Yesterday was no typical Sunday in the Old Capitol Mall in downtown Iowa City. One member of the custodial staff remarked, “Wow – people!”
Yes, there WERE people, many of them, men, women and children, and there were also musicians, who started appearing with all their accoutrements (instruments, music stands, black folders, conducting batons, and little Tupperware containers full of water for the oboists) about twenty minutes before the official four o’clock start of John Cage’s Musicircus. Premiered in 1967, this composition is characteristic of the works of the revolutionary American artist (whose hundredth birthday is being celebrated this year) in that it is not really a composition at all. No written score exists for the Musicircus. It is an event: musicians (and other artists) are simply invited to assemble in an open, public space and perform simultaneously for a set period of time.
Throughout his life, John Cage worked to liberate music from the rigid, stuffy confines of the concert hall, and even from people’s preconceived notions of what music IS. For Cage, all kinds of sound – even unstructured noise – constituted music. And unstructured noise is exactly what the Musicircus offers its audience – all kinds of music, played in many different styles by many different performers – all at the same time.
The idea sounds wonderful: free music, and as much of it as you like! The food court of a shopping mall seems an appropriate venue for this kind of sensory smorgasbord. But remember: we don’t have “earlids” to shut out unwanted sound. Just imagine if your Taco Bell Cheezy Cordita Crunch Box came with additional – and obligatory! – servings of Korean bulgogi, an assortment of California rolls, pepperoni pizza slices from Sbarro, and a side of Tandoori chicken, all swimming in a pool of caramel macchiato from TSpoons. Are you experiencing a gut reation? Well, some of the audience members (and performers) at the Musicircus suffered the same sense of forced over-ingestion and had to clear the premises before the appointed hour was up in order to keep it all down.
The musical menu on this particular Sunday afternoon included many delicacies (the Taco Bell metaphor was not intended as an insult to any performers). The UI Chamber Orchestra offered selections from J.S. Bach’s third Brandenburg Concerto and Antonin Dvorak’s Serenade for Strings. The band department – encamped not forty feet away – offered Variants on a Mediaeval Tune by Norman Dello Joio and three Dance Movements by Philip Sparke. The University Choir (competing valiantly but in vain with the superior decibel levels of the large instrumental groups) sprinkled its performances of Stephen Chatman’s onomatopoeic cycle Due North and Jean Berger’s Devotional Songs with impromptu Christmas carols, body percussion jam sessions (some mildly alarming), and readings of multiple one-minute stories from another of Cage’s works, Indeterminacy (listen to Cage himself reading these stories at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AJMekwS6b9U&feature=results_main&playnext=1&list=PL904AACF63E027BE6 ). Young students from the Preucil school executed their group renditions of selections from Suzuki Book One and Book Two with admirable earnest – there is hope for the future! Miscellaneous grad students played bassoon, marimba, and steel drum; several modern dancers emoted and a young man wandered around sticking a melodica (also known as a “blow-organ” – who says you can’t learn anything from Wikipedia?) into peoples’ faces. The Chamber Singers of Iowa City sang J.S. Bach’s Gloria sei Dir gesungen as well as settings of Cantate Domino by further Baroque composers Heinrich Schuetz and Giuseppe Pitoni – very classy! But their best selection was Estonian composer Veljo Tormis’s unpronouncable Parismaalase lauluke, a rhythmically insistent work of anti-Soviet protest based on a Polynesian folk tune. Hmmm… somehow it just fit.
A distinguished Chinese gentleman I interviewed summed up the event in three words: “Too much noise.” Two random UI students, however, felt that the Musicircus served a community purpose: “So many people have never even been to a band or orchestra concert. This may get them interested in coming to hear some of the groups later.” I personally enjoyed riding the escalators and listening to the various streams of music phase in and out around me as I moved through all that vibrating space. And many of the student musicians I spoke with enjoyed the fact that, for once in their university career, they were just playing music for fun – no beta blockers required. If only for these reasons, the Musicircus represents an intriguing concept, and one worth exploring.