The End of Not Inhaling

Friends are beginning to inquire whether I’m OK, so I guess it’s time to blog something. The end of the semester is always a whirlwind, complicated this year by a performance of my son’s beautiful orchestra piece and the arrival of relatives to hear it. Afterward, only one day’s rest intervened before I was whisked off to Wilmington, Delaware to make the first half of a recording of my 70-minute suite The Planets, with the intrepid Relache ensemble and a brilliant young sound engineer with a great ear, Andreas Meyer. (Andreas runs a new CD label called Meyer Media, some of whose offerings are now up on Postclassic Radio.) 

Once back, I plunged into my summer project, a book on Cage’s 4’33” for Yale University Press. I’m hip deep in Cage, Rauschenberg, Daisetz Suzuki, Coomaraswamy, and the 1950s, and for perhaps the first time since I’ve started this blog, I’m inhaling a lot more knowledge than I’m exhaling. The bulk of my Cage obsession took place between ages 15 and 20 (I performed 4’33” in Dallas in May 1973), and there’s been a tremendous amount of startlingly good Cage scholarship in the last 15 years that I hadn’t seen at all – he seems to bring out the best in musicologists of all stripes. So I’m going back deeply into Cage and getting a tremendously cleaned-up perspective on him which I anticipate being creatively affected by. In my teens I became too overwhelmed by Cage’s influence and had to finally get away from him. Now I’ve got a much stronger artistic backbone, and can pick and choose, criticize and admire, whatever I fancy. He wasn’t a philosopher, and any musician who calls him that just doesn’t know what philosophers are or what they do. But he was an innovative composer with an original personality and an incredibly elegant and memorable flair for words, which latter did a tremendous amount to promote his career.

One note, though – in case it occurs to you to write in with a wisecrack that a book on 4’33” will be full of blank pages: you’re not the first to come up with that joke. Nor the 2nd, nor the 12th, nor the 50th. The fact is, I brace myself for it now, and am growing weary of it.

I had quite a few performances this spring, and the last two were by student ensembles: Bard’s chorus performing Transcendental Sonnets and the Williams College Symphonic Winds playing Sunken City. What struck me is that student ensembles really, really rehearse – and that there is NO substitute for rehearsal. The Williams College musicians, many of them non-music-majors (the flutist is going on to grad school in microbiology) worked hard from February to May, and the Bard chorus had begun rehearsing last fall. The wonderful effect was that those kids had the total sound of those pieces in their heads, knew and could anticipate every chord, every rhythmic quirk, every melody. They weren’t playing “new music,” but repertoire they knew virtually by heart. Several superb professional groups have played my music lately with considerable élan after only a few hours’ rehearsal, and I’m grateful to them. But the performances that truly gelled, that sounded the way they sounded in my head, were the ones rehearsed for months and months, and apparently that kind of luxury is only available in academia these days, with student ensembles. It gives new meaning to Milton Babbitt’s characterization of the university as “our last hope, our only hope.”

The version of Sunken City now uploaded to my web site is the Williams College one:

1. Before (Brian Simalchik, piano)
2. After (Noah Lindquist, piano)

There are many fewer mishaps here than in the otherwise heroic premiere performance by the Orkest de Volharding, which was the only recording I had previously. I was flummoxed by the ease with which the Williams College kids negotiated the constantly changing meters of 17/16, 7/8, and so on, but conductor Steven Bodner told me his secret: “Never admit to them that what they’re doing is difficult.”


  1. says

    About 1979 or so there was one of the wonderful contemporary music festivals at CalArts that seemed to always be happening there during that era. I was working on Kagel’s Transicion II with pianist Gaylord Mowrey, who shortly thereafter became a founding member of the California E.A.R. Unit. We rehearsed that piece for months, and eventually performed it several times and recorded it for broadcast on KPFK, Los Angeles. By the time we played it publicly for the first time we knew it so well it was almost memorized. I have rarely gotten to know a piece that well, and when he heard our recording, Kagel was very complimentary. That means a lot to me now in retrospect, since when I played Dressur later on another CalArts festival, about all I remember hearing him say was “Is all wrong! Is all wrong!”.
    So Carter had some big high falutin’ piece on that festival, and it had a bitchin’ mallet part. I offered my services, but Carter said “No thank you, no students. Only professionals”. So they hired L.A. hotshots, and Karen Ervin (one of my teachers) got the percussion part. They did their two rehearsals, and that’s what Carter got. Two rehearsals. With no students.
    If he had allowed some of us students to play his music, he would have gotten the kind of commitment that Gaylord and I put into the Kagel, and I think he would have gotten a much more polished performance.
    Some years later in Ojai Carter was the featured composer on the festival, and the E.A.R. Unit was playing a bunch of his stuff. I ran into him and introduced myself. He said “Do you play my music?” I said “No, Amy does”. I always refused to play Carter whenever the E.A.R. Unit programmed it.

  2. Rodney Lister says

    I’ll be interested to read your book. As I think you know, I’m a big Cage fan, but I find 4’33” troubling, or at least puzzling. I just don’t know what to make of it. I’m pretty sure that what people usually say, that you’re supposed to hear everything that’s going on during the “performance” as the piece, is not the point. I can accept the idea that anything you put the, as it were, frame around, becomes music without too much bother, but I just don’t think that’s what’s going on in this case.

  3. says

    Kyle —
    In case this is of interest for your book:
    BBC Radio 3 broadcast a live London orchestral performance of 4’33” in Britain a few years ago. In order to do so, they had to turn off the automated system which the radio network uses to manage breaks in transmission. This system automatically transmits a pre-recorded spoken apology message if no sound is transmitted for a certain period (from memory, 30 seconds).
    I listened to the broadcast, and there was audience laughter part way through. It turned out that this occurred at one the breaks between movements in the piece, when the conductor took out his handkerchief and wiped his brow.
    KG replies: Yeah, thanks, I blogged about that at the time, and stored all the info away for the book.

  4. Steve says

    I would love to hear about the highpoints of the recent Cage scholarship that you mention above. Who do you think has done or is doing the best work?
    KG replies: I hadn’t seen the new books about Cage by David Nicholls, Peter Dickinson, and David Patterson, which are excellent. Bard now hosts the John Cage Trust, an archive run by Laura Kuhn, and a lot of stuff I have access to here isn’t even published.

  5. says

    An entire book on 4’33”? Wonderful! I’ve always enjoyed Larry Solomon’s online article about the piece, a great reference whenever across the internet I’d run into somebody who had opinions about the work while knowing little about its actual history or structure.
    Now there will be a full book to look forward to. Exciting thought. It’s quite amazing really how much you can write about, or in relation to, that piece. Quite the inverse of that wearying joke. The most recent one I read is Liz Kotz’ Words to be looked at, which traces the development of conceptual visual art and poetry through the 60s and early 70s on the basis of an intermedial analysis of 4’33”.
    (BTW I hope you can find room in the book to mention the Wandelweiser composers – among them you find some of the strongest work that goes back to the piece being written today)
    KG replies: Hi Samuel – as with so much else, you’ll have to educate me about the Wandelweiser composers.

  6. says

    Kyle, I think you do know something of the work of Michael Pisaro, who you could think of as “the american wandelweiser”. But I was first of all thinking of some works of Antoine Beuger’s and Manfred Werder’s which seem to present interesting developments of the idea that a piece is first of all a way of structuring time, which derives from 4’33”. Werder’s cycle of 9 pieces, “for 1 performer” up to “for 9 performers” is perhaps the clearest case of this; in these pieces, you always have either a 6 second single sound followed by a 6 second silence, or a 12 second silence, and one full work runs on for two weeks or so – only excerpts ever get played. I believe this is a very clear post-4’33” attitude.
    They have their website at; there’s a striking catalogue of discs out already.

  7. Bob Gilmore says

    hi Kyle,
    I listened to the new performance of Sunken City and, while it’s indeed excellent, I wouldn’t say it wins hands down over the Volharding performance. The first movement is more accurate but seems less “characterised”. Any strong piece grows from diverse interpretations, and that’s what you’ve got. The more the merrier, I say.
    all best
    KG replies: Oh, I agree completely, and “characterized” is a good way of putting it. I wish I had gotten recordings of Volharding’s second and third performances, the former of which, at least, was much better. When a piece isn’t known yet, a composer wants to at least get it exposed to the world with the right pitches, rhythms, and tempos in place. Characterization can come afterward.