Two Fridays ago, Wesleyan kicked off the John Cage & Public Life initiative with a performance of two of his pieces: Etcetera (1973) and HPSCHD (1969). This review, written by Ashlin Aronin '13, focuses on the latter, a composition "presented as an open environment in which the audience freely moves between multiple harpsichord soloists while enveloped in a environment of up to 51 distinct channels of sound generated via tape playback systems." For more of Ashlin Aronin's work, look at his blog from his summer internship last year that I dug up for no good reason. You might also want to note that, like many Wes musicians, he's his own top listener on last.fm. However, I don't recommend that you watch this.
John Cage and Lejaren Hiller’s immersive HPSCHD (1969) “happened” at Wesleyan’s Beckham Hall on December 7th, drawing a modest, subdued attendance of several dozen. Attendees milled about, talking quietly amongst themselves and trying to figure out what it all meant.
The 1969 premiere of HPSCHD (“harpsichord”) at the University of Illinois garnered 6,000 friendly experiencers, with hundreds of musical tapes, dozens of slide and film projectors projected on screens throughout the hall. According to an Allmusic critic, this event prefigured the format of the “rave”1, though tonight this was hardly obvious.
Cage’s career in many ways involved a ruthless and rigorous pursuit to remove music from the formal constraints of the concert hall and break down the power dichotomy between performer and audience. HPSCHD was a commission to write for an instrument he loathed (and compared to the sewing machine), but which he turned into an opportunity by recruiting algorithmic composition pioneer Lejaren Hiller. Together, they created a computer program which analyzed distinctive compositions by a series of famous composers from the Classical period to the 20th century, with compositions by both Hiller and Cage included in the latter category. The computer used this information to re-compose a practically endless sequence of musical material gradually progressing in style from old to new. This was then to be played by anywhere from one to seven harpsichordists (in this case, three) while electronic tones from 51 reel-to-reel tapes played over an immersive array of speakers throughout the room.
According to one of the performers, each of the fifty-one tapes is derived from a different pitch set, based on dividing the octave equally into sets of anywhere from five to fifty-six tones. From these collections, random pitches are sequenced using the I Ching, the Chinese Book of Changes. However, this was not eminently clear while experiencing the piece – even a devoted listener would have been hard-pressed to determine the changing octave divisions.
The harpsichord seems to serve as a fairly straightforward symbol of anachronism for a composer who was relentlessly forward-looking. In fact, Cage and Hiller’s inclusion of their own work into the computer analysis as a representation of the latest, most modern music can be taken as a hubristic assertion of their revolutionary status.
Interestingly, while in some ways these composers thought of their work as a break from the past, by including their own material as fodder for the computer analysis they place themselves implicitly in the lineage of hundreds of years of European music history.
Wesleyan’s staging of HPSCHD included cloths stretched and draped throughout the room, with an assemblage of video projectors directed at these ad-hoc screens. The projected visuals consisted of iTunes visualizer-type effects and a slideshow of pixelated John Cage portraits, both of which were cheesy and nostalgic to the point of cheapening the overall feel of the proceedings. The sounds (both harpsichord and electronic tones) were not loud enough to truly be immersive, though this may have been to allow for some audience conversation and activity to be part of the environment. The piece, revolutionary in its time, felt dated – perhaps because the idea of a “happening” has been fairly well integrated into the arts as of 2012. However, the harpsichord was clearly antiquated even in 1969, so anachronism has been an element of HPSCHD since its inception.
Along with Brian Parks and Jason Sheng Jia, Professor Neely Bruce played harpsichord, reprising his role in the 1969 premiere. For me, the best part of HPSCHD was simply experiencing all of Wesleyan’s harpsichords together in one place.