Some years ago, I hosted and coprogrammed a concert series for the famous new audience, with the Pittsburgh Symphony. We did many things — play the first movement of Mozart’s Paris Symphony, with the audience told to applaud whenever it heard a passage it liked. (Because that was the practice in Mozart’s time, as he explains with great delight in a letter to his father. He was delighted because he’d gamed the audience, written music that guaranteed they’d applaud.)
(And — digression, but an important one — the result was revelatory. The quality of the applause varied greatly from moment to moment, showing that the audience was listening carefully, and reacting to various moments differently. Plus, they’d stop applauding as soon as the music went on to something new, because they didn’t want to miss anything Mozart threw at them. So any fear that letting the audience applaud would result in them not listening carefully proved wrong. The result was the opposite — they listened more carefully than they would if they weren’t applauding.)
We also shaved the head of a volunteer from the audience while the orchestra played the “Bacchanale” from Samson et Dalila.
And on one concert I programmed the shortest of Webern’s very short Five Pieces for Orchestra, played twice, with the John Cage silent piece, 4’33″, in between.
As I explained to the audience, the problem with the Webern pieces, for a listener, isn’t that they’re atonal. It’s that they’re so short. Each one is over before most people have fully focused themselves on listening. So why not play one of them twice, with silence in between?
I explained the point of Cage’s piece, which is that there really isn’t silence, that sounds are always happening, and that the piece becomes a space for listening to those sounds. Which can be restful, and also make us more peacefully alert. So when Webern came around again, maybe we’d be more ready to focus on it.
Judging from conversations I had, people in the audience reacted in various ways to this, which is only natural. But some — and not a small number — really loved it. One woman who came up to me in the airport when I was flying home went wild for Cage. With vivid excitement, she told me that during the silence she’d imagined music paper covered with rests.
(Which makes me smile. I’ve written a string quartet called Mahler Variations, a 28-minute set of variations on the theme of the last movement of Mahler’s Third Symphony. The variations go all around the barn, stylistically. There are 12-tone Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg variations, written in the style — and 12-tone manner — of each composer. There’s an Elvis variation, with a 1950s rock & roll beat, and written so that any bar or two might have come from an Elvis song.
(And the next to last variation is a Cage variation, totally silent. Calling it “Cage Variation” is an affectionate joke, because what I really wanted was a very — very — long silence before the final variation, which is my own shot-through-with-emotion Mahleresque fantasy on the harmony of the Mahler theme. What’s most important in the Cage Variation score is the verbal direction, that the length of the silence is up to the players, but that they should resist all temptation to make it too short. Then I supplied a couple of pages of rests, which is why the woman in the airport made me think of this.
(This is the only major piece of mine that has never been performed. Is any quartet interested?)
The point of this story is that the Cage silent piece is a classic of a new kind, and can really charm an audience. It’s a mistake to ask what the standard classical audience thinks of it. We’re talking here about a new audience. And in a world where (as I keep saying) installation and conceptual art are all over the place — and, for that matter, a world in which many people practice meditation — a silent composition isn’t remarkable, can delight people, can at the very least cleanse the aural palate. In classical music’s future, when the new audience is firmly in place, I’ll let myself imagine a gala season opening concert, given by a major orchestra, that begins with Cage’s 4’33″. Just to whet the heart and ears for the music to come.
(Carlos Fischer, who often comments here, suggested a program that begins with the Cage, and moves on to a solo piece, two duos, a string quartet piece, and then a piece for full orchestra. So the concert starts in silence, and then builds, adding more and more sounds. What a great idea!)
Another story. When I was in graduate school (Yale School of Music, 1972-74, M.M. in composition), Alvin Lucier visited our composers’ seminar. I hope I remember this right, and that he really came! But either he played us, or someone else did, a recording of his quietly arresting piece, I Am Sitting in a Room.
Or maybe he created the piece for us, in our composers’ seminar space. That would have made sense, because even though there’s at least one recording, the piece really asks to be remade in any space you care about it in.
Here’s how it works. You speak a text, and record it. The text can be anything, though it shouldn’t be too long or short. Lucier’s text begins “I am sitting in a room,” and goes on to talk about how the piece is made, ending with the lovely thought that what the piece becomes might “smooth out any irregularities my speech might have.” A lovely, gentle thought, because he stutters.
You then play back your recording, and record the playback. I mean record it with a microphone, rather than simply feed it electronically into a recording device.The point is to capture the sound of your voice in the space you’re in, and rerecord that.
Why? Because as you keep repeating this step — playing back your most recent recording, always in the same room, and once again recording it — the sound of your voice is slowly, gently, magically transformed. What you begin to hear is the room resonance — the echoes of your voice, which might be so soft that you don’t notice them in normal life, but which get magnified each time — in this process — you make a new recording. The echoes, it turns out, emphasize certain frequencies, which are different from space to space.
So no two versions of this piece will sound alike. What happens, as you keep recording, is that your voice vanishes, submerged in echoes. Which, however, pulsate in the rhythm of your speaking. The result is radiant and charming — and also very simple — beyond my powers to describe.
I can imagine this being done at classical concerts. If the entire process takes too long, and we fear the audience will get restless, then we could start making the piece before the concert starts, and let it take shape as the audience is being seated. Then, finally, the last recording plays as the first piece on the program.
A group that did this could then invite members of its audience to make their own versions, which could be posted on a web page. If the group went on tour, it could make new versions in various halls it played in. I don’t mean that every group should do this, but in our new world (new, at least, for classical music), I think many people in our new audience would love this.
And finally, Pauline Oliveros. I’ve loved taking part in her vocal pieces which “the audience” performs. I put “the audience” in quotes because of course we aren’t the audience when we do this. We’re the creators.
A few years ago, at one of the Lincoln Center Outdoors summer concerts, one of these pieces was done, by maybe 250 people. Oliveros always gives instructions for what participants should do, and, though they’re simple, their effect is profound and absorbing.
In this case, if I remember correctly, we were all asked to sing or hum any note we might choose. And then, as the piece went on, we were asked to pick some other note, something someone else was humming or singing, and hum and sing that note.
And then, after a while, to move on. The result, happening all around me (and all around everyone else who participated) was a deep wash of vocal sound, a soft glow of many notes. Out of this glow individual notes would start to shine (as people began singing notes they heard others singing), growing in quiet strength, and then subsiding.
That was all. But it was enough for perhaps 20 minutes of stimulating calm. What didn’t work so well was an attempt to hook up, via audio, with other groups around the world doing the same piece, but I’ll forgive that, because it also didn’t do any harm.
I can imagine that the normal classical concert audience would be surprised, maybe put off, if it was asked to hum or sing. But on the other hand, the students at the National Orchestral Institute created a piece very much like this at the concert they produced this summer (which I blogged about), and in that setting it worked as if everyone involved had been doing pieces like this for years.
So who knows? Maybe you don’t do a Pauline Oliveros piece at a standard classical concert. Or maybe you do! But you could certainly do it at a concert for a new, younger audience. And the result could be magical. Imagine 4000 people doing this at the Metropolitan Opera, before a performance of something suitable. Or imagine a new opera, designed to begin with something like this, something the audience creates.
I suppose it’s partly my history — for years I was a critic in New York, reviewing pieces like the ones I’m describing here — that makes me so open to music of this kind, and so eager to see it more widely done. But pieces like this are part of classical music history. Whether or not most people know that! But if many people don’t know it — or know it and scoff — that’s one of classical music’s problems. Unlike other arts, it hasn’t (in its mainstream form) expanded to include pieces of itself that are legitimate, powerful, and rooted in the ways our culture has changed.