bit sluggish to respond on my machine, but I’m happy to report that this did not affect playback at all. There’s something really gratifying about being able to create your own versions of the piece that are different every time, and I especially enjoy the suggestive silences of the sparser solos and duos. While it’s certainly a treat for Cage aficionados, I very much hope that it reaches new audiences too, as it gives non-performers a rare chance to observe and participate in one aspect of Cage’s process. It’s an incredibly clear demonstration of the unexpected and delightful confluences that result from chance-based procedures, and in many ways, I can think of no better introduction to Cage’s music.

A Bird Uncaged

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rosenberg on Cage 1

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

Rosenberg On Cage 2

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

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

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

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

Bay Area Performances Celebrate Cage Legacy

Amy X Neuburg tossed dice to select samples for the introduction to her piece Your Handsome Hand

Amy X Neuburg tossed dice to select samples for the introduction to her piece Your Handsome Hand.

Composer and performer Pamela Z‘s entry into this month’s worldwide celebration of John Cage’s centenary was Voice Cage, a program featuring eight San Francisco Bay Area artists presenting works using the voice. Part of Z’s ROOM series, the concert took place in the Royce Gallery, an intimate performance space in a former welding shop located in the Mission district of San Francisco. The crowd that showed up on August 31 easily filled the space to capacity, and the show had to be delayed for 15 minutes so that additional seating could be brought in to accommodate the roughly 70 concertgoers.

Pamela Z at the Royce Gallery

Pamela Z at the Royce Gallery.

Cage made both direct and less explicit appearances throughout the program, which included three vocal works by Cage (The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs, Experiences No. 2, and Aria), new works by Pamela Z (which utilized recordings of Cage’s voice and texts about Cage), and other new compositions that introduced indeterminacy in a nod to Cage’s influence.

Neuburg singing The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs

Neuburg singing The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs.

Julie Queen‘s unaccompanied performance of Cage’s Experiences No. 2 was a straightforward interpretation of the work, whereas Amy X Neuburg took a more individual approach to The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs, originally for voice (“without vibrato, as in folk singing”) and a closed piano to be struck in four particular spots with specific parts of the hand. Neuburg, whose work for voice and electronics have long made her a prominent member of San Francisco’s new music community, created an electronic arrangement of the piano part with samples of water, over which she sang expressively. Pamela Z’s performance of Cage’s Aria was an unintentional mixture of the two approaches: her performance began with the triggering of sampled noises and processing on her voice used to delineate some of the vocal “styles” that Cage calls for. About halfway through the performance, though, her computer crashed and we had the unexpected treat of hearing an un-effected Z, singing the rest of the piece operatically, suavely, gravelly, quietly.

Chessa performing Hear What I Feel

Chessa performing Hear What I Feel.

Luciano Chessa, a composer and performer who also occasionally delivers lively pre-performance lectures on Italian works at the San Francisco Opera, partnered with Z for two thoroughly entertaining and engaging pieces. In Duetto, which opened the second half of the concert and which was credited in the program to “Verdi/Z/Chessa,” the two sang sections of “Un dì felice” from La Traviata, but with the roles reversed, their voices processed with the appropriate octave displacements, accompanied by Chessa playing a toy piano in a voluminous black skirt. Prior to the concert, he had spent an hour with an eye mask on upstairs in Z’s studio, which was doubling as a sensory deprivation chamber, in preparation for a performance of Joan La Barbara’s Hear What I Feel. Z led him onstage, still blindfolded, and guided him into a seat in front of a table with six glass bowls, which contained a variety of objects such as a small balloon and a dried prickly plant. Chessa palpated each in turn and vocalized his responses with phonemes, growls, and laughter, revealing a surprising level of emotional reaction in the process.

Lee's performance piece The Cage

Lee’s performance piece The Cage.

The wide-ranging program also included a captivating solo performance by Oakland-based performance artist Dohee Lee, who will be one of the artists at the next Other Minds Festival in March 2013. Carrying a small box with a theremin-like antenna and a speaker strapped to her head, she danced throughout the space and among the audience while wordlessly moving through a range of characters, sometimes chirping along with the electronic sounds, at other points singing high whistle tones in an otherworldly duet with the box.


Christopher Jones performs Music of Changes at Old First Church, where Kelsey Walsh noticed that one of the hymns on the board was 433

Christopher Jones performs Music of Changes at Old First Church, where Kelsey Walsh noticed that one of the hymns on the board was 433.

Meanwhile sfSound continued their year-long, 11-concert festival of Cage’s music with two concerts in August: one focused on Cage’s more experimental electronic and noise music at The Lab, a multi-use white box in the Mission, and one dedicated to acoustic works a couple miles north at Old First Church, in a more “uptown” setting.

Matt Ingalls and his colleagues in sfSound have to be commended for their tremendous efforts in preparing and presenting this wide-ranging, devoted, and exhaustive exploration of Cage’s work, in all media and from all points in his career. (I covered a previous concert in this festival here.) Each work programmed has revealed a different aspect of Cage’s music and personality; taken together, a multifaceted portrait of Cage has taken shape in a way that no single concert could achieve.

Matt Ingalls performing 0'00" (4'33" No. 2), in which his “disciplined action" was writing out paychecks for the evening's other performers.

Matt Ingalls performing 0’00” (4’33” No. 2), in which his “disciplined action” was writing out paychecks for the evening’s other performers.

The August 5 concert at The Lab featured works spanning nearly a half-century of Cage’s output, from Living Room Music (1940) to One3 (1988), which was performed by Jon Leidecker as entrance and intermission music. In Ingalls’ introductory remarks, he drew laughs when he said, “I don’t think it matters if you turn off your cell phones or not.” Indeed, a cell phone wouldn’t have even been audible during the performance of Cartridge Music, in which the audience was surrounded by seven musicians with an array of sound-makers that were dramatically amplified using turntable pickups and contact microphones. (sfSound will reprise Cartridge Music on September 6 at SFMOMA as part of the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival.)

Tom Chiu performing selections from Freeman Etudes

Tom Chiu performing selections from Freeman Etudes.

By contrast, a cell phone would have certainly be noticed at the August 17 performance at Old First Church, where the program included violinist Tom Chiu playing five of Cage’s Freeman Etudes and Cheap Imitation, and pianist Christopher Jones performing Books I and IV of Music of Changes. (The full sfSound ensemble also performed Concert for Piano and Orchestra, with Solo for Voice 1 sung by Ken Ueno, and Atlas Eclipticalis, with Solo for Voice 48 sung by Hadley McCarroll.) As thrillingly cacophonous as Cartridge Music was, Chiu’s performance of Part II of Cheap Imitation was by contrast quietly introspective and personal, a beautiful expression of a simple melodic line. Old First Church is on one of the busiest streets in town and traffic noise is normally a drawback to the concerts there, but somehow during Cheap Imitation it was less an intrusion than a partner in dialogue. In Music of Changes, the outside noise became equal with the music: when Jones paused between the two sections for an extended period of time, waiting for the sirens and motorcycles to pass, he inadvertently allowed for an unplanned, improvisatory musical interlude by the sounds of the world outside.

Sounds Heard: Third Coast Percussion—John Cage: The Works for Percussion 2

John Cage’s centennial year has resulted in a gaggle of new recordings, multimedia offerings à la 4’33”, as well as festivals and events around the country. Whether or not one embraces wholeheartedly Cage’s later integration of chance procedures and conceptual thought into his works, there is no denying that some of his most compelling music is the early compositions for percussion, which provide a wealth of insight into the composer’s internal musical landscape. At the time these pieces were created, his sonic palette, which consisted of pretty much everything and the kitchen sink, was somewhat revolutionary, though it has now become a common language for percussionists. The Chicago-based ensemble Third Coast Percussion has released a new CD and separate surround sound DVD on Mode (available either individually or together) of six early percussion works that will perk up the ears (and eyes, if you choose to include the DVD) of anyone even remotely interested in percussion music performance and/or John Cage.

The discs begin with Cage’s three Constructions, presented in reverse chronological order. Third Construction features the widest selection of instruments, with metal, wood, and skin categories all represented in force. The constantly grooving rhythmic complexity and the extensive instrumentation make it a milestone in percussion repertoire. Second Construction begins with a gamelan-esque arrangement of oxen bells, joined by a repeating rhythmic melody on piano grounded by snare drum brush work, and an assortment of shakers and small drums. First Construction (in Metal) is just that—a metallic rainforest of thundersheets, tam-tam, cymbals, and “piano innards.”

The 1936 work Trio is a short three-movement composition scored for bass drum, woodblocks, bamboo sticks and tom-toms. Heard after the Constructions, its dance-like, often gently bubbling rhythms sound relatively simple in comparison, and it is illuminating to hear how Cage’s future sense of rhythm and structure grew out of this work.

The Quartet for unspecified instrumentation has been sending percussionists on junkyard treasure hunts since it was created in 1935. Here Third Coast has separated the four movements into separate instrument groupings of primarily wood, metal, and skin, and the third movement employs the harp of an old upright piano as the primary instrument to create a beautiful and otherworldly soundscape.

The final piece, Living Room Music, finds the performers inside architect Bruce Goff’s Ruth Ford House, literally playing the space—metal beams are struck with spoons, carpet is scraped. There is the open-handed thwacking of wooden surfaces in the first movement, “To Begin.” For the second movement, “Story,” they relax in comfy chairs and, as the liner notes state, “rap” Gertrude Stein. Slide whistle is featured in the “Melody” movement with a background of spoons and a very familiar computer bleep sound that many will immediately recognize. “End” is all glass objects all the time. While every one of the performance films is beautifully presented, with lots of close-ups of fascinating instruments and the hands playing them, the video of Living Room Music captures the space and the performers in a way that makes you really wish you could be there, hanging out with them.

In my experience, Cage’s percussion music is best fully appreciated live; being able to see performers play the arrays of coffee cans, flower pots, drums, utensils, and bells brings the music’s visceral character to the forefront of the listening experience. In this case, an added benefit is being able to watch Third Coast Percussion obviously having a blast performing all of these works. The DVD beautifully conveys both the richness and the delightful quirkiness of Cage’s percussion music, instilling a deeper appreciation of the composer’s creative outlook. The recordings alone are of exceedingly high quality and satisfying in and of themselves, and the DVD adds another layer of depth, personality, and—quite literally—color to the music that is well worth the investment.