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                                                         a light- and soundscape  as musical manifesto                 
                  nederlandse versie


In 1987, Heinz-Klaus Metzger and Reiner Riehm invited John Cage to write an opera that was intended to be an "irreversible negation of the opera as such". In 1987, Europera 1 & 2 premiered in the Frankfurter Opera. The following year Yvar Mikhashoff  contacted John Cage in view of a version for the Almeida Festival in London, where Europera 4 & 5 premiered in 1990. In 1991, the cycle was completed with Europera 5, executed in the same year during the North American New Music Festival in Buffalo. Five operas, amounting to 4 hours and 55 minutes - a lot longer than the meanwhile all too famous 4' 33" from 1952. Forty years after this first bomb under music, in 1992, between the second and the third of five performances in the garden of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, John Cage died. What was meant to be the swansong of opera, became the swansong of John Cage - and not only in the literal sense, as will become apparent below.

Let us examine in how far we are dealing here with an '"irreversible Negation der Oper an sich'.


The musical material of the Europeras consists of fragments of operas from the eighteenth and nineteenth century. No music made by the composer, but 'found' music: 'ready made music', or 'musique trouvée'.

In Europera 1 & 2, this material is brought by 19 singers performing the song parts from opera fragments, 28 instrumentalists playing isolated parts form the orchestral accompaniment, and by the 'Truckera', a tape with 101 aria's superimposed. In Europera 3, the instrumentalists are replaced with two pianists playing opera transcriptions, among them Franz Listz's Opern-Phantasien. The number of singers is reduced to six, but that loss is compensated through the introduction of six operators playing old records on twelve Victrolas with a horn. In Europera 4, there is a further reduction: only one pianist is playing the transcriptions, only two singers perform their favourite arias and only one Victrola plays old recordings. The reduction to 'chamber opera' comes to a halt in Europera 5. Three of the six transcriptions are played in 'shadow play': the pianist barely touches the keys, so that only now and then some notes are to be heard. New is the introduction of a radio that has to play jazz music from a local radio station. The gradual reduction of the number of players is inspired by the need to make a ‘portable and tourable version' of the two preceding diptychs. But, as we shall demonstrate below, other factors may have played a more crucial role.

In the course of this development John Cage gradually comes to arrange this 'musique trouvée' on a scale of finally four temporal dimensions: the performance of the singers and pianist(s) in real time, the performance of singers on historical recordings, the time of the transcriptions - Franz Liszt called them 'reminiscences'- and, finally, the time of the composition of the operas themselves. This temporal scale finds its counterpart in a spatial scale. It seems as if the music comes to us from ever further distances: nearest to us are the singers and the pianist(s) on the scene, the deformed sound of the 78 rpm records seems to reach us through a filter, still further resounds the subdued singing of the singers off-stage, and through the 'shadow play' the transcriptions become practically inaudible altogether. When we extrapolate these scales, the original operas are reduced to plain silence: even no shadows, sheer inaudible entities.


The original concept of Europera 1 & 2 in Frankfurt comprised wrestlers, acrobats and zeppelins. In the final version, John Cage restricted himself to dancers, singers and instrumentalists. The costumes and the decors are borrowed from old encyclopaedias - again: 'objets trouvés'. There are all kinds of props and a kind of scenario for the movements on the scene. The staging of Europera 3 & 4 is far more modest. The dancers have disappeared; the number of singers and instrumentalists is reduced, and their place is taken by the pianos and twelve Victrolas. In Europera 5, a radio and a television are introduced, and also light effects produced by 75 lamps lighted according to the prescriptions of a computer program.

As usual in an opera, dancers and singers are integrated in the scenery. Unusual is that also the instrumentalists are integrated. And even more unusual is that the aural appearance of the singers is divorced from their visual appearance. John Cage stresses that the singers are only allowed to make the gestures necessary for good singing, and that their appearance should have nothing to do with their role. The character they are supposed to embody disappears behind the visual appearance of the singer himself. And that is altogether the case when the pianist has to play in shadow play: where we were supposed to hear music, we eventually get to see a pantomime. A similar fate befalls the singers, who are supposed to remain on the scene after their singing and, in Europera 5, have to wear the mask of an animal - what makes singing impossible altogether. Like pawns on a chessboard, all these visual props are moved over the numbers of a grid plotted on the scene.

Also this space on the scene is organised on a scale. In the middle of the scene, the singers, the pianist(s) and the Victrola(') are displayed on changing positions on the grid. Around the scene are posted several loudspeakers for the Truckera. Over this concentric structure of visual elements in real space, the structure of aural elements described above is superimposed. With the understanding that only the sound of the singers and the pianist(s) is to be heard at the place where it is produced in real space: either in the centre of the scene, in the periphery or behind the coulisses. Also the sound of the Victrola(s) is situated in the centre, in as far as we consider it as mere sound and not as music. But that goes not for the song of the singers: that is situated in the imaginary space where the historical singers found themselves during the recording. The same goes for the jazz music from the radio. The sound of the Truckera, on the other hand, is produced by the loudspeakers in the periphery. But it has to grow to a peak volume and thereby to move from one side of the scene to the other. We get the impression that the sounds pops up from far outside the periphery marked by the loudspeakers, to move to the centre and then to fade off to the opposite side. Through the introduction of aural objects, the theatrical space is thus extended with new, more remote layers. Although this applies only when we do not submerge in the music that is produced. For, in that case, musical space emerges and real space dwindles into nothingness.


Although there is no dramatic development whatsoever in the Europeras, John Cage nevertheless prepared twelve librettos for Europera 1 & 2. He combined fragments of existing libretti according to chance operations into a new whole and distributed them randomly to the public. One of the libretti reads: ‘Dressed as an Irish princess, he gives birth; they plot to overthrow the French. He arranges to be kidnapped by her; rejuvenated, they desert: to him she had borne two children. He prays for help. Since they have decided she shall marry no-one outside, he has himself crowned emperor. She, told he is dead, begs him to look at her. First, before the young couple come to a climax, he agrees. Accidentally she drowns them’.

To John Cage, and in the tradition of Antonin Artaud, the text - or the plot - is no longer a structuring element, but a material more, on the same footing as music, acting and scenery.


'Tu lis les prospectus les catalogues les affiches qui chantent tout haut?
 voilà la poésie ce matin… '

In sharp contrast with classical opera, where the integration of the arts was a principal concern, John Cage has music, text and scenery evolve independently. From his cooperation with Merce Cunningham onward he declared: ‘Music and dance are independent but coexistent’.

The principle of 'independent but coexistent' parameters stems from serial music, where the musical material was divided in its separate parameters and then structured according to appropriate procedures. The idea is extended to the visual dimension in what John Cage himself describes as the first happening in 1952 in the Black Mountain College: 'Disparate activities, dancing by Merce Cunningham, the exhibition of paintings and the playing of a Victrola by Robert Rauschenberg, the reading of his poetry by Charles Olsen or hers by M. C. Richards from the top of a ladder outside the audience, the piano playing of David Tudor, my own reading of a lecture that included silences from the top of another ladder outside the audience, all took place within chance-determined periods of time within the over-all time of my lecture'*. John Cage himself refers to the concept of the circus: 'In Sevilla on a street corner I noticed the multiplicity of simultaneous visual and audible events all going together in one's experience and producing enjoyment. It was the beginning for me of theatre and circus.‘*

Although also in the Europeras the separate parameters are independent and coexistent like the performances in a circus, they all are slaves to the same master: not the row, like in serial music, but chance. A computer program simulating the I Ching determines when the singers, the instrumentalists or the pianist(s) have to play. In Europera 1 & 2 it also determines which fragment out of seventy selected operas the instrumentalists have to play. A mitigated form of change is the freedom with which the pianist(s) and the singer are allowed to choose what they will play or sing.

Also the staging obeys to the same rules of chance. For Europera 1 & 2, the decors and the costumes were selected from old encyclopaedias. The props and the actions were plucked at random from Webster's Unabridged Dictionary. Also the 'light events', the movement of the actors and the props over the numbers of the grid are determined by a chance operations generator. Just like the choice of the arias, also the choice of the costumes is relegated to the discretion of the wearers.

And we already described above how John Cage composed his libretto.

The reliance on chance operations is a reaction against the over organisation of serial music, but, as such, it is already an old practice dating back to Dadaism and Surrealism. We remind of the story according to which the very name of 'dada' would have originated by opening a dictionary at random, of the chance collages of Hans Arp, of the poems Tristan Tzara obtained by cutting words from a newspaper and pasting them together at random, on techniques like 'Le Cadavre exquis', and what have you. But, whereas the Surrealists used the random combination of disparate elements as a way of generating unsuspected resonances between apparently non-related objects, with John Cage it serves the opposite aim: to maintain the independence of the elements combined. And such autonomy goes inexorably lost when the elements are subordinated under an encompassing intention, be it intentionally or unconsciously, 'realistic' or 'surrealistic'.


'Independent but coexistent' hence: a radical negation of the organic integration of the arts in an encompassing 'Gesamtkunstwerk'. But, precisely therefore, opera is not quite suited for a division in its constituting parts. Only the historical recordings on the Victrola and the transcriptions maintain something of the integrated whole from which they have been separated: they are only isolated from what precedes and what follows. It is worse with the fragments that the singers have to sing: from the integrated whole of acting, singing and staging a single song part is isolated. With obvious consequences. To begin with, a singer has to be endowed with super human capacities to sing on pitch when singing without orchestral accompaniment. On top of that, he has to do the job while other singers are singing another aria in another key end/or while a piano is playing the transcription of another opera fragment, equally in another key. Worse still is that there are few arias that survive a reduction to the song part, for the obvious reason that the orchestra often plays a constitutive role in the realisation of the whole: imagine Isoldes Liebestod sung without orchestra.... And the crux is that such arias reduced to song parts have to be sung by singers whose gestures, attitude and overall appearance are not allowed to mach the role that they are singing. The same fate befalls the accompaniment from which separate parts are isolated in Europera 1 & 2.

Whereas chance has its natural biotope in the world of sounds and isolated tones, it can only wreak havoc in the world of complex and coherent wholes. It suffices to compare John Cages 'Music of Changes' with Europera 1 & 2. The harmonious overall sound structure of the former has been replaced with a rather cacophonic mix of singers singing out of pitch who, amputated from their own bodies, try to sing mutilated arias. Whereas sounds or isolated tones only gain when subordinated under the primacy of chance, an integrated whole only loses when it is subdivided in 'independent but coexistent' parts. Here, there is no longer question of freeing audible material from its subjugation under an encompassing whole, but rather of ripping an integrated whole apart in loose fragments. With visible pleasure...


'I make music, not cages'

John Cage

And that pleasure reminds us that, in the mind of Heinz-Klaus Metzger and Reiner Riehn, the Europeras were intended to be an ' "irreversible Negation der Oper an sich", a late echo on Pierre Boulez's saying that the most elegant solution for the problem of opera would be to blow up the opera houses.

From the beginning of his career, John Cage distinguished himself by contesting authorities through laughing them away. Thus, he proposed his twenty-five tone row as an alternative to Schönbergs twelve-tone row. As no other, he understood the art of formulating his protest in eloquent non-verbal statements: his 'prepared piano's' are the visible and audible manifesto with which the shift from tone to timbre and rhythm as structural parameters is sealed. When, through questioning the hegemony of pitch in Schönberg, he came to stand in competition with figures like Pierre Boulez, he laughed them away by submitting the new parameters to the odds of the dice rather than to the hegemony of the generalised row. Until in1952, with 4' 33'' - where the pianist gets seated before the piano without playing, thus letting the existing sounds emerge - not only the oppressed parameters are freed from the hegemony of pitch, but also the sounds from the tyranny of music. And, in that same year, he also has the dancers, paintings, poems, films and himself, reduced to 'objets trouvés', coexist as totally independent elements in an unplanned and unstructured happening. Not only his teachers and contemporaries are contested, but also classical masters like Beethoven: 'I placed a lecture that opposed Satie and Beethoven and found that Satie, not Beethoven, was right.'* And his revolt extends to authorities outside the realm of music: to authorities like Sigmund Freud he opposed the anti-authority of Zen masters.*

Reasons enough to expect that John Cage, with his Europeras, intended to place a bomb under opera as such, as announced by Pierre Boulez. Especially since he more than often spoke low of the opera, above all of the tremolo of the singers. To him, opera, even more the the conservatory, was a typical European institution. Also the name 'Truckera' as an analogy to 'Opera' speaks volumes. The more so since its sound - 'that has the quality of a large heavy truck passing around, outside of or under the space' - has to move repeatedly from one side of the scene to the other. In Europera 5, the Truckera is assisted by a radio that has to spawn jazz music while the singers ands the pianist(s) are trying to sing and play. Both jammers can be considered as two more variations on the theme of 4' 33". In this aural manifesto the pianist is silenced, so that the ordinary sounds of the environment become audible. In the Europeras, the ordinary sounds are so boosted to Truckera or 'Jazzera' as to silence the music - the opera - that apparently is not prepared to be die out on Cage's command.

But it is foremost more essential characteristics of the Europeras that place a bomb under the opera. As already described, the integration of the arts is replaced with 'independent but coexistent' elements. And such ripping apart of the opera can be understood as yet another variation on 4' 33" - although the music is here rather disfigured than silenced. And that sheds a new light on the organisation of the material in the temporal and spatial scales analysed above: the silencing of music in 4' 33" is here replaced with a silencing of the opera, smeared out over the four steps of the scales in the temporal and spatial dimension.

John Cage not only places a bomb under the opera, but also under the world that is embodied by it. Thus, the 'independent but coexistent' parts are not only a negation of the integration of the arts in one encompassing Gesamtkunstwerk, but also a prelude to the completed anarchistic society. That is why the director as a Fuehrer is replaced with a clock. The same goes for the chance procedures: they not only symbolise the revolt against the tyranny of Schönbergs twelf-tone system, but above all the 'subordinating of the individual to the group' (Correspondance). John Cage revolts not only against Schönberg-Boulez and Wagner's Gesamtkunstwerk van Wagner, but above all against the 'authoritarian society' of which they are but the manifestations.


'In creating artistic models of diffusion and freedom, Cage is a libertarian anarchist'.
Richard Kostelanetz

But John Cage does not throw real bombs. He restricts himself to making statements on the opera, in a non-verbal language that relies on music or opera as a signifier. In essence, he thus does nothing else than the one who, instead of burning the flag of a country, would have its national hymn played with ever more false notes, or have a recording of it filtered away or slowed down.

No doubt that, in both cases, we get to hear music - fragments of operas or national hymns. But the messenger is only interested in the message, not in the music. To the messenger it does not matter whether the puppet that is burned is a work of art or not, as long as it is clear who is burned. If necessary, a bundle of hay will suffice. As a matter of fact, the nature of the medium is completely indifferent: also the burning of a photo of the hated person, or of his house or his name would do. That goes also for the music as a medium of a manifesto. And that has its bearings. For, the logic of a discourse is at total variance with the logic of music. Whoever would like to play off two nations against one anaother, could play off two national hymns against one another. But not all national hymns are equally suited for that purpose. That goes especially for the chance procedures to which John Cage wants to subordinate his musical material. Separate tones or noises lend themselves far better for that purpose than fragments of operas. Above, we described the consequences for the musical material in the Europeras. Below, we will show how the material revolts against its subordination under the hegemony of chance and thus inadvertently comes to determine the discourse - which lends a special flavour and charm to Europera 5 that few of John Cage's manifestos can parallel.....

However that my be, in so far as the Europeras are manifestos, they are not music - no operas - but a discourse on opera with signifiers borrowed from the opera. And that discourse consists of the above mentioned variations on that one single basic statement made in 4' 33". Translated in another medium - that of verbal language - that message would sound not much otherwise than John Cage's answer to the journalist of L'Humanité who asked him whether he went to the opera: ''No, I listen to the traffic. I live in the Sixth Avenue area in New York, and there is lots of noise there. That is my music'. Another version of the story of his enlightenment in Sevilla.

Not only does a discourse obey a logic different from the medium, it has also to be judged according to totally different standards. The only adequate standard to judge statements is truth. And as far as truth is concerned, John Cage's statements score rather poorly. Thus, 4' 33" completely overlooks the fact that music not only is no discourse, but foremost that it does conjure up an (as a rule inaudible) world, whereas the noise of the traffic on Sixth Avenue is nothing more than what it is: annoying or interesting noise emanating from a real object in the real world (see: 'Three kinds of soundscapes, one music"). And it is rather questionable whether the tyranny of chance is so much more wholesome than the tyranny of the twelve-tone row, which is itself merely a negation of the way in which tones organise themselves naturally around a tonic. And it is equally questionable whether the anonymous dictatorship of the chronometer, that never fails to regulate the proceedings in a performance of John Cage's music, is to be preferred above the coordination of the instrumentalists through a director. And that chronometer cannot fail to remind us of the fact that the Europeras are not so playful as the idea of a circus might suggest...

We can ask ourselves still other questions. The revolt against the dodecaphonic and serial dictatorship surely made some sense in the fifties: in the climate of the Cold War, the allergy against the director of an orchestra was all too understandable. But it seems that in the end of the eighties, other themes are at stake, in music as well as in politics - it is the years of the triumph of neo-liberalism and the fall of the Iron Curtain. Apparently, John Cage continues to send a message to a world that would be better off with somewhat different messages. Could it be that the institutions have 'caged' John Cage in the role with which he became famous? Does he not write himself: 'I am more happy without music. The only reason why I continue is that people insist.'
Both the content of John Cage's statements and the repetition of ever new variations on one and the same message, have something of an obsession. The short and strong pamphlet that 4’ 33” certainly has been, is spinned out over ever new works. To the effect that, in the long run, you find yourself listening to a discourse the content of which is already known even before the first note has resounded. And that is only interesting for those who, like believers in a church, cannot resign from hearing the same gospel over and again.


"Die Negation des musikalischen Objekts als eines mit sich selber Identischen
ist als historische Aufgabe John Cage zugefallen"
Heinz-Klaus Metzger, Musik wozu, Literatur zu Noten, p. 223.

It is apparent then that Heinz-Klaus Metzger's quotation above misses the mark. He confuses the medium with the message and overlooks that John Cage does not at all free the sound, but rather subordinates it under a discourse on music. And that is not the only metamorphosis that music undergoes under the hands of John Cage.

For, let us examine again the material on which John Cage imposes his chance operations. Schönberg's twelve-tone row determines the sequence in which the tones have to appear. The series determines the evolution of the other parameters: time, loudness and timbre. John Cage's chance operations, on the other hand, are gradually imposed on totally different materials. In 4' 33" he introduces natural sounds and, from the already mentioned happening onwards, also elements that have nothing whatsoever to do with sound, let alone music: the movements of dances, film, painting, poems, and what have you. The Europeras only set forth this tradition.
The generalisation of the principle of composition also changes the nature of composition itself. Both an octave and the colour spectrum can be divided in twelve, but the colours thus obtained do not therefore relate like tones: there is no such thing as a colour that would be the dominant of another that would be its tonic. The mathematical relation that expresses such a relation looses every musical concreteness when it is generalised to the domain of colours. And that goes also for John Cage's chance operations. In music, they were meant to negate the serial organisation of tones that in its turn negates the tonal organisation. But, since there has never been such thing as tonality in theatre - or in the dimension of the visual as such - let alone things like dodecaphony or serial organisation, the principle of chance loses its quality as a musical principle of composition.

To be sure, John Cage is still 'composing', but no longer in a musical, as rather in a general sense: like an architect composes pillars or a farmer furrows. The generalisation of the principle of composition not only affects the nature of composition, but that of the material in the first place. Ever since 4' 33", not only are sounds introduced in the composition, music itself is transformed into noise. Things come to their apogee in the Europeras, where the random combination of opera fragments makes every musical approach of the arias impossible. The aria is thereby reduced to the mere sound that comes out of the mouth of a singer or the horn of a Victrola, and the opera transcription to the mere sound that comes out of a piano. And, in the same breath, the pianist(s) and the Victrola(s) are reduced to mere sources of sound that are part of a 'soundscape'. Only now do we truly understand the nature of the space of which we described the structure in the beginning of this text. We are no longer dealing with musical space. Together with the reduction of singers and pianist(s) to mere sources of sound, musical space implodes to real space, wherein some aural objects are situated on the place where they resound, while the distance of other aural objects is merely suggested.

In the Europeras, the soundscape is in its turn combined with a 'lightscape' where singers, the pianist(s) and the operator(s) of the Victrola(s) also appear as visual objects, on the same footing as the Victrola's and the piano(s) as pieces of furniture. For, in the visual dimension, the same transformation occurs as in the aural dimension: since the singers are no longer permitted to stage a role, but are only allowed to makes the gestures necessary for singing, they are reduced to their mere visual appearance. And that goes also for the pianist(s) and the
operator(s) of the Victrola: as long as we (can) listen to the music that they make, we do not perceive them because we are submerged in the invisible world of the music. As soon as they are transformed into sound sources, there appear pianists sitting behind their pianos, and Victrola(s) with their operator(s) as purely visual elements on the scene. And that sheds a new light on the introduction of the 'shadow play'. It appears that this is more than the third step in the silencing of music as described above: it also seals the transformation of music in sound source - an visual object, like the radio or the television in the living room. In that sense, the Europeras are a refined synthesis of both statements of John Cage in 1952: the transformation of music into sound - into soundscape - and the transformation of musical composition into the composition of real, visual and aural objects in real space**.


In other words, the generalisation of the chance operations entails as a consequence the transformation of music into a multimedial light- and soundscape, or; to stress the temporal dimension: into a happening. Into a happening, not into theatre. For we are dealing here with real events, and not with a drama that is staged. That, the happening has in common with John Cage's cherished circus. (A similar transformation, this time of painting, is analysed in 'Hermann Nitsch: the artist as a high priest').

In his endeavour to write an opera to end all operas, John Cage merely has given a new impetus to an old genre: the soundscape**. It is only a pity that John Cage has never understood that he has not sealed the end of music - or the opera - as rather of himself as a composer - he continued to pose as a musician: 'I make music, not cages'. Therein he resembles Donald Judd, the designer who continued to understand himself as a sculptor. And that is why it also escaped to John Cage that he was reborn as designer of soundscapes - or to be more precise: of light- and soundscapes, although he from the beginning misunderstood its true nature by transforming it into a medium for making statements on music. The title 'Imaginary Landscape', which he withhold for his piece for twelve radios from 1951 and for his piece for 42 recordings from 1952, testified to some clear conception of his undertaking. That he eventually preferred the more confusing term 'circus' is unintentionally very clarifying: apart from the clowns, who embody some form of rudimentary theatre, there are only performances to be seen in a circus,'happenings', like on a fair. And the term is also very funny, albeit in another sense than meant by John Cage. He certainly wanted to ridicule the 'sérieu' of Richard Wagner, Arnold Schönberg and above all of Pierre Boulez - and, in the fifties, that was something of a relief! But by taking his own laughing seriously - by letting it pass as music - he transformed the concert hall or the opera house into a circus and himself into a rather tragic clown.

No 'irreversible Negation der Opera' hence, not even a phase in the history of opera, because simply a stride outside the domain of music. With 4' 33", John Cage has inscribed himself in another history: that of the soundscape**. But, since he could not refrain from using the new genre as a medium for manifestos, it was not him to whom the honour of inaugurating a renaissance of the soundscape fell. That role was reserved for figures like Bill Fontana, even when he lets his soundscapes pass for 'musical sculptures'. Also for such misunderstanding, Johan Cage paved the way....


Above, we announced the revolt of the musical material against its reduction to a mere signifier in a discourse and against the concomitant subordination under chance operations. With every newer version of the first Europeras, it appears that John Cage begins to show more and more compassion for the very medium that he intended to blow up.

To begin with, there is the gradual reduction of the number of parts. From the 19 singers and the 28 instrumentalists in Europera 1 & 2, there remain only two singers, one pianist and one Victrola in Europera 5. That is not only a consequence of the need to make a 'tourable and portable' version of Europera 1 & 2, but in the first place of the logic of the material itself. As opposed to tones or sounds, arias cannot be combined at will. That is perhaps why John Cage gradually mitigated his destructive urge and more and more came to respect the nature of the material he was handling. That is not only apparent from the reduction of the number of parts and the corollary reduction of simultaneous performances. From Europera 4 onwards, the isolated instrumental parts are replaced with transcriptions for piano, and the equally isolated song parts with recordings of integral fragments. In both cases, something of the original organic unity of the material is restored. On top of that, from Europera 3 à 4 onwards, the reciprocal disturbance of the pianists is prevented in that the transcriptions are to be separated by a pause, although its duration is still determined by chance. And in Europera 5, it is additionally mentioned that, when chance prescribes that two singers have to sing simultaneously, one of them is relegated behind the coulisses, where he is to be heard 'at a distance', so that the aria that is sung on the scene can be heard more undisturbed. And when chance prescribes that a singer and a pianist have to perform simultaneously, the pianist has to shift to 'shadow play', so that he becomes nearly inaudible. Through all these interventions, the grip of chance on the proceedings is loosened, and the integrity of the material restored: we get to hear more and more arias undisturbed. Since the singers continue to sing their parts without orchestral accompaniment and hence often out of pitch, the mergence of the world of music is somewhat hindered. But where we hear the historic recording from the Victrola or the magnificent transcriptions, the broken magic of music is restored in all its splendour. Nobody can remain unmoved by such beauty. To phrase it with Ryan: 'The 78s provide endearing snapshots of an irretrievable past and conjure up an expressivities that is implicit in their materiality--rather like faded old photographs in an album, they appear as images of both mortality and tenderness'. Thus, the discourse of John Cage is turned into its opposite: the very opera he initially was out to blow up with so much enthusiasm, seems to gradually have taken hold of him, so that he hesitatingly had to take a step down.

But there is more. We have seen that the singers have no longer to play a role, but are only allowed to make the gestures necessary for singing, and that they thereby are transformed into real persons that sing on the same footing as pianists that play piano. But they have to wear a costume anyhow. Even when their movements should not refer to the role they are singing, that transforms them into a kind of multimedial collage, and that may seduce us into reading this as a kind of - albeit surrealistc - personage in an imaginary world. In Europera 5, John Cage himself invites us to such reading in that the singers have to wear the mask of an animal. Also when two or more singers sing different arias are we seduced into reading their 'independent bur coexistent' combination as an - again 'surrealistic' - scene. Unawares, John Cage himself is sinning against his own principles when he is recomposing passages from disparate libretti into an - again 'surrealistic' - libretto.

Also the Victrolas induce the (albeit this time purely aural, not musical) mimesis**. The recording of a singer only renders his voice. That may seduce us into representing his visual appearance. We are then exchanging real time for the time of the recording - just like we imagine ourselves to be seated in an imaginary concert hall of opera when listening to a recording. The seduction is all the more real, since we also can read the combination of singers, pianists and Victrolas as a kind of temporal collage of classical music in general and the world of opera in particular. And that certainly sheds a new light on these worlds. What was meant to be a light- and soundscape, then, threatens to now and then turn into the very combination of aural and visual mimesis, that characterises theatre.


My work became an exploration of non-intention’
John Cage*

John Cage's 'dictature of chance' could not prevent the emergence of various forms of mimesis. Neither can it prevent the emergence of the so scorned 'intentionality'. For, although the 'absurd' combination of elements may seduce us into reading it as a 'surrealistic scene', far more obvious is to consider it as a message and hence to reduce it to a kind of language. Above all commentators succumb to such temptation. Take James Pritchett, who writes, in the introduction to the recording of Europera 5, that 'the application of this approach produces some humorous situations, incongruities and silliness’. Although he immediately tries to save John Cage's principle of intentionless chance through negating that there is produced any sense: to him, the combination of the transcription of Puccini's 'Oh mio babbino caro’ with the recording of Verdi's ‘Caro nome’ from Rigoletto is not meant to be ironic, sarcastic or cynical' - which only betrays that we cannot help from interpreting it that way. But it is foremost directors and performers that will not be able to resist the temptation of choosing their musical material so as to convey some personal vision. Thus, Nigel Lowery, for his performance of the five Europeras in Hanover 200, had the three ladies from Mozart Zäuberflöte sing together with the three Norns from Wagner's 'Götterdämmerung', a combination that cannot possibly have been the result of chance operations...

It is obvious, then, that the logic - and the charm - of the opera forced John Cage to back down somewhat, so that the swan song of this anarchist, that was meant to be the 'irreversible Negation der Oper', eventually turned out to be rather a homage to what is was intended to negate. And the wonderful thing is that foremost Europera 5 owes its undeniable charms precisely to that ambivalent status. Or: how a - this time real: unorganised - unintentionality eventually triumphs....


Needless to say that the title 'Europera' is a pun. We can read it as 'Your opera', but also as 'Europe’s operas'. John Cage himself provided the following comment: "For 200 years the Europeans have sent us their operas. Now I am returning them all to them." As a European, I feel concerned.

But also somewhat deceived. For, however praiseworthy especially Europera 5 might be, as a light- and soundscape it does not merit a place in the pantheon of great operas of the second half of the twentieth century, where Györgi Ligeti's 'Aventures' and Luigi Nono's 'Prometeo' certainly should occupy an honoured place...
© Stefan Beyst, August 2005

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* CAGE, John: ‘An autobiographical Statement’
** Theoretical background: 'Three kinds of soundscape, one music' and 'Musical Space'

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Europeras 3 & 4: Andrew Culver, Michael Milenski, Kevin Bell, Long Beach Opera, et al.,Mode, 1995.
Europera 5: Yvar Mikhashoff, Martha Herr, et al. Mode, 1994.

See also: The John Cage Discography'


CAGE, John: 'Silence: Lectures and Writings' Wesleyan University Press, 1961.
CAGE, John: ‘An autobiographical Statement
CAGE, John and RETALLACK, Joan: 'Cage Muses on Words, Art, Music', Wesleyan University Press; 1996.
KOSTELANETZ, Richard: 'The anarchist art of John Cage' 1993
METZER, David: Musical Decay: Luciano Berio's Rendering and John Cage Europera 5
METZGER, Heinz-Klaus: "Europe's Operas: Notes on John Cage's europeras 1 & 2" in Kostalnetz, ed. p. 231.
NATTIEZ, Jean-Jacques: 'Pierre Boulez/John Cage: Correspondance', Christian Bourgeois Editeur, 1991.
NICHOLLS, David (Editor): 'The Cambridge Companion to John Cage', Cambridge University Press, 2002.
PRITCHETT, James: On Cage's Europera 3 & 4
REVILL, John: 'The Roaring Silence : John Cage: A Life', Arcade Publishing, 1993.
RYAN, David: De-composing Opera/Re-composing Listening: John Cage's Europeras
Joan Retallack, Musicage: John Cage on Words, Art and Music, (Boston, MA: Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1996).
PICCOLOMINI, Manfredi: "Europeras" in Richard Kostalnetz, ed. Writings About John Cage (Ann Arbor, MI: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1993) p. 244.
SHULTIS, Christopher: 'The Interdisciplinary World of John Cage' http://music.unm.edu/
Leonardo Music Journal, Volume 9, Number 1, 1999, pp. 121-122(2) Publisher: MIT Press http://mitpress.mit.edu/catalog/item/default.asp?ttype=6&tid=5584
DIE ZEIT 43/2001 Backstein auf den Kopf Der Zufall als Unfall - John Cages Opern in Hannover Spahn


Highly recommended to devotees of John Cage:
John Cage Database 


 Intute   John Cage Online   Classical Composers Database
Re-structures   Références/musicologie   Stefan Drees

as an extra: a poem by
Carlos Barbarito

(John Cage, 4' 33'')

In the centre of the world,
a piano, silent;
music, the noises of the world:
there is no animal that does not cry out,
squawk, howl, puff, snort;
there is no thing
that does not grind, chirp,
squeak, ferment, exhale.
In the centre, a man
motionless at the keyboard;
the music, the noises of the others:
stammering, stuttering,
applause, groans, calls,
imprecations, belches,
flatulence, entreaties, supplications,
curses, songs

(Translation Brian Cole)

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