August 13, 2012

“Cosmocacas” Itelio Oitcica & Neville D’Almedia, John Cage room. Inhotim, Brazil

The conference was over and I was exhausted from listening. My presence as a guest and speaker seemed monitored with more solicitous concern than I’m used to receiving. My original plan was to escape my Brazilian hosts one afternoon and try to find Elizabeth Bishop’s apartment or a tennis court. But I was the guest of a gracious couple, both of whom were doctors, and used to keeping surgeon’s hours. Everyone was expected to arrive close to early, but stay until everything was completed, and everyone did. During my brief stay in Belo Horizonte, twelve hour plus work days were the norm (well theirs). The night before the visiting speakers attended a dinner party at their home and I fear we overextended our hosts with cocktail chatter and the algebraic arrangements of guests for photographs. The bus brought us back to the hotel at near midnight. Only one couple had the stamina to go out to the samba clubs. I headed for my hotel bed with the kind of anticipation for quiet blankness that gives business hotels their business.

The following morning had a scheduled eight hour museum trip. I enjoy museums probably more than most, but generally after two hours or so of looking I’m ready for lunch and some somnambulant shopping. The days when I could spend more than four hours in a museum have passed, plus it would require a longish bus ride of undetermined length with the same people from the conference. Brazil is a lovely country, a constant contrast of natural beauty and industry and the roads reflect that ongoing debate. Long bus rides in short seated vehicles I also try to keep in the category of things I used to do. We had an evening flight. There were lots of reasons not to get on the bus.

Nonetheless 7:30AM found me on the bus trying not to engage in post conference chats. There’s always one more thing everyone forgot to mention. At least it was my chance to see some of Belo Horizonte, which is a grown out mining town built on hard rock hills and paved with cobblestones. Geometric pastel high-rises rose crowd next to colonial buildings surrounded by wrought iron fences, in between favelas that always seem inhabited before they were finished. The roads seemed to turn away, go around a hill or intersect behind a graffitied brick wall and disappear. Convoluted pedestrian road crossings lifted over highways like gigantic tied shoelaces. Young couples were flying small homemade kites from bald hilltops near the highway. There were signs for every service or product painted everyplace. There didn’t seem to be a central landmark or vantage point. It’s a kind of city like Pittsburgh or Guadalajara where you have to already know how to get there or you might never find it no matter how many people tell you their variation of the easiest way.

Our driver was quite knowledgeable about the nuances of the highway to Inhotim, the legendary garden museum built by enigmatic iron magnate, Bernardo Paz. He casually informed the woman who had been recruited from the medical staff of our host and hostess to act as our shepherd and guide, that we should return no later than two since a truck strike was planned for three on the only route back. He also informed us in a more demonstrative manner that he had no intention of allowing potholes or speed bumps to slow our progress. He shared the second message repeatedly, he somehow felt we deserved a bit of a cuffing around…maybe we did; I don’t speak Portuguese. But I do carry a little book to write down names and make notes.

Two evenings previously I had a long, flirty conversation over filtered water and canapés with a painter who had several of her pieces on display in the lobby. We jabbered about art and museums, alienation and aging, and did a lot of really earnest namedropping. While neither of us had enough fluent language to understand exactly what the other was talking about, both of us knew what we were saying. In another time we might have gone home together, instead she wrote one word in my book for me “Brunadinho”.
After over an hour the bus arrived at a parking lot outside the village of Brunadinho. It was paved smooth as Disneyland. We happily exited along a hot sunny garden sidewalk, such is Brazilian winter. Our guide had never been there before, or tried herding adults with post graduate degrees through a protracted recess. We entered like hens with digital cameras. Inhotim is 5,000 acres of carefully tended gardens that rise and turn to reveal two dozen pavilions housing over 500 pieces of art. I was transfixed after I found the first installation. I’d been writing poems about art installations in Houston for the past few years. This was beyond any of that academic juxtaposition, this was a made Paradise designed purely for art that had been publically open only since 2006. For me it was like finding the Metropolitan Museum or British Museum in 1880. It still expressed a living vision. Immediately I cursed the truck drivers for shortening my time there.

At the second pavilion I lost track of the group. By chance we all rejoined at “Cosmocacas”, a series of installed rooms incorporating projections, music and furnishings. It paid homage to Jimi Hendrix with a blaring music loop, a monochromatic light show and hammocks, altered Marilyn Monroe images projected in a soft floored room half-filled with balloons and a samba version of “Wimoweh” and then I wandered into a dim room housing a swimming pool and projecting images of John Cage and Yoko Ono (who I didn’t see) jumping in slow motion on a trampoline while lights in the pool randomly changed as “Thirteen Harmonies” or a version of “Imaginary Landscapes” or “Variations” played. I hadn’t expected to find John Cage, even in this form, outside a mining village in Brazil.

John Cage would have been 100 years old this year.

If I was surprised to find John Cage installed outside Belo Horizonte, it could hardly have compared with the astonished recognition I felt when I first discovered the music of John Cage. I was living in a dying steel town, a teenager, raw and tender from loss and unaware of it. The world I knew and I were separating; I had lost faith. One Sunday morning I heard a performance of one the pieces for prepared piano on television, I can’t recall which one. But I do recall having a feeling similar to seeing you own image unexpectedly reflected, having that brief period of open curiosity followed by self-recognition. Unlike traditional classical music or jazz which had too often demanded I had to pretend to be someone else in order to listen to it, the music of John Cage seemingly required suspended inattention, a mild incoherence, and the delight of arrival (all of which I could provide either intentionally or hormonally). It seemed a hymn not to loss, but constantly searching and finding. It didn’t seem to be about taking direction, or redefining history, but the excitement of constant chance. It seemed different from the radio, recordings, and morass of music I wandered through. It was like opening a different window.

The difference for me between hearing a performance of, for example, “Goldberg Variations” (my favorite Bach) and “Sonatas and Interludes” is, when the Bach finishes I’m bereft to find myself back in the grunge of the contemporary world, while when the Cage finishes I look around and I’m suddenly appreciating what is immediate as heightened. Should someone let their program fall during Bach, it’s annoying, during Cage, it’s percussion. Certainly I’m not suggesting Cage is superior to Bach, merely different. Recently I was in an uncomfortable, but fashionable, chair for a performance of “Goldberg Variations” , it took a great deal of concentration on my part to keep my focus away from my environment…something close to dental chair concentration. When the opportunity came to hear a live performance of “Sonatas and Interludes” on a prepared piano, I was struck by how pleasingly musical it was in spite of its philosophical pretense. One of the unexpected pleasures of the avant garde music of John Cage is that it has remained attractive and relevant.

He was one of the first composers to embrace electronics and their possibilities for a different type of musical intimacy. He extended composition from the tradition of emotional dictatorship to open anthems of appreciation of the listener and the listener’s environment. There were pieces composed employing multiple radios tuned to different stations, recordings played at varying speeds, taped sounds combined with performed instruments, distortions, noise, spoken phrases and altered voices. He pioneered the style of musical collage as a private soundtrack, the soundscape. He consciously withdrew more and more of himself from his music and in a sense desired it to not be a self-expression. He attempted to employ as little personality as possible in his composition. He designed music to accommodate entry.

In spite of his Zen and random composition philosophy, Cage remained wry and self-conscious. However he also intuited much we culturally take for granted, that people seldom listen to the end of a song on the radio before they change it, that we hear music in a world washed in a multitude of changing sounds, and importantly that we want to listen to music intimately, but democratically and with less pretense of responsibility to it. Increasingly music that used to be ‘locally sourced’, is merely locally altered. We desire music to reflect the precise complexities of who we are, not shape them into something else. I’ve seen a woman hiking in the mountains listening to Ralph Stanley on her iPod. The plumber who came yesterday listened to a barely audible Frank Sinatra or Johnny Mathis singing from his cellphone as he replaced the toilet seal. The book salesman I had lunch with at a tradeshow Friday told me he doesn’t like the Christian radio stations (there are nearly 250 in the State of Texas) broadcasting in his area, so he runs the Internet from his laptop through his pick up’s radio to listen to a station in Boerne while he drives home to Fort Worth.

We use ear buds, noise cancelling headphones, speakers capable of fitting on a window sill or rattling the back window of a car. We can assign songs to recognize callers on our cellphones. Our capacity to find, copy, alter, share and listen to music is overwhelming. We employ computers to compile playlists for any occasion and revel in the ability to play whatever music we chose where ever we want to hear it. Thousands of different ethnicities and subpopulations both conservative and transgressive can find and control “their music” for whatever purposes or duration they wish with alacrity and relative privacy (assuming you don’t find Internet selection algorithms invasive). Daily millions of people compose a discrete soundtrack for the performance piece of their lives using technology that seems to organically ripen and then rot away in spare rooms, closets and pawn shops.

Cage’s compositions, in spite of these nearly incomprehensible technological accommodations music still remain essentially primal or tribal in purpose. They define or reinforce our feelings and keep us part of our village. Hearing John Cage’s music in my youth helped me to locate my voice for emotions I couldn’t effectively define. And as I write this, it signifies me as a member of the tribe of those who appreciate John Cage, or New York avant-garde…in some sense you identify me. In both cases it produces a sense of not being alone, in spite of the obvious fact I was then and am now alone, but not the kind of alone as I felt when I met John Cage.

One summer afternoon in the Naguchi Sculpture Garden in Houston I met John Cage by accident. Had he not looked exactly like his photograph I doubt I would have recognized him as being any more than another quiet art gawker. We talked for a bit and then fell into silence for a few moments. I recollect the sound of locusts and the hush of tires on the nearby street, the air was thick with humid heat, and I was about to begin sweating. We stood together quietly. Perfect. Who can write about John Cage without wondering a little about 4’33’’?

It’s the quintessential minimalist performance piece. It was first performed in 1952 and although not the first piece to score silence, it’s the most famous. You can download it on YouTube, purchase a recording, buy the score for $5.95, or the tee shirt for $19.00. However I recommend live performances. It’s better to address the environment of collective bored distress than to sit with a recording with it. A large part of the piece is sharing, even if only with the pianist who opens and closes the piano. This too was one of John Cage’s gifts to us, his ability to simplify the act of music making to a graceful gesture that allows the listener to hear the intimacy of listening for three movements with three rests. It’s theory and experience, random beauty and controlled absence. I suggest this Monday we all pull over or stop at 4:00PM, open our windows and sit listening for four minutes and thirty-three seconds…or not.

Like the installation at Inhotim, John Cage and his music have become museum pieces. They are part of the 20th Century Cannon, a reference point. Now instead of being about the interest and excitement of arrival, he is an open window into the process of departure…another chance nuance.