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Joan La Barbara: Back to Cage

INTERVIEW. Long-time John Cage collaborator La Barbara brings the work of the avant-garde composer to the Berlin stage on March 17 at Haus der Berliner Festspiele.

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Photo by David Winnerstam

John Cage’s infamous ‘silent’ piece, 4’33’’ (1952), in which performers remain on stage without playing a note, revolutionised the concert landscape. Every noise could be considered music, and the rules built around structure, harmony and form, already tenuous in the early 20th century, seemed to shift and crumble completely.

Cage’s influence at the time of his 2012 centennial is one of the themes for this year’s MaerzMusik, the Haus der Berliner Festspiele’s festival for new music.

Long-time Cage collaborator La Barbara directs her New York-based ensemble Ne(x)tworks and the Berlin-based Maulwerker in the festival’s opening concert on March 17, a 50-minute edition of Cage’s Song Books (1970), performed simultaneously with Concert for Piano and Orchestra (1958), and followed by her own Cage-inspired work Persistence of Memory (2011).

So how did your relationship with John Cage begin?

In 1976 in La Rochelle, France, it was the first time I was going to perform Cage’s music, his “Solo for Voice 45” from Song Books. Because it was the hottest and driest summer that had happened in Europe in ages, he arranged for two refrigerators to be placed to the side of the stage. He said to the musicians, “If your part includes long silences, you may quietly leave the stage and go and get yourself something cool to drink.”

It was a very generous thing to do; unfortunately it was also a recipe for disaster. The musicians decided that he obviously didn’t have any respect for concerts. The oboe player walked on stage carrying two bottles of wine and drank himself into a stupor, never picking up his instrument.

And afterwards Cage came up to me and said, “You were marvellous – you did your part and it was exquisite. I am with you always.” That was the moment I believe that he became my mentor.

What was the inspiration for Persistence of Memory, if not the Dali painting?

I wanted to do a piece that was kind of a reflection on Cage and the way that my recollections of him – his inspiration, his work ethic, his compositional modus operandi – have continued to influence me.

The actual piece itself goes back and forth between notated music for voice and music for voice and instruments, and sonic events: a car crash, glass splintering, a thunder-storm, a tornado.

Along with that, I have asked a filmmaker to create a film that exists simultaneously with, but does not relate specifically to the sonic events. In other words, the music is not an audio score for the film and the film is not a visual reflection of the music. That was directly influenced by Cage’s work Lecture on the Weather.

What is the idea behind the restaging of Song Books?

I did a number of performances with Cage, and one of them was a 90-minute performance of Song Books at the [Royal] Conservatory in the Hague. I had been teaching a workshop for students, training them to sing Cage with respect. [For Song Books] each person makes their own set of instructions, so they have a timeline of when they’re doing which solos.

And Cage had designed a kind of grid on the stage, so they also had a floor plan telling each person when they were supposed to be where. I’m using that as inspiration for the Berlin performance: we’ll be setting certain areas where people will perform certain activities.

What sort of activities?

This was very definitely one of Cage’s pieces where he was thinking about theatre and elements of staging without traditional direction, especially entrances and exits. For example, there’s one solo where it says you may exit by flying or through a trap door, and then return wearing an animal head. There are other instructions that say prepare a meal. Or put a contact mic to your throat and swallow a certain amount of liquid. It’s not a customary situation where people are just standing there and performing their tasks. They’re doing theatrical events as well – that’s the beauty of the piece.

You mentioned “singing Cage with respect”. What would disrespectful singing be like?

Not paying attention to the directions, and not paying attention to periods of silence. There is a certain misunderstanding about Cage that one can do anything. And it is simply not true; the instructions are very specific. I worked with Cage for nearly 20 years, so I saw many different attitudes both from the musicians and the audience.

I happened to be in the audience in 1976 when his Apartment House 1776 was at Carnegie Hall, and from the moment that the performance started, the audience started screaming and walking around. Some people were actually trying to listen and others were just behaving abominably.

The point is that the ones who objected didn’t even give the piece a chance. Their assumption ahead of time was that this was going to be chaotic, and they decided to participate in this chaos.

New music is often met with criticism…out of ignorance. People just can’t tell if a deliberately dissonant piece is any good…

Well, you get the same problem in art museums. You hear, “Oh, well my kid could draw that.” It just means that they haven’t had enough experience with it.

When my husband [electronic music pioneer Morton Subotnick] and I were living in LA, he had a very good friend who was a film composer and a tremendous supporter of new music, but he didn’t get it. He came anyway, and that was the point.

I think the audience needs to come to a new music concert with an open mind. In the best of all possible worlds, they might hear something they’ve never heard before. It might make them angry, they might have an emotional reaction to it positive or negative, or they might have an intellectual response to it. You can’t always do what is familiar, or you’re limiting your experience.

And as far as what is good? Time will tell whether or not pieces last.

Many of your recent works challenge the traditional separation of musician and listener in the audience. Why did you decide to start placing performers in the audience?

Because I’m not an orchestral player, I rarely get the opportunity to sit in the middle of the orchestra, and I wanted to give the audience that experience.

And then for Angels and Demons and Other Muses [2010], I arranged the chairs so that people were facing all different directions. At certain points the musicians were instructed to get up and whisper words directly into the audience’s ears using what I called a personal resonator – a hat. They would use this hat to make a sort of private space between that musician and that audience member. I think people who come to contemporary concerts, especially new music, are thrilled with the idea of getting a new experience

Cage & Consequences, Mar 17, 19:00 | Haus der Berliner Festspiele, Schaperstr. 24, Charlottenburg, U-Bhf Spichernstr.

12.03.2012 - 09:00 Uhr