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:
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.”