Percussion Un-“Caged”

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On October 31, 2009 I had the pleasure of performing in the John Cage Symposium at Bard College, located in Annanndale-on-Hudson, New York.  Along with Bob Becker, Russell Hartenberger, Garry Kvistad, and special guest, Jason Treuting of So Percussion, we immersed ourselves in a program of Cage’s music for percussion instruments, including the piano, played masterfully by Frank Corliss.  The Symposium was presented by the John Cage Trust at Bard College, and the performance was held in the beautiful Frank Geary-designed Richard B. Fisher Center for the Arts.

My first encounter with John Cage was as a junior high student watching a popular television program called “I’ve Got A Secret” hosted by Garry Moore, a major TV personality of the  late 1950s into the 1960s.  The show was broadcast in January, 1960 and it consisted of a panel of TV personalities who had to guess the “secret” of each guest subject, in this case a 48-year-old man, by asking “yes-or-no” questions.  The special guest was, of course, John Cage and his secret was that he composed music for a water pitcher, an iron pipe, a goose call, a bathtub, 5 radios and a piano.  The piece was called, “Water Walk” (you can still see this program on YouTube at

It is difficult to imagine today how controversial and radical Cage’s ideas about music were in the staid organization-man world of the 1950s.  He was regarded as a charlatan by many in the musical establishment, and his “music” was considered to be a collection of mere publicity-seeking stunts.  We now know that his ideas were profoundly influential on the development of art music in the late 20th Century.  I was intrigued by “Water Walk,” so much so that when I was in high school a few years later, I wrote a class assignment paper on Cage’s ideas, dealing especially with the significance of  his piece, “4:33.”

Skipping ahead a couple of decades, in 1984 NEXUS was touring in Finland and in one small town, Viitasaari, we heard stories about a recent visit by John Cage, and we were shown a video demonstrating some of the resulting events.  It seems that the town board had invited Cage – by then a fairly well-known American composer – to participate in the town’s music festival.  During the course of his visit Cage performed his music, including “Branches” which had the cumulative effect of causing the young people of Viitasaari to go on an “anything-goes” noisemaking rampage throughout the town, much of which was captured on video. It is my understanding that following the festival, in the political residue, the entire town board was voted out.

Whether or not the details of this story are true, it is certainly the case that John Cage, a calm, soft-spoken man with fairly easy-to-understand ideas, frequently found himself surrounded by violent intellectual storms among those in the musical and academic establishments.

In 1987, NEXUS was invited to participate in “Musicircus” at the Embassy Theatre in Los Angeles in celebration of Cage’s 75th birthday.  During the course of the 3-hour event, NEXUS played the “Third Construction” several times, and accompanying John Cage, I played a conch shell horn in several performances of “Inlets.”  Cage was “playing” an enormous conch shell which was filled with water inside, so that when the shell was gently shifted in position, the water would move between the inner chambers of the shell, making gurgling sounds that were amplified by an attached contact mic.  The absurd infusion of these sounds throughout the entire evening, in contrast to (or in conjunction with) the other ongoing music, caused me to spontaneously laugh so hard that I could hardly breathe.

The last time I saw Cage was on another NEXUS tour in Germany in the 1990s when we crossed paths walking in opposite directions to change planes in Frankfurt Airport.

Our concert at Bard included “Amores” (1943),”Credo in US” (1942), “Chess Pieces” (1944), “Dance Music for Elfrid Ide” (1940), and “Third Construction” (1941).  “Amores” featured Frank Corliss on prepared piano, as did “Credo in Us” which was conducted by Bob Becker.  Also on the program was Russell Hartenberger’s “The Invisible Proverb” (2002), with its haunting “Sky Ghost” melody, based on music of Takemitsu.

Cage’s “Third Construction” is one of the great masterpieces of Twentieth Century art music.  NEXUS has performed it dozens of times, including at least a half-dozen performances with Cage himself in the audience.  It is always totally engaging to perform this work, and it continues to reveal new surprises; such is the signature of a masterpiece.  And yet, when the “masterpiece” case is made to non-percussionist musicians, musicologists, and music historians unfamiliar with the work, the response is raised eyebrows and stares of disbelief.  Unfortunately for “Third Construction” it is not an opera or a work for orchestra or string quartet; it’s a work for four percussionists, and consequently, it is still completely invisible to the cognoscenti in the art music world.  But fortunately for percussionists, it is one among only a handful of such important works in the genre.  One of the most “constructive” things that percussionists can do is to expose the rest of the world to “Third Construction.”

About a week after the Bard concert NEXUS received the following email from Frank Corliss, whose prepared piano performance was wonderful:

“I just wanted to say how amazing you guys were on that concert last Saturday. It was so musical and expressive; and your rhythm is way beyond just “correct”. Russell’s piece was beautifully sung and your ensemble was incredible; Joan Tower said you guys are like an amazing string quartet in that respect – I agree. And the Third Construction was unforgettably thrilling. I was so excited listening backstage that I practically jumped out of my skin! I learned a LOT and was honored to be on the same stage with you guys.

Thanks for asking me to be part of the concert.    all the best,  Frank”

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