It’s been quite a while since I’ve listened to a piece of music with chills running up and down my spine almost the whole time. But that is what happened when I went to Boston to hear the Boston Symphony Orchestra premiere John Cage’s ‘Renga with Apartment House 1776.’ There are a number of reasons why this was such an exciting event.
Partly it was the sheer density of the music. Cage has often talked about multiplicity, and many of his works involve dense clusters of different ideas, but I don’t think he has ever put together quite so many elements quite so clearly as he has in this 30-minute work. ‘Renga,’ which can also be played as a separate piece, is an already dense score for large orchestra. ‘Apartment House 1776’ adds four quartets and four instrumental soloists, who play altered versions of traditional American material, and four soloists who sing in diverse American styles. I don’t think we ever heard everyone all at once, but there were generally at least five or six independent elements going on at a time. Partly it was the simple fact that the Boston Symphony Orchestra was finally actually playing graphic music, and playing it well. Their parts consisted solely of fragments of Thoreau drawings, but the musicians interpreted their lines and marks with apparent concern, and conductor Seiji Ozawa saw to it that the sounds all blended into a sequence of attractive atonal ‘pictures.’ Partly it was the symbolism. When a Jewish liturgical singer like Nico Castel, a jazz singer like Jeanne Lee, a deep-voiced hymn singer like Helen Schneyer, and an American Indian like Chief Swift Eagle all begin singing music from their own traditions simultaneously but independently, the result is a vivid image of our melting-pot culture, or rather of what our melting-pot culture ought to be. The different ethnic musics blend easily, without competing with one another and without sacrificing their individual ideals. And all of this takes place against a background of instrumental music from the Revolutionary War period, and all of that takes place against a complex orchestral background based on Thoreau. If one could somehow translate all those sound elements into visual ones, it would make a magnificent mural.
Partly it was the marvelous moments when the tonalities of the singers, the solo instruments, and the quartets would somehow merge with the orchestra, and everyone would be in the same key. These moments were pure accidents, of course, but there were several of them, one of which lasted for a good 10 seconds. Sheer coincidences. Impossible to plan. Breathtaking.
Partly it was the associations with Ives. I guess I always knew, or at least suspected, that Cage had a lot in common with Ives, but here the two composers even sound a little alike. Dense collages of independent ideas. Massive energies. Very American.
Partly it was the care that Cage had taken in preparing the work. As in other pieces, the composer prepared hundreds of pages of material for the players to choose from, and in this case his preparation involved extensive research into early American hymnals, fife tunes, fiddle tunes, and even early American drum cadences. Much of the prepared material was never played at all in this performance and much of what was played couldn’t be heard. But all of that inaudible music is part of the piece too, and it does make a difference. Partly it was the social tensions. Boston is Boston, after all, and it was almost a foregone conclusion that, regardless of what the piece sounded like, a fair number of people would feel duty bound to walk out on the piece, and that the critics on the Boston dailies would submit casually negative reviews without even bothering to think up respectable arguments to defend their points of view. But it was equally inevitable that many open-minded listeners and a few Cage devotees would be there to counter boos with bravos. It seemed to me that the bravos won out, but it was a close contest, and it may be an even closer contest when Boulez and the New York Philharmonic play the work on November 5.
Partly it was Symphony Hall itself. This was my first visit to this acoustical wonder, and everything they say seems to be true. I don’t think I’ve ever heard cymbals and trumpets sound quite so brilliant, and even soft pizzicatos resound easily in this long wooden hall.
Partly I suppose it was my own predisposition to like almost everything Cage produces. As I have come to know his music better, I have found that he never writes a piece without having a strong idea to hang it on, that he never really repeats himself, that he always works things out diligently, and that he rarely makes serious miscalculations. Certainly there were no miscalculations in this piece. In fact, even the audience reaction probably came out just about the way he had planned.