An EMF Collaboration at SoundaXis '08
June 11, 2008

Joel Chadabe

The SoundaXis '08 festival, a major festival in Toronto, is taking place just these days. The festival includes a portrait of Robin Minaud, performances by Frances-Marie Uitti and Lori Freedman, a reading by Sharon Kanach of works from Giacinto Scelsi's writing, a performance of word poetry by Minard and Jaap Blonk, a piano recital by Jenny Lin with a work by James Tenney, a panel on new music led by James Harley, and a multitude of other events. Among them Cage-Fest.

Cage-Fest, produced by Musicworks Magazine in collaboration with Electronic Music Foundation, is a concert including John Cage's Birdcage and John Cage and Lejaren Hiller's HPSCHD. I'll be there, along with other Cage collaborators David Eisenman and Donald J. Gillies, performers Eve Egoyan, Bob Doidge, Gayle Young, William Blakeney, and many others. Fluxus posters and artwork associated with the debut performance of HPSCHD will be on exhibit. The public is invited to come and go at will during the performances.

John Cage composed Birdcage in 1972. I helped as his technical assistant. After three days with me and others in the electronic music studio at State University of New York at Albany, Cage emerged with random samplings of birds in aviaries, Cage himself singing his composition Mureau (Music + Thoreau), and wild-track sounds recorded around and about Cage wherever he went, all of it stored on 12 reel-to-reel tapes. Performing Birdcage, Cage turned and pushed the knobs of an 8-channel matrix mixer that he had commissioned for the occasion, thereby directing the sounds from eight tape decks in any mix to any of the speakers around the room. On a few occasions, I turned and pushed the knobs.

Cage and Lejaren Hiller composed HPSCHD in 1968. The start was Antoinette Vischer commissioning a piece for solo harpsichord from John Cage. The end was the wildest, biggest, most chaotic composition of the 20th century, the ultimate discotheque of exuberance in unsynchronized simultaneities of sound and image. HPSCHD was first performed at the University of Illinois in Urbana with seven amplified harspichords playing computer-generated variations of Mozart and other composers, 51 computer-generated tapes, and thousands of slide and film images. Hiller's sounds are like trumpets blaring out a musical charge. The visual environment, consisting of abstract shapes and space imagery, fills the space with joyful exuberance. I've produced several performances of HPSCHD through the years.

Into the 1990s, as reel-to-reel tape decks, slide projectors, and film projectors became harder to find in large numbers, I asked myself, "How can we redo these compositions for the 21st century?" The answer was straighforward. We digitized the sounds and images and programmed the randomness. The results are stunning. Bright sounds and vivid, interesting imagery.

My advice is to come to this concert. It is so unusual to find both Birdcage and HPSCHD in the same concert that it is likely that they will never come together again. And you may never have another chance to see as well as hear HPSCHD. Will it change your life? I think so.

For more info on Musicworks, go here.

For more info on Electronic Music Foundation, go here.

To read Johanne Rivest's article on HPSCHD at The EMF Institute site, go here.

For more info on this performance and the SoundaXis '08 festival, go here.

Photo credit: Courtesy CF Peters Corp. Photo by Susan Schwartzenberg.