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Jokes, Improv & John Cage

by David Morris

John Cage’s audiences often felt they were being laughed at. In one 1963 interview, this accusation is made repeatedly, in a series of increasingly pointed and suspicious questions about Cage’s worth as a composer. The conversation is very funny in itself: Jonathan Cott, the 19-year-old interviewer, opens by reciting at length from Cage’s then-numerous detractors, and seems determined to be unimpressed by the replies. Yet Cage’s apparent enjoyment of this interrogation is also contagious – both for us listening to it now, and also, it seems, for his disgruntled young adversary.

John Cage, Indeterminacy (performed in 1959)

Humour has long been anathema in certain Cagean circles – pianist Tania Chen told me about a recent run-in with a bearded group of ‘Cage police’, who were furious that comedians should be allowed to perform his work. And it’s easy to see why: the worst interpretations are those that take it all as a joke. So it is just as well that the recent performances, at Café Oto in Dalston, of two of Cage’s more comedically fertile works – Indeterminacy, featuring Chen, Steve Beresford and Stewart Lee, and Solo for Sliding Trombone (1958) with Alan Tomlinson – remained impeccably serious. Indeterminacy was first performed in 1958 by Cage and David Tudor; Cage read from a set of ninety cue-card lectures drawn at random, each one minute long, whilst Tudor played piano and objects in the next room. By contrast, Beresford and Chen – each using prepared piano and objects, and in the same room as the speaker – opted to improvise, whilst ignoring each other as much as possible with help from a stopwatch. The cue cards Lee read from feature proverbs, stories, non-stories and jokes, running the gamut of Cagean concerns (one I just picked at random, detailing the divine and miraculous transformation of a bottle of wild mushroom catsup, is fairly typical).

John Cage, Solo for Sliding Trombone (1958), performed by Christian Lindberg

Rather than play to the natural humour of the pieces, the challenge for the performers seemed to be in doing precisely the opposite: Tomlinson’s gruff but affectionate rendition of Solo for Sliding Trombone sometimes threatened to become hammy, just as Lee’s Shropshire monotone lapsed once or twice into old punch line habits. But the improvisations also produced their own punch lines, and here it was often better to ignore the words completely: trying as far as possible to hear the sounds as sounds, the music produced by Beresford and Chan, combined with Lee’s voice, was endlessly inventive and occasionally very touching. It is still something of a revelation that these shifting arrangements of piano, objects, text and voice can produce ever-new configurations of feeling.

Cage performing on the game show I’ve Got a Secret in 1960

The comedy-club rowdiness at Oto also recalled Cage’s long-standing engagement with the world of light entertainment, most memorably seen in the TV slapstick of ‘Water Walk’ (as performed on the game show I’ve Got a Secret in 1960). Similarly, Solo for Sliding Trombone – a more-or-less systematic attempt to exhaust the sonic capabilities of a slide trombone, one by one – apparently came out of an encounter with the trombonist from comedy band Spike Jones and his City Slickers. Introducing the piece, Tomlinson explained that the idiosyncratic techniques discovered by these early parody players prefigured the expanded approaches that improv players would develop over the following decades: a moment where, completely by accident, comedy music was the avant-garde.

Cage, Cartridge Music (1960)

Several more sides of Cage were shown the following night, with Langham Research Centre’s presentation of a selection of his work for tape and electronics, some of them for the first time in the UK. And although less people were laughing, people were still laughing. The first set, featuring WBAI (1960), Cartridge Music (1960, for amplified ‘small sounds’) and Variations 1 (1958) was sonically fascinating, dynamic and poignant to the last; Variations 1 concludes with the reader reading on, his voice fading to dusty string swells and seagull electronics. Fontana Mix with Aria (1958) and Speech for Newsreader and Five Radios (1955) were similarly impressive – the former featured a beautifully untethered aria by Catherine Carter as she whirled through the space, the latter, a quintet of shifting radio dials, succeeded in part from the richness of London’s airwaves, as dancehall shout outs mingled with mystery music and Nicki Minaj. Again, the ending was amusing yet somehow affecting, a story cut off suddenly at ‘…millionaire business creep-’ as the static roared.

Cage, 0’00” (1962)

The evening also featured a performance of 0’00” (1962) Cage’s sequel to 4’33” (1952). The score for the piece stipulates: ‘In a situation provided with maximum amplification (no feedback), perform a disciplined action.’ This was realized by Langham Research Centre via a cup of tea, the amplified kettle producing another pleasing rush of noise before the beverage was handed over (the score also specifies that ‘the action should fulfill an obligation to others’). In moments like this, the lightness of Cage’s approach is most apparent – as with so much of his work it is an invitation, to perform or simply to listen.

Cage playing amplified plants on Nam June Paik’s TV show Good Morning Mr. Orwell in 1984

The imaginative renditions of the Langham Research Centre and the dexterous improvisations of Chen and Beresford also suggested a paradox: for much of his life, Cage felt jazz and free improvisation to be completely incompatible with his methods. At the same time, despite his antipathy towards self-expression, his directions leave performances wide open to these possibilities. Just as the humour in these pieces can only be realized by a deliberate seriousness, for Cage freedom is something only achieved through the constraints of chance.

In any case, whatever the joke was, it is safe to say that today’s audiences are in on it. The many celebrations marking Cage’s centenary this year are proof, if needed, of his enduring status as artist, composer, writer – the apocryphal ‘inventor – of genius’ (as Arnold Schoenberg once put it). He told his 19-year-old interviewer that he never felt that laughing at the audience was part of his responsibility as a composer, which again is pretty funny; as if it might be a responsibility for other composers, as if laughing at one’s audience was just another option amongst many (and perhaps for Cage it was). But what about us laughing at him? As the presenter of I’ve Got a Secret warned: ‘These are nice people, but some of them are gonna laugh.’ Cage was concerned to let sounds be sounds, and he developed ever more elaborate methods to free them, as he deadpanned finally in 1963, ‘I think [the laughter] comes through the multiplicity of sounds on the tapes … this juxtaposition of things not ordinarily juxtaposed produces in many people the feeling of mirth.’ In other words, there was never any joke to begin with: if a chance procedure produces laughter, so be it.

About the author

  • David Morris's photo

    David Morris is a writer based in London.

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