Thursday, December 10, 2009

Performing Cage in Southern Illinois

A couple weeks back, Dan asked me to share my experience of performing the world premiere of John Cage and Lejaren Hiller's "KNOBS" at Southern Illinois University.

To begin with, you should know that this was my first time performing another person's material, or even working with a score. I've never been a music student, and I certainly don't have the background of someone you'd expect to be performing a world premiere anything, let alone the work of two celebrated composers. But sometimes, these situations present themselves, and I find that it's often interesting to go along for the ride.

I had picked up the Nonesuch LP of Cage and Hiller's "HPSCHD" about a week before being asked to participate in an inter-arts festival being organized by a fellow WDBX-FM volunteer, Nick Yeck-Stauffer. Nick had recently been part of some downsizing at the University, but due to the institutional oddities, had found himself continuing to draw a paycheck without any actual duties. He was, in fact, asked what he would like to do-- being a gentleman of the arts, Nick found a way to finagle his way into hosting a three-day arts festival, which he dubbed "All Together Now."

All Together Now was envisioned as being an inter-arts free-for-all; the grand hope being to unite as much of the Southern Illinois arts communities in one large ballroom, not only to showcase all the weird and wonderful things going on here in Little Egypt, but to literally create new works and new ideas collaboratively.

I thought it was a great idea, and came to the first meeting to see what I could do to help. Within minutes, I had been drafted into running a circuit-bending workshop-- okay, not exactly what I was pitching. Nick was very excited about having a John Cage piece performed during the festival, so aside from the challenge of the workshop, I was good to go.

But why choose "KNOBS"? First off, I mentioned that I had gotten the LP about a week prior to the event. Well, it took about as long before I realized that there was an insert stuck between the sleeve and the jacket. This was one of the 10,000 computer-generated scores which gave precise instructions (in 5-second intervals!) for how the listener should alter bass, treble, and volume settings in the left and right channel during playback of the LP.

It was Cage and Hiller's intention that LP owners could perform this rather demanding score at home with their stereos, each creating a unique listening experience across the 21 minutes of the record side. Seeing that this remarkable score's demands laid quite heavily on my skills as a DJ, I had begun to wonder if performing the score on one of my radio broadcasts might be a good idea. The very next day, Nick told me of his plans for the festival, and I saw my path laid out.

I'm still not 100% certain that my performance of "KNOBS" was a world premiere, but after consulting the John Cage Database and asking around on the "Silence" listserv, I was okay with it possibly being hyperbole for promotion's sake. As they say, "if it's not online, it's invisible."

Needless to say, I try not to make the same mistake. Events in Carbondale live or die primarily due to the availability of alcohol, and lacking this, I did what I could do get the local press interested. I ended up with a calendar item in the regional newspaper, a couple nice paragraphs in the independent entertainment weekly, a non-music blog mention, and an article in the campus news as well. It takes a lot of energy to run down reporters, but it's usually worth it-- they reach a different audience; their voice can be helpful! However, be prepared for reporters to get things wrong. If you're doing something outside the norm, give extra focus to making sure they have the date and time right. In the end, not much else matters.

For the actual performance, I knew that I had to really develop my sense of time. The score for "KNOBS" is marked in 5-second intervals, with as many as six alterations in the playback per interval. I worked for many days with a stopwatch, seeing how many consecutive laps I could mark at exactly 5 seconds without counting aloud. It was very difficult, and I wondered if I would be able to perform the piece properly.

I also had to secure a mixer that I could use during the performance. As "KNOBS" requires separate changes to the right and left channels, my home stereo would have been inadequate. I ended up borrowing one from a friend who was also performing during the festival, but it did have one interesting quality-- fine EQ controls! Because the mixer had four EQ knobs for every channel, and the score only had "Bass" and "Treble" listed for each channel, I decided to gang the top two knobs as treble, and the bottom two as bass. This meant that for every adjustment of bass or treble in a given channel, I would have TWO knobs to adjust instead of ONE. Another challenge-- and again, I had doubts about my abilities as a performer.

The only way to solve these problems was simply practicing the work over and over until it became repetitive enough that I was confident making quick and precise movements within the 5-second intervals. To assist me, I re-copied the score onto index cards, with each card representing a single interval. In re-writing the score, I was able to discard a large amount of redundant data. For instance, I did not need to indicate the setting of any knob that would remain unchanged in a given interval. It was enough to leave this portion of the card blank, thus freeing me from the forest of data given in the original score. Although some cards did have as many as 10 simultaneous adjustments, (2 for each of the 4 bass and treble pots, and 2 for the volume faders) most cards had anywhere from 4 to 6. Indeed, I marked some cards with an "X" to represent no changes during the interval at all.

I also created a click track for myself, having found that it was nearly impossible to keep mentally aware of a five-second interval much past a couple minutes with any real regularity. Knowing that videoclocks and stopwatches were employed by professional musicians for many Cage performances, I felt that precedent had been set, allowing me such a luxury. I put my click track on my iPod, set it to repeat 1, and allowed it to play in my right ear for the duration of my practice sessions-- and eventually, during my performance as well.

But let me back up a bit. What about the collaborative nature of the festival? Well, along with courting reporters, I was also in touch with the Southern Illinois Dance Company, a student organization at SIUC. I had been told that they were also interested in being a part of the festival, and were possibly interested in performing during "KNOBS." Although I certainly wouldn't have wanted to duplicate the working relationship of John Cage and Merce Cunningham, I was open to the possibility that this dance company would be able to bring something of value to the performance. I made arrangements to meet with their company and introduce them to "KNOBS."

The meeting didn't go very well. There were a lot of blank looks... and when I played a recording of the LP, the dance company's "artistic director" turned it off in under 15 seconds, loudly stating that she "couldn't listen" to it any longer. Nevertheless, I was given assurance that they would be working on some sort of routine, and that they'd be in touch.

If you guessed that this portion of the premiere never materialized, you were right. The Southern Illinois Dance Company flaked out on me completely. Eventually, I was to learn that the company leader had expressed her opinion to Nick that "KNOBS" was "just noise," and would be unsuitable for the dancers. Incredulous, Nick reminded her of Merce Cunningham's role in helping create modern dance while choreographing dance for just such music! You can lead a horse to water...

The night of the performance, I was nervous. I took some comfort in the number of times that I had practiced the piece, though, and was feeling pretty confident. I was to go on after the first intermission; following a percussion ensemble's lengthy improvisation with a local noise artist which resulted in a good portion of our audience leaving the auditorium in protest of "Satanic" imagery in the concurrent film display. Again, with the horses and the water...

By the time of my premiere, the audience was at about half their original number-- some curious folks who had wandered in, people who regularly listened to my late-night/early morning broadcasts, other performers, and my daughter. We all shared a laugh as my turntable belt had to be replaced at the last minute, and as the usual PA troubles were methodically traced and corrected.

And then... it went really well. Every 5-second interval seemed to slow down tremendously, and the reassuring beep of my homemade click track counted off these syrupy moments until I was finished, exactly 252 index cards later. "KNOBS" was now part of everyone's memory, and I felt pretty happy to count myself among those few who have a chance to premiere a John Cage composition!

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