The Process of Discovery: Interpreting Child of Tree
November 1, 2012, 11:00 AM
Percussive Arts Society International Convention
The following lecture, (delivered while the University of New Mexico Percussion Ensemble, Scott Ney, director, performed Branches by John Cage), was preceded by my performance of John Cage's Child of Tree, and followed with a performance of my own composition 64 Statements re and not re Child of Tree.
"I am still obsessed with Cage and Chance (and chance: is it possible you underestimate this theme?"
Norman O. Brown, in correspondence with the author
1 February 1995
The answer to that question is "yes and no" and this lecture on Child of Tree is my belated response to a question from Norman O. Brown, one of the last century's most important intellectuals, who was also one of Cage's best critics, as well as being someone who corresponded (and was friends) with Cage for many years. I'll return to this question at the end of my remarks.
For now I want to begin with the video that follows: a version of Child of Tree that I performed in 1988, first for Cage himself at a 75-year retrospective I organized at the University of New Mexico where he was the featured guest. Child of Tree in this version was then performed at the Percussive Arts Society Convention in San Antonio, also in 1988. One more note about Child of Tree before I play the video: Because Cage often performed Child of Tree as part of a solo dance by Merce Cunningham, his partner in art and life for many years, I decided to include dance and music into one person. The dance, as was often the case with Cunningham, was not improvised but the music, as required by the score, was.
(Note, as you watch, the incorrect placement of the pod rattles, one of two mistakes in this version. The second will be discussed in what follows.)
If I had more time I would go through a detailed analysis of Child of Tree but for now I'll just concentrate on one aspect: the form of the piece and how it is made.
I had performed Child of Tree in Cage's presence twice, first in Albuquerque, as mentioned before, and second at a festival in Strathmore Maryland in 1989. And I'd been playing (and thinking about) Child of Tree for a long time. So much so that a friend of mine, the poet Joan Retallack who put together an excellent book of interviews with Cage toward the end of his life titled Musicage, even mentions the subject in an interview with Cage just before he died, conducted on July 30, 1992. I'll read the passage, which begins with reference to the composer Thomas DeLio, by then a mutual friend of Joan and I. Joan says: "Tom DeLio also mentioned Chris Shultis and his experience with performing Child of Tree. I've talked with Chris about this too, how Child of Tree is a piece he's been living with for years and years. He's constantly thinking about new ways to do it and feeling that where he was with it the last time he performed it is not where he wants to be now, at any given 'now.' And that's not simply some form of programmatic principle, it's a very lively continual exploration of the piece, and I suspect in the development of his life in some way. So I think that's always possible, that the realizations of any piece might develop and evolve over time." (Retallack, Musicage, p. 305) Cage responds about the performance aspect of this: "Well, it's the nature of performance, yes, to have a sense of imminence. Well, perhaps "imminence" is the wrong word, but"-- (then he continues, after a comment from Joan liking the word) "Danger! ... imminent danger. (laughs) It's so well expressed by the Zen monk who's holding up the cat in one hand and the knife in the other, who says, 'Quick! A word of truth or I slit the cat's throat!' That makes it very, very clear what happens to us at the point of performance. What is so marvelous about performance is that whatever happens is it!" (p. 306)
And that points to something important concerning what I think must have mattered most to Cage, the performance, but, as you'll see shortly, Cage would have known about my performances of Child of Tree (except for those two performances already mentioned) through my questions, not about performance, but instead about how to build a performance score.
That's because I had begun a correspondence with Cage regarding Child of Tree. I was thinking about publishing something regarding it in Percussive Notes, a magazine associated with the Percussive Arts Society. I only have time here to touch on one part of that correspondence now, and this concerns the number of parts in a performance score of Child of Tree, and let me just say that the score itself is a mess, very hard to read, and requires a lot of work to understand what to do. That's partly because the score is a text meant to make it possible for the performer to build their own performance score and Cage, as we shall see, wanted it to be a difficult task.
In a phone conversation with Cage, that initiated our correspondence, Cage told me there could be no more than four parts. Let's look at the original (as I say it's messy):
And then here is my transcription of it:
"Divide the eight minutes into parts by means of the coin oracle of the I-Ching. " He then, as you can see, divides the I-Ching into four. "If the first 2 or 3 parts total seven minutes, the last part, of course, will be one minute. If the addition of the 3rd or 4th part makes a length of 9, or 10, reduce it to a number making a total length of 8." This is what Cage has to say in the score of Child of Tree concerning parts.
Now let's take a look at my first realization of Cage's work from 1987. As you can see I came up with 5 parts, not 4. Why?
Well, when I first studied the piece and made this score (and maybe you can blame the coffee too as we, Dave Neale and I, were drinking a lot and EJ's was a great place to do that), I read the first direction "divide the eight minutes into parts" as using the table of four to determine the number of minutes in each part. And that's true. It is what he means by that. So for part one, I rolled a 40 hexagram, which equals 3 minutes. Then I rolled an 8 hexagram that equals 1 minute, a 13 that equals 1 minute, a 1 hexagram for 1 minute and a 58 that equals 4 minutes which, adding up to more than 8 minutes altogether was reduced to 2. This last operation was possible, according to Cage's instruction "if the addition of a 3rd or 4th part makes a length of 9 or 10, reduce it to a number making a total length of 8." So that's how I can up with 5 parts rather than the 4 parts Cage said were the most possible. In a moment I'll get to the obvious problem with my logic but first let's continue with the dialogue between me and Cage. Referring to that earlier phone call I wrote the following to Cage:
"This question concerns a clarification of page four. For me, what isn't clear in the instructions is the apparent need for two steps: the first step is the determination of sections, while the second step determines the length of each section."
Now before we go any further, let me just assure everyone that at this point I'm getting lost in the instructions, something that I think is very easy to do with Child of Tree. Because as you saw in the previous slide that is not what I did at all. Instead I just rolled some low numbers that made it possible to end up with more than 4 parts. But I didn't do a two-step operation, deciding parts first and minutes second. No, the point is, now that I'm in touch with the composer and going back and forth, I'm becoming more confused. And, as you might imagine, I'm also a little intimidated and nervous, a young thirty year old writing to the great John Cage? Well, anyway that's how I excuse it now! Let's continue with my letter to Cage:
"If you divide the eight minutes into parts using the table of four" (which as I say I didn't ever do) it would entail the following (at least this is the way I've been doing it since we last spoke)" (and that of course was the problem): "First you determine how many parts there are. So if you consult the I-Ching and get the 33rd hexagram there would be 3 parts." (Don't do this at home. It's wrong.) "The second step would be determining how many minutes for each: what I do is consult the table of four again, this time until the eight minutes have been used up. Example: if I have 3 parts and in consulting the I-Ching get the 49th hexagram, the first part would be 4 minutes long (and so on until the eight minutes are complete.)"
To be fair with myself this is a workable solution to the problem. But as Marcel Duchamp once said, "There is no solution because there is no problem." Here is Cage's response to my letter:
"If your first toss is 33, it would mean 3" for the first section; if then 49, 4" for the second ", leaving 1" for the 3rd and last section. I don't see it as a two-step operation."
Ok now here is how confused I had become at that point. And I think you'll see why in a minute. This is how I responded to Cage on August 13 1990, and I need to read it in almost its entirety in order for you to understand my position fully: "I believe that possibilities continue to exist which are unanswerable by the instructions and require an interpretation by the performer not specifically contained within those instructions. Perhaps that is by design. Certainly many excellent performances have occurred without need for such clarification and I have no desire to bother you unnecessarily. Thus should you wish this instruction to continue as is, please disregard the remaining contents of this letter. However if you are interested in investigating this further I'd appreciate one more response. When we spoke on the phone you bet me a nickel that there could only be 4 parts. If the process described in question #1 is not a two step process and if the series of four number possibilities equals the number of minutes (as you suggest in your response to that question), then the possibility exists of more than four parts. I'll use an example to see if you owe me money: if I toss 8 I get one minute; if I toss 16 I get one minute again; if I then toss 17 I get two minutes; if I toss 7, I again get one minute, thus having four parts requiring at least a fifth to get the necessary eight minutes."
"My reason for suggesting a two-step process was to reconcile your statement that there be no more than four parts to the possibility of more than four if the process were in one step with the table of four used solely to determine minutes. The only other method I can envision would be one where the first toss determined both time and division of parts." (Watch what happens here because this is exactly what Cage intends with Child of Tree) "However that is problematic because if you tossed 7, the result would be one part" (because a 7 hexagram would equal one in Cage's division of the I-Ching) "with a duration of 1 minute. This could work if it were understood that the toss of one simply determined that the one part equaled eight minutes." I go on to end the letter as follows: "My impression is that your answer to the first question can produce two possibilities: either the one step determines minutes allowing for more than four parts, or it determines minutes and number of parts (using the same toss to decide both). If I'm willing to wager double or nothing would you be willing to further clarify this point?" (Shultis letter to Cage 8/13/90)
Here is Cage's response, a response to the last letter I ever wrote Cage about Child of Tree and my last letter from him concerning Child of Tree:
His "check" (see below) is, of course, one of my most prized possessions and gives you some idea of Cage's great sense of humor.
So back to the problem that is no problem which maybe you figured out already but clearly at that time I hadn't although by 1991 when I gave a lecture on Child of Tree at the University of Michigan I had where I wrote the following: "The two instructions that clarify the existence of only four (possible) parts are as follows: 'If the first 2 or 3 parts total seven minutes, the last part, of course, will be one minute.'" We've seen this in the score page (page four of Child of Tree) I showed you earlier. And there's one more on page five that you haven't: "If three parts (in addition to the last)." I then write in that lecture: "The inclusion of 'last' determines I believe that there may be only four parts." Or as I can more specifically add in this lecture, with a more scholarly precise use of words: there can be no more than four parts. Period.
So how did I miss this back then? And I apologize if this seems so specific and particular to the point of boredom toward the end of this lecture but it points to why I think Child of Tree is so important in Cage's work. I had spent a long time studying Cage by then and was, unlike what I said at the beginning of the talk, particularly influenced, as many people then were, and probably are now, by Cage's use of chance. I couldn't for the life of me see the obvious tree in that forest. That Cage would just DECIDE to have no more than four parts. In other words, the system he created only ALLOWS for up to four parts. There can't be more, regardless of all the ways I mentioned that would make it possible, because the score simply says in those two places, that "the last part" can be less than four, but not more than four and must be more than one: "if the first two". The instructions are very clear once you realize that all the messiness of the score is hiding that clarity and Cage is including choice and chance in a way he was only beginning to do at this point. And it is important to know that Cage's intentions were very important. That's why I didn't give chance enough credit, returning to Brown's point, because studying Child of Tree had shown me that chance was a technique, but that Cage's use of intention and non-intention was, as I've said elsewhere, very INTENTIONAL.
The fascinating thing about Child of Tree is that it reintegrates choice into what is usually regarded as a highly indeterminate work. The question is, how does this choice manifest itself? In many cases the choices are the composer's predetermined wishes, which can only be discovered as one wades through the murky waters of this complex set of instructions. My confusion concerning the number of parts is a case in point. The "answer" is there if one is devoted to its discovery. But most important, it requires that devotion and is not meant to be clear. As Cage wrote me in a letter (July 8, 1990) that I included earlier :"If you or Allen Otte writes an article re: all of this please include a facsimile pg. showing how the score was made (so that it is not easy to understand). This doesn't mean that you shouldn't clarify it."
Child of Tree extends choice to the performer as well and this, although I can't really elaborate here, is also important. Realizing that choice was inevitable, Cage in Child of Tree allows the performer the opportunity in places to make the same choice he did, to relinquish control and co-exist within the work. The reintegration of choice in Child of Tree, on the part of the performer, is thus an opportunity allowing us to choose not to choose. To co-exist rather than control.
John Cage, in conversation with Joan Retallack. MUSICAGE: CAGE MUSES on Words Art Music. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1996.
Christopher Shultis. "Silencing the Sounded Self: John Cage and the Intentionality of Nonintention" in The Musical Quarterly (1995) Vol. 79, No. 2, pp. 312-350.