Recordings Alone: Part III, Cage Done Right and Cage Done In

Albert Grantowski

[October 2002.]

A Chance Operation: The John Cage Tribute Album. Koch International 3-7238-2 Y6x2.

This two-CD set celebrating John Cage enters the category of recordings alone through the intermediation of its producer, Gary Davis, who enables us to listen to the 23 works on the discs as random sequences of arbitrary fragments of the works. Played in the given track order, the CDs contain recordings by 22 actual and spiritual Cage associates — Laurie Anderson, Robert Ashley, Jackson Mac Low, Ken Nordine, Christian Wolff and Frank Zappa among them. Programmed to random play by the listener / co-creator and mixed with whatever other sounds the listener brings to the listening space and whatever sounds happen to be present, the album becomes what Cage calls “real music,” not a relic of music: One hundred and forty-one minutes of 183 pieces of 23 works, in any order, with any other sounds.

Davis wonderfully succeeds in producing a recording in harmony with Cage’s goal of music that imitates nature in its manner of operation. The music clips joined with my wife’s computer-keyboard clicks in another room, the refrigerator compressor, and the air handler in a closet in the listening room (sigh) to produce a fun and often invigorating listening experience. The rather rapid succession of random fragments pretty much precludes deep emotional involvement with the music, and this is part of the pleasure of the discs. One feels no guilt in ignoring the music. The sounds, a wild and various lot, are just there. And if there are gems among the originals, one cannot tell. Cage would approve. As he says of Satie’s music, “You don’t really have to be interested in it to be able to enjoy it” (Kostelanetz, 1994, p. 46).

John CAGE and Lejaren HILLER: HPSCHD. Nonesuch LP H-71224 (Stereo). [Ben Johnston, String Quartet No. 2 on the reverse]

I don’t like recordings because they turn music into an object, and music is actually a process that is never the same twice. . . . All [hi-fi records] do is move toward a faithful reproduction of something that’s already happened. I think that if you are going to have all that equipment you should be able to distort the sound too. Hi-fi is only one point on a circle, and most people stick with that one point, but it’s more intelligent to start going around the circle.

(Cage, quoted in Kostelanetz, 1994, p. 237)

Cage didn’t much like records. He felt that they turn music into an object, that they are a fake musical experience, that they destroy one’s need for real music. Hmm. Kostelanetz (1991) lists approximately 200 recordings of Cage’s compositions made by himself and others released through 1990 (Cage died in 1992), and only one of these is not an “object”: HPSCHD. Made in collaboration with the composer Hiller, HPSCHD is the only Cage record in which Cage allows the listener to participate in creating a unique musical event at home.

HPSCHD was realized in its most abundant form in a 1969 performance in Urbana, Illinois (Kostelanetz, 1991): Five hours of seven different amplified harpsichord solos and 51 channels of computer-generated 21-minute sound tapes, each composed according to a different division of the octave. Plus numerous slide and film projections, simultaneously throwing a riot of images on huge sheets of plastic hanging in the center of the room and around the top of the walls, plus colored lights, plus revolving mirrors. Plus audience members swaying and dancing and wearing dayglo paint on their faces. Plus, plus, plus . . .

The LP version is a composite of the 51 tapes with one harpsichord solo in the left channel, a second on the right and a third on both. Every HPSCHD LP contained one of 10,000 computer printouts of randomly generated instructions for manipulating the tone, volume and balance controls of a stereo preamplifier. My preamp, like most high-end preamps, has no tone controls. The instructions, if I read them right, have a fall-back option requiring only volume and balance controls. But . . . I bypassed my balance control in the interests of, uh, more “faithful reproduction,” and I cannot listen to the record as a recording alone. Hi-fi circles past music. My apologies.


Kostelanetz, R. (1991). John Cage: An Anthology. New York: Da Capo.

Kostelanetz, R. (1994). Conversing with Cage. New York: Limelight Editions.

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