Criticism — From the January 2016 issue

There are Other Forces at Work

John Cage comes to Halberstadt

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I’m walking through Halberstadt; it’s quiet, almost ghostly. In the mid-Nineties I spent a couple of months in Germany, and Halberstadt reminds me of the small towns between the big cities that I saw then. Much of its architecture bears the stamp of the postwar German Democratic Republic: plain and functional buildings in muted colors, beige or gray, overlooking wide boulevards. In the old downtown, these give way to cobblestones and sterner, grander styles. Halberstadt’s been around forever, and it’s home to churches that date back to the eleventh century. St. Burchardi is one of the oldest: it was built around 1050 and deconsecrated in 1810. Since then it has served a number of purposes — barn, distillery, pigsty. It’s a vast, gutted building near the center of town. If it weren’t for the upkeep performed by the John Cage Organ Project, it would look like a ruin.

John Cage, 1981 © Marion Kalter/akg-images.

John Cage, 1981 © Marion Kalter/akg-images.

It’s October 2013, a big month for the Project. On October 5 there’s going to be a note change on the organ that sounds day and night inside the skeletal remains of the church. The most recent note change was in 2012, and it will be seven years until there’s another. The whole performance — of a piece by Cage called ORGAN²/ASLSP — will last until 2640.

Halberstadt is home to the Project because it was the place where the modern twelve-note keyboard was invented, in 1361, and installed on an organ built by the priest Nikolaus Faber; the bellows reportedly took ten men to operate. Genesis of a Music, by the American composer Harry Partch, has a short section about the construction of this organ: it’s headlined fatal day in halberstadt. The organ’s third manual consisted of nine front keys and five raised rear keys. “Here is the proto 7-White — 5-Black!” writes Partch, “selected by some inscrutable destiny to send its descendants over the face of the earth and to make them the procreators of virtually all musical thought.” These are the notes that came to define European harmony. There might have been a whole bunch more notes in that scale — or fewer. Music might have gone any number of places, grown differently in many ways. But the equal temperament of the Halberstadt organ — the standardized differences between its tones — fixed the distance between its twelve points. Its alphabet was absolute.

In “45′ for a Speaker,” Cage writes:

I have noticed something else about
Christian Wolff’s music. All you can
do is
suddenly listen
in the same way
that, when you catch cold,
all you can do is
Unfortunately —
European harmony.

Cage was dissatisfied with other composers’ reliance on “musical” sounds; he wondered about silence, and noises in the concert hall, and the sounds bodies make. (“45′ for a Speaker” contains numerous stage directions for the reader to undertake: “snore,” “hiss,” “slap table,” “cough.”) Cage composed for standard instruments, but he used them in novel ways: he’d insert nuts or bolts between piano strings, or deploy radios in performances, or give over the composition of his pieces entirely to chance operations. “It is thus possible to make a musical composition the continuity of which is free of individual taste and memory (psychology) and also of the literature and ‘traditions’ of the art,” he writes. The twelve-note scale is a color palette for self-expression, but Cage doesn’t conceive of music along these lines: “I want to free my music from my memory and taste and from my likes and dislikes so that my music, instead of saying something that I have to say or expresses me, changes me.” Instead of self-expression, he said, he was interested in self-alteration.

Entering the grounds of St. Burchardi, I see a woman painting a portrait of John Cage onto a circuit box. She’s seated in the grass with her paints and brushes, examining her work attentively; the dates and locales of the composer’s birth (September 5, 1912, Los Angeles) and death (August 12, 1992, New York) frame his gentle face. His hair hangs loose and a little wild, as it did in life; he gazes into the middle distance. The mood of the painting is reverent, though it’s done with cheerful and colorful accents in a simple, somewhat childlike style. It reminds me, a little, of a Kurt Cobain T-shirt, or a painting of Jim Morrison in rock and roll heaven, finally at peace.

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’s novel, Wolf in White Van, was published in 2014 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. He sings and plays guitar in the Mountain Goats.

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