100 years ago today John Cage, one of this country’s most celebrated composers, artists, and thinkers was born. His works inspired many to approach music and art with new ears, eyes, and thoughts as well as reconsider the role of the performer, audience, their surroundings, and the role of the unexpected. To celebrate his birthday, Liminal Space ( composer/guitarist George Heathco and percussionist Luke Hubley) will be performing selections of Cage’s works tonight at Avant Garden then, as part of Houston Fringe Festival, two additional performances on Thursday and Friday at Super Happy Funland. We asked George Heathco a few questions about the upcoming performance and his thoughts on Cage.
Before we get into John Cage, can you tell folks a little bit about yourself?
Heathco - I am a guitarist and composer in the Houston-area. I’ve performed in various bands and ensembles around town for the last 10 years, including: The Ultra SIberian Pant Factory (tech metal), The Free Radicals, Nameless Sound, DaCamera of Houston, Divergence Vocal Theater, and Opera Vista. I’ve written music for chamber music groups, big band (jazz…sort of), dance ensembles, television, solo performance, and for several bands I’ve been involved in. I enjoy music, and I try very hard to not discriminate against styles and genres; I love metal, but I also compose contemporary classical music, enjoy participating in freely improvised music, supply the occasional beat for are hip hop artists, perform at church services, do the occasional studio gig, and have a huge soft spot for Indian Classical music. I’ve been an educator for the past decade: I teach guitar, composition, and music theory.
Tell us about the pieces you will be performing and your approach to them.
Heathco - In a Landscape (1948) – This was a solo piano piece that our percussionist Luke will be performing on marimba. It really shows of Cage’s approach to melody, and is quite beautiful.
Music for Amplified Toy Pianos(1960) – We are assembling a small arsenal of toy instruments: 2 toy pianos, a couple of toy glockenspiels, and small noise makers. This piece is an indeterminate piece where the performers follow a graphic score made up of dots, circles, and a grid. The score is in the form of 8 transparencies that performers can lay out in any order. For our performance, we’ll be joined by composer Mark Buller and percussionist Jamey Kollar. The four of us essentially improvise on the toy instruments, following as close as possible to the points indicated on the score.
Imaginary Landscape no. 5 (1952) – This is a piece for prerecorded tape, that is made up of spliced bits taken from 42 records of one’s choosing. Electronic musician Chris Becker has painstakingly assembled a realization of the piece using sample of actual vinyl records (as opposed to mp3s and CDs, which has been more common in recent years).
Living Room Music(1940) – Mark and Jamey are again joining Luke and I for this piece, which is a quartet for percussionists using any everyday object that might be found around the living room: newspaper, coffee table, glasses, car keys. We’re performing in AvantGarden and Super Happy Fun Land, so we’ll scrounge around before hand and come up with materials found in those locations.
Child of Tree (1975)- This is a solo percussion piece that requires the use of plants, pod rattles, and a cactus that is amplified in some way. The score for this is just a small set of handwritten instructions, which Luke will use to improvise on said foliage.
Six Melodies for Violin and Keyboard (1950) – We have adapted this piece to be played on electric guitar and marimba. The piece consists of six short movements, all based around the same limited pitch material (called “gamuts”). The piece is quite alluring, and again shows off Cage’s use of melody. Rhythmically, the work is very playful.
Moments for Cage (2012) – As a composer, I couldn’t resist the chance to write a piece in honor of John Cage to celebrate what would have been his 100th birthday. This multi-movement piece is written for electric guitar and marimba, and uses quite a few techniques that were inspired by Cage’s own compositional processes: limited sets of pitches, coin tossing, indeterminacy, and even an old-fashioned 12-tone row (Cage did study with the father of 12-tone music, Arnold Schoenberg, after all).
Heathco - Cage resonates as both a composer and as a thinker. His compositional processes paved the way for musicians of all styles to incorporate any and all sounds into their art, allowing for such things as minimalism, hip hop, noise rock, and some forms of electronic music, to name just a few. His approach encourages the composer/performer/listener to take a step back and just listen to what is around one’s self. For musicians who may have felt constrained by any particular style or approach, Cage’s aesthetics offer a chance let that go for a moment and allow nature to take its course. His approach is largely influenced by Buddhism, which itself has managed to resonate with millions of people a very long time.
What are some examples where ideas of Cage that seem esoteric to many people have been absorbed into popular or mainstream culture?
Heathco - I can’t really answer this without stepping on some toes. As I said above, Cage’s concepts owe a lot to Eastern philosophy, so the idea of letting go of the attachment to material objects and allowing nature to happen is a couple thousand years old. Regarding music, many song writers and producers have been more than eager to exploit the full spectrum of sound in their music, and often do so with little to no systematized approach to what they are creating. The electronic manipulation of sounds has been a constant fixture in pop music for decades, and audiences don’t always mind that music doesn’t always carry a tune, pattern, or recognizable connection to something familiar. I’m not sure I can really attribute that to Cage, though. There are countless other composers and artists who helped pave the way for that sort of thing. Cage was one of them, but just happened to stand out as a memorable figure.
Is there one particular idea or approach of Cage’s that resonated with you personally?
Heathco - Cage’s approach to allowing chance to dictate compositional decisions has always struck me as a remarkable idea. I often allow myself to roll dice, use random number generators, or pick letters from a hat when composing something new. I like numbers and math, as it applies to various structural devices in music, but that can be a trap for me. Chance is a great way for me to let go and say to myself that process doesn’t have to be the final arbiter.
Another idea is that all sounds musical. My personal musical definition is that music is nothing more than a deliberate awareness of sound over time. I feel Cage definitely informed that decision, and it has allowed to me enjoy so much more of the world’s music/noise/sound.
Is there a place you’d recommend starting for folks unfamiliar with Cage?
Heathco - I would recommend starting with pieces like Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano, Six Melodies for Violin and Keyboard, or even In a Landscape. These are beautiful works, and I feel they totally dispel the myth the Cage didn’t know what he was doing. Music for Changes is a good way to get initiated into his works that used the I Ching and indeterminacy during the compositional process. 4’33″ is probably his most infamous work. The piece is in essence 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence, allowing for natural ambient room noises, audience movement/noise, and time to lead the listener, as opposed to the performer on stage. Time’s relativity really makes this piece work well. 4 minutes and 33 seconds in a concert hall can feel like an hour if that sort of thing is uncomfortable, but may seem short if one welcomes the idea.
Liminal Space will be performing to celebrate John Cage’s 100 Birthday
Wednesday, September 5th @ AvantGarden (7:30pm)