James Pritchett: Writings on Cage (& others)

On John Cage's Europeras 3 & 4

by James Pritchett

Copyright 1994 by James Pritchett. All rights reserved.

To make a theatre which is the synergetic coming together of its separate elements, the lighting, the singing, the piano-, the record-playing, the brief intrusion of a composite tape of more than a hundred operas superimposed (truckera), brief flashes of light in the performance space, the movement of the singers from one spot to another in the performance space or to the chairs at the back of the stage: 75 lights 3256 cues. Six singers each singing six arias of his or her own choice (Gluck-Puccini). 140 1-16 measure excerpts from Liszt's Opera Phantasien two pianists; fragments of 300 78's played on 12 electric victrolas by six composers, the performance of truckera, the performance of the lighting, 70 minutes. Europera 3

[From John Cage's notes]


John Cage's way of working was first to observe all the variables in a given musical situation: to define them and to find boundaries for them. He would then throw open the continuity of the work via chance operations so that it could take advantage of the entire range of possibilities. This is what gives his music that spacious quality: the fearless trajectories of events across the musical stage.

In Europeras 3 & 4 he looked at opera, and what did he see? He saw the nineteenth century literature with all the cultural baggage attached to it. His musical variables were thus tied to the past, to this standard repertoire. The fundamental unit for the singers is the aria; they choose which ones themselves, since this is the most practical route to take (it also ensures that they will love what they are doing). In one performance, a tenor might sing arias from I Pagliacci, Tosca, Il Trovatore, Marta, Aida, and Faust. Another tenor at another time would know a different repertoire and hence sing something different. For the pianists, the unit is shorter: an excerpt from an opera transcription. In this case, Cage selected which excerpts to play. The other character in these operas is the chorus of twelve record-players: what better symbol (especially the old victrolas) for history and our love of the past?

These are the three basic musical elements of Europera 3: singers singing arias, pianists playing transcription excerpts, bits of old recordings of operas. Where Cage allows them to wander freely is in time. The opera lasts seventy minutes; the singer's entrances happen at chance points within that duration. The pianists are given time cues of a different sort: after playing an excerpt, they pause for a randomly-determined duration before playing the next one.

Thus the coordinations of events you hear on this recording are to a large degree unplanned. Cage did not know which arias the singers would sing, nor did he know which excerpts would come from the victrolas, nor did he know the precise timings of the piano fragments. Like a Calder mobile, the formal elements are given, but as the artist's hand releases them, the wind takes over and makes them dance.


One effect of a piece made out of older music is that your response will be strongly affected by what your past experience has been: you bring your own history to it. My experience of opera these days is mainly limited to compilations of arias, listened to while I'm cooking. These compilations feature the "great arias" from the literature -- the ones singers like to sing and audiences like to hear -- so it is not surprising that many of them appear in various places in this recording of Europeras 3 & 4.

This is not to say that the Europeras are some kind of "name that tune" game; no, the knowledge of opera simply creates a different experience. Hearing an aria you're familiar with triggers your memories. You think of the rest of the opera, the story, singers you know who also sing this, other, more personal thoughts. It's like seeing old friends again. But in Europera 3 the moments of recognition go by so quickly, you don't have time to dwell on them. You have to let them go and wave as they pass by.

And what was Cage's experience of opera? I don't know that he had any -- I certainly don't pick it up from the Europeras. He observed what was there and reported with a combination of faithfulness and poetry. The Europeras are like a martian's view of opera.


What is Europera 3 but a big party? The premise is certainly the same: invite all your friends and let them mingle. The joy of hosting a party is watching people get together: they talk to each other, tell each other jokes and secrets, laugh. Or, perhaps they infuriate each other, cut each other off, argue. Some interactions are more subtle: people who avoid one another, groups who disappear from the scene, conversations held behind someone's back (perhaps your own) that you'll never get close enough to hear. Everyone talks at once, creating a sea of conversation -- opaque at times, clearer at others -- that you can surf on top of, plunge into, or contemplate from the shore (the waves, currents, colors, noises).

You're a good host if, after having brought your friends into the same space, you then leave them alone. In Europera 3 Cage is certainly a good host; his guests have full run of the house. There is so much going on, you can't hear it all at once, so you tend to track different parts of it at different times. I hear all the postures of opera that I recognize so well: the coloratura laugh and the barking bass delivery; the soaring climax and the hesitant introduction to the full-of-foreboding third-act aria; the drinking song and the sober bass aria; the big march for the crowd scene. They bump into each other, mill around. They conspire with each other, they act as foils for one another; they can either amplify each other or nullify each other.


The Europeras demonstrate an art based on the juxtaposition of prefabricated units, much like the paintings by Robert Rauschenberg. For some works, Rauschenberg had images from newspapers and magazines enlarged and transferred to silk screens of the sort used for mass printing. Using a painterly version of this printing process, he worked by duplicating the enlargements on canvas in different arrangements and combinations. The images may be overlapped in any way and to any depth of layers; they may be fragmented or partially obscured. Rauschenberg's silk-screened images have a freedom of association similar to that of the arias, transcriptions, and recordings of Cage's operas. Crowded or separated, layered or solitary, these fragments are the characters in Cage's operas, and to hear them brush against each other is to follow a plot of shifting alliances.

Such freedom is possible, as Cage often said, only if one starts from zero. Early in his career, Rauschenberg made paintings that were all white; the parallel to Cage's silent piece 4' 33'' has often been commented upon. Cage described Rauschenberg's white paintings as "airports for the lights, shadows, and particles." The silk-screened pictures are the same: images flying around out there have been guided down to land on the canvas (although not always a perfect landing). The Europeras 3 & 4 can be looked at in this way, too: the first a very busy airport (Chicago or Atlanta), the second a small midwest airstrip surrounded by cornfields.


Of Cage's other works, Europera 3 is perhaps most like his Roaratorio. He refers to both as "circuses": works in which a space is filled by a bounty of simultaneous independent musics. In Roaratorio James Joyce's novel Finnegans Wake, through its references to sounds and places, is the source of a mind-boggling number of recorded snippets -- cats meowing, babies crying, voices, street noises. These are then all thrown together into a thick mixture; the phantasmagoria of the novel is recreated not by doing anything in particular to the recorded sounds but by leaving them alone and just piling them up on top of each other.

With twelve record-players, six singers, and two pianists, the density of Europera 3 can have the same overwhelming affect of Roaratorio. The fragmentation of the recordings and piano transcriptions produces that same quick-cutting pace that sweeps us up in Cage's Joycean celebration. Only the live singers' arias are whole, which parallels the performances of the Irish folk musicians in Roaratorio. Both pieces are exhilirating and joyous. It's hard not to come away from either of them with a smile on your face.


In his note to the Mode recording of Europera 5, Yvar Mikhashoff describes how strongly Cage thought of these two operas as a single unit. "Many people thought that Europera 4 should be performed independently," Yvar says, "but John did not agree at all. He was adamant that the two works be performed in sequence." When a performing group asked to stage Europera 4 without Europera 3, Cage refused, suggesting that instead "they should just sing hymns."

This story is a reminder that, popular belief to the contrary, John Cage was not one to say "do whatever you like." He was uncompromising in his vision, which in this case was of two contradictory presentations of the same history coexisting in a single performance. The two operas couldn't be more different: the one dense, fragmented, tumultuous; the other spare, whole, at rest. The pairing of the two reminds me that Cage professed a love of music with either too many notes or not enough of them. This contrast becomes a part of the piece, and binds the two operas together. I personally prefer one to the other -- but then, this is probably one reason that he insisted on them being done as a unit. You can't just do what you like.

2 singers, in the performing space or in the distance, 25 lights 275 cues, complete Phantasien, played so as to be suggested rather than heard, only one pianist, finally the actually played actually touched; rubato, a single victrola, one composer, winding it up and playing it, the performance of truckera in another part of the building, no lights on the stage, lights on the walls, lights on the ceiling perhaps, 30 minutes. Europera 4

[From John Cage's notes]


With Cage, you're either in it, or else it's way out there, terribly distant. The one way is happy-go-lucky, fun: the fat man bearing gifts. The other is silent and severe: the empty circle.

Everybody talks about how he laughed a lot; they don't tend to say that his voice was so soft (barely a whisper at times) and that often he just smiled.


Voices, all in the same range but with slightly different colors, intertwining. It makes a beautiful counterpoint, although no one actually made it.


We all remember our operas; my wife, Frances, remembers hers in Maine. Her father and sisters would spend a week there, staying at a cabin by a lake in the woods, away from everyone else. In the mornings, she'd swim to the middle of the lake, far from shore. She could hear her father playing tapes of operas (La Traviata, or something like that); her operas are operas heard in the distance, over the lake, among the trees, surrounded by water.


This piece (Europera 5, too) reminds me of death -- of music from the great beyond. The sense of distance causes this, I suppose, as does the knowledge that the singers whose voices come through the old victrolas are all long gone (the composers, too, for that matter).

There's also a certain quality to the shadow-playing: it sounds like music that can't break through to exist in our time, our hearing. Unearthly, like a ghost -- a mute ghost who cannot speak, only point. This is music gone from us, trying to appear again, but not quite making it.

"This departing landscape," said Morton Feldman, "this expresses where the sound exists in our hearing -- leaving us rather than coming toward us." He could be talking about these arias, these recordings, these unplayed piano transcriptions. He also suggested that composition students be reminded of death every day.


I can tell you where he got the numbers for Europera 3 (1-16 measures = I Ching divided by 4, and so on). To take material and then to fragment and reorder it within a time frame is just another form of analysis; so much can be understood by any music theorist. But where did the idea for Europera 4 come from? Why are the lights not in the space, but around it? Why is truckera somewhere else in the building? Why shadow-playing? This is from the imagination, beyond accounting.

In my mind's eye I see him get up after working out the plan for Europera 3, water the plants, and then see it all at once. Maybe the cat told him.

On the other hand, maybe it was something more pedestrian: a passing suggestion, a pressing deadline, a chance operation.


It's as if we can't have it, no matter how hard we try. When it's near to us, it's broken to pieces, crumbling in our embrace. To see it whole, it has to be isolated, solitary, distant.


When I had lunch with Cage, he used wooden plates. These were large, so that you could put several different things on them and still keep them separate. I particularly remember a beautiful, single leaf of kale I had there once; it was so pure, he hadn't even removed the stem. There it was, a bright green slash on the wooden plate, dividing the space: on this side the beans, on that the rice and squash. Everything exactly what it was, with lots of space around it.

Is this a macrobiotic opera?


I have a CD compilation of Enrico Caruso's recordings, and I listen to it often. The disc is arranged in reverse chronological order; it begins with the latest recording (a 1917 performance of the famous quartet from Rigoletto) and goes backwards through time. Caruso gets younger and younger; his voice gets lighter, smaller, further away.

The last thing on the disc is a popular song: "Mattinata" by Leoncavallo. The recording dates from 1904 and features the composer himself at the piano. Caruso, with neither orchestral accompaniment nor heroic role, suddenly sounds human. The poor quality of the recording makes the experience one of fragility.

Frances remembers her mother hanging out the laundry while she listened to this same song, a Mario Lanza 45 on the kiddie record player.