John Cage and “specific things, beings or events”

The following is an email exchange between myself and several of my colleagues in Alarm Will Sound, including Nigel Maister, our staging director, and Jason Price, our trumpeter and one of our tech experts.  Rob Haskins also weighs in here.  Rob is an old friend of everyone in the group and is an amazing keyboardist, scholar (who specializes in Cage), and teacher.

When this discussion took place we were gearing up for a performance as part of the Carnegie Hall Neighborhood Concert Series.  I enjoyed the discussion, particularly because it is so specific to the experience of performing Cage.  Cage’s music often demands more from performers than simply learning the notes and rhythms.  In the case of Atlas Eclipticalis the notation is unique and as you’ll learn below the instructions leave plenty of room for interpretation.



Hi guys,

Although fundamentally a percussion-related email, I seek all of your feedback on this, as musicians, philosophers, and friends.

I looked through the Atlas Eclipticalis instructions and there is a great deal of freedom regarding instrument choice.  the only things he specifies is that the number of instruments be “varied” and “numerous” and that the percussionist set up the instruments in a semi circle around himself or herself.   He also asks that the instruments not “be suggestive of specific things, beings or events.”

So, I would suggest we avoid standard percussion instruments as they are so deeply rooted in European orchestral and American jazz and military traditions that they are certainly suggestive of “specific things, beings or events.”

Perhaps the obvious solution is to use found objects.  However, in the year 2012 using found percussion objects is indeed suggestive of “specific things, beings or events,” namely the American experimental tradition starting with Ives’s father and crystallizing with Cowell, Cage, Harrison.  So I’m a bit stuck on this one.  Perhaps one way out of it (and a particularly 2012 version) is to use the web as a sound source and to play a laptop, or laptops if we want to literally reflect his instrument set up.  Cage does allow for the use of an electronic instrument.  The use of acoustic instruments is implied, but not required.  I’m not sure exactly what that would entail, but might mean sampling various items from web radio stations, youtube, etc, and processing them in some way.

At any rate, the percussion question is an interesting one I think because it points towards a conundrum in general about Cage’s middle work in my opinion.  After it broke as far away from a conventional teleological listening experience as it did and really became a kind of philosophical musing through sound the interpretive experience then becomes a bit confusing for later generations.



You might be reading too much into Cage’s instrument instructions. I think Cage meant “specific” very specifically: it might have been his way of requesting that the musicians select things that would not lend their performance to overt (and dumb-headed) comedy. Since timpani are associated with an amazing range of music, I think by definition it is not related to a specific thing or event: for me, a complex musical culture is neither a specific thing nor a specific event.

Remember that the tubist at the premiere of the Concert for Piano and Orchestra played an ostinato from The Rite of Spring. It’s quite possible that this is what Cage had in mind when he used the word “specific.”

Found objects amplified and processed would be one (and the simplest) way of moving away from the suggestion of the American experimentalists. Other ways should occur to us with a little more thought. But the point may be moot following my argument above.

Electronics are always a possibility for Cage, who ever included them as part of percussion. But it would be a shame to eliminate percussion instruments altogether.

As for your last observation that your instrument quandary points towards a “conundrum” in Cage’s work, I disagree high-spiritedly with this point of view. If you read him carefully, you will find that Cage is quite equivocal about what non-teleological listening entails. (He certainly never uses this loaded term.)  Sometimes you get the feeling that he wants you to sit there and let the sounds pour over you without any discrimination whatsoever. At other points he says one must pay the closest attention to everything. Of what does “the closest attention” consist? What points of contact (if any) does it have with what we might call “multivalent teleological listening,” which give rise to a number of listening strategies suitable for post-tonal music since 1960? That is one of the research questions I’m investigating in my current work. If there are points of contact—which is my hypothesis—then “philosophical musing” can be only one response to his work and not, from my point of view, a particularly fruitful one for music lovers.


I get Payton’s argument that standard percussion instruments carry a lot of cultural significance/baggage. I play an instrument that has a similar background.  But I would say that Payton at a laptop has the same issues for people who go to shows with electronic music shows, have ever walked into a Starbucks, or seen Predator drones on the news. There’s a lot of discussion and work going on in electronic music to try and get out from behind the laptop.

I think the only way you’re going to get away from that is to alter the form or to create a form, in other words make the form/shape unidentifiable. You could play these instruments in the style of Child of Tree with a stylus or contact mic rig I could build. That provides a lot of freedom to find any objects that Payton or anyone else might like to use whether they are musical/sound objects or not. So if Payton wants to play a wooden shoe we can either apply the pickup to the object or use the contact mic or stylus as the instrument.

If Payton wanted to play with magnetic fields or the electromagnetic fields of laptops, phones, or the building itself I can build him an inductive pickup…basically what spies use to look for bugs.


I totally understand where you’re coming from, Payton.  Do see my final comment below.  I’m, of course, thinking about the totality of the event (how it all gels and fits together), so sometimes the individual journey of a player, like yourself, might not be as present as it could be, so I appreciate your taking the trouble and having the passion to engage in this dialogue!

I have no real objection to using found objects if you really feel strongly about using them, but somehow they seem to me to feel even more “specific” than using traditional percussion instrumentation.  Found objects seem tethered to a very specific reality (their functional origin) even if now adapted to a new one (music making).  It seems that traditional instrumentation, because it is so non-specific (except in the sense of being part of the Western tradition) actually allows more freedom to explore the abstraction of the score (I hesitate to use the word abstraction, but cannot find a better one at the moment) allowing the clash between Cage’s methods and what could be perceived as the “rigidity” of the Western canon and its instrumentation to be all the more delightfully explored.  I, personally, would also be open to the idea of traditional instrumentation including instrumentation that does not necessarily form art of the Western tradition, but which is still standard in whatever cultural context in which it originates.

In terms of eliminating electronic instruments, I’m with Rob on this.  I would hate to see, on a staging/visual/theatrical level, the materiality (the physical presence) of actual percussion instrumentation give way to what seems now to be somewhat ubiquitous: the laptop and it’s virtual joys.

So I think, Pay Pay, I am urging you not to abandon traditional percussion instrumentation.  The reason is twofold. One is that I wanted to create a visual and aural contrast between the two percussionists.  I had asked if Chris could play, from the stage, (largely) toy instruments which appeal both as a little homage to the toy piano pieces being as they are some of Cage’s most recognizable works, but also visually to accentuate the idea of playfulness, as well as because of the fact that I think an audience will enjoy the conjunction between adult virtuosity (Chris) and childlike simplicity (the instrumentation); between the Atlas Eclipticalis scores and the smallness of the sounds (I’m imagining) will come from the toy percussion.  In contrast, I was hoping that you would serve as a counterbalance to that: playing both traditional instrumentation, but also from outside the hall.  This is the second reason: In doing so, this would tie in to what will be governing a lot of the AE and the Concert solos: they will be done in accordance with the instructions for Variations IV, specifically the following:

A: Theatre Space (Auditorium with Doors)

1. One Floor
2. With Balcony and Balconies

Sounds to be produced at any point on the lines outside the theatre space…Open doors pertaining to a given point (Sound production may be understood as simply opening doors.)…Two or more points may be taken as a sound in movement. (Open pertinent doors.) … [edits mine]

My idea was to use the opening of doors to act as a dampener/amplifier of sound, and that the effect of you playing from without the space would be especially good if the instrumentation had depth in tone and significant resonance (hence my harping on about timpani).  This contrast between the two percussionists would then be “read” by the audience in a way that was clear on an auditory level.  At least that was and still is my plan.  That all being said, part of this is undoubtedly that you have a say in your instrumentation, so I will work with whatever you choose, but I wanted to give you a sense of why I was requesting a more traditional instrumentation for you and also the use of timpani (amongst whatever else you chose to use). Again…perhaps there’s a way to combine your needs and desires with my ideas of how the sounds you produce will function, both in relation to Chris and to the idea of space, inside/outside, veiled/revealed, amplified/naked, etc.


You see folks, this is what I LOVE about this band.  What a great discussion! You haven’t entirely changed my mind on my original point regarding instrument selection, but I think we need to move on at this point.

In the spirit of collaboration and also in the interest of the practical needs of getting a workable rider figured out (Jason Varvaro [our production manager] is probably thinking “yadda yadda yadda, need to get some work done here guys . . .”), I’d like to propose I use the following instruments:

snare drum
Found objects collected at site
One table approximately 6′ x 4′ covered with soft foam or a blanket
two condensor mics to pick up small instruments
my smart phone (Android Incredible 2 if that matters) with Jason’s inductive pickup and requisite amplification (BTW, Jason Price, I love your idea, thanks for contributing)

I assume mallet instruments are okay?  If not then substitute concert bass drum for chimes, otherwise I think chimes will provide the kind of “materiality” that Nigel is requesting . . .


At this point our discussion veered off into the practicalities of getting ready for the gig.  After all, we needed to decide something about the percussion parts.  Jason Varvaro, our production manager, was on a tight schedule to get the information in to the venue.  We ended up settling on a mixture of things, including standard Western percussion instruments, some electronics, and some found objects.

Although I still find Cage’s instructions perplexing, what I’m grateful for is that he had the courage to work on the extremes of human experience as it relates to sound and create a body of work that still invites discussion

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