Flashing on the outside underwalls of the huge double saucer Assembly Hall, at the University of Illinois’s Urbana campus, were an endless number of slides from fifty-two projectors. Inside, between 7:00 P.M. and just after midnight Friday evening, May 16, 1969, was a presentation of the John Cage-Lejaren Hiller collaboration, HPSCHD (1967-69), one of the great artistic environments of the decade. In the middle of the circular sports arena were suspended several parallel sheets of visquine, each 100 by 40 feet, and from both sides were projected numerous films and slides whose collaged imagery passed through several sheets. Running around a circular ceiling rim was a continuous 340-foot screen, and from a hidden point inside were projected slides with imagery as various as outer-space scenes, pages of Mozart music, computer instructions, and nonrepresentational blotches. Beams of light were shrewdly aimed across the interior roof, visually rearticulating the modulated concrete supports. In several upper locations were spinning mirrored balls reflecting dots of light in all directions–a device reminiscent of a discotheque or a planetarium. The lights shining directly down upon the asphalt floor also changed color from time to time. There was such an incredible abundance of things to see that the eye could scarcely focus on anything in particular; and no reporter could possibly write everything down.

  The scene was bathed in a sea of sounds that had no  distinct relation to one another–an atonal and astructural chaos so continually in flux that one could hear nothing more specific than a few seconds of repetition. Fading in and out through the mix were snatches of harpsichord music that sounded more like Mozart than anything else; this music apparently came from the seven instrumentalists visible on platforms raised above the floor in the center of the Assembly Hall. Around these islands of stability were flowing several thousand people, most of them students at the university, some of whom came from far away–the museum directors from Chicago and Minneapolis, the writers, artists and film crew (doing a profile of Cage) from New York City, students who hitchhiked from all over the Midwest, and the not-young lady harpsichordist who first commissioned HPSCHD, all the way from Switzerland.

  Most of the audience milled about the floor while hundreds took seats in the bleachers. All over Assembly Hall were people, some of them supine, their eyes closed, grooving on the multiple stereophony. A few people at times broke into dance, creating a show within a show that simply added more to the mix. Some painted their faces with Day-Glo colors, while, off on the side, several students had a process for implanting on a white shirt a red picture of Beethoven wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with John Cage’s smiling face. As in the Central Park be-ins, I met friends from various places I had not seen in ages, and other people I knew before only by mail.

  While co-composer Hiller checked on the machinery and its up-keep, though it scarcely mattered artistically if a few channels were lost, John Cage glided around the hall, beaming beatifically. Altogether, the sound was rather mellow and nonclimactic, except for occasional blasts of eardrum-piercing feedback that became more frequent toward the end. Just after midnight, the electronic sound machinery was turned off, the mix ran down into silence, the house lights turned on and the elated audience drifted out. At parties that night and the following day, people compared perceptions; and, while everyone saw the same things in general, each one registered specific experiences particularly his own.

  The sounds came from fifty-eight amplified channels, each with its own loudspeaker high in the auditorium. Fifty-one channels contained computer-generated music composed in a succession of octaves whose tones were evenly divided at every integer between five and fifty-six tones.  Whereas the octave in one tape had a scale of five evenly spaced tones, the next had a scale of six, the third seven, the fourth eight, and so on, up to fifty-six tones, except number twelve. Since all fifty-one scales were going at once, with each operator of the four assembled tape recorders permitted to adjust their respective volumes, the result was a supremely microtonal chaos in which, as Cage’s Illinois colleague Ben Johnston put it, “It was ensured that no order can be perceived.”

  On top of this mix, one could hear seven amplified harpsichords, for HPSCHD is that word reduced to the six characters necessary for computer transmission. Three of these harpsichords were playing fixed versions of Mozart’s late-eighteenth-century Introduction to the Composition of Waltzes by Means of Dice, in which the performer is allowed to play sections in any order he wishes. With computer assistance, Cage and Hiller realized three different fixed versions of the fragments, two of which incorporate other passages from Mozart. Two more harpsichordists, Neely Bruce and Yuji Takahashi, played through differing but individually fixed collages of harpsichord music from Mozart to the present, while David Tudor played “computer printout for twelve-tone gamut.” The seventh key-board operator, Philip Corner, had nothing more specific than blanket permission to play any Mozart he wished; and every instrumentalist received this further instruction: “In addition to playing his own solo, each harpsichordist is free to play any of the others.”

  In sum, then, above the microtonal din were references to Mozart, a favorite classic composer of both Cage and Hiller. “With Bach,” Cage explained, “there is a tendency to fixity and unity; in Mozart, there is scalar diversity and abundance. I used to think of five as the most things we could perceive at once; but the way things are going recently, it may be in a sense of quantity, rather than quality, that we have our hope. When you use the word ‘chaos,’ it means there is no chaos, because everything is equally related–there is an extremely complex interpenetration of an unknowable number of centers.” For all its diffusion, therefore, HPSCHD is an indubitably organic piece, where every element contributes its bit to the whole and which successfully establishes a unique and coherent ensemble of interrelated parts.

  So the aural content of the work–what one should hear–is literally fifty-eight channels of sound, even though most of us can scarcely separate more than one or two from the others at any time. “You don’t have to choose, really, but, so to speak, experience it,” Cage added, between; puffs on his filtered and mentholated cigarette. “As you go from one point of the hall to another, the experience changes; and here, too, each man determines what he hears. The situation relates to individuals differently, because attention isn’t focused in one direction. Freedom of movement, you see, is basic to both this art and this society. With all those parts and no conductor, you can see that even this populous a society can function without a conductor.” Cage characterized HPSCHD as “a political art, which is not about politics but political itself.  As an anarchist, I aim to get rid of politics. I would prefer to drop the question of power, whether black power, flower power, or student power. Only by looking out the back window, as McLuhan says, do we concern ourselves with power. If we look forward, we see cooperation and things being made possible, to make the world work so any kind of living can take place.”

  The visual material was compiled under the supervision of Ronald Nameth and Calvin Sumsion, both connected with the university, and Robert Ferric supervised the use of films. There was no dress rehearsal, nor did the piece really need one. Forty-eight people, in sum, contributed to the performance. In the course of gathering equipment, Cage persuaded an awed official of the GAF Corporation to lend eighty Sawyer projectors (“He wanted not a few but eighty!”), just as he earlier persuaded other companies to lend fifty-two tape recorders and all the amplification machinery; and art students were enlisted to paint innumerable slides. NASA lent forty films and five thousand slides (accounting for the abundance of outer-space imagery) and the Museum of Modern Art extended a print of George Méliès’s Trip to the Moon (1902). And so on and so on, all to fill up Assembly Hall with an indeterminate assembling of images, all to compliment the indeterminate chaos of sounds.

  Work on HPSCHD (pronounced Hip’-see-kid, H-P-S-C-H-D or, as Cage prefers, just “harpsichord”) began nearly two years ago, just after Cage arrived at Illinois as Visiting Research Professor in the School of Music and Associate of the Center for Advanced Study. On hand, he already had a standing commission from the Swiss harpsichordist Antoinette Vischer. Wanting to “make with the computer an art that has not been possible before,” he sought out Lejaren Hiller, who pioneered computer-assisted composition, and together they produced the fifty-two tapes, many of which were composed with the I Ching-randomizing procedures Cage has long favored. “Every single note was a mutual decision,” Hiller declared. “It’s a rather unique instance that two composers’ endeavors are so intertwined that you cannot tell them apart.” Nonetheless, the total conception of HPSCHD seems more distinctly Cage’s than Hiller’s, whose reputation stems from the use of computers rather than a distinct style; and, within the extant repertoire of electronic music, these tapes sound rather simple and repetitious. Cage’s regular music publisher, C.F. Peters, plans to release a several-hundred-page “score,” with seven different harpsichord parts, and “a particular condensation of the piece,” as Hiller puts it, has just been released by Nonesuch Records. Although only three of the harpsichord parts are included, the record offers a more intensified (and, shall we say, artful) aural chaos than the diffuse original; but that perhaps is precisely what a recording should do. Each album also includes a computer-printed instruction that, to quote Hiller, “tells the listener how to turn the volume- and tone-controls every five seconds to hear the piece properly. Every sheet is different, So you can trade it off like baseball cards.” Although recording is not an appropriate medium for this aleatory and spatial art, this remains, in my opinion, the best (and most) Cagean record ever made.

  HPSCHD was not just a musical light show or an extravagant multimedia display but a masterful example of that peculiarly contemporary art, the kinetic environment, or an artistically activated enclosed space. In this respect, HPSCHD extends Cage’s continuing interest in filling huge spaces with a lifelike chaos of sounds and sights, or building an artful universe within the larger world. Here, as before, Cage prefers nontheatrical spaces, like a gymnasium or a “stock pavilion” (scene of a 1967 Urbana piece), for his multiringed, highly theatrical artistic circus. Who would believe, before Cage arrived, that Urbana’s Assembly Hall itself could be transformed into a work of art? Whereas Variations VII, by all counts the best piece at the 1966 Theater and Engineering Festival, filled up the cavernous 69th Regiment Armory, HPSCHD tackles an even larger space, for an even larger audience, and makes it succumb to his environmental art.

  HPSCHD is a Universe Symphony in the distinctly American tradition dating back to Charles Ives, who spent the last forty years of his life on a similarly all-inclusive but unfinished work. As Ives imagined his Universe Symphony, groups of musicians would be distributed around the countryside–up the hills and in the valleys–and they would sound a joyful disorder similar to the last movement of his Fourth Symphony (1910-16). However, thanks to technological progress, Cage and Hiller can use facilities Ives never had–tape recorders, amplifiers, loudspeakers, motion-picture and slide projectors–to distribute their chaotic art all over an enormous space; and in the increased quantity was a particular kind of quality never before experienced in either art or life. In the future, let HPSCHD turn on even larger spaces, like Madison Square Garden, the Astrodome, or even the Buckminster Fuller dome that someday ought to be constructed over midtown Manhattan. Wish you were, or could be, there. 

© Richard Kostelanetz 1969, 1995, and reprinted by permission of the author. This essay is available in “30 Years of Critical Writings About John Cage (1995, Archae Editions, $50.00 hardback, limited ed.)

Advertisements