This past Saturday, I spent five hours in a great big room with a cold concrete floor that was brimming from end to end with sounds and images and people. Three of the four walls, as well as a screen hanging from the ceiling and winding in an angle above, were morphing and spinning ceaselessly with celestial and kaleidoscopic images that were projected from the row of “Lightcircus” artists along the fourth wall. Meanwhile, four harpsichordists (Joseph Kubera, Karl Larson, Emily Manzo, and Neely Bruce) performed computer-manipulated works by Beethoven, Mozart, Schoenberg, and others; however, the tinkling antique instruments could barely be heard over the din of electronic music clattering from loudspeakers throughout the room. The space, which is part of the Eyebeam Art + Technology Center, was hosting HPSCHD, John Cage’s 1969 collaboration with Lejaren Hiller. The rarely-performed work – a “mass media orgy” – was presented by Eyebeam, Issue Project Room, and Electronic Music Foundation as part of the 2013 Darmstadt Essential Repertoire series. The production was directed and curated by artistic adviser Joel Chadabe and Bradley Eros, with sound design by Daniel Neumann and installation design by Brock Monroe and Joshua White.

John Cage; image by Susan Schwarzenberg
John Cage; image by Susan Schwarzenberg

When I burst into Eyebeam, I felt as if I had stumbled upon an anarchic, psychedelic feast. It was impossible to take it all in at once, so I didn’t try to. I worked my way gradually across the enormous room, letting the aural and visual stimulations clash and intertwine and gnaw through my mind. I started at the end of the room closest to the entrance, leaning against the cool, color-splashed wall and sipping coffee. I listened to the exclamations of the arriving audience members, who were (wittingly or unwittingly) participants in the performance with their chatter. As they walked across the room, their bodies passed through the image-beams of the Lightcircus artists and were projected in shadows against the mosaic of moving art. Occasionally the harpsichordists gathered up their scores and milled about the space or started up at a vacant harpsichord. The overheard snatches of un-Cagean melodies and trills reminded me that Cage had disdainfully compared the instruments to sewing machines; here they were integral to the clangorous soundscape, clicking and stitching away in the background.

The piece is not mere chaos, but a Happening; the result of chance operations, and a meditation on technology (it premièred the month before the first moon landing): “20-minute solos for one to seven amplified harpsichords and tapes for one to 52 amplified monaural machines to be used in whole or in part in any combination with or without interruptions, etc., to make an indeterminate concert of any agreed-upon length...” I began to pick up patterns and repetitions in the sounds emanating from the speaker closest to my spot on the ground, as well as in the images flurrying past: a brass snippet, rhythms in woodblocks, a Star Wars character, a trippy jaunt across the universe. I relocated and watched fish swimming backwards as I got pummeled by a separate set of electronic sounds. After passing through the first few tiers of insanity, I reached a complacent point at which I felt that I really could hear and see everything at once. So much was happening, but there was no momentum, and the stationary motion could have gone on forever.

Eventually I found myself in the center of the space, with a perfect view of Neely Bruce, a harpsichordist who had performed along with David Tudor and others in the première in 1969. I stood, surrounded by oscillating syllables, pitches, and digital chirps, as well as floating bacteria or dandelions or splotches of color. At the predetermined time, the sounds cut off, and the screens and walls went blank. Everybody was heaved into silent darkness before bursting into applause, grabbing our things, and then returning to the “real world”, which felt much less real than it had before experiencing this work.

John Cage is dead, but HPSCHD is living art. Although the work itself is difficult to take in, it possesses a crucial human aspect: the interplay of speech with live and pre-recorded music, the shadows against the walls, the light glinting across roaming bodies. This “happening” would not have happened the same way if any one person hadn’t shown up; it will never happen the same way again. The performers – from the harpsichordists to the electronic and light artists – were extremely focused, even though the focus wasn’t really on them. Since the première of HPSCHD, man has walked on the moon and developed iPads and 3D printers, but with this work Cage has demonstrated the imperativeness in music of breathing, thinking life alongside technology, whether laptops or sewing machines.