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 ).  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.



Filed under concert reviews


  1. driverson

    I loved the circus, but found myself wishing there were even more diverse styles of music represented … did anyone else think the event would have been even better if there was jazz, rock, African drumming, etc?

  2. I enjoyed the comment from the students you interviewed. Rather it is in venue choice or repertoire choice; I have always tried to find different ways to diversify the audience I perform for. This festival did just that. While some people may have been upset to have their workspace disturbed, others were introduced to a genre of music they may have never heard before.
    That being said, from a performers and musicians point of view, the melding of music was very difficult to deal with. My own performance certainly suffered as I cursed myself for the amount of notes I missed while gawking at the interpretive dancers nearby. There was also a man who took percussion mallets straight out of the hands of our performers to bang on their equipment.
    Overall, I think the experience was a good one and more should be done to attract a different kind of audience.

  3. The Music Circus was one of my favorite musical events at the University this year. I performed with the Symphony Band, which certainly took pride in being the loudest ensemble! It is unfortunate that we were drowning out the University Choir. Perhaps if the Choir had been spaced a little further away from the band, with more dancers in-between, they might have been heard (or been able to hear themselves) better.
    I’m not sure if others felt this way, but the circus seemed to become even more creatively inspired as the hours passed. At first, I think the ensembles were unsure of how the sound was going to come off, with groups competing for the audience’s attention. Once we were able to open our ears to accept this new aural experience, musicians became very creative. I particularly enjoyed the Phi Mu boys’ idea to sing while riding up and down the escalators (very circus-like!). Once members of the band saw this, we were inspired to play chamber music on secondary and auxiliary instruments. Oboists were playing trumpets, flutists were playing English Horn, Clarinetists were playing piccolo, and we became reading easy music together. I have never been inspired to have fun and let go of my traditional concert upbringing in a performance setting before. The day was very inspiring.

  4. Patrick Budelier

    The diversity and intensity of responses to Mr. Cage’s music continues to amaze me. Michael, I really love the way you documented and reviewed the UI Musicircus–you found a lot to like, and also, with the Distinguished Chinese Gentleman, managed to call into question (quite humorously, I might add) some of the aesthetic and philosophical assumptions that underpin this piece. Music is truly for everyone, and it’s a joy to see all types of audiences and performers having a great time with music, but there’s an aspect that continues to nag at me, and I usually find myself suppressing my thoughts lest I seem elitist or cruel. The truth is that very few of us will ever be able to play like Glenn Gould, write a hit song like Cole Porter, or compose music that is both intellectually and emotionally transcendent (like that of one Herr J. S. Bach), and there’s a divide there, though not a particularly painful or maddening one. I, for one, am not upset that Gould could play better than I can–I’m actually quite delighted! Now Cage was an interesting and likeable fellow, but musicians who toil their entire life will feel a kind of divide when confronted with certain of Cage’s works and the enormous popularity they still hold and the respect they continuously garner. The divide is different than that between our skills and Bach’s–that one shall not likely be bridged–rather, it is an eminently narrower chasm (more like a wee crack): it is the difference in musical ability required to play the Berg piano sonata vs. that to perform _4’33″_ (whether you love or hate these pieces); it is the obvious disparity in “genre of genius and artistic merit” between a carefully-wrought UI composition major’s string quartet and a piece like Cage’s _Indeterminacy_. Again, whether you love or hate the hypothetical string quartet or the Cage readings, there’s a stark musical truth in there somewhere–a truth that eats at all of us who love great music and toil countless hours practicing, writing, and teaching works of solid musical merit. I would like to see Cage celebrated more for his musical prowess (like that which he shows in _Sonatas and Interludes_) rather than the somewhat mycologically-influenced and überdeconstructionist philosophical wanderings of _Indeterminacy_, _4’33″_, and other similar works, but then again, maybe I’m just an elitist grouch 🙂

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