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Petr Kotik's umbilical cord.

If I wanted to be caustic, I could say that Petr Kotik had taken a patent out on John Cage. Still--as he points out himself--he is Cage's second oldest living collaborator, has devoted himself systematically to the interpretation of Cage and was in personal contact with him throughout his later career. Whether or not we agree with his often very blunt views, he certainly has things to say on the performance of John Cage.

When did you first meet Cage?

It was in Vienna, in 1964, in my first year of studies at the Vienna Academy. I was studying composition and flute and one of my professors was Fridrich Cerha, who one fine Spring day called to tell me that Cage was coming and asked if I wanted to play with him. Up to then I had only known of Cage from a few texts I had read. I had also heard recordings from the concert in the Town Hall (for the 25th anniversary of Cage's work as a composer) but I didn't know much about the music and had never seen a score. Thus prepared, I got to the rehearsal for the concert -- we played Atlas Eclipticalis in a three-hour version, only the percussion parts. The piece was to be of almost fateful significance for me, since I've never ceased to perform it to this day, and in 1992 we started the S.E.M. Orchestra with it in New York. Later I realised that the whole evening was legendary. It was an appearance by Merce Cunningham and his dance group with a programme entitled Event Nr. 1. When I arrived in New York in 1969, Cage to ok me to see Cunningham in his studio and there were boxes of old programmes lying about. One of them advertised the production of Event Nr. 85. And I had taken part in its first performancel

Incidentally, there was also a poster of his Prague concert hanging in Cunningham's studio. They were vastly proud of it, because Pragokoncert, which had no idea what was actually coming to Prague, put posters up all over the city with the legend: Merce Cunningham Dance Company, John Cage, David Tudor, Musica Viva Pragensis, Robert Rauchenberg, and under it "West Side Story style dance". That time about 3000 people came to the Fucik Cultural Centre.

And so you met again in Prague...

Yes, after the spring Vienna concert he came to Prague in September of the same year -- 1 organised it, so as to get the Musica Viva Pragensis ensemble involved as well. Among other things we played the Cage Concerto for Piano and Orchestra with David Tudor on the piano, at the Fucik Centre again. There's a bit of a story linked to that Just like Cerha in Vienna, Cage in Prague asked me to get hold of some musicians -- without any specifications. I brought volunteers from the ensemble, we arrived at the rehearsal and waited. One hour, two hours...the musicians were already getting nervous. And then Cage turned up, saw two trombonists and said, "I'm sorry but I only need one trombone". I went to tell the trombonists that one of them had to go home, and a skirmish broke out. I should add that back then it wasn't money that was the issue -- they simply wanted to play. So I went back to Cage and asked if he couldn't do something with the situation, and he said "Sure no problem" and asked me to bring him the trom bone part. He took it, tore it into two and told me to rewrite the times and double them, so that both musicians could play, each on a different half of the trombone part. In the Nineties that memory led me to the idea of doubling the orchestra in the Concerto for Piano, so we actually had two orchestras, a total of 26 people instead of 13, and naturally it sounded far better. Cage only wrote it for 13 people because it never occurred to him in his wildest dreams that he might one day have the means to hire more than 13 people.

It's said that John Cage helped you to get a green card in the United States...

It's naive to believe that John Cage was a name that meant anything to immigration officials. Also it wasn't a green card that was at issue, but emigrant status. I didn't really want to apply for political asylum, because even though I'd had plenty of problems in Czechoslovakia, I wasn't a political refugee, and my reasons were professional. And so I filled in the immigration form as if had been an Englishman, Frenchman, Italian or Swede, and I wrote my profession down as musician. My application was rejected because for immigration officials music isn't a profession. When I went to the immigration office to ask what I should do now, they said I had the right to apply in the category for exceptional persons -- the official thought about it for a while, and then said "like the singer Chevalier, for example". It seemed clear enough to me that I wouldn't qualify, but I still put an application in, and because I needed recommendations, John Cage was one of the people who wrote me one. In the end I was given immigrant status in the category. I really don't know why, but I doubt it was only because of Cage.

Let's move on to the performance of Cage's music. His scores are so open that they seem to offer a wide field for interpretation. Do you think that's true?

It's a complete mistake. There's some space for interpretation there, but that exists in all music, and is what makes music a living medium. In this respect Cage's music is no different.

All right, then let's say his scores can be filled with a diverse specific musical content...

The biggest misunderstandings arise from thinking about historical works as if they were contemporary. If you want to reflect on Cage and his work in the 1 950s and 60s, then you have to realise what kind of years these were and the circumstances in which Cage was working. At that point none of the composers that are now so well-known -- Cage, Feldman, Brown, Wolff, and with them Tudor -- anticipated any success or interest from the wider musical public. In Cage's case this approach was reflected in the fact that between 1952 and 1970 all his compositions were basically written directly for Tudor, or at least with Tudor in mind. At that stage almost nobody else played him and Cage had no reason to think that the situation might change. Tudor and Cage were like twins, and practically inseparable. When in 1970 Tudor decided that he was no longer going to work with Cage in this way, it was a shock for Cage. When he mentioned it to me at the time he said now he would have to write everything in a different way, a nd it would have to be technically far easier, so he could play it himself.

Do you know why Tudor made that decision?

That would need a whole interview in itself. Briefly one can say that Tudor started to work independently, as a composer and above all a creator of live electronic music" and he realised he couldn't continue in such a close collaborative relationship because it took up too much of his time.

David Tudor was a very individual personality, a very American ndividual, a sort of pioneer type --e had to find out everything for himself, do everything for himself, try everything out for himself. He was known for the fact that while practically everyone composed for him in the Fifties --Boulez, Stockhausen, Pousseur, Brown, Bussotti and so on, he never allowed them to be involved in the rehearsal of their pieces. They were always presented with a fait accompli at the first performance. And they were enthusiastic, even if Tudor transformed their work into something they hadn't been expecting at all.

Did John Cage have a precise idea about how his work ought to be performed? Do you believe one approach to the interpretation of Cage is more legitimate than another?

In music there are two aspects to interpretation: the first is the note record and the second, which is just as important, is the tradition of performance -- something we call style -- that leads straight to the composer. Only when a tradition is interrupted and vanishes from consciousness, do we discover how imperfect and incomplete the note record is. The most important thing, the quality that makes a score into a work of music, is not something we shall actually find in any note record. This is true for Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Wagner... Today we have an easier time of it because we have recordings. But the way to play Beethoven, for example, leads straight back to the way he played it himself. His pupils copied him and they taught others, and so even if there was constant change, there is also always the umbilical cord that leads directly to the composer. That is why I have a problem with Baroque music, which wasn't played for a century of more...

Duchamp put it together again -- he was gluing it for about two years -- and then he said, "I've got used to these cracks and I'm beginning to like them' He's talking about a yearning for precision, but at the same time the acceptance of accidental el ements. That was in the Thirties, but the tendency to accept accidental elements can be found throughout the Twentieth Century.

And how to play Cage? The very notion that you can buy the sheet music without knowing anything about it and can read everything out of the notes and instructions is just as nonsensical as the idea that you could learn to play the flute on a correspondence course, by e-mail. That is not the way music is done. If you want to play Cage well, you obviously have to respect the score, but that doesn't tell you everything. In his instruction Cage didn't include things that were completely obvious to himself and to Tudor.

Could you give an example of something that was obvious to them?

It's different in each score. We did Variations IV, for example, -- I think it was in 1990--and Ben Neill who was working with me at that point had a lot of ideas on how to approach it Variations IV is in fact half theatre and half music, and there are no notes but only instructions. I wasn't too happy with Ben's ideas, and so I called Cage and he asked us over so that we could look at the whole thing. I thought it would take a few minutes, but in the end we were there for two hours. It turned out that everything had been thought out with complete precision, and every time Ben objected that there was "something different again" in the instructions, Cage would tell him "Pay no attention to it, it's "third level", a higher class you haven't reached yet." All these different possibilities had been thought up for Tudor, who played Cage all his life. When you do something for twenty or thirty years under right direction, then you can get your freedom and you'll still "hit the target". But if you are doing it for t he first time, then don't go taking those kinds of "liberty". It was well-known that Rachmaninov would sometimes improvise when he played his piano concertos, but no teacher at a music school would allow it. It's a little like in Zen Buddhism, where an experienced monk can hit the target even in complete darkness... but when you start you have to have the lights on and wear glasses.

And so back to Cage's idea of how it ought to look...

We are living in a culture built on the Enlightenment illusion that people know what they want No one dares to say that he doesn't know what he wants, since that would discredit him. And in the Fifties Cage was one of the first to draw attention to the fact that he didn't want anything, Things arise organically, one out of another. One silly view you can hear from professors at all the universities is that a composer writes music he hears internally, and it is an expression of what he wants. If that were the case then Beethoven wouldn't have had to rewrite Fidelio twice, And Mahler used to correct his scores almost endlessly -- in fact even today they are not finished; they are only "complete" because he died. Does it mean he was a bad composer because he didn't precisely know what he wanted?

So what was the situation with Cage? Did he simply find an ideal medium in Tudor?

Yes. He had absolute faith in which Tudor would make of it, and Tudor always made it what it ought to be. Sometimes people have a spiritual connection, and complement each other. Their connection was perfect and Cage deliberately left some things open. But of course this presents us with a problem today -- and perhaps it rather destroys Cage's work to the point where it won't be possible to resurrect it -- incidentally reflecting some of Cage's social-ideological beliefs. Although they worked well as far as artistic strategy was concerned, they were damaging in relation to the practical situation, above all the practicalities of interpretation. One of the basic foundations of Cage's thought was the rejection of value judgements. He completely refused to judge things, and was utterly consistent about it So when someone "messed up" his music in some ghastly way he wouldn't stand up and start shouting "How dare you?" but would just sit there saying nothing, and then leave. The problem is that this attitude is oft en been regarded as agreement It got to such a point that there are musicians Cage simply couldn't stand who still think he was terribly fond of them.

So he never commented on performance.


When you asked him before hand, then he advised you...

If you took the initiative, he was very willing to help.

So he did have a particular idea...

It was a process.

Recently I realised yet again that a thing that united us -- me, Lucier, Wolff, and Cage -- even though our music differed so greatly -- was that exciting moment when you set a process in motion in a way that endures the result is not what you predicted. The dialogue between your plan, you working strategy, and acceptance of certain unforeseen results.

What unites us is an interesting question. Every period has its common denominators, which is how you recognise that it's Baroque, Romanticism, Renaissance... And judged by traditional criteria we do very different things, which might even look unconnected. But that's not true. With hindsight our work will certainly turn out not to have been so heterogeneous after all, and some common denominator will be found. There are certain things that hang in the air and that many people arrive at independently because they are an expression of their time. For example, take the fact that Duchamp's Great Glass was broken because they were taking it from the Brooklyn Museum where it was exhibited to Connecticut and they threw it into the truck without any kind of protection.

Duchamp put it together again--he was gluing it for about two years--and then he said, "I've got used to these cracks and I'm beginning to like them." He's talking about a yearing for precision, but at the same time the acceptance of accidental elements. That was in the Thirities, but the tendency to accept accidental elements can be found throughout the Twentieth Century.

Do you think that today's performers must be capable of perceiving this period feeling if they are to interpret Cage "correctly"? What if they don't have that "umbilical cord"?

They have to have it There are people here who worked with Cage, and it continues on with them.

What about the people who didn't work with Cage? Do they have any chance at all of finding an approach to Cage's music?

Perhaps, but it's not likely. There are recordings, there are plenty of things that can be learned that way...

Correct performance ought then to respect the tradition of interpretation...

There is only one correct interpretation. And a great many variations within it, of course. But things become meaningful only from within. Performance by someone who approaches the music from outside is completely pointless. It is as if I were to do a football commentary, although I know nothing about football. Every fan would laugh at me.

Can this correct interpretation be characterised in some way?

It's hard. But the most important thing for the performance of Cage is discipline, and not license. That's precisely because there are so many possibilities there. The more possibilities you have, the more disciplined you have to be, since otherwise it will fall apart That applies not just to music but to life as well. Cage characterised discipline in the following terms: "You can't do what you like, but every possibility is open". Don't pay attention to yourself, get over your own ego.

What do you think is central, and most durable, in Cage's work?

In Ostrava I conducted Wagner's overture to Tristan and Isolde and the Liebestod, and so I was educating myself a little about Wagner and I discovered that Cage and Wagner are completely parallel figures, each for his own century. They were born in the same period, Wagner in 1813, Cage in 1912, and in both cases their most important work, the one with which they made their mark on the world scene, was written in the year 57: Orchestra for Piano and Orchestra in 1957 and Tristan and Isolde in 1857. And both were still controversial fifty years after the works were written -- Mahier only dared to conduct Tristan without major cuts sometime at the beginning of the 20th century, and both were great ideologists of socialist stamp -- it's even said that Wagner was mixed up with the burning of the opera house in Dresden and so had to flee abroad, and when he was allowed to return to Germany he was still forbidden to set foot in Saxony. Bakunin was one of his closest friends and several critics described Wagner as a communist Cage and Wagner both published texts that had an influence their times not only in the sphere of music, but also on a broad social front -- they had a great impact on the intellectual life of their era.

As far as the durability of his work is concerned, I think Cage's importance starts in the 1950s. First with Music of Changes for piano. Then the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra and Atlas Echpticalis. Etudes Australes were the next step and then Freeman Etudes. For someone to say, "I know what Cage's Music is about", he has to mean these works. In the same way that you have to know the Eroica, the late quartets, a few piano sonatas, the 7th Symphony, in order to be able to say you know Beethoven. The First Symphony isn't enough.

What do you think is the most important thing that you personally learned from Cage?

Recently was asked to write something about Cage's influence on me. I was aware that what is usually described as influence is actually imitation, which actually has very little in common with influence. Unfortunately society praises people who imitate others, but imitation has never attracted me and so that's why my music possibly sounds completely different from any other...

I came up with the working hypothesis that influence is actually confirming someone in an opinion he had before. To do independent work and concern yourself with ideas that no one has had before isn't just hard, but involves a whole scale of insecurities and confusions. You don't know what the point is, or what you're actually doing (and plenty of your ideas are naturally worthless and end on the trash heap). But when you discover that someone else is also taking the same direction, it's a kind of confirmation of the rightness of your own work, and that can have an incredible influence on a person. That is the kind of influence Cage had on me. I don't recall ever having encountered something and saying to myself, "This is amazing!" and then doing a hundred-and-eighty-degree turnaround. But when I encountered Cage's opinions, suddenly it corresponded to what I had felt myself. And if Cage hadn't been here, who knows whether I would have been strong enough to continue in the same direction by myself. But Cage w as here, I met him, and that is how it influenced me. Does that make sense?

It does. If you meet a great man or woman it can cause things to crystallise, things you had only sensed but not articulated...

Something like that happened to me. In 1974 Cage and I had a huge conflict At that point Cage had proclaimed something I saw as a denial of all his previous ideological claims... I was quite shocked... But in the end I found that actually he had been right.

We did a performance of Song Books in Buffalo and one of the musicians decided to sabotage the performance, which caused a huge scandal, and there were also certain personal factors playing a role, and so Cage was terrible offended. It was a piece for which Cage had expressly wanted no rehearsals. This was an expression of anarchist ideology -- every player had to study his own part and at the end it would all come together at the performance. The rational justification for why they were no rehearsals was that one player might influence another and somebody might even come to dominate, but without rehearsals what would emerge was the beauty of anarchy, with everyone doing their own thing, and so long as no one trod on another's foot, everything would go beautifully harmonically together. We had no rehearsals, I didn't know who would do what, and Julius Eastman decided to play silly games, which was what caused the scandal. After the concert Cage came up on the podium and said, "What was that supposed to mean? " And I said, "I didn't know what was going to happen, because we had no rehearsals". And he turned to me and said, "But you're the leader of the ensemble!" And I realised -- not immediately, it took me a while -- that actually he was right That if I sign myself as the music director of the S.E.M. Ensemble, then I've responsible for what the ensemble does there. I can't excuse myself on the grounds that the composer has some stupid directions that we should or shouldn't rehearse, and ideas on what we should or shouldn't do.

Ever since then I've taken a very critical view of any kind of instruction or view. And so for example I conduct some Cage orchestral pieces even though he said, for ideological reasons, that there should be no conductor. To do a thing with a hundred-member orchestra without a conductor -- as he demands in piece 103 -- is complete nonsense. In Cologne at the premiere they had sweated blood for a week, and the concert recording showed the performance had been catastrophic. I rehearsed it with the Janacek Philharmonic and it was absolutely outstanding. One thing that I terribly regret is that Cage did not live to see my work with orchestra. I'm convinced he would agree with me on many things, as he agreed when I proposed certain changes in Ryoanji.

How do you know which instructions you ought to respect and which not?

That is "third level".

Do you think that you've achieved the "third level"?

I hope so. After forty years of work it would be sad if that wasn't the case. And if not me, then who else? I'm among the very small number of people who worked with Cage practically without a break from the beginning of the Sixties.
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Author:Havelkova, Tereza
Publication:Czech Music
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:4EXCZ
Date:Jan 1, 2003
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