researching and writing about John Cage with the intent of issuing some form of “definitive” statement – and, in particular, a statement on the thorny issue of performing his works – appears to be a frustrating task. It seems on the surface to be a simple assignment involving the standard prioritizing of the indications regularly used to assign a degree of “authenticity” to a particular performance – faithfulness to the score, compliance with some sort of historical practice, and a general allegiance to the composer’s compositional practices and philosophies. Given Cage’s recent surge in popularity, there is plenty of material available for researching the topic of Cagean performance practice. Cage scores are abundant in libraries and most of them, even his most elaborate and expensive, remain in print. Since his death in 1992 ended his personal restriction on recordings of his work, Cage has become the most recorded American composer in history; a casual search of yields over 150 CDs featuring his work. Furthermore, Cage wrote numerous books and spoke in countless interviews about the philosophical and compositional foundations of his music and, most importantly, about those performers and performances which best – or worst – reflected the spirit of his work.

Despite this abundance of resources, few analyses or discussions of Cagean performance practice have been published. The absence of publications is directly related to the difficulty in achieving a definitive position on the issue, particularly in the case of performing the composer’s indeterminate music. The profusion of scores, writings, interviews, and recordings does not necessarily mean that these resources are consistent, nor are Cage’s own comments on the subject – when viewed in light of his actions – “authoritative” statements. Cage’s thoughts tend to be as non-linear as his music, more occupied with ceaseless questioning than answers and are prone to contradiction and confusion. In an interview with Richard Kostelantz, for example, Cage proposes that “it makes no difference what the results are” in a performance of his indeterminate music since “results are like deaths,” and that the interest in his music lies in “things going on, and changing, not in things being fixed.” Moments later, Cage would go to declare that his music asks that the performer “make a disciplined action” and, more intriguingly, “that the freedoms I’ve given have not been given to permit just anything that one wants to do, but have been invitations for people to free themselves from their like and dislikes, and to discipline themselves.” Though these statements seem compatible on a surface level, their application to the performance situation presents a crisis of interpretation. Where do the freedoms end and the discipline begin? If results are not important, why limit the performer’s freedoms?

These contradictions extend beyond Cage’s remarks and into the majority of his interactions with the performance community. His renunciation of the hierarchical relationship between conductor and performer was quick to fade in the cases of performances he found unacceptable. Conductors often bore the tirades of the taskmaster that existed just behind Cage’s “gentle anarchist” surface for failing to impose discipline on the freedoms of their performers and chiding them for allowing expressive liberties in performance. Similarly, Cage’s “invitations for people to free themselves from their likes and dislikes” were frequently undermined by his firsthand involvement in the realization of the majority of performances – thus replacing the likes and dislikes of the performers with his own personal preferences. Those performances of indeterminate works over which Cage did not directly preside were often composed for specific players such as David Tudor, whose judgment and inventiveness Cage trusted with an absolute reliance even in cases in which Tudor may have made interpretive decisions exceeding those suggested by the score. Clearly, this specificity in performer selection indicates the interjection of a considerable degree of Cage’s personal preference into the performance environment even before the performance has begun. By the same token, Cage’s ability to discern between an acceptable and unacceptable performance of his music betrays the notions of absolute relativity he seems to have set for performance practice. Thus the question arises – how is the performer to behave in the performance situation if Cage himself was not personally able to apply his aesthetic and escape his own personal preference? Can there be a difference between a good performance in which “the results don’t matter” and a bad performance in which “the results don’t matter?”

In light of these controversies, the need arises to find the common threads running through the Cagean performance requirements in order to resolve, or at least understand the implications of, the apparent authenticity discrepancies suggested by the composer’s actions. Understanding the roots of Cage’s performance aesthetic involves a return to the philosophy from which Cage’s compositional devices spring – the desire to create music “so that sounds would be themselves.” Cage wanted to relinquish his control over the sounding events by the creation of elaborate compositional systems designed to remove the traces of personal intention and ensure that “the music is a resultant existing simply in the sounds we hear, given no impulse by expressions of self or personality.” By extension, the performer who wishes to present a performance consistent with the aims of non-intention and absolute attention to the independence of sounds must similarly aim to engage in the same sort of suppression of the ego exhibited in Cage’s compositional techniques.

Cage’s earliest attempts at liberating sounds from the strictures of preference, such as the chance operation derived Music of Changes for solo piano, succeeded in eliminating the performer’s opportunity for personal expression, provided the performer acts as a strict executor of the score, but failed in eliminating all aspects of the composer’s preference for the sounds selected. In indeterminate works, Cage succeeds in removing his ego from the compositional process by creating systems that leave the music in the hands of the performer, shifting the burden of responsibility from the composer.

In this arrangement, the performer and composer become co-conspirators against the influence of the self, the inherent tendencies toward preference, and the ingrained habits and intentions that subconsciously lock sounds into structures and predetermined patterns. Cage removes his preferences and compositional intentions by the derivation of open-ended processes in the form of scores indeterminate as to their performance. In scores such as Variations II, in which measurements taken from designs printed on overlapped transparency sheets dictate the fluctuations in musical parameters, or the Song Books, which consist of graphic and verbal scores giving no specific indication as to the sound or structure of the final result, Cage surrenders his command over the performance situation through an autonomous score that generates its own performance parameters independent of the composer. In order to preserve the aims of non-intention, the performer must submit to the score by following the instructions to the last detail and sacrificing as many “interpretative” decisions as possible to a strict execution of the score. Submission to the letter of the score does not represent a submission to Cage’s will – and subsequently to Cage’s preference – however, as the processes are geared toward a random generation of parameters designed to keep Cage’s preference as removed as possible from the resultant musical performance. In this manner, the score emerges as a third party to which both parties sacrifice as much interpretative liberty as possible to transcend the confines of individual likes and dislikes. This degree of submission accounts for Cage’s emphasis on “discipline” in his remarks to Kostelantz.

If strict adherence to an impersonal, third party score constitutes the basis of the “discipline” aspect of the Cagean performance equation, then what constitutes the “freedom” aspect? The necessity for a performer’s involvement in the decision-making process in the realization of Cage’s indeterminate scores stems from a central defect inherent in the majority of these works: the scores, although generative of the performance environment, are not prohibitive of what occurs inside the environment. Although each score provides the framework for the performance, they often appear open-ended to an extreme capable of diminishing their capacities as “invitations to free people from their likes and dislikes.” The transparencies provided for Variations II, for example, can be used to construct a map of the frequency, amplitude, timbre, and duration of the sonic events for a given performance but cannot expressly prevent the performer from filling these parameters with Broadway show tunes or using the guidelines to construct a Mozart-esque sonata. The score alone cannot be viewed as a successful tool for yielding a performance in which “sounds can be themselves,” as the score will always allow sufficient room for the performer to infuse his or her habits. Consequently, performance authenticity – as viewed in terms of “allowing sounds to be themselves” – cannot depend solely on the adherence of a performer to the score; by itself, the score is fundamentally defective and incapable of delivering a performance true to Cage’s central principles.

Therefore, an interpreter of Cage’s music who seeks to be faithful to Cage’s aims must rely on knowledge of Cagean philosophy in addition to his or her study and careful realization of the score. The philosophical background and compositional intent – which is, paradoxically, the elimination of intent and preference – acts as an unwritten mandate regulating both the freedoms and disciplines invoked by the open-ended processes of the indeterminate score. Cage’s compositional motto of “letting sounds be themselves” extends as an immediate, essential directive to the performer to eschew those behaviors that place sounds into a context determined by his or her preexisting inclinations and to enter into an explorative environment apart from his or her accustomed behaviors.

In a 1992 interview with Joan Retallack, Cage offers a clear translation of his compositional philosophy into a dictum for performance by stating that the aim of performance is “the release of habits” with the intent of liberating sound from preference and intention and to encourage an exploration of the unknown. Cage expands on this principle in conversation with the cellist Michael Bach, stating, “If you already know something, you might as well stop. Other people think that’s when they should start – is when they start repeating themselves. When they know how to do something.” The introduction of a performer’s preferences represent repetitions of prior knowledge, a reliance on habit, and the defeat of the “purposeful purposelessness” of the autonomous score unit. This renders a performance inauthentic to Cage’s desire for the independence of sound and the escape from intention and partiality.

Cage’s theoretical milieu fulfills the unexpressed prohibitive functions in his scores and illuminates the possibilities for freedom in the performance situation. Hypothetically, the independent, automatic processes suggested by the score free the performer from the possibility of returning to preferences in form and structure, while the theoretical component prevents the performer from returning to habits in the selection of content. The performer is therefore free to behave in any manner that is simultaneously compliant with the score and unfettered by his or her previous experiences. The two parts complement each other, creating an environment in which it truly “makes no difference what the results are,” as long as the results are both disciplined and free of presupposed intention.

The ambiguities in this system emerge when Cage himself begins to place judgments on the authenticity of various performances and in the apparent possibilities of perfectly realizing “an intention of non-intention.” Moreover, many performances indicate that Cage’s “the results don’t matter” philosophy – suggesting that his work emphasizes the means over the ends – appears contradictory to his qualitative judgments. I will present three instances of performances in which questions of authenticity have been raised. Two of these questionable performances took place during Cage’s lifetime and offer insight into the nature of performances that appealed to or offended Cage, while the third example takes place more recently but expands on the issues of performance practice of indeterminate works in the years after Cage’s death. The details of the score requirements, the character of the performance realization, and Cage’s reaction (where applicable) will be examined against the model of Cagean performance practice suggested earlier in the essay.

1961- David Tudor’s realization of Variations II (1961)

Variations II is exemplary of much of Cage’s indeterminate music of the time in its use of overlapping plastic transparencies. The score contains eleven pieces of transparent plastic, five of which are plastic squares with a single printed dot; the other six are rectangular with a single straight line. The instructions order the performer to arrange the eleven transparencies in any configuration and then measure the distance of the points from each of the five lines. The six newly formed lines serve as the axes for different sonic parameters – amplitude, duration, overtone structure, frequency, the time location of the sound within a fixed time frame, and the structure of the note event – while the distance of each point from the five axes signifies the value for the associated sonic parameters. In the case of the “structure of events” parameter, Cage specifies three types of structures: “points,” “aggregates,” and “constellations.” The nature of these structures as well as the scale of measurement from each axis is left unspecified creating a source of indeterminacy left to the performer’s discretion. The piece can consist of as many events as the performer desires; to add events, the performer simply rearranges the transparency sheets and takes new measurements. The instrumentation and number of performers are also decided by the interpreter.

Only portions of David Tudor’s realization, however, remain faithful to Cage’s conception of Variations II. For his 1961 realization of Variations II, Tudor employed the amplified piano. Tudor’s choice of instrument fits comfortably in the Cagean performance tradition as both a generator for unexpected sounds and as a means to bypass intention. The piano was amplified by two microphones above and below the piano, numerous contact microphones attached to the piano, contact microphones attached to stiff wire brushes which could be used to play directly on the piano strings, and by phonograph cartridges outfitted with assorted objects. Like the wire brush contact microphones, the phonograph cartridges could be applied directly to the strings or placed against the piano to amplify string resonances. The methods and magnitude of amplification create a highly unstable environment of feedback loops in which, as Tudor acknowledged in his realization notes, the performer “could only hope to influence.” Far from being a detriment, the decision to operate in such a volatile acoustic space represents an ideal way to remove any specificities of personal preference, elements of intention, and opportunities to rely on musical devices of habit from the performance environment.

Tudor’s dealings with the point and line measurements and the scale of the events represented therein, however, veer noticeably from Cage’s original instructions for the work. As specified, Tudor took a series of accurate measurements for fifty events occurring within a specified time frame. Instead of fitting these measurements to a dynamic scale of values for each axes – as is required by the score – Tudor devised a system of value assessment based on the strictly binary values of “simple” events versus “complex” events. For example, a “simple” structured event would represent an event sounded by a single action, such as a single scrape on the strings, while a “complex” structured event would be created using two overlapping processes, such as scraping with a phonograph cartridge while scraping with a thimble. The most obvious deviation from Cage’s intended procedures emerges in Tudor’s interpretation of the “placement in time” axis. Whereas Cage defined the values along this axis as referring to the placement of the event within the performance time frame, Tudor’s “simple/complex” binary system also uses the parameter to determine whether or not an event will repeat in the given time frame. In determining each “simple/complex” parameter, Tudor engaged in a series of performance experiments in order to determine the qualitative aspects of sounds to be used in the actual performance, selecting those sounds and processes he found favorable with the system of amplification. Tudor’s final score realization converted the results of his exploration of these “simple/complex” switches into a graphic notation scored on graph paper, which Tudor used to determine the character and placement of events in performance.

Clearly, Tudor’s realization and subsequent performance of Variations II is inauthentic to the model of Cagean performance practice. By converting the measurement scale from a stream of continuous variables into a system of binary choices, Tudor has deliberately disregarded –by the insertion of personal preference – the score’s instructions. The nature of Tudor’s realization, therefore, shifted from Cage’s outline of an impersonal, systematic means of investigating the possibilities of sound to a highly individualized interpretation indicative of Tudor’s own musical agendas and extremely reminiscent of Tudor’s own compositional approaches. Furthermore, the weight Tudor assigned his own performance actions and the extent of his pre-performance exploration of the amplified piano point to obvious intrusions of the ego, preference, and preset intention apart from Cage’s purpose. Tudor is saved from criticisms of blatant indifference for Cage’s compositional philosophies by the unpredictable nature of feedback from the amplified piano, a device nearly guaranteed to render at least some aspects of the performance indeterminate. Though Tudor’s interpretation uncovers aspects of Cage’s work previously unimagined, and produced a performance of considerable sonic interest and variety, it does so at the expense of authenticity in performance practice.

Despite the inauthentic aspects of Tudor’s pre-performance realizations and actual performance, Cage had nothing but the highest praise for Tudor. Instead of criticizing Tudor’s disregard for the instructions in the score or seemingly gross interjections of intention and individuality, Cage lauded Tudor for “his genius for solving puzzles” and hailed his attention to detail and inventiveness of interpretation. Why would Cage praise a performance that stands in such contrast to his idealized model of performance practice? When asked in a 1975 interview about the performance of Variations II in general, Cage replied that the work is performed authentically “when it’s clear that the person who is realizing the work is doing his work in the spirit of the composition” – which David Tudor may very well have done – “but in such a way as to free himself from his choices.” It is in regards to Cage’s latter qualification that Tudor’s performance appears inauthentic, and yet nowhere does Cage voice any explicit objections to Tudor’s repeated assertions of choice. As suggested earlier, the success of this realization of Variations II owes more to Cage’s preference for Tudor (who had a monopoly on such performances for much of Cage’s earlier indeterminate period) as a performer than it does to any representation of Cage’s publicly asserted principles for performance practice.

1975- Julius Eastman’s realization of the Song Books (1970)

Cage’s Song Books stand among the most diversely notated works in his canon and among the most visually appealing. Unlike Variations II, a work whose indeterminate elements are the result of pre-performance construction by the performer, the Song Books are indeterminate with respect to their interpretation – the scores for each of the eighty-five solos are fixed in regards to notation but open-ended in regards to their realization in performance. Each of the solos falls into one of four categories: 1) song; 2) song using electronics; 3) theatre; 4) theatre using electronics. The electronics described in the instructions are wireless microphones attached to the performer’s throats and the effects processors used to modify their output, as well as contact microphones attached to “non-vocal sounds, e.g. activities on a tale of typewriters, etc.” The notation for both the theatrical interludes and the vocal solos varies from conventionally notated solos offering the soloist a range of note choices in performance to strictly graphic notation to verbal instructions for song or onstage actions. The notational variety in the Song Books corresponds directly to Cage’s desire for a multiplicity of performance actions; according to Cage, “a virtuoso performance will include a wide variety of styles of singing and vocal production.” Richard Kostelantz observes that Cage’s instruction ensures that “the counterconventional form of each part thus contributes to the counterconventional theme of the whole, both of which are designed to encourage not one vocal possibility but many.”

The performer faces countless challenges in realizing some of Cage’s most open-ended notation. In some solos, the performer is asked to derive melodic shapes from the contours suggested by a road map or to relate vocally dramatic changes in the typescript of a solo’s text. Other solos feature little more than numerals printed in a variety of typefaces with a plus or minus sign appearing before each number. In these solos, Cage instructs the soloist to construct a list of sixty-four verbs and nouns, with each verb or noun corresponding to a number appearing on the page. Cage specifies that these things and actions must be to the performer items “with which he or she is willing to be involved and which are theatrically feasible (those may include stage properties, clothes, etc.; actions may be “real” or mimed, etc.).” The plus or minus sign preceding each number on the page may be given “any significance that the performer finds useful” – a plus may indicate the beginning of an action, for example, while a minus sign might indicate the conclusion or elimination of some activity. Such open-ended notation places the Song Books performer under greater strain than a work such as Variations II, in which the performer engages in a more systematic, constructivist realization of the score. The difficulties in removing elements of intention and preference are made nearly insurmountable by the absolute lack of prohibitive materials in the score; the performer is nearly entirely responsible for ensuring that his or her behavior lies within the requirements of the idealized Cagean performance practice.

The extent to which this crisis affects the performance of the Song Books became apparent in Julius Eastman’s notorious 1975 performance at the Eastman School of Music’s “June in Buffalo” festival. Petr Kotik, conductor of New York’s S.E.M. Ensemble, invited Eastman to perform the Song Books on the recommendation of both John Cage and David Tudor, who had seen Eastman deliver a stellar performance of the work in 1971. Eastman accepted the invitation despite a number of misgivings surrounding his somewhat disgraceful exit from the S.E.M. Ensemble earlier in that year in a dispute regarding the music of Marcel Duchamp. Without regard for the potentially volatile interaction between Kotik and Eastman, Cage repeatedly refused to allow any rehearsal of the Song Books to occur before the performance, fearing this would introduce prefixed elements into the performance environment and encourage Eastman to act out of habit instead of spontaneity. On the night of the performance, Eastman’s onstage behavior became so outrageous that Kotik refers to his actions as “sabotage” to this day. Peter Gena, a student of Morton Feldman in Buffalo and a long-time Cage associate, describes the performance:

During the performance, Julius had extended his interpretation to slowly undressing his boyfriend on stage. Then, he moved to his (Julius’s) sister and attempted to do the same thing. His sister responded, “No Julius, no!” Julius moved on to something else. The next day during a plenary session John pounded his fist on the desk and shouted, “I’m tired of people who think that they could do whatever they want with my music!”

Cage also directed his fury at Kotik immediately after the performance. Kotik reminded Cage that, without rehearsal, the actions of the performance could not have been prevented. Cage’s decidedly non-Cagean response came forth – “But you are the director!” The tensions stemming from this scandalous performance of the Song Books hindered relationships between Cage, Kotik, and the Eastman School of Music for years to come.

Despite Cage’s adverse reaction to Eastman’s shocking actions, there is little evidence to suggest from the descriptions of those in attendance that Eastman actually behaved in any manner that was immediately noncompliant with the Song Books score. For example, Eastman may have selected “undress” as one of the verbs to be assigned to a number and he may have simply been acting as a strict executor of that particular solo. As such, Kotik would be faithful to both the score and to the theoretical intention of freeing himself from choice in the performance environment. It is also possible, however, to view Eastman’s actions as a conscious assertion of malice (and thus intention) toward Cage and Kotik – perhaps rooted in his dishonorable discharge from the S.E.M. Ensemble – and that Eastman used Cage’s instructions as a weapon against the festival organizers. In either situation, Cage’s strong reaction to a performance that contains a mix of the authentic and inauthentic comparable to Tudor’s less outwardly controversial Variations II shows Cage’s personal preference for the very types of inauthenticity that appear in the performance environment! Similarly, Cage’s berating of Kotik following the concert bristles with contradiction. How can Cage simultaneously seek to avoid the influence of preference and intention through the absence of rehearsal and direction and yet assail the conductor for failing to assert preference on the performer’s actions? If the results truly don’t matter, how could Cage take such great offense? Kotik’s awareness of the inherent contradiction in Cage’s actions led him to a take on performance practice distant from Cage’s own, and Kotik’s experiences from the 1975 Song Books disaster would change his subsequent performances of Cage’s music.

2000 – Petr Kotik and the S.E.M. Ensemble’s realization of 103 (1991)

Cage’s last works, often referred to as the “number pieces,” represent his attempt to create an indeterminate performance environment that eliminated the capacity for “interpretive error.” Like the other numbers pieces, the title of 103 comes from the number of instruments in the ensemble. Although 103 was composed for an orchestral ensemble, the piece is more accurately viewed as a conglomeration of 103 individually composed solo parts played simultaneously. Each part consists of a lengthy string of single note events, with each note event encompassed in a “time bracket” indicating times in which the performer may begin or end the tone. In the instructions included with the parts, Cage specifies that 103 should be performed without a conductor; instead, a digital display of the elapsed performance time should be provided for the orchestra.

With the number pieces, Cage pursued the most extreme route of composer non-involvement of his career. The tones in the time brackets of each of the 103 solo parts were selected randomly by computers programmed to execute Cage’s chance operations. Cage and his copyist transcribed 103 spreadsheets containing the chance-derived tones in their corresponding time brackets into score form for each of the player’s parts. Although the time brackets are fixed, the player remains ultimately responsible for the beginning and ending of each note, thus leaving the structure of the work indeterminate until the time of performance. Time brackets in which the possible beginning and ending overlap also produce the possibility for players to omit notes, further increasing the flexibility in performance. Cage’s compositional non-involvement extends into the realm performance non-involvement. By providing the performers with the relatively strict task of performing single tones according to an impersonal timer, Cage severely limits the possibility of expressivities or the intrusion of intention. Cage’s insistence on the absence of a conductor eliminates another potential source of preference and limits the performer’s obligations to nothing more than the score and the group’s timing device. In principle, the number pieces exhibit the greatest inclination toward Cage’s compositional and performance principles of non-intention and the absolute focus on sound.

In his 2000 performance of 103 (recorded for Asphodel Records), Petr Kotik ignored Cage’s instructions to perform the work without a conductor. Kotik claims that such an indication is “almost without precedent” and that “the manner in which music is performed will always remain the domain of the performer.” In the recorded performance, Kotik acted strictly as a timekeeper without expressive gesturing – an analog version of Cage’s suggested digital timekeeper. Kotik’s function remains identical to Cage’s clock, yet his presence serves an authoritative function over the orchestral group; Kotik’s authority indeed “lead” the group in the way that mechanical intervention could not.

Over the course of two months, Kotik employed Cagean chance operations to fix the attack point of each in tone in every performer’s part; the performer was still permitted to select his own ending for each sound provided within the bracket. Such infractions on the part of Kotik suggest an almost blatant disregard for Cage’s oft-spoken performance goals and seem extreme enough to almost constitute a violation of Cage’s score.

Kotik’s behavior lends an air of inauthenticity to the performance and yet Kotik’s actions are surprisingly Cagean in their aims – suggesting that Kotik may have a better notion of an appropriate Cagean performance practice than Cage did. If the performance environment truly exists as a place for “sounds to be themselves” and for “the release of habit,” then Kotik’s initially flippant-sounding dismissal of Cage’s performance instructions may, in fact, contain implications of genuine importance to revealing a practicable method of performing Cage’s music. When asked of his controversial interpretation of Cage’s score, Kotik explained, “This way, the orchestra, under my guidance, was able to fully concentrate on the way each sound was produced, and the performance was ensured from the possibility that the players would start to �do what they want.’”

The results of Kotik’s work are undeniably beautiful and appear as effortless, spontaneous, and meditative as any of Cage’s music. On a purely audible level, Kotik’s realization – despite its inauthentic pre-performance structural planning and director-led performance – sounds and feels as if the sounds are unplanned, unfixed, and, as Cage would have it, truly themselves.

By: Joe Panzner
Published on: 2003-02-17
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