Guest Post: Musical Stargazing with Nadia Ghent and John Cage

John Cage (b. September 5, 1912; d. August 12, 1992)

“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:

Plate from Antonin Bečvář’s Atlas Elipticalis

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.

Atlas Eclipticalis, Variations IV, 0’00”

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

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.

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Listening List

Excerpt from Atlas Eclipticalis

Music of Changes, Book I

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)

The Seasons (for piano; for orchestra)

26 thoughts on “Guest Post: Musical Stargazing with Nadia Ghent and John Cage

  1. Jane and Lance Hattatt

    Hello Susan:
    What an exciting account this is of what must have been by any account and by any stretch of the imagination a most memorable occasion. We have to confess that we too have never warmed to Cage’s music, but Nadia’s writing has inspired to revisit this whole arena once more with, perhaps, a different viewpoint and, most likely, a more open ear!

    In October of this year a special performance of John Cage’s music, in commemoration of what would have been his 100th birthday, was performed in Budapest at the ‘Palace of Arts’. We did not go, but, after reading this wonderfully spirited post, we certainly wish that we had!!!

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      I had much the same reaction to Nadia’s story. I have, over the past two years, come to appreciate the significance of Cage’s contributions to musical thinking, yet Nadia’s story adds an entirely new dimension to my understanding.

  2. Suze

    When I first listened to Cage, in my — at the time — new husband’s eclectic and slightly-frightening music collection, I had a lot of trouble. My ears were, in a word, (or, two, I guess) fairly virginal. Then, I found that a lot of my husband’s music was like that. Unabashed, fearless, cacophonous … weird (to me.)

    Years later, as I was struggling with a manuscript, my husband emailed me a quote by Cage, the gist of it being that Cage composed a piece by rolling dice and then following the dictates of each random roll. It was a mind-blowing concept to me, at the time, because I have historically been quite rigid, immature and wary.

    This post, Sue, makes me think of all those things.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Suze: I think you might enjoy this quotation from Cage: “I let it be known to my friends, and even strangers, as I was wandering around the country, … that what was interesting me was making English less understandable. Because when it’s understandable, well, people control one another, and poetry disappears . . . So what we’re doing when we make language un-understandable is we’re demilitarizing it, so that we can do our living….

      He was, if nothing else, a highly original thinker. I’m not sure I agree, but it’s intriguing.

  3. friko

    To be in at the birth of something entirely new is exciting. As Nadia Ghent says, it is also much harder work than performing a long established, conventional piece.

    I have never attended a concert with music by John Cage (true, ‘modern’ music is hard to sell) and I don’t know his oeuvre at all well, only by reputation. Listening to the excerpt from Atlas Ecliptical I don’t think I will go out of my way to do so, even if his music were easily available, although never say never. I simply don’t get it. What is wrong with me?

    J has played in premieres of works by English composers, but they have mostly been recognisable as “music”; Birtwistle’s ‘Gawain’ was loudly heckled at it’s first performance at Covent Garden, but has since been accepted into the canon.

    Perhaps there is hope for me and the many other ‘music lovers’ who take a little longer to reach an understanding of the avant-garde in composition.

    PS: Your course sounds absolutely fascinating.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Friko: I’ve not been drawn to Cage’s music, as I noted, and tend to subscribe, as someone once said, that as a composer, Cage was a good inventor. That said, Nadia’s recounting of the thrill of participating in the premiere of Atlas Ecliptacalis makes me listen to it in a whole new way. I’m really thrilled Nadia was willing to share her story here.

  4. magdalenaball

    This is an excellent overview. Like you Susan I have found Cage’s music to be challenging and Nadia’s insights and experience is illuminating and very helpful. I’m actually starting to understand and appreciate him.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Magadalena: Thank you for stopping by! As you may see from other comments, I sit in much the same position as you, and Nadia’s story, in that regard, is a tremendous gift to us all.

  5. David

    Nadia Ghent captures so well the excitement of a Cage ‘happening’. I remember being so excited by a Cage weekend held here at the Barbican by the BBC Symphony Orchestra. The real revelations were the foyer events involving schools groups. That’s where, I think, JC’s limitless possibilities find their best fulfilment.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: I remember you noting that (I think in response to my post on Contemporaneous playing In C at Josie’s school). It would have been great fun to see/hear those foyer performances with school groups. Your comment “That’s where, I think, JC’s limitless possibilities find their best fulfillment” makes a great deal of sense to me.

  6. Scott

    I like that her son is a pianist. That they listen to silence together. We would read and talk to ours. Another metaphysical bond. “the intense softness”. A great recounting of what must of been a pretty moving experience.. Almost suspenseful. Tie game. Bottom of the 9th. World Series. Very nice tribute. I think there is a silent bow out there, somewhere.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Scott: As always, your fresh perspectives are the best. To think you’d manage a baseball analogy here; so great! I love the idea of that silent bow out there, somewhere.

  7. wanderer

    I absolutely loved Nadia Ghent’s story. While I have yet to pursue Cage’s work for itself I appreciate it being brought to me because I know deep down that the mysteries of the universe are there to be unravelled not avoided and a man like Cage is looking in all the right places – the gaps.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      wanderer: What a wonderful comment, and I agree! Cage reopened the discussion on how to listen, it seems to me, and to good effect (even if I don’t agree that listening to the trucks barrel down 6th avenue in New York City is as good a sound as anything else . . . ).

  8. T.

    Great, great post, Sue. Really loved this. I love John Cage and was really happy that he’s included in our course. Still haven’t caught up with most of the readings but am skipping ahead just for Cage.

    “We try to listen to the silence when we can.” You and Nadia have my heart.

    T.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      T: So pleased you dropped by! Nadia’s story is a world-beater, to be sure. I hope you will write about Cage over your way. I’d be very interested in your insights on him.

  9. Jayne

    I love that photo of Cage. I think one must train one’s ear to his unusual arrangements. Or silence. Funny, I recently had a conversation w/one of the faculty at Kelly Writers House. What a marvelous program Penn has.

    I like your thoughts about “settling,” Sue. True, one can be unsettled just a speedily, or pokily as the settlement. We never know in which way our past accounts may shape how we may feel, sense, interpret things, any thing, tomorrow or the days that follow. Remaining open to new, different, challenging experiences is key.

    Thanks for the intro to Ms. Ghent. When I pop in at PD I always feel like I’ve entered a magnificent classroom, and leave a bit more learned! :)

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Jayne: Who did you speak with at Kelly Writers House? What a wonderful place that is. (I highly recommend this course–I suspect you’d really love it.) I’m going to visit there “in person” in a week, the last day of the course. Nadia’s story is a treasure, and I’m so pleased she was willing to have it posted here.

  10. Dennis Aguinaldo (@dsaguinaldo)

    Would have missed out on so much without this post. Thanks to you and Nadia Ghent (John Cage too), because even if I don’t get all the technicalese, I think I appreciate some of the impact. Personally, I’m glad not all music is this way, but I’m happy it was made possible. Cage, I think enriched beyond imagining our repertoire of sound and whispered “you’ve not heard everything yet” to our new-formed ears.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Dennis: You’ve put it just right: “you’ve not heard everything yet.” Wonderful! I’m glad, too, that all music is not this way, but at the same time, as you’re noting, Nadia has given us a window into Cage that is to be treasured, hasn’t she?

  11. Steve Schwartzman

    Many people in ancient times believed (as do some today) that meaning is encoded in the physical arrangement of objects. For example, Roman priests known as auspices would watch flights of birds and claim to be able to answer questions or determine courses of action based on the positions and movements of the birds. Others would look at animal entrails or, elsewhere, the arrangement of tea leaves. And of course astrology applies the principle of embedded meaning to the stars and planets as we see them from earth and claims to be able to understand people and make decisions based on celestial observations.

    I have to say that I don’t believe in such things, preferring to think that arrangements of those types are random and therefore devoid of meaning per se. (Obviously some sorts of arrangements, if we have the wit to interpret them, do tell us things, like the patterns of the four bases that make up sequences of DNA and determine many of the features of our physical and even mental makeup. Similarly, arrangements of atoms determine properties of the resulting molecules.)

    If someone looks at stars or star charts and turns positions into dots of musical notation, I don’t see that the results are likely to be anything more than random sounds, and therefore unlikely to please human sensibility except insofar as short bursts may happen to be harmonious or otherwise appealing. So call me a skeptic, and one who will always prefer Beethoven or Dvorak to John Cage or—a timely mention—Elliott Carter.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Steve: Let me first say that I would be glad to accompany you to a concert of Dvorak any time, and wish folks would stop referring to his pieces as “chestnuts.” The Wood Dove, the Noon Witch, the Water Goblin, and The Golden Spinning Wheel, to name a few, have earned their place in the canon, no question. As to Cage, over time, I’ve come to understand that he made a significant contribution to musical thinking, and Nadia’s recounting of her experience gives me a fresh perspective. (You may be amused that Pierre Boulez said of Cage, “I love John’s mind, but I don’t like what it thinks.”)

  12. Rubye Jack

    I like how Nadia Ghent talks of the quiet being immense and the passing of time without knowing it. In other words it must have felt like another and new dimension to be creating Cage’s music.

    I went from her story to Coursera and have now downloaded a sky chart and registered for three online classes. How exhilarating for me! And now I’ve returned to say thank you Susan! I’m going to go look for a music class now. ;0

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Rubye Jack: I think you’ve captured the essence of Nadia’s story beautifully in your comment. As for Coursera, I have never had an educational experience as illuminating and inspiring as the ModPo course, something I never expected. I hope you will have the same experience, and look forward to hearing your “report.”

  13. angela

    “…not an absence of sound but a presence without audibility.”
    Yes! What a wonderful summation of an audience Moved. Thank you for this wonderful
    highlight of a fellow student, Susan, and links to John Cage. I’m typing this while listening
    to The Season, which I’m enjoying very much. Nadia, bless you, for your artistic life sounds most wonderful. I love that your son has grown up to be one of those lovely individuals with both hemispheres firing equally. May silence forever be in your presence. ~ a

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Angela: How nice to see you here! “an audience Moved,” isn’t that exactly right? I’m so happy Nadia shared her story with all of us. I’m pleased, too, that you’re enjoying The Seasons, a piece I also enjoy.

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