John Cage at HNMF

4 May

As we all know, this year is the centennial celebration of John Cage’s birth in 1912 (not that we ever need a reason to program Cage, it always seems appropriate…). Instead of presenting an entire program, we’ve programming a concert’s worth of Cage that will take place in about 12 minutes in the first ever Hartford New Music Festival John Cage Musicircus. Musicircuses – a simultaneous performance of any of Cage’s works – have been taking place in Hartford for quite some time (they’ve taken place frequently in the percussion department at Hartt), and we’re proud to add ours to the growing list of Cage celebrations taking place all over the world this year. Included will be Atlas Eclipticalis, many selections from SongbooksSuite for Toy Piano, 45′ for a speaker, One(7) and other songs. During the performance, the audience will be invited to wander around the venue to hear whichever performances they’d like.

Jordan Jacobson of Ensemble 016 sent some comments on how the preparations for Atlas Eclipticalis are going:

“I love sounds, just as they are.”

–John Cage

In the clip above John Cage speaks of hearing traffic noises as music. Atlas Eclipticalis is a traffic jam.

Atlas Eclipticalis is a piece with a number of indeterminate elements. Performers play notes made from staves overlaid onto star charts. Hence, to some degree the pitches are determined, but really only in their spatial relation to each other, as no clef is written for any part and the performer is to interpret this as he or she sees fit. Rhythm is not determined (only that some notes should be played short and others long, and how many of each) by the composer, nor does the performer have to play all the notes. Silence is welcome, even encouraged. The performer is strictly forbidden to make melodic lines out of the notes that are given. Instead the melodic lines emerge spontaneously from the aggregrate sound, just as a traffic jam may randomly create an interesting combination of sound.

At this point it would be easy for the performer to determine a certain aspect of the piece and it’s tempting to do so. After all, the audience will never know.

And that is one of the most difficult things about rehearsing a piece with so many indeterminate elements–resisting the urge to determine things. To be honest to the piece and the composer, we work to follow the composer’s instructions faithfully.

We are conditioned as musicians on a fundamental level to play our own part, but while doing so to listen around us (or at least a good musician does this), to be aware, and to react appropriately. Such a fundamental idea applies whether you are playing Beethoven or doing free improvisation. I don’t believe that this fundamental skill necessarily does or should apply to performing Atlas Eclipticalis.

It would for instance, be easy to begin to treat the piece as one large group improvisation–to react to the other performers. When they begin to create a more dense texture, we react to join in on that texture, or perhaps we would react to create some counterpoint. If they are playing a lot of fast notes, perhaps we play some long, slow notes to balance that. If those around us spontaneously crescendo we are inclined to join. If they are feeling somber, we go with that; if they are frenzied, we do that too. Perhaps we would drop out altogether momentarily to not muddy the texture. In most circumstances we would be right to try some of these things, but not in this case.

The technical demands of Atlas Eclipticalis on the performers are not great, but the mental demands of the piece require us to turn off elements of music making that have almost become completely synonymous with playing our instruments. We let the happy (or unhappy) accidents of sound happen where they will and love what sounds come out, just as they are.

— Jordan Jacobson


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