Tuesday, June 9, 2009

C - John Cage - "Variations IV, Volume II"

I lived in Oklahoma City during the first 5 months of 1993. Denny rented the top floor of a duplex for next to nothing, and as I had nothing going on in Houston, and was burned out at my job, I finally moved out on my own (kind of). It was a spacious apartment; very cool (well, cold, actually – it was winter and there were huge tears in the air conditioner insulation in my room that I attempted to fill with socks that had too many holes to wear), but unfortunately it was located in one of the armpits of America. I kid OKC, but not really; I found it a fairly dismal city, seemingly gray all the time. Chico Marx may have described it as "a-no good". However, I may be confusing the locale with my then current state of mind. Whatever the case, I didn’t stay long.

You’d never believe it, but there wasn’t much to do in the middle of Oklahoma. I wasn’t much of a go-getter, or even a leave-the-house kind of joe. I recall Susan’s horror when I innocently asked her advice, as a student nurse, about at what point a person should start being concerned about bedsores. For bed is where I spent a great amount of time, usually with the blankets over my head to stave off the cold while listening to “Sister Ray” by the Velvets at excruciating volume, compounded by putting my stereo speakers IN BED with me. I rocked. Denny & Susan, bless their hearts, did their best to perk up my spirits (or at least get me to change out of the rank torn t-shirt I’d wear around the clock), but without much success. Oh it wasn’t so tragic: the high heavens didn’t fall, but how much of that time, I didn’t really want to be there at all.

In the midst of gray, there were still some memorable moments. Denny and I were brothers in the ways of penny pinching, and I delighted on how well we were living on next to nothing (though it might have been a little more physically comfortable if we could’ve turned on the air conditioning at times for just a little bit, but that might’ve cost us an extra ten bucks. Each.) Denny was a great roommate, and I enjoyed getting to know Susan better. On TV, I watched the unfolding drama in Waco culminate in the massacre of US citizens by the American government live and in colour, and experienced the 2 greatest “bad” films in history for the first time: “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” and “’Manos’, the Hands of Fate”.

Then there was the “Happy Symphony”. At one point in April or May, our apartment somehow became the depository of a host of stereo equipment due to relatives & friends moving, running out of space, upgrading their systems, or some other reason. As expatriates of The Plastic Experience, we hadn’t done much recording, but seized the opportunity to create our own monstrous psychodelic sound collage. I used the album “Variations IV” by John Cage as a template: this happening consisted of Cage hooking up mikes and equipment in several different rooms of a gallery, and manipulating the sounds at chance, resulting in an auditory melange capturing everything from street sounds, bar glasses tinkling, shards of conversation, and other banalities, in order to….I don’t know what his point was. All I knew was that we had a lot of stereos and we were going to use them.

We bought a six-pack of the cheapest cassettes we could find (from Walgreens, I think). We then hooked up all the equipment and played concurrently the aforementioned Cage album, side two of the Plastic Ono Band “Live Peace in Toronto”, and a loop of “Revolution #9" while recording this mass of noise on another tape player. We then duplicated THAT tape 3 times and played them all back at roughtly the same time, stopping and starting, louder & softer, speeding up & slowing down those tapes at will, so that it almost had the effect of verses & choruses (you’d hear some of the same clips at different times during the recording). On top of THAT, Denny & I mixed in snippets of various records & tapes we had lying around: everything from Jim Morrison, Neal Cassady, William Burroughs & Hunter Thompson to sounds of the Jonestown massacre, “Classy” Freddie Blassie, "A Clockwork Orange", Bill Cosby, & “MacArthur Park”. Plus Tom Waits, the Residents, the Stooges, Thomas Dolby, Jack Webb, the Monkees, and plenty of the Plastic Experience. We did only one recording, fearing that the morass of sound would cause the 98-year-old woman who lived below us to call the cops, but once was enough. It was rough but about the most successful recording we ever did. We titled it “The Happy Symphony” based on an offhand comment from a Partridge Family episode we happened to watch that night (Keith was trying to be taken seriously as a composer, and talked of writing classical music. Laurie said that symphonies were really depressing. Keith: “well, this’ll be a happy symphony.” Brilliant.) (David Cassidy is a real jerk , though.)

And I LOVED it. I listened to it all the time; at home, in the car, on my Walkman at work at 1 in the morning when I was supposed to be taking phone reservations at Hertz. (Interlude: when Denny & Susan were married in Richardson, Denny, Kendall, Darek (who was on leave from the navy) and I stayed in a local hotel (where I think we spent the night before the wedding at an elementary school playground?? Is this correct???). Darek hooked up with some skateboarding friends and was out all night, finally crashing in, bloody & exhausted, in the morning. As he lay comatose under the covers, Denny & I felt that the only medicine he really needed was a big ol’ dose of “The Happy Symphony”. He didn’t seem to respond too well to its charms; as it played, I detected total hate in his eyes (when they weren’t rolling in circles). Soon enough it replaced “Sister Ray” as my bedmate, where I would succumb nightly (& daily) to its soothing wash of noise. Bliss. (Epilogue: I ended up having a seizure while out for Mother’s Day lunch at Red Lobster in Fort Worth with Susan and her family. Though the tests never revealed the cause, nor has there ever been a repeat of a similar incident, part of me looks past my poor eating, sleeping, and frame of mind & gently accuses “The Happy Symphony”. (I never listened to it in bed again, that’s for sure). As I lay on the hospital bed, agonizingly sore from every muscle in my body tensing up and wondering how I was going to pay for the bill for an unhurried ambulance that wouldn’t even turn its siren on (everyone got to the hospital before me), I thought “yeah, it’s time to go home.”

What I’m trying to say here is that I’ve got “The Happy Symphony” and have no need for “Variations IV” anymore. Our recording is just as good as anything I’ve heard from Mr. Cage (except for “Interdetermancy”, which is awesome), and is a lot more fun to listen to most of his recorded output (case in point: did Cage ever have Yoko Ono, Dylan Thomas, Wayne Newton, and Robin the Frog (Kermit the Frog’s nephew) overlaid on a recording AT THE SAME TIME, culminating in repeated yelps of “SCIENCE!”? Nope. It’s art because I say it is.

VERDICT: “Music is all around us, if we only had ears.” – John Cage.
“This music sucks.” – Mark Bychowski
VIDEO: say what you want about experimental music, John Cage had a GREAT sense of humor and a phenomenal imagination. Though many of his ideas READ better than they SOUND, they’re still extremely clever, & his theories of “music by chance” affected me greatly (I appreciate music more defective than perfected.)

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