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

Thursday, December 20, 2007

by Picasso, 1920

Irresonsible blogging! Irresponsible blogging!

I mentioned at the outset of my post on Alex Ross’s book The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century that I read the book on loan from the library and had since returned it. I posted on it without being able to check my memory. I’ve since acquired a copy, and it turns out I got something wrong.

I accused Alex of telling charming stories of John Cage running around shouting, “Beethoven was wrong!” and of not explaining what Cage meant. I was wrong.

Alex wrote that in 1952 Cage

scandalized a crowd at Black Mountain College by saying that Beethoven had misled generations of composers by structuring music in goal-oriented harmonic narratives instead of letting it unfold moment by moment.

This is well said. I apologize for the false accusation that Alex had not explained what Cage had meant. And -- by making it without checking the book -- irresponsible!

Alex’s paragraph continues -- and this is the part I was remembering --

At a New York gathering, he was heard to say, “Beethoven was wrong!” The poet John Ashbery overheard the remark, and for years afterward wondered what Cage had meant. Eventually, Ashbery approached Cage again. “I once heard you say something about Beethoven,” the poet began, “and I’ve always wondered --” Cage’s eyes lit up. “Beethoven was wrong!” he exclaimed. “Beethoven was wrong!” And he walked away.

* * *

The paragraph immediately following the one just quoted talks of the marathon premiere performance of Erik Satie’s Vexations that Cage put together. Vexations:

is only a page long and would normally take just a minute or two to play, but at the top appears this instruction: “In order to play this motif 840 times, one would have to prepare oneself in advance, and in the utmost silence, through serious immobilities.”

Cage arranged for a concert performance of 840 iterations of Satie’s piece by a tag-team of 12 pianists in 1963. It took 18 hours and 40 minutes.

Teams of people have repeated the 840 repetitions of Vexations since then. But I have never seen any evidence that anybody has actually followed the score.

Satie’s headnote is a Dada-esque non sequitur, not an instruction. Did Cage and team prepare themselves “in the utmost silence, through serious immobilities”? If they did, it has not become part of the Vexations lore.

Furthermore, Satie’s score is clear: If the motif is to be played 840 times, one performer should do it. Not a team.

Alex calls Cage’s performance of Vexations his “definitive refutation of Beethoven.” I would put one of
Cage’s own compositions forward. The performance of Ryoanji by Joelle Leandre and Ninh Le Quan on this disc is gorgeous. Four 6, which I heard performed live by friends of my brother’s 3 years ago, would appear to be at least as anti-Beethovenian as a disputable reading of Vexations. Myriad beautiful and/or interesting compositions would be plausible candidates. None of Cage’s music follows a harmonic narrative.

* * *

Alex’s writings on Vexations inspired its most recent marathon group performance, just last month. I caught some of it on web-cam. The theme is lovely, and I listened a few times, which seemed like plenty. Listening to it more than 20 or 25 times must be a unique experience. Congrats to all who made it happen.

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