Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Joan La Barbara 3: On John Cage

In an interview with Dr. Wood Massi last week, the soprano Joan La Barbara (performing at a chamber concert last Sunday in Davies Hall above) talked about her first meeting with composer/philosopher John Cage in the early 1970s. It started with her insulting him in Berlin, collaborating with him in New York City, and then forging a deep and abiding friendship after a disastrous concert in France.

The final, French anecdote is from memory because the recording device I was using died, for which I would like to apologize profusely to both Wood and Joan. Ms. La Barbara is one of the most interesting and centrally connected musicians of the second half of the twentieth century and the early 21st, and it felt nearly criminal to miss any of the interview.

Massi: Along with Meridith Monk and Jessye Norman, you will be performing works from John Cage’s Song Books at the Mavericks Festival [which premiered on Saturday and will be repeated on Wednesday the 14th]. By the way, there is an excellent video on the San Francisco Symphony’s website about the festival where you and others discuss the Song Books (click here). You worked extensively with Cage. I wonder what those interactions were like during your twenty-year relationship with him.

Joan La Barbara: He was so wonderful and very generous with his knowledge. Everything about Cage shows that he was a very generous person. We first met in the early 1970s. I was working with Steve Reich at the time. The Reich Ensemble was touring Europe, and Cage was touring with David Tudor. So we happened to be in the same places many times.

Then we wound up in Berlin. There was a production of Cage’s HPSCHD [computer shorthand for “harpsichord”] in Berlin. There was an orchestra in one room playing; there were slides projected; there were harpsichords and keyboards all around. There were performers playing a lot of things. I remember Cornelius Cardew the composer was one of those there. He wasn’t playing; he was talking politics. I was really offended by the whole thing.

You know, I was really young. There was so much going on; there were thousands of people in this place. I went up to Cage and I said, “With all the chaos in the world, why do you make more?” He was surrounded by all these people who just gasped. So I turned on my heel and marched back out into the melee. A few minutes later I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around and it was John. He was smiling and he said, “Perhaps when you go out into the world it won’t seem so chaotic.”

As I said, he was so generous and so really concerned to respond to this. What someone else would clearly have taken as an affront, he took as a serious concern that he wanted to address. It didn’t change my mind about the situation, but I was very impressed by him, the person behind this.

Sometime later I had started to do my own composition and I began to bump into him at filmmaker Phil Niblock’s loft, and I invited Cage to some concerts of my music. I was doing the first performance of my piece called Voice Piece: One-Note Internal Resonance Investigation [1974], a vigorous exploration of the various timbral and coloristic changes that you can make by isolating various resonance areas and by singing harmonics and multi-phonics. So I got done with the performance and Cage said to me, “Tomorrow would you like to work with me?” I said, “Sure.”

He handed me Solo for Voice 45 from Song Books, 18 pages of aggregates of numbers and five lines of the staff, with two clefs, the treble clef and the alto clef and numbers above. So for instance, if you had eight dots and the five lines, and you had the alto clef above the treble clef and the numbers 1 and 7, the one pitch was to be chosen using the alto clef and seven pitches using the treble clef. Then you made your choices and created a lyrical line and you were instructed to sing it as fast as possible. It took me six months to do all the work of the solo. When I was ready, I called him up and I said, “Please come listen to what I have.” He came over to my loft and he said, “Well, it’s really marvelous, but it’s not as fast as possible.”

It took my breath away. He wanted something like telegraphic strokes or bird songs. What he had meant was that you create a line but it becomes more of a gesture, so that by choosing those pitches what you get is a pitch terrain. Whether it goes up or whether it goes down, whether there are huge leaps or flurries all in one spot, that’s what he wanted me to do, to create this thing.

So when you think about Cage’s work, what you’re dealing with is a man who was trying to open up the possibilities for the reexploration of what we refer to as “music.” When you think of this idea that all sound is music, those of us who are trained as musicians get stuck in the question of what is acceptable, what we have been trained to do, what is a “beautiful” sound. What he wanted to do was to open up us as musicians so that we could continue our exploration and we would then invite the audience to enjoy and to be surprised. I think that was one of the delights of his life, to be surprised. He told me one time that he always tried to say Yes because he never knew what might happen, what surprises might come.

Massi: Cage was very accepting. I think of him as a philosopher as much as a composer.

La Barbara: Yes, he was.

And this is my recap from memory:

La Barbara: Sometimes people would take advantage of Cage's generosity. We were performing a concert in France, in the Bicentennial year, America's Bicentennial in 1976, and John gave a wonderful speech to the orchestra filled with talk about the dignity of man and the relations between France and America. Using chance procedures, such as the I Ching, he came up with the length of the concert as two hours and forty minutes, without a break.

Some members of the orchestra were horrible, with the freedom they had been given. One guy brought out two bottles of red wine and proceeded to get pot-eyed drunk onstage, while another player spent most of the concert yelling obscenities. John was furious, but after it was over he came to me and said, "Throughout that entire concert, you stayed focused and professional and you were very good. I would like to work with you forever." And that's how we sealed our bond for the next two decades.

Photo above is La Barbara and Cage from Joan La Barbara's website.

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