issue 11 :: July 2005

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REVIEW: John Cage

“James Joyce, Marcel Duchamp, Erik Satie: An Alphabet” 2CD (Wergo)
reviewed by Josh Ronsen
This double CD set documents the German and English performances of an unusual theater piece by John Cage and a dozen friends. Known for a fifty year career of noteworthy and unusual performances, this radio play imagines fictional meetings between many of Cage’s artistic and cultural heroes, not only the three of the title, but also Buckminister Fuller, Henry David Thoreau, Rrose Selavy (Duchamp’s cross-dressing feminine alter-ego), Robert Rauschenberg, Henrik Ibsen, Brigham Young (although I cannot remember Cage ever mentioning Ibsen and Young in any of his voluminous writings) and others. Cage writes for these people as ghosts meeting. Chance operations determines who is speaking at any moment. Each ghost reads from his own writings or from texts written by Cage. The results are humorously corny and nerdy. An example of the humor? The narrator (Klaus Reichert, on both versions) explains that Brigham Young wants to commission another “Large Glass” from Duchamp, but this one with many more brides than bachelors.
An unannounced child reads a text about China, Jesus and childhood. The narrator explains, “Mao Tse-Tung has spoken.” This gets big laughs and applause in the 1990 performance in New York (and lesser laughs in 1987 Cologne.)
I was bothered when I first read Cage praising Mao in his writings of social commentary (such as “Maoism is our greatest reason for optimism,” from the 1972 book For the Birds). Perhaps by portraying Mao’s ghost as a child twenty years later, Cage shows his earlier praise was based on a child’s naivety. This is what I like to think. It could also be that Cage deliberately cloaked Mao’s thoughts into a child’s voice so that his listeners wouldn’t reject them outright. The writings of a brutal dictator (seventy million killed according to the book Mao: the Unknown Story) is incompatible with Cage’s peaceful social anarchy.
Another interesting difference between the two different performances: at one point all the characters must say the same phrase at the same time. In New York, chaos. In Germany, everyone speaks in perfect unison.
Cage (as James Joyce), Dick Higgins, Christian Wolff, Malcolm Goldstein, Philip Corner, Alvin Curran and others provide the voices of the ghosts. Mauricio Kagel and George Brecht are the notables in the German version, with Cage still taking the part of Joyce, sometimes reading in English and sometimes in German. The characters interact, offering each other advice, displaying wacky inventions, and scheme to make money by forging Basquiat’s signature among numerous philosophical digressions.
This work is unusual in one respect in relation to Cage’s large body of work (300+ compositions, many of those infinitely variable). On one hand, “An Alphabet” draws from writings of authors Cage admires, which is a thread that flows through such pieces as Cages “A Diary,” “Mureau,” “Roaratorio” and numerous others. The humorous tone is similar to the collection of one minute stories used in “Indeterminacy” from 1959. Many aspects of the piece--who is speaking when, the inanimate objects encountered in the play, etc.--are derived from chance operations. What is unusual is how Cage directly writes text. In his series of five “Europeras,” written just after these two versions of “An Alphabet,” Cage only utilizes the lyrics and descriptions of previous operas (with each singer choosing the arias they will sing from the repertory). And this is the way in which we expect Cage to work, drawing out and manipulating the text of others. Even his 1 minute stories seem more like descriptive reports (or gossip) as opposed to creative writing. Fiction, as it is generally understood, has been seemingly absent from his life’s work. In “An Alphabet,” Cage takes “liberties with [the ghosts] ascribing to them imaginary works they never made.” This is astounding to me, considering his other works.
However, perhaps it is not so unusual. In mammoth works like the Concert for Piano and “Song Books,” one of the chance derived options for composing was to develop a new method of composing, not previously used by Cage. Here, Cage applies this method to others. And who is to say they never actually said what Cage has written? Nobody’s life is that documented, yet.
For more information about John Cage, see my extensive index to online information.
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Josh Ronsen
joshronsen (ate) yahoo (dote) com
2001 Brentwood
Austin, Texas 78757 USA