“We try to listen to the silence when we can.”—Nadia Ghent
Nadia Ghent is one of my 33,000+ classmates in a magnificent online “MOOC” called Modern and Contemporary American Poetry (ModPo). As it turns out, Ghent is also an accomplished violinist with a great story to tell.
This week in ModPo, John Cage is on the syllabus, as the subject under discussion is “chance operations.” Ghent wrote to the class of her excitement: John Cage was “familiar ground for me, though in a different context.” And quite a context it was, for Ghent “was one of 86 performers invited to participate in the world premiere of Cage’s Atlas Eclipticalis at Carnegie Hall.”
While I’ve come to appreciate Cage’s contributions to musical thinking, I haven’t particularly gravitated toward his music. Ghent’s recounting of her participation in this moment of musical history-making reminds me once again that no “settled” thought or opinion can ever really be settled. I asked if I might share her story on Prufrock’s Dilemma, and I’m pleased to report that she agreed. Here it is:
For those of you who only know Cage as the composer of the much maligned and misunderstood 4’33”, maybe this will help:
In 1992, in my former life as a free-lance violinist in New York City, I was one of 86 performers invited to participate in the world premiere of Cage’s Atlas Eclipticalis at Carnegie Hall. It was a massive work with 86 separate parts, each of which could either function as a solo or combine into any combination of interior ensembles. Cage first composed the piece in 1960 and based it on an atlas of star charts compiled by Antonín Bečvář, a Czech astronomer. Cage superimposed the pattern of the constellations on music paper, with the size of the notes corresponding to the brightness of the stars. This was a new kind of notation, vertically-based rather than horizontal, in which space, time, and silence were as important as sound. He was concerned with the space between minimum activity, which is silence, and maximum activity, the notes written on the page. Cage didn’t think he would ever get to hear the complete version of this piece, and he didn’t—he died just a few months before our performance.
We were all young, eager professionals, a few years out of conservatory, doing well enough to accept a gig that paid next to nothing, had many more rehearsals than the typical orchestra job (and most of those rehearsals were way at the end of Brooklyn or Queens), and well experienced with contemporary music. This turned out to be so much more of an astonishing experience, probably the high point of my performing career.
The notes themselves were not difficult, but producing the extreme range of quiet sound was. I was playing the 7th violin part (most conventional classical symphonies have only 2 violin parts), and there were some very high notes at the upper end of the violin fingerboard that were challenging to navigate, but in our many rehearsals we mainly practiced reading the score. This was a humbling experience for some of us! We had to learn to read up and down instead of left to right, and also to include the loudness—or actually the intense softness—of each note. We also had to practice turning the pages of the huge music score as softly as possible! And what we played when was not determined by the conventional tyranny of the bar line (everybody is always at the same place at the same time); each of the 86 parts could occur at any time during the performance. The conductor determined who played when, and so we also had to watch incredibly closely for cues from Petr Kotik, the conductor, who had worked with Cage before his death in planning the way the performance was to be shaped. Notice that I wrote “planning”! There were chance operations at work here, but at a deeper level, the performance was to unfold as it took shape.
Many of us were quite uncharacteristically nervous for the performance. There was a sense of getting it right for John, and a real sadness that he wouldn’t get to hear this monumental performance. This was also soon after the disastrous renovation at Carnegie, in which some non-musician decided that the best way to muffle the sound of the subway which ran right under the hall was to pour concrete under the stage. This resulted in dead spots all over the stage, and made it incredibly difficult to hear within the ensemble. Listening was crucial, since at any time you could be playing together with the 17th cello or the 11th flute in quintuple pianissimo. I was also seven months pregnant with my first child, and I was a little worried that I might need to get to the bathroom—the performance was to have no stops until the end, and the end was indeterminate. This was also a source of worry, since both the musicians’ and the stagehand unions have very strict rules about going into overtime one second after a performance of two and a half hours. There was enough money to pay us enough to cover subway fare home, but not enough to go into overtime!
The evening of the performance was electric. Most of the well-known names of the New York avant-garde were there, Merce Cunningham (Cage’s partner), Phillip Glass, Meredith Monk, and the hall was packed, surprising since contemporary music is always a tough sell. The performance began, and there was a sense of suspension, though with forward motion. The quietness was immense. Sounds emerged, almost dimensionally, creating a canopy of interactions. Time passed without knowing it. We navigated the score, listened intensely, making sound right at the border of presence and inaudibility. And then it came to a close, at the right place, two hours and about 28 minutes, of its own accord. It wouldn’t have mattered: the stagehands stood backstage at the end of the performance, transfixed by the silence. And there was this incredible silence that filled Carnegie Hall, not an absence of sound but a presence without audibility. The music had traveled into space, through time. Applause began, but it was so very sad that there was no composer’s bow, the acknowledgement we give to the composer at the end of the performance. This was a real absence.
And so it is not surprising that my son who was at that concert with me in utero is now, at 19, an astrophysics major and pianist. We try to listen to the silence when we can.
About Nadia Ghent:
Nadia Ghent was born in New York City, attended Brown University, and subsequently received a Masters in Violin Performance from the Manhattan School of Music, where she studied with Carroll Glenn and Glenn Dicterow. After a year as a fellow in the National Orchestral Association and post-graduate study with British violinist and Bach specialist Ruth Waterman, she joined the busy and eclectic New York classical free-lance scene, performing with the American Ballet Theater Orchestra, the Brooklyn Philharmonic, Opera Orchestra of New York, Queens Symphony, the Stamford Symphony, in addition to smaller chamber ensembles and also in Broadway shows. Ghent moved to Southern California in 1998, where she developed a private violin and viola studio and also taught in the Irvine Unified School District’s Fine Arts Program until 2011. A recent return to the East has brought her to Rochester, New York, where she is currently on sabbatical and is engaged in studying new modes of artistic and cultural expressions.
To read a little about our MOOC, click here. The head photograph is of Professor Al Filreis and four of the fantastic ModPo Teaching Assistants. From left to right, they are Amaris Cuchanski, Max McKenna, Al Filreis, Kristen Martin, and David Poplar. ModPo is featured toward the end of the article in the section headed “far-flung connections.”
More information about John Cage can be found at the John Cage Trust, which is housed at Bard College.
Excerpt from Atlas Eclipticalis
Other pieces by John Cage (all below preceded his “chance operations” period; a link is provided to information about each piece); a Spotify playlist can be found here.
Sonata No. 5 for Prepared Piano (from Sonatas and Interludes)
String Quartet in Four Parts (1. Quietly flowing along)