Kevin James ~ On the [kāj] ensemble’s 100 Waltzes for John Cage

In this, the banner year for John Cage (and his 100th birthday), there are and have been quite a few birthday-oriented homages to his life and career from various festivals given by collectives around the world, and specially-themed shows by ensembles such as Sō Percussion and Alarm Will Sound. Here’s another one for you–Composer-performer Kevin James had a few minutes and 33 seconds to talk about his group, the [kaj] ensemble‘s 100 Waltzes for John Cage concerts that are slated for August 21, 22, and 23 at the DiMenna Center for Classical Music at Mary Flagler Cary Hall in New York.

Kevin explains the origin of the work. “It’s an homage for his birthday, but it’s also an extension of his techniques, and it was inspired by his visual artwork from 1977 called The 49 Waltzes for the Five Boroughs. We took his setup for that, which was his use of the I Ching to locate 147 locations on a Hagstrom map, quite literally, with colored yarn, and attach those to create a pretty picture of New York City. That was printed in the October 1977 issue of Rolling Stone, and it was commissioned by them for their move to NYC”.

“After creating this, Cage did write up some extremely vague directions about how this might be performed as a musical piece, but he was very non-specific. He talked about maybe putting musicians in each of those 147 locations, and playing familiar waltzes along with the sound of the street, or using recordings, but he didn’t say how or anything, he just said ‘You might want to use recordings'”.

“My understanding is that the piece was performed and recorded at least once, but the nature of it is unknown, because the recording that was released is out of print now, and I haven’t been able to find any other information about it. It also exists as a video by Don Gillespie, where he set up a camera that rotated slowly and captured the locations”.

So how did Kevin James set about creating his 100 Waltzes?
“We chose 147 locations, and we did it using the I Ching to determine GPS locations. 64 numbers of the I Ching lines up very closely with how standard GPS locations are set up in minutes, seconds, and decimal points. We did 3-minute recordings that followed those locations, and we compared several lists of the world’s 100 most favorite waltzes. We used the I Ching to determine each bar number and staff number, and how many bars of each of those waltzes would be included, and each have been made into slides. The most number of bars from any given waltz is 64, according to the I Ching, and the least number is 1″.

“The slides have been programmed for iPads, which each musician will have. On their iPad, when they press ‘go’, the 100 slides will show up with the music, and the musicians will either play it or not. The idea is, they have to listen to what’s going on with the other musicians, but also what’s going on with the audio, specifically the street noises, and they have to respond with the music given to them. Each of the musicians will be set up on 3 sets of trios around the room, and will be allowed to move around the trios as they desire, and the audio samples are randomized as to which speaker they will come out of, and how long each sample will be played, and what order they will be played in. Every performance will be completely different using the same source material”.

This is a lot of information for a human to grasp, and it turns out it was just as challenging for Cage.
“Once we got into the process, we realized it was a time-intensive one. When Cage was doing this piece, he went to somebody and asked them if they could create a program that simulates the points from the I Ching, because throwing coins on the ground, recording and writing down what the points are, doing that three times to come up with your number related with the I Ching, then looking up that number–After doing this 28 times, you’re not a pleasant human being. So, somebody did that for him so that at the push of a button he could generate the throws of the coins and the numbers”.

Kevin believes that the spontaneity will bring great rewards. “The fun of it will be the surprises. When a specific slide of music shows up on screen, and a rhythm happens in the audio–the musicians latch on to that, get in sync with it, and that spreads throughout the room to the different areas. That will be the great fun.”

the [kāj] ensemble- brown paper tickets (Click here for tickets to the 100 waltzes shows)

The [kāj] Ensemble (Facebook page)

Kevin James, Composer


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