Obituary: John Cage

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WORKING with John Cage on his compositions was always a collaboration, an open invitation to discipline and calm one's mind and technique in order to produce work of the most distilled and natural kind, writes Richard Bernas (further to the obituary by Paul Driver, David Revill, Professor Eric Mottram and Tom Phillips, 14 August).

Having performed a good deal of his solo piano music and appeared with him during one of the Merce Cunningham Company's Sadler's Wells seasons, I was enormously enthused about an invitation to play Winter Music alongside the first complete realisation of his large orchestral score Atlas Eclipticalis. This work had raised the New York Philharmonic's hackles to such a degree that their behaviour during performances assumed a legendary status even in that temperamental orchestra's annals. During the American Bicentennial celebrations at the Festival of La Rochelle, a Dutch orchestra which made a speciality of contemporary scores was invited to perform it. Tired and evidently at the end of their annual season, they rehearsed as if dragooned, emitting sounds which varied from the ordinary to the petulant.

John intended the performance of Atlas Eclipticalis - with its 86 individual parts - to be a paradigm for the responsible behaviour of individuals within society. Demonstrations of selfishness, routine, greed or mere habit in the playing of an instrument were legally possible, but never appropriate.

At the last rehearsal, he spoke to the orchestra as to colleagues, gently drawing their attention to the flaws in their perception of his notation, and pointing out that, 'We could have a better life if, in circumstances like this evening's (performance), we are able ourselves, nearly 100 people, to experience the activity of bringing this piece into existence, without making fun of it, and doing it as well as we can. We will not only have accomplished something for ourselves, but we will have given an image to an audience and it will be like the action of a stone going into a pool, it will ripple out and have a good effect . . . It is possible for human beings, more than for dogs and certainly more than for insects, to act nobly and change their minds.'

Would that his attitude towards the performance of music were more widely known and applied. Its effect on the orchestra was great, and their playing at the conclusion of the rehearsal was marvellous; at the evening performance, habit had crept back in. Yet for many, the false notion of Cage merely as an advocate of laissez-faire indeterminacy in all forms of behaviour was squashed.

More recently I have had the pleasure of remembering John's ideals when conducting such scores as his Concerto for Prepared Piano (1951). At the Huddersfield Festival a few years ago we worked on the early ballet The Seasons (1947), and at the end of that rehearsal I asked him to talk to the orchestra about another of the pieces in the programme, one very close to his own work, Erik Satie's cantata Socrate (1920). His comments were brief, largely concerning Satie's compositional technique, but we all felt very deeply the quality of his listening when we played the last movement, 'Le Mort du Socrate', through for him. In putting some of John's perceptions into practice, in his singular presence, we gave a performance more refined and more beautifully pointed than that the audience heard later that day.