In art and in life, the road to being who you want to be isn’t always a direct path. For John Cage, it wasn’t always a profitable one either.
The acclaimed, Austin-based percussion ensemble Line Upon Line returns to its roots this week with a program celebrating the multifaceted legacy of John Cage.
“The City Wears a Slouch Hat” is the second show in the ensemble’s 2018-2019 season, featuring the talents of Austin’s Rude Mechs theatre collective, as well as special guest performers Thad Anderson, Thomas Burritt, and John Lane.
The program features three percussion pieces by Cage, written at three very different points in his career.
Long before the avant-garde composer made his mark with four and a half minutes of silence or a prepared piano, Cage was changing game simply by playing in a percussion ensemble, a rarity in the early 20th century.
“You couldn’t even get an undergraduate degree in percussion until the early 50’s,” says Line Upon Line executive and artistic director Matt Teodori. “There were no percussionists trained to play this sort of stuff back then, so [Cage] was asking composer friends to be a part of the group, other instrumentalists — it was a real hodge-podge ensemble. They were doing this totally revolutionary thing.”
Although Cage experimented with many different types of ensembles throughout his career, he was a percussionist first and foremost his entire life. Teodori posits that Cage’s percussionist perspective served as a “gateway” for his later avant-garde proclivities.
“[Percussion] gives you the ability to combine different timbres together in an endless variety,” says Teodori. “I think these were things that Cage obviously gravitated to early on and then continued into the 50’s 60’s. It was sort of a seed for him in terms of possibility and sheer diversity of sound.”
Topping Line Upon Line’s program,“First Construction” (1938), shows how Cage began to challenge compositional structure by experimenting with duration and proportions. The second piece, “But What About the Noise…” (1985), shows where those experimentations ultimately led.
But the third and titular program of the piece, “The City Wears a Slouch Hat,” bears a particular significance. In composing “Slouch Hat,” Cage’s percussive and compositional talents took him down a more conventional path: radio drama sound effects.
In the late 30’s, Cage was fascinated with Columbia Workshop radio plays, such as “The War of The Worlds.” He recognized that the radio industry was filled with narrative and technological possibilities, making it the ideal environment to explore his musical creativity.
After successfully pitching the idea of a radio show with artisanal sound effects to CBS in late 1941, Cage planned to propel himself into the radio, and even movie business by composing groundbreaking new soundtracks.
This play became “The City Wears A Slouch Hat,” its script by the writer/poet Kenneth Patchen. The story follows an spectral character known only as “The Voice” as it journeys across an anonymous city, meeting characters throughout cryptic vignettes.
In preparing his score for the radio play, Cage discussed the aural possibilities available to him with a CBS sound engineer who, perhaps not knowing the extent of Cage’s creativity, simply told the composer that there was “no limit to what you could do.”
Cage then spent hours walking through downtown Chicago, closing his eyes and listening to the city in order to dream up new sounds for the play. The result was a 250-page score that was made up of both real and imaginary instruments.
But when Cage finally delivered the score to the engineers at CBS, just days before “Slouch Hat’s” premiere, he was told that producing the the score would be incredibly expensive and wasn’t technologically feasible.
Cage had no choice but to write an entirely new score, and spent the next four days composing tirelessly. Consequently, the majority of the revised soundtrack features more practical instruments than Cage’s imagined ones, such as tin cans, cowbells, and washboards.
But despite all the setbacks, Cage’s accompaniment turned out to be every bit as fascinatingly ominous as the play’s script, featuring tom-toms that hypnotically pulse as a mugging occurs and foghorns that softly whistle under arcane conversations — think musical mickey-mousing, but with more of a David Lynch flavor.
Unsurprisingly, “Slouch Hat” wasn’t exactly a hit with general audiences.
It’s a long story, but between mistaking hate mail for fan mail, losing the majority of his percussion instruments, and spending all his money moving to a new city, “The City Wears a Slouch Hat” inadvertently destroyed Cage’s prospects of getting into the radio-music business and actually left him homeless, broke, and creatively destitute in New York City.
While the second draft of “Slouch Hat” was thankfully rediscovered in the early 1990s (in the basement of the New York Public library, of all places), the original 250-page manuscript has been lost to time.
The revised version of “The City Wears a Slouch Hat” will be performed by Line Upon Line with Patchen’s script being table-read live by Rude Mechs, and directed by Alexandra Bassiakou Shaw. The performance will feature no props or sets, relying solely on environmental sound produced by the ensemble and cast.
It’s a collaboration that Line Upon Line has been eager to engage in.
“We’ve been looking for a way to do something with Rude Mechs for, I don’t know, since we started?” recalls Teodori. “We thought this would be the perfect opportunity.”
“The City Wears a Slouch Hat,” with its fragmented narrative and sounds, evokes the later philosophies Cage would engage with — to compose without strict, emotional objectives and let music stand on its own. It’s for this reason that Teodori also thinks it’s a fitting time for line upon line’s programming to return to Cage.
“We’re nine years old now,” he says reflectively “I still feel like we have a fire when we play, but it has become more about getting out of the way and letting what’s happening musically be the preeminent thing about the performance, and Cage is sort of perfect for that.”
Though it definitely wasn’t an immediately profitable venture, Cage’s detour through radio helped him grow into the composer he’d later become, which Teodori believes makes him an even more iconic figure. “The composers that we really revere are the ones that matured and then moved on to another part of their writing,” he says.
“And maybe they have two, three, or four different periods that can take 10 or 20 years — but they didn’t stop where they started, and I think Cage is undeniably one of those composers. That’s what excites us about him and why [his work] is worth visiting and worth sharing with others.”