In the fall of 1970, when I visited John Cage, he had parts of his new piece Song Books all over his studio and from the first sight, I was very much intrigued by the piece. In many ways, it was close to what I was composing then. My piece Alley had similar features; it had to be “finished” by the performers who made special versions, tailored to the possibilities of the performers. John talked about a planned performance which was to take place soon at Carnegie Recital Hall with Cathy Barbarian and Simone Rist, for whom the piece was written. He had some doubts about the performance, whether it would take place or not. He said, “This piece cannot be rehearsed, and the singers insist on rehearsing it. So if they will keep insisting on rehearsing the piece, the performance will be canceled.” And indeed, the performance did not take place. It was clear to me that John was pretty adamant about not rehearsing the piece.
In 1975, when Julius Eastman caused a scandal during the S.E.M. Ensemble performance of Song Books in Buffalo, Cage came to me right after the concert and demanded an explanation. He said, “What was all this about? You of course performed well, but what was Julius Eastman doing?” I reminded John that I simply could not have known what was coming, because we didn’t rehearse. I really couldn’t have known what Julius was coming out to do. Cage’s reaction was completely startling and it made a lasting impression on me: he said, “But you are the director.” Implying that, no matter what, I should have known – that I was responsible for it.
In 1989, the S.E.M. Ensemble performed a concert at Paula Cooper Gallery called “Music of the Sixties.” One of the pieces on the program was Cage’s Variations IV. I was working on the performance with Ben Neill, who was at the time performing with us. Ben came up with various ideas and suggestions for the piece, interpreting the performance instructions. I wanted to make sure that we delivered as authentic a performance as possible, so I arranged for us to visit Cage and discuss our plans with him. We went to Cage expecting a very short meeting; we expected to have him basically confirm what we were planning to do. As it happened, our meeting lasted about two hours, and at the end we left with completely different ideas about the piece and its performance.
Several times during our meeting, Ben Neill suggested various events to be included. He wanted to invite, for example, a dancer to participate, and was suggesting to include this and that. He was especially convinced to include dance in the performance. He would refer to the ambiguities in the performance instructions, which made him believe that one can do all these things – that one can do almost anything. Cage rejected all of it. It came out that the piece is quite precise in what one can actually do within quite a limited set of possibilities. Cage looked at Ben at one point and said something like, “Do not pay attention to all these ambiguities in the instructions, don’t pay attention to the things you want to do. To interpret the instructions loosely requires one to be on another level, and you’re not there yet. So, don’t pay any attention to it, don’t pay any attention to these freedoms; just follow exactly what the instructions say.” It was clear that to get to this “other level,” one would have to work on the music of Cage for very long time, maybe ten, twenty, or thirty years. Like a Zen master who can shoot his arrow into the center of the target in the dark. This doesn’t happen at the beginning.
From the time Cage started to work with David Tudor – which was in about 1951 or 1952 – up until the late ‘60s or early ‘70s, when Tudor decided to stop being available as a pianist to Cage, every piece Cage composed was composed either directly for David Tudor or with David Tudor in mind. The ambiguities and freedoms were meant for David, who was on this “next level.” This was a great fantasy on the part of Cage, because there never was and never will be another David Tudor.
A casual look at the instructions for 103 makes it clear that it is extraordinary. What makes this introduction so extraordinary is that here, the composer does not write about the music itself – he does not suggest a musical end result – but instead, he sets rules for the way the performers should behave during the performance. This is very unusual. The composer attempts to instruct the performer, almost trying to dictate technicalities of the actual performance, how to go about performing the music. But it is the performer, not the composer, who should decide on these matters, because, as Cage remarked in Buffalo in 1975, the performer caries the full responsibility for the performance – not the composer – notwithstanding anyone’s suggestions, including those coming from the author. It was Cage who said many years ago something very fundamental about this, namely that composing, performing and listening are three separate phenomena not necessarily at all connected. Cage is trying to control the performance aspect of his piece, which is, in a way, a contradiction this notion.
Cage states in his introductory notes: “103 is not the expression of feelings or ideas on my part.” That is a very problematic statement. He continues: “I have wanted the sounds to be free of my intentions…” So there is already an idea, and 103, as well as perhaps many or all of Cage’s compositions, expresses this idea clearly. He states, “I have wanted the sounds to be free of my intentions so that they are just sounds themselves.” This is of course of central importance, which does not apply to Cage specifically but to the direction of music that Cage mapped together with Feldman and Christian Wolf in the early ‘50s; sounds becoming themselves, not as an expression or illustration of something outside of music. This is one of the most important aspects of Cage’s music.
103 is for a large orchestra. There is not a single symphony orchestra in existence today which has any experience worth mentioning in the performance of music by Cage, even in the broadest sense of the word. For an orchestra musician, to be able to understand and master a notation – such as the one used in 103 – without the active involvement of a conductor, is a task beyond his or her capability, at least at the present. Perhaps, hopefully in the (not too distant) future, when the training at conservatories will include the performance practice of music by Cage, the situation will be different. I am referring to the present condition. This type of performance that Cage suggests for the orchestra is really geared toward an individual musician, working as a soloist, not an orchestra musician.
After the 1975 fiasco, I decided never again to be in the least bit associated with a performance where I cannot exercise my full responsibility for the result. This is why it was obvious for me that the orchestra material for 103 has to be prepared for the orchestra musicians, so that they are left with making the right decisions, enabling them to perform as best as they can. We have created a new set of 103 parts, where some of the decisions were decided according to chance operations (thus ensuring that no one starts to express personal intentions). This way, the performance is free of intentions, and the playing does not expresses anyone’s ideas, and the sounds become – as much as it is possible – themselves.
There is an ongoing discussion about “conducting” orchestral pieces by Cage that bear the explicit instruction not to be conducted, such as 103. I find this discussion academic and the act of standing in front of the orchestra and showing the time measurements by moving hand in a way that an analog clock does a cosmetic issue. For example, in the case of 103, the orchestra has always had a conductor to prepare the performance. In the case of the premiere of the piece in Cologne in September 1992, it was the conductor Arturo Tamayo, who was working with the WDR Cologne orchestra. Tamayo was apparently so confused about the music and the notation that, according to Wolfgang Becker, the Director of New Music at WDR and the one who produced the concert, Tamayo attempted to create a score (!), so that he could better understand and instruct the musicians.
Until recently, my musical interests did not involve the orchestra. In fact, ten years ago, I could have suggested that the orchestra as we know it will probably not survive for very long. All my musical life, until quite recently, I have not been interested in conducting. (Although, since my studies at the conservatory, it was often suggested to me that I consider being a conductor.) All that changed in 1992, when I stood on the stage of Carnegie Hall, conducting an orchestra of 86 musicians in Atlas Eclipticalis by John Cage. This was a big revelation for me. Afterward, the work with chamber ensembles that I had done all my life seemed not so relevant any more. Unfortunately, Cage did not live to see the Carnegie Hall performance, and I did not have the chance to discuss my new experience with him. I do not know, if I would have succeeded to have Cage see my point, whether we would have agreed about what I discovered about an orchestra and conducting. My thinking certainly changed and my work as a conductor reflects this change.
—Petr Kotik, September, 1997