From 1967–1969, John Cage (1912–1992) was an associate Member of the Center for Advanced Study at the University of Illinois. The appointment came about with the help of Lejaren Hiller, founder of the University of Illinois’ Experimental Music Studio and the co-composer of the first significant computer composition Illiac Suite (1957). Cage’s tenure in Urbana culminated in the production of the multimedia work HPSCHD which he produced in collaboration with Hiller, Calvin Sumsion, and Ron Nameth. Hiller oversaw much of the programming work and functioned as a sounding board for Cage’s compositional ideas. Sumsion supervised the static visual elements used in the performance and later collaborated with Cage on a series of lithographs and plexigrams called Not Wanting to Say Anything about Marcel. Nameth, a filmmaker from the Art Department, organized the motion picture films that were used for the performance. Initially, HPSCHD was a commission from the Swiss harpsichordist Antoinette Vischer who had requested from Cage “a harpsichord piece.” Vischer’s modest commission grew into a huge work that included seven harpsichords, 52 tapes of computer-produced tones, about 8,000 slides and over 40 motion picture films.
HPSCHD is an unusual work among Cage’s oeuvre for many reasons. Especially noteworthy is Cage’s large scale use of technology (specifically the computer), the use of historical musical quotations, the theatrical environment of the work, and, perhaps most surprisingly, Cage’s return to earlier compositional ideas. These noteworthy aspects open many avenues of inquiry about the piece, about Cage, and about our assumptions of the composer in the late 1960s. Since the details of the computer programs and the history of the programming process have been thoroughly discussed, my study will not duplicate these efforts, but will draw on available sources to inform the compositional, philosophical, visual, and contextual meanings of the work. In this study, I analyze the production of HPSCHD ethnographically, as an event. I situate the event within the context of postmodern philosophy, anarchic politics, the culture of the university campus of the late 1960s, and the countercultural “summer of love.” Through this type of contextual study, I bring some of the assumptions about Cage into question.
Cage intentionally couched his compositions in a wealth of political and philosophical rhetoric. In the late 1960s Cage was highly influenced by his recent rediscovery of Henry David Thoreau and his discovery of the American social philosophy of Marshall McLuhan and Buckminster Fuller. Just as Cage used Asian philosophies to bolster his turn to chance composition in the 1950s, Cage appropriated a vocabulary from Thoreau, McLuhan, and Fuller to legitimize his new work with the computer. Cage characterized HPSCHD as political work of art which was to demonstrate the possibility of an anarchic utopia––a world which had come to terms with its own history and its technology. Using David Patterson’s analysis of Cage’s idiosyncratic use of South Asian philosophical terms as a methodological model, I define and clarify terms that Cage used in connection to HPSCHD such as “abundance,” “multiplicity,” “anarchy,” “chaos,” and “interpenetration.”
For this study, I use a number of previously unpublished primary sources. Cage’s letters from this time period (housed in the John Cage Archives at Northwestern University) are an excellent source. I also draw heavily on the scores and sketches of HPSCHD that are part of the New York Public Library’s Music Collection. Peter Yates was a devoted friend to Cage and authored the liner notes to the HPSCHD recording released simultaneous to the 1969 event. The Peter Yates Papers, housed in the Mandeville Special Collections Library at the University of California, San Diego contain a wealth of information and correspondence between Yates and Cage. The poet and scholar Eric Mottram Papers wrote fairly extensively about Cage and his book Silence. The Eric Mottram Papers (King’s College, London) are valuable insights into Cage’s work simultaneous to the composition of HPSCHD. Personal interviews and e-mail correspondence with a number of “informants” has also proven to be essential to this study. This document includes quite a bit of oral history about Cage, the atmosphere at the University of Illinois in the late 1960s, and the 1969 HPSCHD event.
There is evidence that despite the chance operational selection of materials for the event, Cage had specific ideas about how one was to react to the work. Cage designed into the piece elements that were to cause a participatory reaction and were designed to create an atmosphere of inclusiveness for the mostly college-aged audience. Despite the traditional view and some evidence that Cage distanced himself from the countercultural movement, there is evidence that Cage panders to this population to a certain degree with the inclusion of visual elements that are iconic of the Summer of Love and the psychedelic age.
As of yet, no one has studied HPSCHD as an event, with equal emphasis on the visual, the aural, and the participatory aspects of the work. A study of the visual elements of the performance draws on published interviews, unpublished letters, Calvin Sumsion’s graduate thesis from the University of Illinois, and oral accounts from the artists and participants. A study of the slides and films, and how they were produced and selected using consistent chance compositional methods, sheds light on Cage’s conception of HPSCHD as a theater piece.