In musica bohemica ET slovaca the reception of John Cage's music in the Czech lands and Slovakia.
From Gorodinsky to Ostrava miners' lamps and the Exhibition of Experimental Music
John Cage's music was most probably first mentioned in Czech in Viktor Gorodinsky's pamphlet Music of Spiritual Poverty, translated from the Russian original (Moscow-Leningrad 1950) and published in 1952. The text is written from the vantage point of the then official Zlidanov aesthetics and casts a scathing glance at American music in particular, although in effect it does not spare any of the Western composers. The name of John Cage appears in the pamphlet several dines., with the artist being presented as an extreme example of musical decadence:
John Cage goes much further than his modernist teachers. He "prepares" - if we can express it this way - musical material and seeks entirely unusual sounds, yes, totally unknown the sonic nature of the world. (p. 26)
Accordingly, Cage's sin is in his seeking of new sounds, his abandoning of' the common tonal material and established forms. Gorodinsky views. Cage's efforts through the prism of his party task: to discredit, ridicule and condemn everything that does not accord with the requirements placed on music creators by Soviet power. He docs so with a self-assurance that sees no need to be supported by specialist knowledge, as was after all customary when fulfilling such tasks:
Cage has no conception of creation whatsoever. He confuses it with the "mathematical principle", with simple calculation, mathematical operations with top [sic!) tones playing the major role in his compositions (p. 27)
The malevolent description aims to evoke in the reader the impression that Cage's music - here, Gorodinsky is evidently referring to his works for prepared piano - represents something impertinent and unacceptable:
It goes without saying that Cage is an atonalist the fullest sense of the word. It would seem that his works do not bear the slightest traces of tonal logic. Cage's music treats the most peculiar acrobatic skips over two, three and even four octaves, while the notation they can be graphically divided at the distance of a mere semitone. Yet they will sound within the range of two to three octaves. 'Thus, as the French would would put it, Cage is "more royalist than the king", more atonal than Schonberg (p.28)
Gorodinsky's pamphlet is a typical example of a Cold War pronouncement, with mockery of the enemy's musical culture being applied with the aim to convince the public of the overall wickedness of the USA. In point of fact, what the music is actually like is less relevant than the place it comes from:
In musical America there is everything; for every reactionary taste - musical obscuranists, shrouding themselves-in clamorous formalistic radicalism, ultra-modernists of shapes and sizes, atonalists headed by Schonberg himself Stravinskyites with Stravhzsky "himself, musical surrealists with Virgil Thomson, barmy jazzists, ultm-urbanists' and, finally, musical speculators-adventurers - the Whiteguardist rascals: the radio liar Nikolay Habokov and the conductor of the "Don Cossacks choir", a certain Nikolay Kostrukov. (p. 29)
John Cage is only used here.to serve as a lurid example of.the total musical decay caused by the "putrescent social formation":
Yet Cage is neither a circus freak nor a men eccentric. Cage is a symptom of the times, one of the most apposite anti most typical manifestations of the perverse, nauseatingly monstrous "aesthetics of Americanism" -and not only musical, since musical aesthetics and musical taste do not evolve separately front the social development. (p. 28)
It is difficult to say how many people read this rather slim treatise. Perhaps it would not even be worth mentioning if it did not usher in the manner in which matters were judged and if the aesthetic standards implemented by it had not basically (purged of the ideological coating) persisted in our country for a very long time. The feeling of being threatened by music that does not meet the assumed expectations of the established conventions has always played a relatively significant role in Czech musical culture. Also resulting from this is an anxious guarding of the "borders of music" which, albeit not delimitated by any law as such, are precisely, although, individually, sensed. Up to the present day, the endeavour to dwell in the safe territory of acknowledged creators of the standard repertoire has remained an unwritten yet generally meticulously adhered to covenant of Czech musical education at all grades, aS Well as regular concert life.
Over the next decade, the "Iron Curtain" functioned relatively reliably and precious little information about the musical development in the West got to our country. And if any such information did happen to come through, it was usually considerably filtered. Higher knowledge was only gained by exceptional individuals possessing good foreign language skills, such as, for example, the composer Jan Rychlik (1916-194), a remarkably erudite figure with a great breadth of interests. His artistie development was focused on New Music and indicated singular treatment of its stimuli and even - in the case of the African Cycle dating from 1962 -pre-emption of certain tendencies of Minimalism, which only later appeared in the USA. RyChlik's promisingly evolving work was violently ended by his Premature death. Rychlik knew about Cage and was aware of the historical connections that link his indeterminist and mutually combinable compositions to the compositional principles of the Renaissance, as he put it in his study Proky novych skladebnych technik v hudbe minulost, v hudbe exoticke a lidove, (Elements of new compositional techniques in the music of the past, in exotic and folk music), which was published posthumously, within the volume Nove cesty hudby (New Ways of Music, SITV, Prague 1964).
The beginning of the 1960 brought in. a period of slight thawing, with travel abroad being difficult, but possible for at least. some. In 1960 and 1961 the composer Jaromir Podesva made a study tour of the USA, England and France. He first reported of his experiences in the article Hudebni Amerika v kostce (Musical America in a nutshell) (2) . He refers to Cage's works in a derogatory manner, linking up to the Gorodinsky model.
In this period, the composer Ctirad Kohoutek, a pedagogue at the Janacek Academy of Music and Performing Arts in Brno, was considered a certain authority when it came to knowledge of New Music in the West. In his book Novodobe skladebne teorie zapadoevropske hudby (Modem Compositional Theories of Western European
Music, SHN, Prague 1962), he reproduceS thc description of the compositional method used in Music for Piono 21-52 and brands Cage an "Extreme". He gives him rather short shrift by providing a quotation from Podegva's article and concludes with the following evaluation:
At this moment, however, we are jar from music and the arts in general. We view Cage's experiments mentioned above as one of the excesses of today's Western music. (p. 8I)
In the second, extended edition 1965), Kohoutek pays greater attention to Cage, but only because in the chapter Extremy. Tvurci a reprodukcni atrakce (Extremes. Creative and reproductive attractions) he wanted to denounce this type of eXpression, one which, in his opinion, compromises the whole area of Western music. With reference to Heinz-Klaus Metzger he. writes:
John Cage and a handful of his acolytes are thus not representatives but rather exceptions. Cage and his school (Morton Feldman, Earle Brown and Christian Wolff) are boycotted in America and shut out of the official musical life. (p.214)
In 1963, Panton published Jaromir Podesva's book soucasna hudba na Zapade (Contemporary Music in the West), which carmarks for Cage a position in the mockingly toned "Tragicomic supplement". Instrumental effects from his compositions, taken out of context, are described in a somewhat amateurish manner, yet complemented by drawn caricatures. Podesva's book was immediately subject to criticism on the part of the young composers of the time and a lively debate about the book ensued on the pages of the journal Hudebm rozhledy. Yet the polemics did not relate to Cage himself but the generally low degree of earnestness and considerable subjectivity of the book, which in the main provided a distorted picture of the selected topic.
Thus it could be said that owing to these authors Cage's name acquired in our country a meaning similar to the medieval term "diabolus in musica". He was a composer known by his reputation, in the best case from German translations of a few texts, and on the basis of this tabooed - hardly anybody was actually familiar with his music itself.
With regard to the fact that when it comes to music the Czech lands had always been strongly influenced by Germany, at the beginning of the 196os too Czech composers looked in this direction, focusing on the Second Viennese School and its continuation, represented by Karlheinz Stockhausen. At the same time, BartOk was still topical for many composers, as were Prokofiev and Shostakovich, while new stimuli were also brought by the "Polish School" headed by Lutoslawski and Penderecki. Cage's conceptions, which were practically only known from Podesva and Kohoutek, were not overly attractive owing to their sheer radicalism. After all, the majority of Czech composers have always given preference to holding prudent approaches and moderate taking over of stimuli from outside. The nature of Czech musical life itself was not overly well-disposed to experimentation. There were exceptions, however: the Prague composer Rudolf Komorous (1931), a superlative bassoonist, was sent to teach from 1959 to 1961 at thr Beijing conservatory. During his stay in China, Komorous, who back in the 195os was linked to the milieu of visual artists (he was the only musician to become a member of the Smidrove, a Dadaism-inspired group) and had a penchant for unconventional musical ideas, arrived at a vision of music that was very close to Cage's conception. In a letter dating from i96o, he wrote:
Sometimes I imagine a composition that would be silence, only semi-occasionally interrupted by must (3)
Following his return to Prague in 1961, Komorous joined Musica viva pragensis, an ensemble that at the time was being formed upon the initiative of the composer Vladimir Sramek (1923-2004) and the flautist Petr Kotik (1942), then a conservatory student. The new ensemble was shielded by the authority of the Prague Conservatory professor and clarinettist Milan Kostohryz (1911-1998). Musica viva pragensis played a significant role on the Czech and international scenes up until 1973, when it was forced to cease its activity (for more, see CMQ I/2008).
Komorous was remarkable in his arriving at considerations very similar' to those of Cage, yet entirely independently of him - he drew upon similar Chinese sources to those relevant to Cage too.
Komorous himself put it as follows:
Hew Music makes it possible to give sound back its authentic value and introduce silence into music. And this forms the basis for my compositional work. I do not want to break up music by pauses; for me, a musical composition is a time of silence interrupted by music. Composing in this manner is only possible because an isolated tone returned to its essence is able to bear a. great semantic load. Naturally, a considerable tension lension originates between tones burdened in this way.
A comp. osition's formal solution is then similar to a structure from pre-stressed concrete: reinfircements are not necessary, evetything redundant destroys the lucidity of the piece and the purity of work. (4)
If Rudolf Komorous went beyond the Czcch milieu owing to his experience from China, then Petr Kotik (1942) is a type extremely atypical too. He grew up in an artistic environment, his grandfather Pravoslav Kotik and fatherian were accomplished painters. At the time, Jan Kotik was one of the Czech artists with the widest range of vision, as is after an documented by his extremely knowledgeable articles published back in the 195os. Dining his first visit to Prague, Luigi Nono visited him at his studio, hence the young Petr Kotik had first-hand information about the New Music. Cage's opinions, with which he familiarised himself from Darmstadter Beitrage zur neuen Musik, were close to him and he has always shared them.
In 1964 the painter Jan Kotik and his wife Pavia attended the Biennale in Venice, where they saw a performance given by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. The Kotiks were impressed by the performance and established contact with Cage and Cunningham, which gave rise to the idea that this programme should also be presented in Prague. At. the time, their son Petr was studying in Vienna and since in the Merce Cunningham Dance Company's itinerary the Austria capital followed after Venice, he participated as a musician in Cunningham's Event #I, playing next to Cage and David Tudor. Owing to Mrs. Kotikova's single-mindedness, the performance in Prague was successfully carried out, with the participation of Petr Kotik and other members of Musica viva pragensis, who subsequently accompanied the Americans in Warsaw too.
The Merce Cunningham Dance Company's world tour lasted all year long and was extremely challenging in many respects. Success was followed.by misunderstanding, beautiful experiences by frustration and obstacles to overcome. After arriving in Prague, the dancer Carolyn Brown noted clown in her diary (5):
What a terrible disappointment! We're in an ugly, dreary hotel. Dirty, with no hot water or even heat. [The elevator didn't work, either.] My room looks out on an air shaft. It was raining when we went out to dinner - to a "club", also very dreary & ugly, with non-descript food and very expensive.
The city, what we've seen of it, is ugly. The whole atmosphere is so DEPRESSING! One really wonders bozo the human spirit Can survive. We will dance in a Congress Hall - 3000 seats on a fiat floor. People won't be able to see anything. (p. 412)
Prior to the performance, Cage visited a mushroom exhibition, where he met Dr. Jiri Hlavacek, chairman of the Czechoslovak Mycology Society, and the next day they went to pick mushrooms in the woods by Karlgtejn castle. Cage allegedly turned up for the trip in jeans torn above the knee - a foretoken of a fashion that would spread much later.
The performance in Prague was not attended by many composers; at least there are not many first-hand accounts of it. According to HlavaCek's testimony, those present included Karel Krautgartner, leader of the Czechoslovak Radio Dance and Jazz Orchestra, a musician possessing a wide range of vision and impeccable taste, who. was enchanted by the music. To all appearances, the audience's interest reflected the fact that it concerned a performance of contemporay American art. The more informed spectators mainly included visual artists for whom Robert Rauschenberg, who had just won the Venice Biennale painting award, was a figure known at the time.
For reasons never explained, the Czech agency's advertisements and the posters around town omitted the names of both Cage and Rauschenberg, probably the only two names known to the Communist regime. Did fohn and Bob represent the dangerously decadent and revolutionary artistic pollution of the West? Of course it was a foolish precaution; word of mouth proved far more affective than the satle advertisements. Artists from miles around Prague came to see the performance and speak with fohn, Merce and Bob. We were the first American dance company to Perform in Czechoslovakia since the war. people were curious, hungry for something new, and they filled the Congress Hall of Science and Culture to capacity. Advertised as "American Ballet in the Style of West Side Story," our program must have been baffling to the huge audience, which nonetheless responded warmly to what little they could actually see. (p.413)
The audience's interest was truly immense. As Mercc Cunningham recalled, some spectators even climbed up the spotlight stands and hung there in clusters. Only when Rauschenberg needed to change the lighting did they climb down obediently - before proceeding to climb up again.
Not only Cage's music was presented at the performance. The composition for the first dance (Story) was created by Toshi Ichiyanagi; for the second (Crises), a selection from Conlon Nancarrow's Studies fizr Player Piano 0, 4, 5, 7 and 6) was played from a tape. The dance Slog actually replaced the originally planned Aeon (featuring Cage's Atlas Eclipticalis and Winter Music), which .was withdrawn owing to an unsatisfactory stage. Thus, the Czech musicians only performed with Tudor the Concert for Piano and Orchestra for the dance Antic Meet.
The following day, the artists had some leisure time and Carolyn Brown had the opportunity to amend her first impressions of Prague:
On the third day, the came out, and with it afresh view of Prague and the realization that it was, after my beautiful city. Atilt took was to cross Smetana's River Moldau over the Charles Bridge into the historic old town, explore its streets and byways, its churches, and be taken to a very ni ce restaurant high on a hill near the castle. That evening; after a cocktail parol in the coMpanys honor at the American Embassy, David Vaughan, the Lloyds, and I had taste nitrite Czech culture, Smetana's 1-86'8 three-act opera Dalibor in the stunning Baroque Rid] National Theatre. My gloom lifted. For a day. (pp. 413-414)
Cage, Cunningham, Rauschenberg and Tudor also participated in a debate at the Theatre of Music guided by Vladimir Lebl (see photo). Besides several minor and not overly informed reviews in the newspapers, the journal Hudebni roth/et ran a relatively extensive article written by Josef Bek 09/19644 pp. 838-839). The author drew attention to the essentially different starting points of Cage's work, to his linkage with Erik Satie, the inseparability of music from the ambient sonic world. He highlighted the characteristic aspect of the collaboration between Cage and Cunningham - unexpected tension and the shock effect:
A joyful atmosphere is present, resulting from the creative vigour; which is also the mainsource of the aesthetic enjoyment. Seeking a leading idea or theme would be a futile effort, yet the munificent choice., which is the basic element of the creative act, is afforded to the audience too. The disunity of the "resultant impression" is prepared in advance.
If the critics take exception to it, they reveal their lack of knowledge. (p. 839)
During his stay in Prague, Cage bought from the fee paid in Czech crowns the sky atlases he would later use when composing his Etudes Austraks arid Etudes Borates.
The next day, following the inevitable confusions, the Americans were flown in a ghastly, bumpy two-engine prop plane (Brown) to Ostrava, the industrial mining city in North Moravia, where they gave their second performance, this time without Czech musicians: If the Prague performance was shocking for an unprepared audience, with a fragment of them knowing the protagonists at.least by reputation, the Ostravans, for whom the Merce Cunningham Dance Company were akin to unexpected visitors from Mars, received the exotic experience with a custornary casualness and created in the half-full auditorium of the Antonin Dvoiak Theatre a loose, spontaneous atmosphere.
As Carolyn Brown recalled:
Ostrava, the "Pittsburg of Czechoslovakia," may have been a coalmining town, but it had a handsome old theater (sadly in need of repair) just across the street from a good hotel that had private baths with hot water, an*elevator that worked, and a decent restaurant--everything to nzake weary dancers happy. But Ostrava was a bleak place for those living. there. There teVS no electricity in the stores in the daytime--in any case there was next-to-nothing to buy, not even magazines. Our dresser in, the theater marveled at the quality of our Kleenex and our makeup.
In the Ostrava program, we woomen suddenly bad become Slays: we were Brownova, Farberova, Hayova Lloydova and Neelsova. Mat fun! The performance that night was unmemorable except for an architectural feature of the stage that Bob and Merce put to imaginative irk. A scenery-loading ramp at center stage led down to doors opening onto the street behind the theater. Story began as the curtain rose on an. empty stage, stripped to the walls; in Rauschenbergian eerie semidarkness, Merce enters from the street and moves slowly up the ramp through the gloom. "It felt like like Kafta, appropriately enough, a long uphill push through the dark" (6) Merce's description was equally appropriate for what it felt like to be on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. Onstage, at curtain call, each of us was presented with a bouquet of flowers and a tiny miniature coalminer's lamp--to light one's way in the dispiriting, dismal Soviet darkness? That, too, seemed appropriate. (p. 414)
Musica viva pragensis subsequently accompanied the Americans in Poland at the Warsaw Autumn festival, at a rather whimsically timed noon performance. The scandal caused at their own concert by Petr Kotik's Music for 3 -In Mernoty flan Rychlik, resulted in. the ensemble's, very existence being threatened, a crisis Kotik averted by leaving it. Shortly afterwards, he established the new QUaX Ensemble and in 1969, after the cultural situation had worsened in 'consequence of the political changes (the invasion by the Warsaw Pact forces and the end of liberalisation tendencies in Czechoslovakia), he decided to move to NCW York.
Cage's music was again heard in this country in two. at the Exhibition of Experimental 'Music in Brno, where the German pianist Peter Roggenkamp performed Sonatas artd Interhtdes for prepared piano and Water Music. Moreover, the same concert featured electronic incidental music to Jackson MacLow's play The Manying Maiden, as well as Czech translations of Cage's texts Indeterminacy and Erik Satie and, finally, the voice of the composer himself, giving the lecture Kere Are We Going? And What Are We Doing? was heard from an audio tape. The evening of 31 March 197o would for a long time to come be the last opportunity to hear Cage's music performed live at a public concert. The culture policy of the Husak regime had totally different priorities.
From "normalisation" to normal
The long period of "normalisation", as President Husak's Neo-Stalinist regime euphemistically termed the cementation of the totalitarian state, brought with it a significant inhibition of all efforts for unconventional musical expression. Many domestic composers vanished from the repertoire, while many foreign ones (Cage in particular.) were never included. Although the onset of "normalisation" was relatively swift, this wasn't the case everywhere. The volume Novi cesty hudby 2 (New Ways of Music 2) (7) published in 197o contains Vladimir Lebl's essay 0 mcznich druzich hudby (On boundary types of music), which refers to Cage with respect and deals with his conception of music as theatre. In 1969 and 197o, four issues of the journal Konfromtace, edited by Lebl, were published too; Issue 3 contained a translation of Cage's text Histoty of Experimental Music in the United States. Yet Cage's work was again mainly known merely by hearsay, albeit this time recordings and other information got through more frequently. Notably, Cage's ideas were much more willingly embraced by visual artists than musicians. By the way, in the 197os the fine arts scene formed a relatively coherent community. Instead of meeting at exhibitions, artists spent their time at studios where while working they often listened to recorded music, with many of them managing to put together impressive record collections. It was also a time when Czech and Slovak painters had a heightened interest in chance and indeterminacy. When in 1999. the Slovak aesthetician and curator jozef Cseres was preparing in Bratislava an exhibition of Cage-inspired graphic works, he had plenty to choose from.
In 1983 the young Prague composers Petr Kofrori (1955), Miroslav Pudlak (1961) and Martin Smolka (1959) established Agon, an ensemble which in addition to their own works and compositions by their generational peers got down to performing pieces by foreign composers, mostly in thematically focused series. John Cage's music occupied a significant position in the ensemble's repertoire. Between 1987 and 1997, Agon performed (often on multiple occasions) Cage's compositions Sonata Clarinet, Three Pieces fir Flute Duet, The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs, mores, Music for Marcel Duchamp, Four Walls, Six Melodies, String Quartet in Four Parts, Ryoanji, Concert for Piano and Orchestra (soloist Andras Wilhelm, later on Martin Smolka, also in the version for some instruments without the piano), Bacchanale, Fontana Wily, In a Landscape, The Perilous Night, Suite for Toy Piano, Two Pastorales, Variations I and Ten.
A memorable event was Andras Wilheim's concert and lecture at the Bell House in Prague on I November 199o, at which he performed Cage's pieces for prepared piano and together with Agon presented the Concert for Piano and Orchestra. The concert, connected with tasting of macrobiotic food and a display of bonsais, attracted an unexpected amount of people - so many in fact that it was necessary to protect the bonsais (which according to the original plan were to be placed on the presumably empty seats), A notable project of the Society for New Music, which associated Agon and like-minded artists, was the publication Graftcke panitury a koncepty (Graphic Scores and Concepts) (8), which documented Agon's concert cycle. John Cage is represented by his composition Variations I, prepared for performance by Martin Smolka (actually the only piece of Cage's Variations worked out by a Czech composer). Remarkable is the fact that even though Smolka selected music material deliberately distant from Cage's aesthetics, the resulting impression - with long pauses and isolated sonorities - is still typically Cagean.
We should also highlight the extremely vital activities of Milan Adameiak in Slovakia. Adameiak (1946) was a member of the Slovak Academy of Sciences and from 1977 to 1989 also taught at the University of Performing Arts and the Faculty of Arts of Komensky University. Although a member of the Communist Party, thus shielding his own and his colleagues' activities, he otherwise endorsed the approach of the experimental avant-garde and his work was strongly influenced by Cage. Adameiak mainly created graphic scores and concepts, and even made his okn instruments to play his music. He was an ardent experimenter and independently arrived at a number of original expressions of a conceptualistic nature back in his youth in his home town, Ruzomberok. Adamciak possessed an extraordinary charisma by means of which he was able to impress the young generation. And it was he who acquainted them with Western avant-garde and experimental music, with John Cage occupying a privileged position in his lectures. Moreover, Adameliak and his young followers founded the legendary Transmusic Comp., which grouped together the future Slovak musical elite around the principle of free improvisation and musical playfulness. It included the composers Martin Burlas, Peter Machajdik, Daniel Matej, the conceptualist and performance artist Michal Murin, Olga Smetanova (today the director of the Music Centre Slovakia), and the composer and pianist Peter Zagar. The visiting members included Lubomir Burgr, Juraj Marek Piacek, Ivan Csudai, Eduard Krekovic and other musicians.
Some time later 09go), Adameiak and Michal Murin founded the Society for Unconventional Music (SNEH), which organised various events straddling the border between performance art, intermedia and happening.
Even earlier (1988), the VENI ensemble (still functioning) was established in Bratislava. It is the most significant Slovak ensemble for new music through which a number of musicians have passed and within which a number of other ensembles were formed. Its founder, Daniel Matej, focuses on experimental and unconventional types of music and in his dramaturgy he has paid great attention to Cage and his circle (Morton Feldman, Christian Wolff, Earle Brown). A charismatic personality capable of passing on his infectious enthusiasm, Matej has attained that Cage's music and opinions are now understood as entirely comprehensible and, in a way, normal.
From the very beginning, the VENI ensemble was linked to the New Music Evenings festival, another project initiated by Daniel Matej.
The festival 'existed from 1989 to 2009 and over that time welcomed numerous world-renowned musicians. In 1992, John Cage himself appeared at the festival..
1992 - Joy and bewilderment
The year 1992 marked a certain turning point in the reception of John Cage's music in Czechoslovakia. The artist's impending eightieth birthday shifted him into a group of venerated composers; he became a symbol of the musical avant-garde, a figure respected on a wider scale. Several events focused on his music were. held in Prague. In May 1992; the agile Hungarian Cultural Centre, at Andras Wilheim's request, organised a symposium dedicated to John Cage's significance and connected with a performance of Budapest's Amadinda Percussion Group at the Prague Spring festival featuring Cage's compositions for percussion. The symposium was chaired by Andras Wilheim and was Visited by the prominent Cage specialists Paul van Emmerik from Amsterdam, Martin Erdmann from Bonn (who also performed in Prague as a pianist) and Stefan Conradi, a representative of the Frankfurt-based publisher C. F. Peters and an interpreter of Cage's music himself. It was an extraordinaiy event, one without precedent in Prague. The symposium itself and the Amadinda Percussion Group's performance met with an enthusiastic reception. In the meantime, an even greater event was under preparation in Bratislava, one that represented the culmination of Cage festivities in our - at the time still united - state. The New Music EveningS festival made the Cage anniversary its dramaturgical centre of gravity and Daniel Matej persuaded Viera Polakovicova, the then head of the Music Information Centre, to invite the great man himself. Surprisingly, Cage accepted the invitation (ultimately, it was revealed that his fee requirements were on the whole modest in comparison with the fairly mediocre-concert stars) and in June he spent 24 hours in Bratislava. Cage was accompanied by Laura Kuhn, a student who was working on a thesis dedicated to his work.
John Cage was welcomed as a true celebrity in Bratislava and may have found himself amid a social whirl greater than he was used to - all sorts of people wanted to speak to him., shake his hand, take a photo together. On the first day, he didn't even have time to go to the toilet. At Bratislava's Reduta (the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra's hall), Cage presented a new version Of his lecture Composition in Retrospect and answered the audience's questions. When, in conclusion, Viera Polakovicova asked him what he would wish the Slovak nation, who were just about to set out on an independent path and have their own government, Cage paused for a long dine before proclaiming: "You don't need a government, you need an intelligentsia!"
In addition to the obligatory VENT ensemble, Agon and the Prague Percussion Group, John Tilbury, Bernhard Wambach, Andras Willheim, Ulrike Brand and Martin Erdmann also appeared at the festival as interpreters of Cage's music. The German musicologist and pianist Martin Erdmann also led in Bratislava a workshop for students within which he taught them how to interpret Cage's compositions, primarily those for prepared piano. He managed to arouse enthusiasm among the young pianists, with whom Erdmann gave an immensely successful cencert at the University of Performing Arts. The most talented of Erdmann's pupils proved to be Elconora Slanietkova, who would remain faithful to the prepared piano - fifteen years later (under the name Nora Skuta) she recorded her version of the Sonatas and Interludes (Hevhetia 0011-2-131), oneof the finest interpretations there is of this wonderful piece.
To mark Cage's visit, the Slovak National Gallery displayed Cage's scores, while Jozef Cseres installed in the Slovak Radio vestibule the aforementioned exhibition, featuring Milan Adamciak, Milan Gtygar, Svetozar Ilavsky, Otis Laubert, Milan Maur, Ladislav Novak, Eduard Ovcacek, Marian Palla, Milos Sejn, Dezider Toth, Jiri Valoch, Jan Wojnar and other artists. In some respects, Cage's second visit to Czechoslovakia may have compensated for the certain discomfort and rather bizarre situations he had endured the first time around. In Bratislava he was welcomed as a world-renowned composer and shown great respect. Numerous events were held in his honour. At a press conference at the Slovak Radio, he talked about how he liked Chinese and Japanese ink paintings, above all dry brush strokes, whereby the arca that is supposed to be black also contains a great amount of white - he used this as an example to explain the yin and yang principle. Everything harbours its opposite, sometimes represented quite boldly. In his music, Cage also strove to accept things that he didn't like. For instance, he wrote the composition Imaginary Landscape No. 4 for twelve radios in response to the omnipresent radio, which had always discomforted him. He liked talking about how important it was for him to accept the results in the situation he created, bow important it is to accept life as it is. Ultimately, this visit afforded him an opportunity to do so:
In the late afternoon we arrived in Bratislave, the end of our exhausting journey cross Germany and Austria lasting almost 24 hours. After two press conferences, one private viewing, numerous interviews and meetings, we had 45 minutes left to eat a dodgy macrobiotic dinner in the cave-like hotel canteen.
A waitress, the only person in the room apart from us, proudly seated us nearby a concert grand. as soon as we tucked into our meal and began leisurely talking about the experiences of the day, a pianist of a considerably pretenitious demeanour began playing a mix of American popular melodies. During the second refrain of "New York, New York" a la Frank sinatra, fohn cast aside his fork. "I cannot eat here," he said with disgust. I waved over at the waitress. "Could you please ask the pianist to stop playing?" fohn asked She gazed at him in disbelief: "Why, dont you like music?" fohn, without twitching a muscle, said: "No." In no time, the waitress approached the pianist and whispered fohn's request in his ear. The pianist finished his golden oldie, peeping al us frowningly all along, and then exasperatedly ran off to the kitchen.
After the room had quietened down, we resumed eating. Before long, a local radio broadcast boomed from the loudspeakers in the restaurant. This time we were exposed to an earshredding barrage of heavy-metal hits. I steeled myself for a fight, set aside my fork and looked at fohn, expecting the worst. But that which I saw took me by surprise: fohn was smiling, almost blissfully. With a spark in his eye, be looked up and pronounced merrily: "Now, this is much more interesting." (9)
The almost eighty-year-old Cage appeared in Bratislava-like a Taoist sage, serene and equanimous, with his answers to questions (in Merce Cunningham's words) "always marvellous". Intellectually, he gave a youthful impression, his smile radiated content. He looked as though after assuming a macrobiotic diet he would live for ever. Thus all the greater was the bewilderment at the news of his sudden death on 18 August. The concert to mark Cage's birthday at that autumn's Melos-Ethos festival thus turned into a remembrance ceremony. The American artist Morgan O'Hara implemented there the installation Open Cage, during which she filled the concert hall with bird cages. Gene Carl performed the complete Sonatas and Interludes cycle. The Slovak composer and mathematician Niko Bitzlik, whose ideals are significantly different from those of Cage and who initially did not feel like listening to the piece, said afterwards that: "It Was really beautiful ...!"
In the 199os, besides occasional performances given by Agon and VENI, Cage's music was seldom heard in our country. Yet recordings became generally known and the composer (at least through some of his works) became part of the wider.musical awareness - of course, more in the area of alternative music than in the academic world, where his compositions are still taboo in training of instrumentalists (with the exception Of percussionists).
Virtually the only place in our country where Cage's music is systematically cultivated is Ostrava Days, a holiday institute for New Music related to the festival founded by Petr Kotik in 2001. Kotik has always championed Cage's legacy as a composer, and as an interpreter collaborated with him on multiple occasions. With regard to Kotik's opinion that compositions must be played repeatedly, certain works have returned to the musician stands. Over the decade of Ostrava Days" existence, the following Cage pieces have been performed: Aria (2001, 2011), Adas Eclipticalis (2005), concert for Piano and Orchestra (2001, 2003, 2007, 2011), Fontana Mix (2011), Imaginary Landscape No 2 (2009), imaginary Landscape No 3 (2009), Third Construction (2009), FOUR4 (2009), Music of Changes (2003), Ryoanji (2003), Winter Music (2005).
As is evident from this summary, the Concert for Piano and Orchestra has been part of the festival's standard repertoire and its performance practice has matured over the course of time. A platform has been created for reception of Cage's music, with the composer considered a "classic", and it has shown that the audience too accept him with an understanding much wider than at any time previously.
I myself first became aware of John Cage's music from Jaromir Podesva's book Contempormy Music in the West, which my father (at .the time a district methodologist for musical education. at primary schools) brought home as a novelty froth some Seminar. I was eleven years of age and read everything I found at home. I was not used to questioning anything, hence I swallowed the fact that somewhere in the USA lived a certain oddball Who for unknown reasons composed sheer nonsense - the way in which Cage's music was presented in our country did not make it possible to understand it otherwise. Some tithe later, still a schoolboy, I heard on a radio programme in which the composer Pavel Blatny played all sorts of musical curioSities an extract from Cage's piece Imaginary Landscape No. 4. From the book I was aware of what I could expect, yet I was taken by surprise by the fact that I actually liked the nondescript sound that suddenly emanated from the radio set more than the classical, and even popular, music knew at the time, Although I had a long way to go, this experience ultimately led me - as the Pole Star leads the traveller - to a deeper interest in contemporary music. Step by step I began finding out that Cage's music was very different to the manner in which it had been presented. I realised how important it is to verify information through my own experience. When I was studying at the conservatory 097 -75), I sought out recordings, books, articles - I lounged about libraries, devoured the magazines that were published here in the 196os, ploughed through German and Polish texts in such journals as Melos, Neue Zeitschrift far Musik and Ruch Muzyczny, which were still distributed to the University Library, and strove to learn as much as I could about the music that wasn't heard either on our stages or on the radio, yet of whose existence I was aware. Of vital importance for mc was Vladimir Lebl's essay On boundary types of music, in which Cage's efforts are explained as serious artistic endeavours. Important too were Lothar Knessl's "Studio Neuer Musik" programmes on the Osterreich radio station, broadcast every Thursday night after eleven. As this new world was unveiled to me, I became increasingly fascinated by John Cage's work - it seemed to me that virtually everything that had emerged in music had somehow sprung from him, that his ideas were the basis for other composers who may do totally different things but without his stimuli they would never have come to fruition.
Therefore, I decided to devote my conservatory thesis to Cage's personality and music. I wanted to correct various erroneous allegations about Cage that were disseminated in our country without anyone having proper knowledge of anything. The conceptual artist and theorist Jiri Valoch, who possessed a directory of artists from around the world, provided me with Cage's address. I duly wrote to Cage and received a kind reply from him. I even managed to track down Dr. Jiri Hlavacek, chairman of the Czechoslovak Mycology Society, who had met Cage during his visit to Prague in 1964 and had gone mushroop-picking with him. Moreover, I began corresponding with Petr Kotik, whose S.E.M. Ensemble I had heard on Knessl's radio show (I wrote to the University of Buffalo, hoping that he would receive my letter). I acquainted my self with Kotik's former pupil, the American flautist sue Stenger, who came to study in Prague and gave me Cage's books Silence, A Year front Monday and M. (Writings '67-'72).
My thesis was rewritten on a typewriter by my friend Magda Klimegova, who gave a copy of it to her Prague friend Pavel Buehler (today a photographer and conceptual artist living in Britain) and through him it circulated in transcripts around Prague. I defended my thesis at the Brno Conservatory without any major problems - its scope was above-standard, and as regards the content, no one knew what to say ... After several years, during which I had failed to gain information about John Cage's most recent work, I was informed that the philosopher Petr Rezek would be giving a lecture about the composer in Prague. At the time, I couldn't get to Prague, hence I asked the composer Petr Kofron, who lived in Prague, to go there and find out what was new. He didn't make it to the lecture either, but he had met Rezek previously and the philosopher had confessed that he himself did not know much about Cage and drew his information from a thesis written by someone years ago at the Brno Conservatory .. Then I realised that there were not that many people interested in Cage in Czechoslovakia. When at the cnd of the 1980s Petr Doruzka was preparing a volume of texts on various unconventional phenomena in 2oth-century music, later on published under the title Hudba na ponteil (Music at the Borderline) (10), he decided to conceive Cage as the central figure and include my thesis (which he knew from samizdat copies) in his book. Hence, I extended it with a postscript and several commentaries on randomly selected compositions.
Cage's work has always been highly inspiring for mc in the sense of its openness to various possibilities of creating music, unusual sonic outcomes and various types of compositional forms: until the very end of his life, he would come up with new solutions of how a composition may look, what effect it can yield. His oeuvre, opinions and his singular approach to composing encouraged me to seek my own path. He continues to be my model of unceasing curiosity, creative power, vitality and preparedness for new discoveries.
When I actually got to meet Cage in 1992 in Bratislava, I was surprised how similar he was to his photographs - only smaller and more stooped by age. He looked like a being from another world, composedly and flexibly accepting everything that was going on around him. Yet when he was asked about something, he always paused for a long time and then gave a highly pertinent answer. To commemorate his eightieth birthday, and after his death, I wrote a number of articles in which I strove to present my understanding of' his work and his approach to music and the arts in general. They probably contain a lot of errors and wrong conclusions. The Cage I presented is most likely not overly real; he is Cage as I apprehended him. still cannot say I actually understand him, that I know everything about his music. Yet I take it in his sense: when he talked about Duchamp or Joyce, he too stressed that it is their very mystique that interested him.
Over the course of time, Cage ceased to have the flavour of exclusiveness in our country. Recordings and other materials are relatively easily available - the composer has become just another commodity. And the mass expansion of the internet has brought about an end to musical taboos. Cagean ideals, so provocative at one time, have been lightly absorbed by younger generations, who do not see any problem in them. Cage's dreams, which he proclaimed in his manifesto 'Me Future of Miusic - Credo, have become a reality. Today, by means of computers we produce en masse something that corresponds to his dreamt-of "all-sound music" - from professional to entirely amateurish levels. Application of electronic means is now a matter of course. Mixing anything with anything is the current mainstream.
When the publisher Tranzit asked me to translate Cage's book Silence into Czech, initially I refused: who would be interested? Those who were really interested had ahead), read it in the original, others would never read it anyway ... Ultimately, and with substantial assistance from my friends Matej Kratochvil and Radek Tejkal, I plunged into it and completed the translation with the invaluable help of Iva Opligtilova and Jennifer Helia de Felice. The work was challenging yet inspiring - it seemed to me that these ideas are still topical and, fifty years down the road, perhaps even more generally comprehensible.
Just like other artists, Cage teaches us now to perceive the life wc are living. The attention he pays to sounds of any origin, to silence in which something resounds all the time, his emphasising of anarchy and accident has influenced the way we view the world on a wider scale. Much of it is applied to music, even by people who may never have heard of him. Unfortunately, precious few follow Cage's example when it comes to his strict self-discipline and endeavour for elimination of the ego from creation ... This somewhat shifts his influence on to a level he may not have desired: the superficial impression takes over, and the substance remains elusive.
The centenary of the birth of every major composer is somewhat precarious: the name becomes a symbol, the work shrinks to easily digestible bite-sized chunks of several compositions, the name gains a certain respect and is uttered more frequently. Come the next year, it will be someone else's turn, and it will with a clean conscience be consigned to a dumping ground, which is called culture. Unless the name falls into oblivion, the selfsame process will repeat itself a century later.
I feel a little bit sorry about this in the case of Cage. I have always had the feeling that he somewhat surpassed the standard as a composer. It is, however, possible that his efforts to transform human thinking anti behaviour by means of music were too utopian. So far, all utopias have failed at the precise moment when they were accepted by the majority, which simply isn't able to step off the beaten path. How will it turn out his time?
We extend OUT thanks to faroslav Buzga and Rudolf Ruzicka for providing the pictorial materials.
Hartl, Karla and Erik Entwistle, eds. The Kapralova Companion. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2011. ISBN 978-0-7391-6723-6.
"A remarkable book! Since her death at age twenty-five in the midst of WWII, Kapralova's brilliant musical legacy and story have fallen through the cracks. But now this book brings her music, in all its variety and power, to the fore. This collection, by a range of distinguished scholars, offers insights and investigation into Kapralova's creative work and life. Nothing short of a revelation!"
--Liane Curtis, Brandeis University
(1.) A word of a meaning unclear within the music context, most likely used so as to escalate the account of abhorrent phenomena (note: J.S.)
(2.) PODESVA, Jaromir: Hudebni Amerika v kostce. in: Hudebni rozhledy XIII/1960, p. 894.
(3.) Quoted according to the programme of the Agon ensemble for the autumn 1991--spring 1992 concert season. Published by NTS--Konserva/Na Hudbu, Prague 1991, p. 6.
4 ibid, p.6
(5.) Quoted according to: BROWN, Carolyn: Chance and Circumstance. Twenty Years with Cage and Cunningham. Alfred A. Knopf, New York 2007
(6.) Cunningham, ''Story (Part II)", 20.
(7.) HERZOG, Eduard (ed.). Nove cesty hudby 2. Prague--Bratislava: Edrtio Supraphon, 1970.
(8.) KOFRON, Petr--SMOLKA, Martin: Graficke partitury a koncepty. audio ego, Miracle7, Votobia, Societ for New Music, Prague 1996
(9.) Letter to Daniel Matej (New York, 19 January 1993).
(10.) Panton, Prague, 1990.
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|Date:||Jan 1, 2012|
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