June 2008

part of SoundaXis '08
June 11, 2008 Ontario College of Art and Design Toronto
Sound Paintings
by Zoë Guigueno
People wandered among harpsichords, sipping Heineken, while the sounds of John Cage's 1971 BirdCage poured from 24 speakers around the auditorium. The piece consists of Cage's drawling, ominous voice reciting random bits of Thoreau's Walden juxtaposed against the sound of sirens and subway trains collected from all over the east coast of the United States and bird calls recorded in aviaries. It was neat. For five minutes, anyway.

I wandered, too, wondering why people had paid to be here. Cage's voice was treated with so many sound effects that I couldn't make out a word, only something that sounded like the moaning of Jacob Marley in Brian Desmond Hurst's classic 1951 adaptation of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The auditorium, in the Ontario College of Art and Design, was indeed transformed into a birdcage, but with a city inside, and the three tracks of the composition — Cage's voice, the birds, and the street noises — were played randomly by a computer, with a soundman mixing the signals. The three things made sense together, as Walden is about Thoreau's attempt to transcend the materialistic life of the city by living in the woods.

But five minutes was enough. It's the sort of thing you walk in and out of, like looking at a painting, and that's what BirdCage is really, a sound painting, not a musical composition.

Cage was into experimental music. He was born in LA and lived from 1912 to 1992, spending his life doing weird, controversial things. He studied with Schoenberg, the great pioneer of serial music, and eventually got into 'chance' music — for example, composing music by throwing dice or flipping coins or using computers. This kind of approach can lead to new sounds, but it doesn't have much emotional content.

John Cage
The second piece made use of the five harpsichords and two keyboards spaced out in the room. Cage created HPSCHD in 1969 in collaboration with Lejaren Hiller, an American composer and the founder of the Experimental Music Studio at the University of Illinois. Seven musicians and their page-turners sat down at the instruments and simultaneously played cut-and-pasted versions of works by Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann and other composers.

Cage, being obsessed with electronic sounds and extreme dissonance, added to the mélange unpleasant synthesized sounds from random computer-selected loops of 51 separate tapes, blaring from the speakers. All the while, a slideshow flickered with NASA images of Earth taken from space. Although the effect was very strange and startling, and interesting at first, I left quite soon after it started, though it ran for three hours. It was the same sound from the beginning to the end — another sound painting.

A better idea: Present these works in an art gallery or museum, where you can walk in, listen for a minute or two and leave. Paying to see them only and getting stuck in the same room all that time is not something I would want to do again.

We welcome your comments and feedback
Zoë Guigueno
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