When I first started attending concerts, there were a fair number of rigid rules and conventions of behavior. Indeed, each side of the edge of the performing area (which was usually a stage) had its own respective criteria for normative behavior; and, in an age in which the fear of Communism had imposed a mind-numbing commitment to conformity, those norms were respected with the same reverence one encountered in places of worship. Very few performers dared to break the rules on their side; and doing so had a tendency to provoke similar rule-breaking within the audience. One of the great leaders among the rule-breaking performers was John Cage; and his courage to do so was an inspiration for those who worked with him, not only among other "New York School" composers (such as Earle Brown, Morton Feldman, and Christian Wolff) but also in Merce Cunningham's approach to the creation and performance of dance.
Ironically, the history of this movement is often told more around the norms violated by the audiences than by the acts of the creators and performers. One of my favorite anecdotes concerned one of Cunningham's most controversial creations, "Winterbranch." On the surface this was a relatively straightforward study of the representation of different ways in which people fell, either alone or in groups; but the controversy resided in two critical ways in which the surface was obscured. The first was the use of chance techniques to determine the lighting cues, with the result that almost none of the choreography took place under direct light. To the extent that one was aware of what was being represented at all, most of the representations were cloaked in near darkness to a degree that they were barely perceived. This made for a provocative complement to the second way in which surface structure was obscured, which was the selection of a musical composition by La Monte Young. Young's work was entitled "Two Sounds," which was as honest as it was hard to take. Indeed, the first half of "Winterbranch" took place in silence, after which the two sounds intruded at maximum volume. I was never sure just what the sounds were, but I knew that Young wanted them to aggravate. I suspect that one of them came close to fingernails on a blackboard, if that was not the actual source.
Even after audiences went to Cunningham concerts with full knowledge of what the "Winterbranch" experience would be like, would still react hostilely. I even remember a story of Cunningham commenting backstage, after the dancers had taken their bows for a "Winterbranch" performance, "There were fewer booers tonight!" Nevertheless, the reaction to end all reactions took place when the Company was on tour in Paris. Not content to boo, members of the audience left the theater during intermission to buy up unsold produce (as in rotten tomatoes), which they brought back to throw at the performance of the next dance on the program!
Such hostility now feels like a distant part of my past. These days it seems as if the worst that performers have to encounter is an infectious level of nervous coughing. Hostility is reserved for athletic and political events, either during the performance or after it has culminated in a conclusion. From this point of view, the Cramps recording of John Cage's performance of the third part of his "Empty Words" (which constituted an entire evening's program) at the Teatro Lirico di Milano on December 2, 1977 is an important historical document. Here is how Gianni-Emilio Simonetti introduced the recording in the liner notes:
What happened at the Teatro Lirico in Milan on 2nd December, 1977? What happened that was so unique it deserves to be remembered by a recording? A theatrical event – the reading by the author of the third section of a work called Empty Words – was unpredictably transformed into something completely unexpected into an event in which the actors played their parts to the very utmost, with stubbornness and determination. On the stage, a "speaker", an aged man, with certain beliefs about music that had earned him some notoriety among esteemers of the avant-garde. The audience consisted of a handful of young people who had only heard of avant-garde of the armed type, and in any case were expecting to receive a message in the form of a concert, if only because this time they had paid for their rickets [sic, the typographical error in the English translation is irresistible!] instead of protesting as was the custom in those days. They had paid for them because someone from the "left" had asked them to. Having paid, for them, they thought they had also acquired the right, to enjoy themselves and, indeed to receive a "message", or at least some "content" – no matter if it was complex – as long as it was compatible with their "idées reçues". The length of the reading and the years of experience of the "speaker" did the rest. A generation mirrors itself today in these voices out of context. A generation that collected every humiliation and ignored every revolt does not recognize itself. Cowardice makes one lose one's sense of unhappy experiences.
As the photograph accompanying this essay illustrates, protest was far more than derisive shouting. It probably did not involve rotten tomatoes; but it did involve breaking the "fourth wall" through members of the audience coming up on stage to "do their own thing" under the assumption that they were entitled to do so if that was all that Cage was doing. However, by focusing his account on the dynamics of the protest, Simonetti ultimately ignored the nature of Cage's actual performance. Throughout the entire evening, Cage never broke from his calm delivery of his text, an amalgam of words and nonsense syllables derived from a highly methodical chance-based deconstruction of texts by Henry David Thoreau. At his advanced age Cage was still a student of the Zen master he had encountered a quarter of a century earlier, maintaining equanimity (and probably, in his own words, "a sunny disposition") in the face of the anger (and subsequent madness) of those around him.
My initial reaction to this recording was a combination of perplexity and amusement. I remember a performance of one of the earlier parts of "Empty Words" that I had attended in the United States (possibly at Brandeis University). That performance was for a sympathetic audience. We sat there in religious silence, knowing that Cage wanted us to do nothing more than listen to the sounds and straining to do so with the utmost precision. Thus, when I first heard this Italian audience, I was surprised that what Cage had done could still provoke and that the resulting behavior should be so aggressive. Listening to it today, I am still surprised that it could have engendered such hooliganism; but I also wonder if we have now become so benumbed to unexpected extremes that we no longer react that way. (It was said that the Théâtre du Grand-Guignol made it easy for members of the audience to run off in search of a place to vomit in reaction to its staged violence. Today's audiences sit through Quentin Tarantino films without flinching.) I can't say that I miss audiences who decide to exercise their right to protest to the detriment of those who want to listen, but at the same time I wonder how many performers today have the commitment that Cage brought with him for the sake of being true to his aesthetic philosophy. I still believe in the power of the provocative (even if I do not always sympathize with the provocateur); so I find myself asking whether our current social norms may be sapping the provocative of the power it once had. Once again, an investigation of the moral consequences of this brave new worldview are left as an exercise for the reader!