Sunday, August 19, 2012

Turning the “Aggressive Audience” into an Art Form?

Over on, I have been giving a lot of attention to the fact that September 5 will be the 100th birthday of John Cage. Today I even went so far as to give a shout-out to the London Proms series for dedicating last Friday night to Cage, as well as to Ivan Hewitt of the London Telegraph for giving such an excellent account of the occasion (not bad, considering the right-wing politics of that newspaper). In the midst of all of the positive vibes about Cage and his work, I found myself thinking back on when the times were not so good.

My favorite example is the Cramps recording of Cage performing the third part of his Empty Words at the Teatro Lirico di Milano on December 2, 1977. Empty Words does not make for a particularly felicitous listening experience. I remember that it was one of the last things I heard performed at Brandeis University after I had completed my doctoral dissertation and was preparing to start my first academic teaching job at the Technion in Israel. (I was pretty sure I would not hear very much Cage over there.) The work resides somewhere between reading and chant of a syllabic breakdown of texts from the notebooks of Henry David Thoreau. It does not require quite the patience of a performance of Erik Satie’s “Vexations;” but it sure comes close.

The thing about the Cramps recording is that the Italian audience lacked that patience. The result is less a concert recording of one of Cage’s performances and more a historical document of the audience riot than ensued. (Don’t you wish that we had a document like that for “Le Sacre du Printemps?”) Almost exactly three years ago, I wrote about that recording on this site in a post entitled “The Aggressive Audience.”

What I did not know when I wrote that post was that, back in 2004, Angelin Preljocaj had created choreography for 63 minutes of that full-length concert recording, which had been performed by Ballet Preljocaj at the Biennale nationale de danse du Val-de-Marne. The title of resulting work was (appropriately enough) Empty Moves. Preljocaji’s text on the company’s Web site talks about “the alienation effect,” without distinguishing between how that effect applied to Cage’s treatment of Thoreau and how it applied to the audience’s treatment of Cage. I am not quite sure how I would react to seeing a performance of this choreography. In the context of all the different ways in which Cage is now been honored around the world, I find that the major value of the Cramps recording is to remind us all that audiences were not always very receptive to Cage. For my part I am also reminded of the stoicism he brought to any of these hostile reactions. My guess is that Preljocaj’s choreography contributes little to either of those reminders.

Ironically, Cage was already beginning to receive honors for his work in the United States long before he encountered that hostile Italian audience. Over on my site, I wrote about hearing Cage read an acceptance speech for “some prestigious award whose details I have since forgotten” in the fall of 1973. The speech was one of those rare occasions when he let go of his stoicism, since the basic message was:
Where were you when I needed you?
These days I find myself more worried about audience hostility than I used to feel. Between soccer hooliganism in Europe and “men with guns” in the United States, I no longer take it for granted that a performance audience is a “safe place.” Back in the day, I remember that the only thing Robert Ashley had to say about audience hostility was:
Don’t throw things at us!
These days the ante seems to have been raised where causes for concern are evaluated. Even the London Olympics seems to have added chips to that ante.

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