Text pieces (for David Toop)

My first encounter with John Cage changed my life. I had known about Cage from quite an early age. Dr. (“Bud”) Ramsey, the extraordinarily enlightened music master at Goole Grammar School, had told me about the prepared piano and about 4’33” – the so-called silent piece – things which he found interesting, though puzzling.

But it was seeing the Cunningham Company at the Shaftesbury Theatre in 1966 that really opened my eyes. I decided that this kind of thing was what I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing.

I met Cage briefly during this visit to England and a couple of years later found myself working with him in America. It was through his personal generosity that I was able to stay there so long. But it is his intellectual generosity that I value above all. Cage didn’t have any ‘students’ in the strict sense, just people who worked with him. It is a measure of his greatness that those who are composers never end up sounding like him. He gives you permission to be yourself. Anything goes, provided – as he would always say – that you take “nothing” as the base.

Cage’s notations from the early 50’s onwards were designed to stimulate the performer into creative participation through their very indeterminacy. These notations could be graphic, some had verbal texts, and there was very little stave notation. It was a combination of Cage and Fluxus, especially George Brecht and LaMonte Young’s early text pieces, which led to the proliferation of verbal notations among English experimental musicians. There was the added factor that many of us were working in art colleges as we were somewhat beyond the pale as far as university music departments and conservatoires were concerned. Text notations had the benefit of being comprehensible to art students too and some of the most imaginative performances of these pieces came about through them.

The Experimental Music Catalogue, which I edited up to its demise in 1981 (it has since been reanimated by Christopher Hobbs) published an anthology of “Prose Pieces” as well as the text pieces of Christian Wolff. Anyone who thinks that there would be little difference between these kinds of pieces should look carefully at these pieces by Christian, at Cornelius Cardew’s Schooltime Compositions, at George Brecht’s Water Yam, at LaMonte Young’s pieces published in An Anthology. Examples of my own text pieces appeared in the Prose Anthology and these represent a key aspect of what I did between 1968 and 1972 – a period which also included the composition of better known works such as The Sinking of the Titanic (1969-) and Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet (1971). Three of these text pieces were performed in Huddersfield in 2003. Although they all have texts as notation, the means of realisation is different in each case.

Made in Hong Kong uses any number and kind of mechanical toys, musical and otherwise – an instrumentation which appeared frequently in experimental music, especially in works such as Cardew’s Schooltime Compositions.

Private Music was the first of a number of pieces in which only part of the musical or other information was available to the audience. In most the performer monitors material via headphones or other devices and passes on elements of this to the audience. The effect may be compared to hearing one side of a telephone conversation, something that was far less common in 1971 than it is now…. One possible role for the listener is to deduce what the total material might be.

Marvellous Aphorisms are Scattered Richly throughout these pages used a specially constructed pair of garments to conceal any number of mechanical or battery-operated electrical devices within them. I had bought a very large overcoat in 1968 at the Champaign-Urbana Salvation Army and two years later I had a fashion student at Portsmouth College of Art make lots of pockets in the lining, as well as make a waistcoat with lots of pockets to go under it. The various devices were put inside these pockets, the coat was buttoned up thereby concealing the devices and the performer activated them by fumbling within the coat. There is a photograph of me modelling this outfit in Michael Nyman’s book Experimental Music, a photograph showing a slim composer, with long curly hair and a moustache.

When I sat in the audience at Huddersfield and watched Seth Josel and Ulrich Krieger perform them I was probably as bemused as someone experiencing them for the first time. But in my case I could sense some distant and slightly unnerving family relationship – like returning to my home town and seeing someone who looks vaguely familiar, and then discovering that it is my brother.

Gavin Bryars