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Brisbane Powerhouse


Erik Satie, John Cage and the Minimalists :
A Public Forum

Date Sat 3 August 2002 at 3pm
Venue The Rooftop Terrace
Duration 2 Hours
Cost Free


Andrew FORD, Chair
Composer and Presenter of ABC Radio National’s The Music Show, NSW

Former Chair of Music Department, Bucknell University, Lewisburg, PA

Head of Television, Charles Sturt University, NSW

Kyle Gann
Bard College, New York

Composer, QLD

Caitlin Rowley
Composer, Sydney

Professor of Performance Studies, Arizona State University West, Phoenix, AZ

Senior Lecturer, Elder School of Music, University of Adelaide, SA

This free public presentation will include a screening of PARADE

“An exploration of the mental landscape of Erik Satie”
Directed by William FITZWATER for BBC Television, 1972
Written by William Fitzwater and Basil Dean
Precisely One hour, One minute and One second...

John Cage the Composer

Peter Gena

Sometime in 1972, during a composition lesson with Morton Feldman at SUNY Buffalo, I remember lifting from his piano a score of an early piano piece by Erik Satie.

The unmetered music had no written tempo indications whatsoever, yet the last chord was clearly meant to be held for seven counts. Morty sat down and played that final sonority. “There it is,” he said. I understood immediately. A pulse emerged as a result of interference patterns among the pitches that made up the chord. This also signified that different pianos would produce slightly varying tempi. Satie left himself, the performer, and the listener open to discovery, a characteristic increasingly evident in his later music.

This is what is always being uncovered in John Cage’s work, discovery and invention. At a time when American composers were in the throes of an academic “complexity complex” – a fastidious demand for order, a passion for controls, an allegiance to the traditions of Europe – Cage saw the virtues of simplicity, disorder, chance, and Eastern philosophy. He exhibited originality, while accepting the premise that nothing is ever new. He pursued freedom, but only through rigorous discipline, and he created an environment for gifted performs to explore their own creativity, rather than expose their egos.

Sounds now could appear naturally without positions of superiority or subordination. Western music practitioners had come to assume that musical sophistication was possible only with the construction of complex schemes, hierarchical progressions, etc. Absence of such ‘sophistication’ has often been attributed to a lack of experience of knowledge of tradition, rather than a valid departure from it. Perhaps to do what he did, Cage, like Satie, had to know nothing – or everything. He advocates anti- composition, though never anti-art.

There were also the misunderstandings. Many composers made fools of themselves by confusing freedom with the unleashing of ego. Certainly we all sat through a vast number of ‘free’ pieces and Happenings in the 60s and 70s when composer and performers alike imposed their actions on the musical environment… To this day there are composer-performers who justify the results of a sloppy technique or poor execution by saying, “It’s all part of the music.” Indeed it was quite common, even fashionable, to credit such license to Cage…

Today, we must also appreciate Cage’s optimism toward life and art. He freed the elements of art through much hard work, and his all-inclusive outlook is a positive force in general artistic development. We can now enjoy the presence of Minimalism, Conceptualism, New Tonality, Realism, Indeterminacy, and so on, all at once.

Cage’s openness assures us that this pluralism need not be construed as a dilution of a radical force in art, or as a new conservatism. Cage not only expanded the boundaries of music, but he christened a common ground for all of the arts and in doing so he has had an enlivening impact on culture. His impact, however, comes not from culture, but from life itself.

Peter Gena
Chicago, 1981

Reprinted, with kind permission, from A John Cage Reader in celebration of his 70th birthday, NY: C.F. Peters Corporation, 1982

An Antipodean View

It was in July 1982 that I experienced an epiphany in my musical life. I had been in the USA for not quite nine months, mid-way through my odyssey across musical America that would become my radio series for ABC-FM, Main Street USA.

On the Navy Pier in Chicago, the third New Music America festival was in full swing. All the movers and shakers of new music in America had been gathered under the one roof by a young professor from Northwestern University, Peter Gena, and his graduate student Kyle Gann. Peter was a John Cage disciple, via his study with Morton Feldman, so there was the denim-clad pixie, relishing the attention focussed on him for his 70th birthday.

It was Grainger’s birthday too, his centenary, and little bubbles of Percy were popping up all over town. Charles Amirkhanian hosted an illustrated lecture-recital – no whips? Darn!! - in which a string quartet played the Free Music appallingly. I took Cage to an outdoors performance of Lincolnshire Posy. “Gee, that guy sure knew a thing or two about music, especially orchestration,” the Guru of New Music marvelled. “D’ya think he was into mushrooms?”

It was then, twenty years ago, that the full impact of the wealth, breadth and vitality of the American experimental tradition hit me. There were the Old Guard jostling, jousting and jesting with the Young Turks. There were tributes to the departed Elders, to Ives and Grainger in particular, from almost every musician in town – buskers ommmng in little boats on the harbour with Pauline Oliveros, and the very earnest Chicago Symphony doing battle with Alvin Lucier’s 20-minute long glissando. There was new music bursting from every orifice of the Windy City in the hottest summer on record. Some day, I thought, we’ll do the same in Australia…

Vincent Plush
Brisbane, 2002


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