Lou Harrison and John Cage at the Cabrillo Music Festival.
Phil Collins recalls seeing John Cage and Lou Harrison at one of New Music Works’ early Avant Garden Parties. The two old friends, who’d been artistically and personally separated for several decades after they’d both studied with contemporary music icons Arnold Schoenberg and Henry Cowell (not the California landowner), had taken a walk together and returned to the party arm in arm.
For Collins, NMW’s co-founder and longtime artistic director, there was something touchingly symbolic in the moment, which marked the rekindling of a collaboration that would last until the end of Cage’s life in 1992. Among other things, Harrison, who lived in Aptos for 50 years until he passed away in 2003, arranged Cage’s notorious Suite for Toy Piano for full orchestra—a maneuver that, according to one critic, turned Cage’s sly work into “a functional, mainstream piece of orchestral Americana … akin to the music of Copland, and drives home the critical argument of Cage’s even further: music is everywhere.”
Cage’s original solo version will be one of a dozen or more pieces performed during a “musicircus” in downtown Santa Cruz on Wednesday, Sept. 5—all part of a daylong celebration of Cage’s 100th birthday.
The event will kick off with a noon performance of Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra at the duck pond in San Lorenzo Park. Collins, who will be conducting the piece, said it’s one of the most difficult things he’s ever done. To explain why that is so, he showed me the score, which looks somewhat like a collection of calligraphy and child’s drawings on 64 pages of sheet music.
In a key accompanying the piece, each musician is invited to decipher his or her part as he or she sees fit. This might mean, for instance, playing only every other note, or playing one of the apparently circular parts counter-clockwise.
“Instead of orders, he presents paradoxes,” Collins says. “The language is such that it’s unconstricting. You have to follow certain rules; other things are completely free.”
Collins says the Concert is an essential example of the way Cage revolutionized music.
“He saw that the future of classical music required performers who were more engaged,” Collins says. Before Cage, musicians were pretty much limited to “taking dictation from composers.”
“Playing Cage requires a huge amount of personal decision-making,” Collins says. “It’s just exciting as all get-out.”
Following the duck pond performance, the celebration shifts to various venues on Pacific Avenue, and will run (significantly) from 3:34 to 4:33.
In the pedestrian “tunnel” near the corner of Pacific and Cooper Street, Jennifer Cass will perform Cage’s In a Landscape and Dream, gorgeous solo piano compositions arranged for harp, and soprano Colleen Donovan will perform Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs, with Collins accompanying on “wooden surfaces.”
Elsewhere a group of musicians will perform Living Room Music (on household objects, voice and clarinet), and Child of Tree (for bean pod and amplified cactus). And on one stage, a series of pianists will conduct a marathon performance of 4’33”, Cage’s so-called “silent piece.”
All performances are free and made possible by a gift from the late Richard Markell, a NMW board member who created the “Yayaya Fund.”
“I feel that Cage is such an embodiment of American pluralism,” Collins says, “and a really good person for Santa Cruz to celebrate.”
CAGE 950 is Wednesday, Sept. 5, at San Lorenzo Park and downtown Santa Cruz on Pacific between Cooper Street and Marini’s, noon-–4:33pm.