The Complete John Cage Variations Project
21 August, 2013: Cage 101: Past Present Future, Tajong Malim, Malaysia
To celebrate the centenary of John Cages birth in 2012, Decibel prepared a performance of the complete Variations I – VIII. These works reflect the most productive ten years of John Cage’s compositional life from 1958 to 1976, and show the evolution of aleatoric, multimedia and spatial approaches to music. Decibel perform the 8 variations in their entirety and use their skills in electronic manipulation, performance and scoring to present these works using contemporary possibilities. Traditional musical instruments and period electronics will be used alongside, projections, photo cells, arduino, dancers and DIY circuitry to present this incredible collection of works. Rare composers notes and missing parts have been sourced by the group from the John Cage Trust, New York Public Library and the Langlois Foundation.
Decibel rework these pieces using a combination of contemporary technologies as well as original analogue sound production qualities. This involves new score readers and creators (projected to the audience), interactive devices, networked systems, no-input systems and new choreography. An ipad App is soon to be released which features all the score generators.
Variations I (1958) Dedicated to David Tudor, the score consists of six transparent squares of points and lines to be arranged by the performers. Decibel digitally generate ‘versions’ according to aleatoric algorithms using MaxMSP, which generates a mobile score, enabling the reading by a trio of bass flute, bass clarinet and cello.
Variations II (1961) The score again consists of transparent sheets of lines and points yet develops the ideas in Variations I by giving the performers slightly more freedom in the way the arrangments are interpreted. Also arranged by the computer, this work is performed by a larger group fo musicians including electronics as “sound producing means”.
Variations III (1962) was often performed solo by Cage himself. The score consists of two sheets of transparent plastic: one is blank, the other has 42 identical circles on it which are to be cut out and dropped onto the blank page. The area where the most circles are linked is the score to be read. Again this is automated on the computer and the performer – solo percussion in this case – keeps generating alternatives until they find one to settle on and perform. Listen to a sample here Variations III.
Variations IV (1963) This is often described as the pivotal work in the variations series, where Cage begins to discuss the distribution of sounds as well as suggesting that the performer do “other activities” in addition to music. This score consists of seven points and two circles on a transparent sheet which are to be used in conjunction with a map of the performance venue. During the performance, the computer generates the ”map” of performers and speakers onto a plan of the space.
Variations V (1965) This work was created in collaboration with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and a number of prominent electronic musicians of the time, and can be thought of as one of the first mixed media performance works. Sound sources for the first performance were short wave radios and pre recorded tapes distributed over six speakers in the hall. Sound is triggered and manipulated by dancer movement using photocells, and the performance involved light shows as well as televisions. Decibel perform this piece with a group of four dancers and adapted electronics built by the ensemble, including proximity antennas and light sensitive devices, with attention given to the detail of the original performance. A video of a rehearsal can be seen here. A video of the Perth concert is here.
Variations VI (1966) is an electro-centric work for as many sound sources and speakers as are chosen to be available, and returns to the transparency method of scoring that Cage left aside in Variations V. Decibel perform this on bass and electric guitar.
The original performance included an enourous collection of electronic circuitry, radios, tape and a television screens so here the Decibel approach is quite different and choices are made around the curation of the Variations as an entire series.
Variations VII (1967) returns to a text score that suggests an electro acoustic system in which performers are allowed to act in a free and unscripted manner, but using only sounds that are created during the performance in realtime. The movements of the performers trigger sounds, and Skype is used to dial numbers as Cage did with telephones in the original versions. More relevant than ever, Geiger counters are also featured, as they were in the original. In Brisbane, Decibel will be collaborating with Joel Stern on this Variations. A video of the Perth performance can be seen here.
Variations VIII (1968) The published score consists of 1 page of almost illegible handwriting and starts with the words “no music no recordings”.
You can find some images from the digital score generators here.
If you would like a preview copy of the upcoming release of Decibel’s Complete Variations for concert consideration, please contact us.
There is a great version of Variations V performed by Cage, Cunningham and company a year after it was written here.
A recording of Variations IV performed by Cage and Tudor can be streamed here .
See a short film trailer for the original performance of Variations VII here. A more recent performance can be seen here. More information here.
To read a more detailed summary of Decibel’s approach to these works, and find other resources, there are some papers here.