Reflections on SAAR - Part 3

The final writing I would like to do on SAAR concerns the final presentation I gave on Saturday August 17.

As I mentioned in previous posts, I did not bring my clarinet with my to SAAR. It was both a matter of practicality (I saw that we would have a busy schedule and thought, “I’m not going to have any time to practice”) and circumstance (I was in between repertoire and did not think I had anything I wanted to perform). What I did not anticipate was the strong desire I had at the end of the week to play, as opposed to talk. Usually I have no trouble talking, but I felt an overwhelming desire to stop putting words to what I was trying to express all week in discussions, presentations, and everyday conversations.

Alas, I had to come up with a final presentation performance without my instrument. What piece requires no instrument to perform? Perhaps the answer is obvious - John Cage’s 4’ 33” (yes, I realize now that this was not my only option but it came to me first). At first I resisted, it felt cliche, it felt overworked, it felt thrown together. But I had been reading Kyle Gann’s Music Downtown all week. With a little research, I thought I could do it properly. The question was how. And where.

Throughout the week we were assigned what was referred to as a ‘dialogue partner’. This was another fellow, randomly assigned, with whom we were to check in on through the week, have a chat, etc. After it was announced that we had one last presentation to do (after doing two in the previous three days), everyone seemed a bit stressed, grasping for what to do, out of ideas. I was chatting with my dialogue partner, a percussionist-composer from Oslo Academy, and I tested the waters a bit: “Hey, I had this idea to maybe do Cage… I want to perform but I don’t have my clarinet here…” etc. He replied, “did you know there’s a piano in the cafeteria building? I was talking to the security guard who locks up at night and he told me he plays on it sometimes. I was thinking of doing something there as well, we could do something together?”

Oof. The cafeteria building was, for me, the most uncomfortable place on the island. We had toured it on Monday, and since then, I had not gone back inside. I did, however, have to walk past it every night on the way to my cabin. The building was a huge focus during the restructuring of the island after the July 22 attack. It had been the social and logistical center of the island, and it is also where 13 people were killed. In the years after the attack, there was a lot of debate whether the building should remain in its original form, completely unchanged, or whether it should be demolished. Ultimately it was decided that part of the building would remain in its original form, but an external structure was built around it. I will not go into the details of the building itself, but if you are interested, you can read more about it here.

The new/old building is, in my opinion, the epitome of the thoughtfulness and sensitivity that was the rebuilding after the July attack. However, I still did not want to go back in there. After my colleague mentioned the piano to me, my first thought was, “I do not know if it is appropriate for us to touch that instrument.” There are small, personal memorials (flowers, candles, drawings) placed behind the piano, where some victims hid from the gunman. Is this a spot for a performance? Do we have a write to use the space that way? I was skeptical, but somehow knowing that someone else had touched the instrument was immensely comforting. We had to get some final permissions, but we decided to stage the final presentation there.

Photo by Lucy Abrams

Photo by Lucy Abrams

In typical “Lucy”-fashion, step one was to read up everything I could - so began a 12-hour crash course in John Cage. Using primarily the Gann, but also some various videos and articles I found online, I made pages of notes. Was this to be a lesson on Cage? On Cage-ian principles? On the act of embodied performance? There were so many different ways I could frame the performance, but I knew first that I did not want it to be a moment of silence. And while the place, the setting, of the performance was important, I did not want the audience to feel pressure to feel, or listen, or interpret the performance a specific way. My two main focuses were on placing John Cage as a composer, not a philosopher, and also of experimenting with the idea of performing, creating a musical performance, without an instrument. Cage has be ‘appropriated’ (culture appropriation was a big topic during the week) both during his lifetime and after by many different groups of people - composers, musicians, artists, cultural figures, politicians. Who was John Cage? What did he say about music and sound? And what was his opinion as to the role of the performer? What was performance, according to Cage? And how is this relevant to today, and to this performance site?

Cage was not a philosopher but a disciplined composer, well-trained in western classical traditions. While his ideas were adopted later by conceptual art movements like Fluxus, Cage himself was not anarchical, but rather interested in re-thinking hierarchies that existed in music. In this vein, he did loosen the idea of what sound, process, performance and composition were in classical music. Though he was interested in blurring, or removing, the boundaries between art and life, or artist and non artist, he also believed that art should benefit society. And he was always aware of artistic social metaphor. Three Cage quotes stuck with me: 1) “permission granted, but not to do whatever you want”, 2) “music without intention is carelessness” and 3) “music that’s fun to play will live forever, for performers call the shots”.

Image from <>

Image from <>

My performance would go first, in our 30 min presentation. I had rehearsed the work alone, I also prepared by spending some time in the room inside the original building where the piano is. I walked around the space alone, touched the piano, and sat in front and improvised a melody. As a stage, or maybe it is more appropriate to say “site of a performance”, it was loaded, emotionally and visually (by both what was present and not present). My colleague and I agreed that the musical performances would take place inside the original building, but the talking and short discussions before, between and after each performance, would take place just outside. In the photo to the left, in the area where there is the circle of chairs, we had set up 5 tables, equally spaced, with 5-6 chairs at each table. This space, inside the building but outside of the original structure, was where we gave introductions and discussed. Only during performance did we move everyone up the stairs (in the photo), which lead directly into the front room where the piano was. We also chose to separate the Cage from Erik Dæhlin’s composition, which was recomposed from a Labour movement song.

To start the presentation, I wanted to say some words to prepare both myself and the audience, but I did not want to say too much. Surprisingly, to me at least, I had quite similar performance anxiety as I would before any performance with my clarinet. I was highly focused, very aware of my movements, breath, and surroundings, and I had an elevated heart rate. My face was warm, my hands were cold, and I was consciously taking deep, calm breaths, and was trying to send those breaths to my limbs to steady them. I was dressed all in black, which was habitual (since all black is typically what I wear in my classical music performances), but appropriate. I do not remember what exactly I said as an introduction, but I like to think it was something to the effect of: “in my final presentation I feel a surprising and overwhelming need to perform music for you. I am without my instrument, but inspired by the many topics we have discussed this week (appropriation, listening, hearing, adaption, embodiment) and my own current reading, I have decided to perform a work by John Cage. Many might be familiar with this work, in fact even more familiar than I am. I don’t want to say too much, but I would like everyone to remember John Cage as first and foremost a highly disciplined composer".

We then entered the original cafeteria building as a group, I stood to the side of the piano (which was at the far end of the room, slightly to the side, but not up against any walls), I sat down (in a chair that was from the original building), and I performed 4’ 33”. I had my watch in the piano to keep track of time. I used David Tudor’s timings, roughly, for movements - the 1st moment around 33 seconds, the 2nd movement around two minutes 40 seconds, and the third movement around one min 20 seconds. I indicated the start of the piece by opening the piano lid, and at the end of the third movement, I closed the piano lid. I showed the ends of movements by relaxing my posture and dropping my hands from my lap to hang, as a pianist might between movements of a sonata. Within each movement, I tried to pace a non-sounding arc, such that each movement moved towards a climax, and then relaxed to the end (at least in my head). I was breathing audibly and deeply, as I would if I were playing something, and I allowed my body to engage and move slightly, as if I was “playing the silence”, if that makes sense. I was very aware of both wanting to guide the audience but also not strictly dictate anything. I felt I was there to give structure and pacing (“music without intention is carelessness”), but not necessarily “make” the audience abide by any particular musical message. The second piece was definitely the most difficult, I felt my concentration waning. At times during the performance I was torn between wanting to follow my pacing, the timing and the musical intention, while also listening, myself, to the silence. Fortuitously it was raining, so there was ambient sound, even though we were a building within a building. Interestingly, though, some audience members afterwards remarked that although they knew they were “supposed” to be listening to ambient sounds, that they could not hear anything at all - that it really was silent.

Following the performance the audience clapped, which I had not actually accounted for. In hindsight, I should have asked for no applause, although I am not sure what Cage would say in that situation. Then we walked out of the room, and we sat at the tables just outside. Erik and I had laid out large pieces of paper and pens at each table, and rather than enter into a discussion, I asked that people take about five minutes to write down anything that was on their minds, if there was anything. Then I took a couple questions. I honestly do not remember all of them, but I remember one: “do you think a non-musician can perform this work?” My response was to read aloud what a quote from Music Downtown, where Gann outlined what he concluded were Cagean criteria of music*, thus leading me to answer, “no, I don’t believe a non-musician can perform this piece as it was intended by the composer”. Then we moved on to Erik’s performance, followed by another short discussion. And the thirty minutes were quickly up!

Later that day, after all the presentations were done, I read through all the notes people had made. Obviously many of the comments were relating the performance to the space in which it was held, which I feel is natural:

  • “this pen is thicker than a bullet”

  • “what we cannot talk about we must be silent”

  • “uncharging [or recharging] a loaded space”

  • “the site speaking for itself”

But others were astute observations regarding performance, in general, regardless of this time or place:

  • “A silent humane piano. A sounding cyborg piano.” (Erik’s songs involved hooking equipment up to the piano which made it resonate, but no one was actually playing the piano itself)

  • “How do you know you have the tools to experience an experiment?”

  • “Musicians wear black”

  • “‘Please go inside, please go outside’ - you can only be in the performance space while it is occurring”

  • “Feeling of absence. The house makes sounds. The presence of the audience makes the performance, but they wouldn’t be there without the player. An invitation to be present and feel the absence.”

Photo by Lucy Abrams of one of the comment sheets

Photo by Lucy Abrams of one of the comment sheets

Someone also wrote “transcribing/translating/adapting”, which I think is an extremely accurate observation of what classical musicians who perform composed music do. We transcribe the composed symbols to our bodies by learning notes, articulations, or embodying gesture. We analyze the musical meaning that is on the page and figure out our own individual translation of ink to sound, and then to audience. And finally we adapt constantly, to a particular performance situation or space or audience, and to even ourselves, and the changes that occur during the performance. This is the responsibility of the performer, even in a piece like 4’ 33” that has no performer produced sound, as the last comment above makes clear.

If I am able to track down video of the performance, I will debate whether to include here in the future. In many ways, it will clarify remarks I have made about how I “translated” and “adapted” 4’ 33”. But I do not know how well recorded video will be able to capture the artistic moment. For now, I can surprisingly say that I am happy that I decided to do this performance. It has definitely permanently altered the way I perceive performative contributions in an artistic setting. And proves, once again, how current Cage’s ideas regarding art and music have remained. Even if one does not adopt his philosophies, the questions he posed with regards to hierarchies in sound and structure are still relevant today.


* Cagean criteria, according to Kyle Gann:

Does the music have intentions? … If so, is every effort made to relative them? If a climx is attempted, does every element contribute to it? If ambiguity is intended, is it carefully drawn? Is the music clear? Does the imposition of the performer’s ego overshadow his sounds? Is she trying to impress, or compel us to accept a particular opinion, political or otherwise? Is the composer in a rut, acting out of habit? Has he or she asked the right questions? Is there sufficient variety? Could greater variety be achieved, given more preparation or attention to aspects that were unthinkingly ignored? (Gann 2006: 85)

Cited Source:

Gann, Kyle. 2006. Music Downtown. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Lucy Abrams