Thomas Moore: In reference to last night’s performance at the Terrace Theater, could you tell us something about the structure of Branches?
John Cage: It’s improvisation within a structure determined by chance operations, so that what each musician has is eight minutes divided by chance operations into smaller groups, not of seconds, but of minutes. So it would be, for example, four minutes, two minutes, one minute, one minute. Or it might be four minutes, four minutes; or it might be three minutes, two minutes, two minutes, one minute. Then there are ten instruments and what is an instrument can be determined by each performer. For instance, one spine could be one instrument, another spine another. Or the whole cactus could be an instrument, and there are ten of those, and the tenth one is the pod rattle, and must go in the last section of the eight minutes. Then between one eight-minute performance and another there is to be a silence, also determined by chance. I had thought of it, if it were to be played by a number of people, as it was the other evening — I had thought of it as being determined by each person independently of the other. But what the Nexus group did was to determine it for the whole group, and to play it in what you might call vertical harmony, rather than, as I had imagined it, contrapuntally, with each person independent of the other. I explained this to them that their understanding of the piece was different than mine, but my directions are actually always ambiguous, and I do that in order to leave the door open for a musician to make an original use of the material.
Laura Fletcher: We just performed Variations II, and that’s very ambiguous.
JC: Well, that, no, that’s almost impossible to understand! (laughs)
LF: We spoke with David Tudor when he was down here earlier, and his ideas were rather different than ours.
JC: Yes. I think it’s interesting to have — to make something like that, that each person has to understand for himself, don’t you think?
TM: I did see a performance of Variations II once in which the performer completely misinterpreted the score. Have you seen this sort of thing occur?
JC: Oh, I’m sure it does happen, yes. I think similar things happen even to explicit pieces, so I don’t think we have to worry. (laughs)
TM: Did you work with Nexus on Branches prior to the performance?
JC: No. No, I just let them do what they do. If they would ask me — because they probably would if we had a chance to talk — of what I thought of the performance and so forth, I would lead them away from continual activity in a sense of silence as activity. So that within one of the structures, say, four minutes, it’s not necessary to be continually making sound. You can fill that four minutes up by simply putting one sound halfway through the third minute. Instead of being a lawmaker I would like to have my work take on the character of stimulus or suggestion. I don’t mean that in terms of license, but in terms of poetry.
LF: Your comment regarding silence as activity is interesting in relation to our recent performance of Variations II, for which use used two piano interiors, marimba, and electric guitar. During rehearsals, Tom DeLio listened to it and told us there should have been more silence.
JC: Too active. Well, if you think of time as a canvas, and if you recall your experience of modern art, you can see that a canvas really can be empty. Or it can have a stroke just in one corner.
TM: What was the germinal idea behind Branches?
JC: It was originally made as an eight minute piece called Child of Tree, and it was to accompany a dance by Merce Cunningham which was called Solo, in which he seemed to be a series of different animals. He entered the stage like some kind of lizard, upright though, and he became a bird, and then one of the cat family, and so on. So I thought if he was being animals, I would be plants!
LF: How were the plants wired?
JC: It was done better than I’ve ever heard it. It was done with what’s called a C-ducer, and I mentioned that to David Tudor, and he also has three such things. He’s worked before, to my knowledge, with transducers, but these are C-ducers. It’s a strip that can be of different lengths, and it works — David was explaining it to me this morning — with some kind of feedback arrangement, and it’s not a passive microphone. It has to be powered.
I had a project — well, I still have it — but I’m not sure that it will be implemented. It was to be in Ivrea, Italy, which is the city where the Olivetti Company is, near Torino in Italy, and they had asked me to do something for children. And I said I would like to amplify a park so that all the plants and trees become productive of sound for the children to explore. (laughs) I found a hilltop almost in the middle of the town where you were up above the city and in view of the Alps, and the sounds that came up to that hilltop, when you were silent, were absolutely beautiful. Sounds of traffic, of people, and of animals. And then it was going to be arranged so that in an automatic way, the amplification of the bushes and trees would be available to the children, and then would automatically cut off, so you would hear this silence. It was going to work like that — alternations of the amplification taking place and not taking place.
TM: Do you plan to go ahead with this work?
JC: Other places now have asked for it, and I don’t generally have the feeling that one place is better than another, but that place in Ivrea was so beautiful — and it would have been so beautiful — that I’m reluctant to do it anyplace else.
TM: What other projects are current of interest?
JC: I have just finished a piece for twenty harps, and I’m about to start a piece for organ, and I still work on the violin etudes — the Freeman Etudes — which correspond to the Etudes Australes, and when I finish them I plan to write a series of etudes for — I’m think I’m going to do it twice, one for recorder or recorders, and once for flute.
TM: Some of these works are very difficult.
JC: They are, yes, they’re very difficult.
TM: Did you have a virtuosic element in mind?
JC: Yes, and these are intentionally as difficult as I can make them, because I think that we’re now surrounded by very serious problems in the society, and that we tend to think that the situation is hopeless and that it’s just impossible to do something that will make everything turn out properly. (laughs) So I think that this music, which is almost impossible, gives an instance of the practicality of the impossible.