Darmstadt Aural Documents, Box 2

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«Darmstadt Aural Documents, Box 2»

1 CD

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John Cage Communication 2,
Communication 3,
Communication 1,
Communication 6,
Communication 5,
Communication 4.
Bo Nilsson Quantitäten (1958).
Christian Wolff For Piano with Preparations (1957).


John Cage (Piano), David Tudor (Piano).

Late summer, 1958. For the first time the American composer John Cage attended the Darmstadt Summer Courses for New Music, held this year in Heiligenberg Castle in Jugenheim. As so often in those years, he was accompanied by the pianist David Tudor, and together they gave the European premieres of his Music for Two Pianos, Winter Music and Variations I, along with several works by other composers, including Earle Brown’s Four Systems.

Moreover, Cage held three lectures on the subject of Composition as Process: Changes (6 September), Indeterminacy (8 September) and Communication (9 September). Each of these lectures, called “studios” in the Darmstadt programme, was flanked by Tudor playing various piano pieces, among them Cage’s Music of Changes, Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Klavierstück XI, Christian Wolff’s For Piano with Preparations and Bo Nilsson’s Quantitäten. The lecture texts and live performances respectfully intertwine, neither disturbing nor influencing each other. The pauses in the one form the open spaces for the actions of the other.

To ensure that the bulk of the Darmstadt audience could understand what Cage was saying (he delivered the lectures in English), they were translated in advance into German and handed out to the listeners so that they could read along. The translation was prepared in an arduous, joint nocturnal effort by Wolf Rosenberg, Hans G Helms and Heinz-Klaus Metzger. In an interview given in Berlin in spring 2008, Metzger, who met Cage personally at this time, recalled the occasion: “Back then the situation in Darmstadt, and probably in many other places in Germany, was such that courses not held in German had to be translated into German. Today the situation in the whole of Germany is such that courses not held in English have to be translated into English so that the listeners can understand what’s being taught.”

Hans G Helms had already met Cage at the 1954 Donaueschingen Festival, when Cage and Tudor gave the premiere of his 12’55.6078” for two pianists (it was Cage’s first public appearance in Europe). He, too, recalled the Darmstadt event in an interview given in Berlin in 2008: “It was our first intimate meeting. I say intimate because – I don’t know how many nights it took, I suppose three – John, my wife Khris, Rosenberg, Metzger and myself tried to translate those three texts into German, which more or less came off. It worked like this: we three translators constantly discussed questions of wording, but every now and then we had to disturb Cage as he lay on the couch, his head resting on my wife’s lap. By the way, they both kept us supplied with coffee and something to eat throughout the entire night.”

The translations did not always flow easily from the pens of our three graveyard-shift labourers. Besides – and this is not unimportant for the reception history of the lectures – Rosenberg, Metzger and Helms translated some of Cage’s wordings into the Darmstadt jargon of the time. Here is a remarkable example: of the more than two-hundred questions that make up Communication, one reads in German: “Sind Töne Töne oder sind sie Webern?” The English original reads: “Are sounds just sounds or are they Beethoven?” Perhaps the translators interchanged the names of the composers with Cage’s approval: after all, the much-discussed, allegedly proto-serialist Anton Webern fit far more readily into the Darmstadt scheme of things in the 1950s than did Ludwig van Beethoven.

What Cage actually said at this point in Darmstadt in 1958 can no longer be checked, for the opening minutes of the lecture are missing on the historical live recording. In any case, Heinz-Klaus Metzger considered the 1958 translation not entirely unproblematical in retrospect: “I failed at the time to appreciate all the mysticism in it and translated it into rationalism, into pure reason. Only later did I realise that the stories, and their alleged mysticism, are more rational in Cage’s original wording than in an Hegelian philosophy of reflection.”

The Communication lecture of 1958 is, by the way, the only one of Cage’s three Darmstadt lectures that exists in the archive of the Darmstadt International Institute of Music in the form of an audio document, minus the opening minutes. There is no way of knowing today why the other two lectures, Changes and Indeterminacy, were not tape-recorded, or whether the recordings later disappeared.

In a preface to the printed version of Communication, Cage pointed out that the text consists of questions and quotations, that the quotations are from his own writings and those of other people, that the order and length of the quotations were determined by chance operations, that no performance duration was set down, but that he defined a performance duration prior to the lecture, and that he determined, again using chance operations, when he occasionally had to light a cigarette during the lecture. It is uncertain how many cigarettes he lit up (and immediately snuffed out) when he delivered the almost hour-long lecture in Heiligenberg Castle at 5:00 pm on 9 September: some say it was 19, others say 12 or fewer. Eye- and ear-witnesses, including the music critics Hans Heinz Stuckenschmidt (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 13 September 1958) and Wolfgang Widmaier (Darmstädter Echo, 12 September 1958), cite conflicting numbers. What is known and audibly recorded, however, is that Tudor played Christian Wolff’s For Piano with Preparations and Bo Nilsson’s Quantitäten during the third lecture, the latter as a world premiere.

John Cage’s first appearance in Darmstadt, in 1958, was a red-letter event in the history of music (his second and last appearance there would not take place until 1990, two years before his death). With his three lectures in particular he cracked open the little world of contemporary music, sowing the seeds for a rich, burgeoning, heterogeneous landscape of sound with many different concepts of what music is and can be. Heinz-Klaus Metzger summed it up in his 2008 interview: “What Cage offered Darmstadt in 1958 was theory, whether he would have called it that or not. And the impact of theory, as well as its repercussions on composition, were something very simple: the abolition of wholly traditional musical thought, under the impress of these lectures, was more compelling and profound than would have been possible with a musical performance or a score.” Hans G Helms put it like this: “We mustn’t forget that, at this time, the general perception among artists of what was then current history began to undergo a radical change. It continued, for example, in the fluxus movement, with Nam June Paik as a prime example. Cage was probably the one who, with his three lectures, goaded others to find the courage to do something that been in their minds for a long time, but which they had never dared to realise.”

On 3 September 1958, during the Darmstadt Summer Courses, John Cage and David Tudor gave the European premiere of Cage’s Variations I, a piece “for any number of performers, any type and number of instruments”. They had already presented what was probably the world premiere half a year earlier on 15 March 1958, when they played three versions at the Women’s College of the University of North Carolina in Greensboro. As in their Darmstadt performance, Tudor and Cage acted primarily as pianists (at and inside the piano), and they also employed other sound-generating devices. Variations I is a composition that first has to be created by the agents before it can actually be performed. The score provides the basic material, which consists of six square transparent sheets. One of them is printed with dots distributed loosely over the entire sheet in four different sizes. The smallest dots denote single sounds, the largest a mixture of four or more sound events. The other five sheets stand for five sonic parameters. Each has five straight lines of various lengths, and each offers a different combination of such lines, which occasionally intersect. The dot sheet and each of the line sheets are randomly superposed on each other. The resultant image forms the topography, which must now be refined by drawing perpendiculars from the dots to one of the lines. Depending on the desired reading and interpretation, this produces one or another feature of the version of Variations I to be performed. The path leading to such a version of Variations I is time-consuming; moreover, the procedure demands a predefined conception with respect to all the parameters that belong to a piece of music: overall duration, duration of individual events, their point of occurrence, pitch, volume, timbre and so on. The performers of Variations I, having configured their own performance version, are then the actual composers of the piece. Their imagination, ideas, self-organisation and compositional skill, as reflected above all in the kind of questions they ask of the generated images within the totality of all possible answers, are essential to the outcome – the first result. The second result is the performance of Variations I, or rather one of its inconceivably large number of versions. Those who presented John Cage and David Tudor at the Darmstadt Summer Courses on 3 September 1958 apparently gave the audience a lot of fun. But they also left it bewildered.

Stefan Fricke
Translation: J. Bradford Robinson

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