4 reels for Fair Isle (after John Cage)

In 1977 John Cage delivered 49 Waltzes for the Five Boroughs to his publishers as his contribution to mark a Waltz Project, later published as Waltzes by 25 Contemporary Composers. Cage’s score was a listing of 147 New York City street locations arranged in 49 groups of three. Locations were selected and aggregated using chance operations. However it was not the case that he had abandoned all control to the play of chance “No longer called upon to decide upon answers, he was to decide upon questions instead, no less difficult a task …” (Millar, 2010: p17).

The score was accompanied by an artwork consisting of a map of the five boroughs of New York with 49 lines each joining three locations (3/4 time being the time signature of a waltz); this was subsequently published in Rolling Stone magazine to mark the occasion of its relocation from San Francisco to New York (Cage, 1977; Gillespie, 2008). One year later Cage published a similar work titled A Dip in the Lake: Ten Quicksteps, 61 Waltzes, and 56 marches from Chicago and vicinity with the suffix ‘for performer(s) or listener(s) or record maker(s)’. The instructions include “Transcriptions may be made for other cities, or places, by assembling through chance operations a list of four hundred and twenty seven addresses and then, also be chance operations, arranging these in two groups of two (quicksteps), sixty-one groups of three (waltzes) and fifty six groups of four (marches)” (Cage, 1978a). This composition was also accompanied by an artwork again consisting of a map with locations joined by coloured lines (Cage, 1978b). In general, despite their aesthetic qualities, Cage didn’t regard his scores as artworks (Millar, 2010: p16). Apart from a couple of collaborations (in 1969 and 1972) Cage’s production of visual artworks in his own right stemmed from his experiences of printmaking at Crown Point Press in 1978 (2010) and incorporating watercolour in 1988. So it is likely that the two artworks accompanying the two city pieces were probably viewed as versions of the score.

Cage does not appear to have performed either of these works. In 1994/5 49 Waltzes was realised as a video work by Don Gillespie and Roberta Friedman (Gillespie and Friedman, 2008). Roberta Friedman with Daniel Loewenthal subsequently went on to apply the approach to a number of other cities (Beijing, Cairo, Graj) to produce Cosmopolis 49 Waltzes for the World (Friedman and Loewenthal). 49 Waltzes is also the subject of an interactive website, launched to celebrate 100 years since Cage’s birth, which allows visitors to the website to upload their own recordings of ‘waltzes’ from Cage’s specified locations (Gibson and Scott, 2012). A Dip in the Lake was first performed by Peter Gena in 1982 (Gena, 1982) and has also been realized or re-imagined by a number of other artists for a number of other locations, more so than with 49 Waltzes. Works have been based in Toronto (Boski et al., 2007; Blakeney, 2007), Luxembourg (Kaiffer, 2012), Potenza (Biscaglia, 2013), York (Hughes, 2012), Bergen (Olsen, 2013) and Lafayette (Charles, 2013) and re-imaginings have been based on the whole of the USA and the world’s oceans (Schuette).

My interest in these two works is that Cage’s method lends itself to addressing time, distance, movement and place but this is unlikely to be how Cage would have viewed the two scores. Whilst there have been at least three realisations of ‘49 Waltzes’ and seven of A Dip in the Lake there appear to have been only two performances of the scores during Cage’s lifetime. From 49 Waltzes Don Gillespie produced an audio recording of Waltz #9 in March 1979 (Gillespie, 2008); it is not recorded if Cage ever heard or knew of this. However, when Peter Gena realised a version of A Dip in the Lake he corresponded with Cage about how to assemble the audio recordings he had made and Cage suggested using a method that he had used previously for a piece with Alvin Lucier entitled Rozart Mix (Cage, 1965). The method was to take the tape recordings and to produced spliced loops of varying randomly determined constituent lengths which were then played back from at least 12 tape machines spaced so that the audience moved between them (Gena, 1982). Having composed the score Cage seems to have been happy for the performance to be the presentation of the sounds and to have little or nothing of the nature of the inter-relationship of the recording sites, a view backed up by his answer to the question “I have noticed that you write durations that are beyond the possibility of performance. Answer: Composing’s one thing, performing’s another, listening’s a third. What can they have to do with one another?” (Cage, 2009: p 15). So it seems reasonable to assume that Cage viewed both 49 Waltzes and A Dip in the Lake as scores for the “organisation of sound” (Cage, 2009: p3), the sounds of the everyday whether they were traditionally regarded as of interest or not.

But the works can be interpreted through a lens of place, time, distance and movement. A sense of place is present in the overall location within which Cage locates the work – the five boroughs of New York – but also at each site; in Gillespie’s recreation the viewer is presented with the ordinary and the unusual, the scenic and the banal. The sites have some sense of commonality – for example, many of the Manhattan sites look visual similar because of the topography of the buildings.

Time can be seen in the work in multiple ways, both implied and directly apparent. There is the implied musical time signature of the waltz (3/4 time and with each of Cage’s waltzes containing three sites), which denotes time in the sense of a tempo. There is the immediately apparent time within each waltz manifest as the (randomly chosen) duration of recording – matters of seconds and minutes. Finally, there is the elapsed time between the acts of recording at the three sites. Given the way Gillespie & Friedman recorded their work, this is on a timeline of months and seasons with the consecutive steps of a waltz sometimes moving from deep winter snow to summer sunshine.

A sense of distance is explicit, in that all distances within the work are within the five boroughs of New York, and, by these same boundaries, constrained. It is also implicitly, and more subtly, present within the similarities and distinctions of the sites. The sites have some sense of commonality – for example, many of the Manhattan sites look visual similar because of the topography of the buildings – yet each is distinct and would be most unlikely to be contiguous sites. Thus, implicitly, they are separated, at a distance to each other, an impression that is confirmed by their varied addresses in Cage’s score.

Movement is implicit within a waltz and within the sequencing of the recording of sites; the performance of the 49 waltzes involves the criss-crossing of the five boroughs. Movement is explicitly present in the steady, backward and forward sweep of the camera and the regular motion of pedestrians, traffic and occasional trains.

Fair Isle Reels

The Reel is one of the traditional music styles of Scotland. Reel music is notated in simple meter, either as 2/2 or 4/4. All reels have the same structure, consisting largely of quaver (eighth note) movement with an accent on the first and third beats of the bar. Reels usually have two parts (A and B); in most Reels each part is repeated (AABB), but in others it is not (ABAB). Each part (A and B) typically has eight bars, which in turn are divisible into four-bar and two-bar phrases. The group of 32 bars (four times eight) is itself repeated three or four times before a second reel is introduced (Wikipedia, 2016).


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