Music Up Close

by Dan Senn

It is common knowledge among those who have read most of everything written by or about John Cage that he does not enjoy recorded music in preference to music performed live. It follows that he has neither a record collection nor playback equipment in his apartment in Manhattan (I have witnessed this to be true). If he wants to listen to some music, he simply goes out for it pretty much like most New Yorkers would for a meal.

My preference for listening to music over the years has been quite different from Cage's, or so it would seem at first. Generally speaking, unless I am able to be in the "conductor's" position for a performance, I much prefer to listen to recordings of performances. Hearing music from a distance, where the obstacles inherent in a proscenium presentation dull the perception of the music, has never had much appeal for me. My instincts have always been to move closer to the music and to the sweetest spot possible.

The question of Cage's listening preferences has puzzled me for some time for I have always felt a perceptual and aesthetic kinship with him. Yet on this point we seem to be at opposite ends. After a closer look, however, at the conditions inherent to living in New York, the place Cage made much of his art, these differences become understandable.

First off, much of Cage's music was intended for chamber or loft performance where the distance between the listeners and performers is not exaggerated by an uplifted stage, an orchestral pit, and/or an intense difference in audience-performer light intensity. In other words, in a loft or gallery performance, the distinctions between audience and performer are blurred and sometimes even interchangeable. Secondly, living in Manhattan, and especially in the Village area, gives an artist ready access to music up close year 'round. Finally, it must be state that Cage has some pretty specific feeling about the cohesion of organized sound in the first place whether recorded or otherwise. Most certainly he is quite content to listen to the disorganization of his 18th Street apartment accompanied by the muffled sounds of the city passing seven floors below.

My final point in arguing away differences here is that contemporary chamber music, by the time it reaches the Midwest, has been transformed by performance practice and aesthetic insecurities into something rather distant and remoteŃsomething less than a stuffed trout intended for all the neighbors to see. In most cases, the music is played way up there in that distant proscenium, with the audience way back here in the darkness, and only the musicians and the recording technician are really, truly having a good time of it. In these conditions, its just too damn much work trying to translate it all into something fresh with any degree of agreeable presence.

So let me re-state my prejudice. I too prefer my music live but only when I can have it where I can almost touch it. Otherwise, give it to me neatly stored in numbers and plastic for the long journey to my Muncie living room where I can hear it any time, fairly fresh and, of course, up close.

Puchong Folios, Vol. 1, No. 2, Winter 1990-91


Dan Senn is Coordinator of Computing in the Fine Arts and Associate Professor of Music Composition at Ball State University. As Director of Music for the Puchong Gallery, he presents music on tape for openings.