Joan La Barbara knows firsthand how puzzling and downright irritating a John Cage composition can be--let alone half a dozen or so played at once. The respected champion of contemporary vocal music confesses that she reacted with anger at her first Cage happening.
"It was in Berlin around 1972," the singer recalls. "There was this huge production of 'HPSCHD,' with slides and films and performers everywhere--in the lobby, in the hall, playing Mozart, playing Cage, chatting with audience members. It was almost terrifying.
"I was furious. I felt assaulted--I mean, it was a mess . I looked around for Cage, and there he was, surrounded by a group of people just staring in awe at him. So I stepped up and shouted out, 'There is so much chaos in the world. Why must you make more?' And I walked away."
A few moments later, La Barbara notes with a smile, she felt a tap on her shoulder. It was Cage. "He said to me, 'Maybe after tonight the world won't seem so chaotic.' "
The casual listener to "Sound Collage" on Saturday at the Embassy Theatre (if anyone can experience this multi-ring circus casually) might see and hear little more than chaos, as the scattered performing groups offer whole and partial Cage compositions in seemingly random fashion for the better part of two hours. As with so many Cage works, chaos--and beauty--are in the ear of the beholder.
"John will think it's organized," says Larry Stein of the Repercussion Unit, one of the participating CalArts-based groups. "He'll use various chance procedures in choosing which music will be performed when. Cage perceives chance to be a representation of the way nature organizes things."
Whether consulting the I Ching or randomly thumbing through Webster's Unabridged Dictionary, Cage maintains a fondness for allowing the whims of the universe to show him the way. Along the lines of "Sound Collage," he recently concocted "Europera, Parts I and II," scheduled for a premiere later this year in West Germany. The premise is similar to "Collage": vocal excerpts from an assortment of warhorses, selected by chance, are supported by instrumental snippets from 70 operatic scores. Even the costumes are grabbed at random, so that Carmen might show up looking like Madama Butterfly.
Despite the potential mayhem of "Europera," it might be fun to see some old musical friends dressed up in new clothes, so to speak. But the Embassy event serves up a double whammy in its unpredictable treatment of the relatively unfamiliar.
"Many people enjoy music because it is predictable, of course," Stein agrees. "They may laugh this performance off, the way they've laughed at John for years." Such was the response a decade ago when the Los Angeles Philharmonic combined Cage's "Renga" with "Apartment House 1776" at subscription concerts.
Though many in those rowdy audiences seemed unenlightened by the experience, Stein is hopeful for a more sympathetic response from the Embassy listeners: "Perhaps afterward, they'll have some new and interesting ideas about what sound and music are."
Stephen Mosko, leader of CalArts' 20th-Century Players, voices similar optimism in responding to a suggested comparison of "Sound Collage" with the aural maze of a video arcade crowded with dozens of pinball wizards: "If you walk through an arcade after the performance, you may find the experience a lot more interesting."
But what is the difference between formal cacophony and random street noise? Stein says it's all a matter of focus.
The Embassy event, Stein insists, will not be the same as a stroll down the boulevard. "In a concert hall, it's suddenly different. Someone is calling it art . By giving the experience this setting, Cage is saying that we should be paying more attention."
There are many ways a listener can approach "Sound Collage," suggests Bob Becker of the Toronto-based percussion quintet, Nexus. "One is simply to try and cultivate an enjoyment for any audible experience. I've learned that you have to give up your definitions and accept whatever happens. If you can hold onto that, you may find something exciting or beautiful."
Several of the participants use that very word in describing the Cage experience from both sides of the proscenium. "There is the possibility of many breathtaking moments," La Barbara says. "Actually, I think a lot of it will sound surprisingly sparse. Remember, there are many silences in his music. The listener can drift in and out. It should be beautiful."
The same term is used by Mosko in describing the experience of playing Cage: "A heartfelt performance will sway an audience. With this piece, the musicians must be committed. And I feel that the beauty of the participants in 'Collage' is that they all love Cage."