Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

“FOUR 6” BY JOHN CAGE (Continued from last night’s post, in which I described how I came to be attending a performance of “Four 6” by John Cage in my hometown of Kalamazoo last Friday night)

The concert was in the Smartshop, a converted industrial building now serving as an art gallery and studio space just north of downtown. When Jeff and I got there, the joint was packed for an art opening, people crowding around the photos and sculptures and metal furniture and the food table. We found Jeff’s friends in the ensemble, who call themselves “The Chance Operations Collective of Kalamazoo.” One of them gave us beers.

Cage wrote “Four 6” for 4 players who choose 12 sounds each. The piece starts with a simultaneous clicking of stopwatches. The score consists of instructions regarding the order in which the players make their 12 sounds, and the time limitations for the sounds to strike. For example, maybe Player A makes his or her (all “his,” in this case) Sound #1 some time between 30 seconds and 65 seconds into the piece, then Sound #2 some time between 65 and 80 seconds. (I made these examples up.) The players have great discretion as to how long and how often they strike their sounds within the time frames dictated by the score. The whole piece lasts 30 minutes.

At the bar before going to the Smartshop, I had objected to Cage’s reliance on digital clock time to one of the performers, Richard, who’s a friend of my brother’s and a friendly acquaintance of mine. Clock time is nervous time and mechanical; I want music time to be governed by heart time. Richard replied that Cage’s piece wasn’t mechanical at all.

The Collective played in the studio side of the building, but the busy happy talky noise of the gallery space spilled into the concert space. The audience had no chairs.

Early in the performance, I felt doubtful about the sounds that the performers had chosen. My brother’s friend Brad (actually, my brother knew everybody in the ensemble -- Jeff knows a lot of people) started his sequence of sounds with a kitschy wind-up toy of a female doll banging a tiny xylophone. Kitschy to look at, yes, but it was a surprisingly interesting sound, a fast wham wham wham wham wham of high-pitched metal. Another performer started with low, slow pitches on an electric piano. Richard, who’s a DJ, played some instructional record. The 4th player played records too. The use of instructional records seemed cliche-kitsch to me at first, but I warmed to it as sounds appeared and disappeared according to the score. Some of the sounds were just lovely. Several times in the piece, Richard held a long note on a bugle. A guy named Kirk played a scratchy old ‘78 recording of George Gershwin’s “Summertime.” Because there were no seats, and some of the audience sat behind or next to the performers, and people were milling around, when “Summertime” stopped I went to look at the record label -- who was the rich beautiful alto voice? The record label had completely faded away. At one point I got restless and peered to look at one of the player’s stopwatch. 23 and a half minutes, only six and a half minutes to go. As the lovely sounds (bugle, very quiet mbira, bass drum, quiet rattle, low slow electric piano notes, “Summertime”) and the ugly sounds (drill, human voice shouting) and the kitschy sounds (instructional records) alternated and collided, all of the sounds became lovely. And part of what made them lovely was that the performers chose them because they wanted to; and because it was a celebration, an opening of a new art gallery/studio (I found out later); and because, while throughout the piece the audience drifted in and out, there were never fewer than 40 people listening attentively, standing on the concrete floor.

When the 30 minutes were up, the performer who had introduced the piece raised his hands to indicate The End. And people applauded enthusiastically, a good minute-long ovation. A really warm reception, people really happy to be there, really happy to have heard the piece. It was a great communal feeling, a feeling of communion. Just wonderful all the way around.

Afterwards I congratulated and thanked my acquaintance Richard. He said, with some intensity, but smiling and very pleased, “That wasn’t bad, was it? That wasn’t any ‘small-town’ John Cage. That was world-class John Cage!” I replied that I didn’t know enough to say but that I liked it very much.

A little while later my parents’ lifelong friends Mary and Brooks Godfrey showed up. I told Mary about the Cage performance she had just missed, and she told me a story about teaching a drama class at Western Michigan University in the early ‘70s, when John Cage came for a concert, and her students arrayed themselves throughout the campus’s largest auditorium and performed the piece. She said it was really neat.

Mary also gave me the low-down on the scene. The whole evening, I’d seen more people walking around downtown Kalamazoo enjoying themselves than anytime other than Christmas shopping in the 1970s when I was a kid. Mary told me that the proprietor of the Smartshop, an artist in her 30s, had bought the building with a $100,000 grant from Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm’s Cool Cities Initiative. Mary told me that Granholm’s idea -- “She’s a young woman about your age, about 40,” Mary said -- is to provide the kids who have orange hair a reason to stay in Michigan, and that the way to do that is by creating cultural institutions that will keep their interest. Judging by my one evening interaction with the results, it seems like it might work smashingly.


The next day, Saturday, my sister, Emily, who lives in Chicago, drove me back to her city so I could catch my Sunday morning plane back home to Seattle. My job had sent me to a day-and-a-half conference in Chicago, and I had taken a day and a half off afterwards to visit my parents and brother in Michigan, and Emily and her 3-month-old son Michael went with me, in their car. My beloved spouse and our toddling son went to California to visit her sister and and brother-in-law and their daughters while I was away.

Em and her family live in the Lincoln Square neighborhood, on the North side of Chicago. We were driving up Lake Shore Drive on the South Side when Em’s cell phone rang. It was her husband. “Does John want to go to a Wagner opera with my dad tonight?”

“I think I better take this opportunity.”

“He just left on the El to get there. He doesn’t have a cell phone and he doesn’t expect you, but he knows you might come. It starts at 7:30 and it’s two and a half hours long. He’s going to try to sell his extra ticket if he gets there before you.”

(Time for bed. To be continued. G’night.)

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