“John Cage Silences the Drums of War.”

05 Dec

I had the great pleasure of performing John Cage’s 4′ 33” during the 2010 Percussive Arts Society International Convention (PASIC) with Morris Palter, a former student at the University of Toronto Faculty of Music, member of the New Music/Research Committee of the Percussive Arts Society and this year’s organizer of all the Focus Day concerts. Soon after he graduated from the University of Toronto, Morris played drums with the alternative rock band, Treble Charger. He went from there to study with Steven Schick at the University of Southern California, San Diego where he acquired a DMA.

Morris has always succeeded in surprising me. As an undergraduate performer in my percussion ensemble, he appeared  to be a  rather “Loosy Goosey” sort of  guy, but his performance of Bob Becker’s famous work for percussion ensemble and muted drum, Mudra,was one of the two or three best performances of that work I’ve ever heard including that of Bob Becker himself. Morris surprised me again when he chose to study with Steven Schick, and again when he became Assistant Professor of Percussion at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

I stopped being surprised when I read Morris’ Percussive Notes article and description of Focus Day. His organizational skills and handling of all the  disparate personalities impressed me and when I heard him address the large audience before Focus Day’s last concert his poise and easy delivery completely won me over.  It is not often a teacher has the privilege of witnessing such a maturation in a student.

Months ago, Morris had stopped by my home in Toronto and asked me to join him in performing the last work on the last concert of Focus Day. The theme of the 2010 Focus Day was “The Ecology of Percussion” and he wanted to conclude with John Cage’s 4′ 33″.  He asked if I had any ideas about instrumentation for this silent work and the first thing that came to mind, and out of my mouth, was “rope tension bass drum and field snare drum.”  We didn’t talk about it further until just before the PASIC.

Our timing for each of the three movements, was taken from those determined by Cage prior to  David Tudor’s  August 29, 1952 premier performance in Woodstock, New York.  Cage’s idea of ambient sound providing the ‘music’ for this work was diminished somewhat by an almost total audience silence. The loudest noise one could hear came from the single lens reflex camera of the official Percussive Arts Society photographer. Standing in front of an audience of students and colleagues with these magnificent instruments 1 and not playing a note, became more provocative as the minutes passed. Somewhere in the middle of the second movement I became aware of the fact that this performance had something special going on. And as melodramatic as it may sound, the phrase “John Cage silences the drums of war” came to mind.

Morris Palter’s idea to end the Ecology of Percussion with 4′ 33″ was surely inspired by John Cage, Cage’s love for nature, his writings and many compositions with sounds produced by instruments from nature. At the end of the third movement the audience response was fulsome and long, a reflection, I believe, of sincere appreciation and understanding. The idea of presenting 4′ 33″ with rope drums, originally almost glib, had become something of substance, a lasting impression.

Foot note:

1. Rope drums courtesy of  the Cooperman Fife and Drum Company, Patsy Cooperman Ellis and Jim  Ellis.

1 Comment

Posted by on December 5, 2010 in Articles, Contemporary Music


One response to ““John Cage Silences the Drums of War.”

  1. Jason Treuting

    March 13, 2012 at 12:48 am

    This performance is one of the most memorable and magical ones I’ve experienced. Powerful, honest and thoughtful. I will remember it always and do my best to capture the poignancy of the moment when I recount it for others. Thank you Robin and thank you Morris!


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