Musicircus: Geeks and freaks

Brian Jones’s Musicircus returns and brings musicians together for a celebration of composer John Cage. Forget the sideshow, this is the main event.

Each year in Richmond, a large number of musicians set up in a venue that allows for audience mingling and meandering among the music makers. What they play is left entirely up to each performer or ensemble. Not only are the musicians encouraged to improvise, but they are urged to make entirely different music than their neighbors do, even if these neighbors stand only five feet away. The result, as your imagination may have already figured out, tends toward chaos.

This concept is not unique to Richmond nor Brian Jones, the event’s curator each year. It is inspired by John Cage’s Musicircus and adheres to the composer’s guidelines for the piece that was first performed in 1967. Richmond ensembles of varying size — solo, duos, trios, No BS! Brass — simply play music while the audience walks around at their leisure. Last year, the event was held at the now defunct Chop Suey Books and had various groups like Boots of Leather, Gamelan Raga Kusuma, No BS!, David Hood Party, Four Story Sax Quartet, as well as others perform.

The list of performers this year is massive: Dois na Bossa [Kevin Harding & Laura Ann Boyd of Quatro na Bossa], Josh Small [singer-songwriter], Fight the Big Bull, Birds in the Meadow [experimental musician Marty McCavitt], Caustic Castle + Eric Eaton [experimental duo], Roland Karnatz [clarinet+electronics], Andy Jenkins, Pete Mathis [Baroque music on a Fender Rhodes], The Hot Seats [bluegrass band formerly known as Special Ed & The Short Bus], The Burton Brothers [Scott & Taylor], Devonne Harris’s reeverb [beats], The Happy Lucky Combo [klezmer], Bryce:Ghaphery:Drums:Fife [drum and flutes], Labragenda [jazz], Ting Ting Jahe [experimental duo], Gamelan Raga Kusuma [gamelan ensemble], UseTheVastness, Trey Pollard + Jimmy Masters, and The Fan District Caroling Association [Christmas carols]. The Visual Arts Center is the new venue, and a cash bar will be on hand for the first time.

In 1973, Cage — the experimental composer known for exploring noise, silence, and the fine line between the two — wrote about Musicircus:

I have not made detailed directions for Musicircus. You simply bring together under one roof as much music (as many musical groups and soloists) as practical under the circumstances. It should last longer than ordinary concerts, starting at 7 or 8 in the evening, and continuing, say, to midnight. Arrange performers on platforms or within roped-off areas. There must be plenty of space for the audience to walk around. If you have more groups than places, make a schedule: Group 1 in Place A from 7-9:30; Group 23 in Place A from 9:45-midnight. Etc. There should be food on sale and drinks (as at a circus). Dancers and acrobats.

Sounds fairly straight-forward. In fact, for being so experimental (he preferred this term to “avant-garde,” which he felt was exclusive while “experimental” was inclusive), much of Cage’s work is conceptually not too difficult to grasp, although experiencing a piece may challenge the listener to evaluate what they think they’re hearing. His piano cycle Music of Changes, from 1951, is inspired by the Chinese practice of random operations called I Ching. In the piece, rolling dice determines everything: the sound, its duration, tempo, volume, and so on. In his 1952 composition Water Music, the performer plays the prepared piano (in which objects like bolts, screws, and pieces of rubber are inserted into the piano’s strings in a pre-determined fashion) as well as shuffles cards, pours water, blows whistles, and changes radio stations. Imaginary Landscape No. 4 (1951), involves twelve radios and 24 performers (one for each dial and volume knob) who follow patterns on a score.

One of the pieces that Cage is best known for is 4’33”, in which a performer sits at a piano in silence for that length of time, only opening and closing the piano lid to mark the beginning and end of the piece’s three movements. Author Alex Ross writes in his book The Rest is Noise, “The music was the sound of the surrounding space. It was at once a head-spinning philosophical statement and Zen-like ritual of contemplation. It was a piece that anyone could have written, as skeptics never failed to point out, but, as Cage seldom failed to respond, no one else did.” Its performance shows that silence does not actually exist; there are only sounds that are intended and those that are not.

Around this time in 1952, Cage also premiered Black Mountain Piece at Black Mountain College, just outside of Asheville, NC. It is the predecessor to Musicircus as a “happening,” during which the line between artist and audience was blurred. Ross describes the mayhem, “Cage lectured on Zen Buddhism, perhaps standing on a ladder. Robert Rauschenberg exhibited artworks and/or played Edith Piaf records at double speed. Merce Cunningham danced. David Tudor played prepared piano. Movies of some kind were shown, boys or girls served coffee, a dog may or may not have barked.”

Cage’s style became that of indeterminacy, or chance, leaving much of the music up to the environment, audience, or the performers’ choices based on devices like the I Ching. For years, he was against improvisation, since he believed the performer would fall back on his or her likes or dislikes. Instead, his pieces had performers responsibly make compositional decisions based on the score’s requirements.

His influence is immeasurable but obvious in certain composers’ works, like Hungarian György Ligeti’s The Future of Music, in which a performer stands in front of an audience and writes words on a blackboard, egging on audible reactions from the audience.

And Jones, who has been hosting Musicircuses for a couple years now and celebrated Cage’s birthday with extravaganzas even before that, falls under the scope of influence of Cage, but not so much by means of specific musical devices. He says he’s inspired more by Cage’s “maverick American spirit” and provocative nature. While this influence permeates through much of what Jones creates, it’s never more clear than in his version of Musicircus.

View event details

-Feisst, Sabine. Losing Control: Indeterminacy and Improvisation in Music Since 1950. NewMusicBox, 2002. Web. 13 October 2009.
-Patterson, David. Musicircus. Chicago Composers Forum, 2007. Web. 12 October 2009.
-Ross, Alex. The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century. New York: Picador, 2007.
-Schwartz, Elliot, and Daniel Godfrey. Music Since 1945. Belmont CA: Wadsworth, 1993.

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Dean Christesen

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