Some of the greatest masterpieces of Japanese poetry are barely longer than one of the thousands lines which constitute the masterpieces of Western poetry. Whereas the West worships poems such as the Iliad, Odyssey, Aeneid, or Dante’s Commedia, each made of long and imposing cantos gathered in a grandiose sequence, the Japanese art of the words delights in miniatures such as the haikus, made of three lines with five, seven and five syllables, or the rengas (same as the haiku but with two more final lines of seven syllables each). The West admires the narrative, the East the impression or suggestion; the West prizes magnificence, the East essentiality. The West also values the individuality of the poets – from the mythical Homer to Vergil to Dante – while the East appreciates the hiddenness of one’s personality as appears in a successful renga. Different from a haiku, in fact, a renga is a collective composition, realized by a group of poets gathered together: each composes a line, but there is a curious rule to be respected, as stated by composer John Cage when describing another of his works, Themes & Variations. In Cage’s words, “Traditionally renga is written by a group of poets… Each poet tries to make his line as distant in possible meanings from the preceding line as he can take it. This is no doubt an attempt to open the minds of the poets and listeners or readers to other relationships than those ordinarily perceived”.
Thus, a renga is a short poem created by a group of poets deliberately avoiding all consequential logic. Rather understandably, this creative, collective, and purposefully “absurd” (i.e. unpredictable) work of art appealed to Cage, whose artistic creed was similarly unconventional and willing to undermine the pattern of the expected.
Moreover, Cage felt the appeal of the Far East under a variety of viewpoints: from the Chinese I-Ching, whose technique he used in a number of aleatoric pieces, to Indian philosophies, and up to the Japanese art forms, including, as stated before, renga poetry.
The East represented for him both a repository of knowledge, and a way for evading what he felt to be the constraints of Western thought, religion and tradition. He was drawn to some Eastern philosophies whose principles may superficially correspond to those professed by the Western nihilists, but perhaps without the same depressing and self-destroying attitudes as their Western counterparts. In fact, Cage was more interested in playfulness and seeming buffoonery than in the desperate nihilism of some German philosophers; he preferred to satirize and perhaps to shock than to delve into the depths.
In many of these aspects, he was rather close to another distinguished personality of the preceding century, i.e. Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), a naturalist who resisted the attractive force of transcendentalism, and denied all reality beyond the visible and physically observable. Moreover, Thoreau anticipated the twentieth century also through his advocacy of civil disobedience: the development of his thought can be observed in the nonviolent movements of the second half of the twentieth century, with some of which Cage was in deep sympathy. Furthermore, as a contemporaneous announcement pointed out, “Cage is an expert on wild mushrooms and an amateur naturalist: he has a passion for the wilderness and tends to disregard dogma, which are traits similar to Thoreau’s” (from a MOMA exhibition, 1977).
It is therefore unsurprising that renga and Thoreau could converge in Cage’s poetics, and give birth to the work recorded in this Da Vinci Classics album, i.e. Renga.
This piece was written in combination with another work by the title of Apartment House 1776, a collage of American music from the time of the Revolution, featuring four soloists, each symbolizing the spiritual traditions of the era. In detail, Apartment House 1776 includes contributions from a gospel singer, a cantor, a shaman representing the tradition of the Native Americans, and a singer intoning Protestant hymns. These are framed by a total of 64 pieces, written in traditional musical notation, but whose order of performance can be established by the musicians.
However, although Renga and Apartment House 1776 had been conceived together, they can be performed independently. As was usual for him, Cage introduced the published score of Renga with some prefatory remarks, some of which are rather complex to understand, but which contribute (either immediately and directly or suggestively) to the creation of the piece’s meaning.
In his words, Renga is made of “361 drawings of Thoreau sometimes superimposed”. Indeed, Cage derived the graphic aspect of his score from doodles written by Thoreau in his notebooks; natural forms and shapes are frequently recognizable, though the visual appearance of these strips is sometimes very sketchy and occasionally reminiscent of children’s drawings. These visual excerpts, these outlines, concur to the creation of “78 parts (for any instruments and/or voices)”: the version recorded here employs a fascinating ensemble with trombone, tuba, piano and prepared piano, electronics and natural sounds. These drawings are placed on the white space of the musical “score” following the poetic structure of the Japanese models, and appear to form a complicated pattern.
In his preface, Cage points out the connection between the two pieces: Renga is “to be played alone or (as an occasional piece) with Apartment House 1776 or some other ‘musicircus’ (live or recorded)”. A “musicircus” is a creative, gay and possibly nonsensical combination of musical works; in the case of Apartment House 1776 they had been chosen for their symbolic associations to America and her history, on the occasion of the bicentenary of the Revolution. This connection with a celebratory event seemed to be meaningful for the composer, who continued by stating that the “musicircus” had to be “appropriate to another occasion than the Bi-Centennial of the U.S.A., an occasion, for example, such as the birth or death of another musically productive nation or person, or the birthday of a society concerned with some aspect of creation productive of sounds (e.g. birds, marine animals, weather changes, earthquakes or plants)”.
Renowned conductor Michael Tilson Thomas recalls an occasion during which Renga and Apartment House 1776 were being rehearsed by Pierre Boulez in New York in 1976 (the pieces had been premiered slightly earlier in Boston, by Seiji Ozawa conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra). Speaking to the composer, Tilson Thomas had observed that, “following [Cage’s] instructions, one day [Renga] could be played in his memory. He gave me his customary smile and laugh. When he died I began to think more and more about the possibility of doing just this. Essentially, Renga is a rainforest of orchestra sounds”. Tilson Thomas eventually realized this project in 2015, and his definition of Renga as a “rainforest of orchestra sounds” has become inextricably bound to the piece.
The graphic score constituted by Thoreau’s drawings needs in fact to be “interpreted” as a musical notation by the performers. No traditional “notes” are visible; however, the musical result must not be a haphazard production of chaotic and chance sounds, but rather a “concerted playfulness”. Moreover, the musicians will be able to interpret Thoreau’s doodles as a musical notation precisely by virtue of their acquaintance with traditional notation; they will project their reading habits, formed by their reading of traditional scores, onto the shapes and silhouettes of the drawings.
In Cage’s instructions, horizontal space represents “conducted time”, while the vertical dimension refers to “relative pitch (within individually determined limits)”; silences may intersperse the musical space between the different waka, the structural components of renga poetry.
This piece, therefore, is one of the most provocative creations of Cage’s provocative genius: “provocative” being intended here in its etymological meaning, as a pro-vocation, as a “calling” meant to awaken. It challenges the traditional separations between the arts; it challenges the expectations of the musicians, whose “score” looks utterly different from a normal musical score, and, of course, the expectations of the listeners, who may have listened to a thousand renditions of Renga and will still be entirely unprepared to what they will actually hear. It challenges the idea of “celebratory music”, by showing that celebration may be akin to irony and satire; but, at the same time, it indirectly demonstrates that irony can be a celebration. For somebody who eschewed all established rituals, therefore, Renga is significantly close to a secular worship: a form of quest for a meaning which nihilism denies, but which is ultimately found, at least as an aspiration, in the hearts of most human beings.
Album Notes by Chiara Bertoglio
Giancarlo Schiaffini, composer-trombonist-tubist, was born in Rome in 1942 and graduated in Physics at the University of Rome in 1965. Self-taught, he appeared as soloist in the first free-jazz concerts in Italy and subsequently presented his own compositions widely in the mid 1960’s. In 1970 he studied at Darmstadt with Stockhausen, Ligeti and Globokar and formed the contemporary chamber ensemble Nuove Forme Sonore. He also worked with Franco Evangelisti in 1972 and has since collaborated with the Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova consonanza until 1983. In 1975 he founded the Gruppo Romano di Ottoni performing Renaissance and Contemporary music. He is member of the well known Italian Instabile Orchestra. He taught at the Conservatorio “G. Rossini” in Pesaro, “A. Casella” in l’Aquila and at the Summer Courses of Siena Jazz (instrument, improvisation, composition). He plays Contemporary Music, Jazz and Improvisation in concerts and International Festivals of Contemporary music and Jazz like Teatro alla Scala, Accademia di S. Cecilia, Biennale Musica di Venezia, Autunno Musicale di Como, Settembre Musica di Torino, IRCAM, Upic and Festival d’Automne (Paris), Reina Sofia (Madrid), Ars Musica (Bruxelles), Europa Jazz Festival du Mans, Jazz a Mulhouse, Tramway (Rouen), Wien Modern, Aspekte (Salzburg), Donaueschinger Musiktage, Moers, UNEAC (Cuba), Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Lincoln Center and Hunter College (New York). Mr. Schiaffini has collaborated with John Cage, Karole Armitage, Luigi Nono and Giacinto Scelsi in various performances and works for solo trombone or tuba have been dedicated to him by Scelsi, Nono, Amman, Alandia, Dashow, Villa-Rojo, Renosto, Laneri, Guaccero. His music has been published by BMG, Curci, Edipan, Ricordi. His treatise on contemporary trombone techniques is published by Ricordi, “E non chiamatelo jazz”, about improvisation, “Tragicommedia dell’ascolto”, “Immaginare la musica”, “Errore e pregiudizio” by Auditorium Edizioni.
Francesca Gemmo: Francesca Gemmo is an italian pianist and composer. Her focus on experimentation and improvisation has encouraged collaboration with influential artists such as Alvin Curran, Brunhild Meyer-Ferrari, Steve Piccolo, Walter Prati, Giancarlo Schiaffini and Elliott Sharp. She has performed in Italy and Europe (Sale Apollinee di Venezia, Centre Le Phenix di Friburgo, Konzerthaus di Weimar, Fondazione Mudima di Milano, Museo del Novecento di Milano, Teatro Arsenale di Milano). Her compositions have been performed by Divertimento Ensemble, Irvine Arditti, Trio Matisse, Luca Avanzi, Sergio Armaroli and Sergio Scappini; moreover, works have been commissioned by prestigious instrumentalists such as guitarist Magnus Andersson and saxophonist Daniel Kientzy. In 2017 for Ars Publica she recorded the unpublished work (1a execution absolute) "Grandi Numeri" by Sylvano Bussotti with Improvviso Fantasia directed by Giuseppe Giuliano and aboutCage Vol. 3 for Da Vinci Classics. In April 2019 will be released a recording project for solo piano improvisation published by Dodicilune. She has published several scores (Salatino Edizioni and Berbèn), and essays on musical and didactic subjects (Tangram Edizioni Scientifiche, Padus Edizioni).
John Cage (b Los Angeles, 5 Sept 1912; d New York, 12 Aug 1992). American composer. One of the leading figures of the postwar avant garde. The influence of his compositions, writings and personality has been felt by a wide range of composers around the world. He has had a greater impact on music in the 20th century than any other American composer.