John Cage—HPSCHD

John Cage

Join us Friday, May 3 at MIXUP: Composition and experience John Cage’s HPSCHD in the unique setting of the museum’s Atrium. Tickets and event details at ClevelandArt.org/MIX. The museum’s Director of City Stages, Tom Welsh, discusses John Cage and his revolutionary compositions in this special guest blog.

Last year saw innumerable centenary celebrations for John Cage (1912-1992), with festivals all over the world dedicated to the music and legacy of this remarkable composer – a watershed figure of the 20th century. The Cleveland Museum of Art held out for just the right moment to join the celebration, and that time is now.

Perhaps best known for his brilliant if notorious 1952 piece 4'33", in which the score instructs the performer to play nothing for the duration of four minutes and thirty three seconds, John Cage is in many ways the fountainhead for music of the last century. In his early years Cage composed music for percussion alone, foregrounding rhythm in the concert halls in a way that recalibrated the essential hierarchies of classical music. His explorations of the inside of the piano produced the gorgeous Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano, of which Cage is generally considered the inventor. Student of Arnold Schoenberg and Henry Cowell, friend and early collaborator of Lou Harrison, Cage was interested in non-Western music and ideas – particularly Zen Buddhism. His works had an immediate and deep impact on composers and artists around him. Redirecting the listener’s attention to sound as sound, rather than pursuing the traditional classical forms of melodic and harmonic development, Cage's philosophy (not too strong a word) unleashed the sheer democratization of all sounds, the legacy of which we hear around us constantly – not only in classical music, but also in popular music running the gamut from the Beatles to the Bomb Squad, from experimental music to noisy alt rock to hip hop.

HPSCHD (pronounced “harpsichord”) was originally scored for up to seven amplified harpsichords, 51 reel tapes, and 90 slide carousels, and was to run for up to four hours. While the electronic audio elements are experimental in nature, the keyboardists are each playing individual parts that spring from Mozart, creating a richly textured fabric of old and new, analog and digital sounds. Premiered in 1969 and rarely performed, this totally immersive experience was written with Lejaren Hiller while Cage was at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Richard Kostelanez, writing for the New York Times, called it “one of the great artistic achievements of the decade.” The Cleveland Museum of Art presents this piece in its more practical (sic) version, prepared by Joel Chadabe of the Electronic Music Foundation, whereby the audio and video elements were updated and condensed onto CD and DVD for easier playback. And we are able to showcase harpsichords from the museum’s collection of musical instruments, and feature a number of very fine musicians from this community. CWRU/CIM professor Peter Bennett leads a group of keyboardists from his studio as well as other noted performers from around town.

This performance of John Cage’s HPSCHD is the grand finale of the week’s collaboration with The Cleveland Orchestra, who appear in two concerts under the title “California Masterworks” in the museum. It also coincides with MIX, the museum’s series of first Friday events that are consistently, refreshingly unexpected affairs.

PS: For an illuminating article on John Cage and his roots in California, see this Los Angeles Times piece by Mark Swed: http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/culture/la-et-cm-john-cage,0,3501401.htmlstory

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