Form dances with function in this "seriously uncompromising"* and seriously compelling piece not so much about John Cage, as of the composer, music theorist, mycologist and artist, John Cage.
Presenting... "an audio essay and musical composition using thoughts about John Cage, and his masterwork, 4'33", to probe into questions of artistic genre, especially sound art and music, making use, along the way of chance operations, indeterminacy, sound collage, and, of course, exactly four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence." - Rick Moody
*This is how John Cage and the Question of Genre was first described to us. We recommend you head Behind the Scenes ASAP to read a seriously revealing interview with Moody, Abrahams and DeLys about the many brilliant decisions made and experiments executed in the making of this one-of-a-kind audio work.
Chris Abrahams is an Australian musician best known as the pianist with the instrumental trio The Necks. In addition to his work with The Necks, Chris has also performed solo piano concerts and released numerous solo albums. He has composed feature film scores as well as music for theatre and radio features. When not touring, Abrahams spends his time living in both Sydney and Berlin, collaborating with a large number of diverse, improvising musicians.
Sherre DeLys’ work has included sound sculpture and installation, improvised vocal music, sound designs for theater and film, radio art and documentaries. She works at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
Rick Moody is the author of five novels, three collections of stories, a memoir, and, most recently, a volume of essays On Celestial Music and Other Adventures in Listening. He also plays music in The Wingdale Community Singers, whose third album "Night, Sleep, Death" was just released by Blue Chopsticks Recordings.
Photo of Rick Moody by Emma Dodge Hanson.
Hear more radio feature-making from this trio, more audio from Rick and Sherre, and writings plus other offerings from Rick. Then treat your ears to Chris Abrahams's musical adventures with The Necks.
Want to know more about John Cage?
BEHIND THE SCENES with Chris Abrahams, Sherre DeLys and Rick Moody
How did the three of you come to collaborate on this piece, and how what was your process?
Rick: We have all three worked together once before on a radio play for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. I guess that was probably four or five years ago. Whereas Sherre and I have worked together on a couple of other radio pieces together over the years. For my part, these are artists I admire without restraint. I think Chris is a world treasure of musical composition, I really do, a world treasure, and Sherre is simply one of the most gifted radio producers/sound designers anywhere around. I feel very, very lucky to work with both of them.
Sherre: Rick invited us to help develop a radio piece from a lecture he’d given on John Cage. He wanted to hear the lecture structurally Cageified. When Rick Moody writes to say that he would be ‘most happy if the surface were most disturbed, and most made to sing with your impulses’ that’s an incitement that I feel very, very lucky to receive.
Chris: Once we said we’d love to work on the piece, Rick then recorded a performance of the essay and emailed it to us whereupon we set to work. Sherre and I both live in Sydney, so the whole thing was done via the internet.
Producing an artistic sound work about John Cage, in the style of John Cage, is quite possibly the most ambitious project that three audio-devoted makers could take on. What was most daunting? What was most thrilling?
Rick: Most daunting is Cage's legacy, of course, which is profound, and of such enormity that you can't take it all in, not at first. My text began as a lecture on Cage, and in that regard I spent some months reading and thinking about him, and LISTENING, and I found so much that I didn't know about him (the number pieces! amazing!), though I knew a fair amount about the early piano works and the percussion music. But what's thrilling about Cage is that even though there is almost nothing that you can do, experimentally speaking, that is not in some way anticipated in his corpus, he's also enormously permissive. The work itself allows for such a polyphony of interpretations and responses. You are allowed in. So I suppose we just took it on that basis: we marched in.
Sherre: It was deeply refreshing to work with a goal of diminishing the role of ego in the production of the sound, to be relieved of determining the outcome.
How much of the final work was conceptually in your ears from the beginning, and how much was discovered along the way?
Rick: I'll leave it to Sherre and Chris to elucidate the conceptual apparatus in the sound design, but I think I can speak for all three of us when I say we were all of one mind about making sure that a) the text was just one element in the music of the thing, that b) my voice was just an instrument, and c) that the meaning of the text was always secondary to the structure of the whole being inside of the Cage tradition. These decisions date to the moment when we decided to work on the piece. So I think the conceptual field of the collaboration was clear from the beginning, and then it was just a matter of believing in the rightness of that conceptual apparatus. It would have been easy to get faint of heart about this piece in the process. But we did not.
Sherre: We knew that we’d place music according to random number generation techniques. And we’d decided use a full 4'33” of silence, and 4’33” of other selected sounds too. We started by generating 4'33" of silence, cut that into random bits and placed them randomly, by sight, on the audio timeline. Beyond that it was discovery all the way down.
Chris: I was intrigued by Cage’s “Lecture on Nothing” and I felt that our piece, with its use of inserted silences and pauses, would also be playing around with that.
In particular, the 4min/33 seconds of silence pose an obvious challenge for a radio context – was this something you debated amongst yourselves, or was it clear from the start that the piece had to feature all 4'33''?
Rick: It was Sherre's idea, and we knew it was going to be an issue for broadcast, and we were willing to compromise initially, but we badly wanted to hang onto the silences if at all possible! The more I listened to the result, the more certain I was that compromise was foolhardy. We just needed someone (you) who could hear it the way we hear it.
Sherre: As I remember it Rick, we came up with it between us. (I love that in collaboration it’s almost impossible to know who does what sometimes.) I think my bit was that we could distribute shorter silences randomly throughout the performed lecture, the sum of those silences totalling 4’33”. These shorter silences could invite listening to the spaces between words and phrases much as Cage invites audiences of 4'33" to listen through that entire piece. As someone obsessed with how to remain mindful in conversation, mindful while listening, at the computer and so on, I liked the idea that our 4’33” of silence could be deployed in a way appropriate to more sped-up, device-bound times. But also, if these inserted silences signalled that the negative space, if you like, is as important as the text, maybe it would help achieve Rick’s intention that the meaning of the text is secondary to the structure of the whole being inside of the Cage tradition.
Anyway, we knew it would be a challenge for radio commissioners as they'd have to turn off their automatic alarmy things that come on if there is dead air. And near the beginning there is a long silence that some listeners might think indicates the podcast has not downloaded properly. We knew that the silences could just be perceived as annoying! But one thing I love about working with Rick is that he is idealistic, and while he does want to shake hands with the world he doesn’t much think that compromising his integrity as an artist is the way to achieve that. I was moved by his faith in staying with the integrity of the process and his belief that there’d be an audience for that, so there was no debate.
For something that Chris and I did debate you might ask about whether the silences should have been recordings of absences or no-input silences, but I’ll spare you that esoterica. [Ed: Oh, to have been a fly on the wall...]
Rick, what's your intention behind the very distinct style of narration?
I assume you mean the way it is read. Well, I was trying to arrive at a "style" in the way that Robert Ashley has a style, which is sort of a sprechgesang, I guess, but (I hope) not one that sounds excessively mannered. Ashley always sounds like Ashley to me, like some perfect hybrid of speech and song. One thing I resist with my whole heart is certain kind of radio news voice that always has a hint (it seems to me) of imperviousness and aloofness. I think that style is like the degree-zero style in literature: so simulated, so artificial, yet agreed upon as "the truth" nonetheless. My "style" is meant to be just enough style to make it sound a bit musical while at the same time resisting the house style of National Public Radio. Such things are difficult to accomplish.
How much of the music in the piece is Cage's, and how much is Chris's?
Chris: Much of the “music” in the piece is made up of samples taken from various recordings of Cage works – quite small samples that were edited into 147 even smaller units. These were then numbered and, using a randomly generating program, ordered, and put into a sampler to be triggered from a keyboard. I then recorded 3 different improvisations thereby generating new samples that were now one step removed from the original recordings. Again this new material was numbered and ordered using a random process.
The placement of these new samples was determined using dice whereby the number of pausing punctuation marks (comma, full-stop, colon or dash) was taken into account (we used here the written text rather than the performed version). This method was arrived at through trial and error – but once a good balance of music to text was achieved, we stuck to the process.
Other pieces of music or sound design used the same 4 minutes 33 durational process as was used with the silence. There is in fact a piece of music that I wrote prior to the project, which I edited to 4 minutes 33 seconds and inserted into the program. This juxtapositional approach worked very well here, creating a rhythm and pace that I would have been unable to create by other means.
Finally there were a couple of things that we felt were germane to the text, such as the Monks’ chant, and these were used in a more conventionally “determined” way.
Sherre: We broke our own rules from time to time, and that felt good! Hands up who caught the moment when the clock ticks go into the silence.
Chris: So the short answer is that many of the sounds are taken from recordings of Cage pieces, but the resultant music is a recombining and ordering based largely on improvisation, random generation and authorial overview.
Although this is an extremely thoughtful piece, at turns philosphical and theoretical, there's a current of humor (both in text and sound design, and the way the two interplay) that courses through it. Was this a conscious ingredient from the start?
Rick: Absolutely! (And it's something I have always prized about working with Sherre. She has a great sense of wit about what she does: I think, for example, of the Wimbledon final grunts she worked into our collaboration Dry Vs. Moist. So funny and so brilliant.) And, yes, there's lots of humor in Cage.
Sherre: I think Chris’ music in this piece is often hilarious and Rick’s delivery sounds charmingly badass. I usually end up smiling when reading anything Rick writes, but in this piece the way the sounds rupture the grammar adds to a sense of play that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Rick, from the beginning you described this piece as "seriously uncompromising," and the 20-second stretch of silence within the first minute gives a fair sense of what lies ahead, in that regard. How do you imagine/expect listeners will respond? What thoughts would you offer to someone who finds it too difficult?
Rick: Some people will turn it off immediately, I expect. The early respondents seemed to fall into two categories, and only one of these categories involved tolerating the silences. I don't personally find the silences "difficult," I find them playful and challenging in the best sense of the word. But even if I did find them "difficult," that would be okay with me. As we say in the piece, lots of people walked out on John Cage concerts. And a lot of the writing I like is supremely difficult, according to laypeople. But I suppose it's really rare for me to find any piece of art "difficult." Except maybe Justin Bieber or Taylor Swift. Them I find rather difficult.
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