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In search of lost silence:
John Cage's Train
(Bologna, 1978)

John Cage became famous in the 40's as the inventor of the prepared piano. The lack of space in a small concert hall forced him to tweak a piano which eventually, after inserting screws, bolts and pieces of glass in between its strings, sounded like a percussion orchestra; therefore the term prepared. Many years later he would conceive another preparation, this time fiddling with a train! And right here in Italy.

John Cage leaning out of the train

Caption: John Cage leaning from the train (picture by Silvia Lelli and Roberto Masotti ©)

The event took place in the month of June 1978. John Cage projected, thanks to an idea of Tito Gotti, a musical happening (considering all the meanings the word musical possessed for John Cage) based on the sonorization of a train during three different trips along less crowded railroad lines. Here are the three excursions:

Il treno di John Cage (John Cage's Train) featured Walter Marchetti, Juan Hidalgo, Demetrio Stratos, Daniel Charles, among the important personalities who guested in. Thirty years later, still in Bologna, two days celebrated the Il Treno di John Cage: Take the Cage train, a pun between the very famous theme of Duke Ellington's orchestra and our John.

The audience waiting for Il Treno di John Cage

Caption: The audience waiting for Il Treno di John Cage on the platform (picture by Corinto Marianelli ©)

The full description of the genesis of the 1978 train event is contained in Baskerville's volume Alla ricerca del silenzio perduto (both in English and Italian) which collects some texts (by Daniel Charles, Tito Gotti and Giampiero Cane) that not only explain the birth of the project, but they also interpret its artistic purport. The publication includes some bonus material: 3 cds and 1 dvd with footage of the time (gathered from the vaults of some fans who could film back then), plus a cascade of pictures that brings us the delightful atmosphere of those days. There is also a 1979 volume with pictures and an audio tape which has become a collector's item over the years (more info in the Books section).

John Cage in the mixer room

Caption: John Cage in front of the mixer aboard the train (picture by Corinto Marianelli ©)

Apart from the lavish photographic retrospective featured in Baskerville's volume and the recording of the sounds produced by the sum of the musicians and the train, Rai television aired on June 29 1978 a tv program in which Walter Marchetti and Tito Gotti, under John Cage's look, illustrated the project.
The only footage available from the three excursions is a muted clip (no audio track survived) found by Elena Testa of the Archivio Nazionale Cinema d'Impresa di Ivrea in the Ferrovie dello Stato (Italian railways) archives, now shared online:

You can read below the detailed schedule of the three day journeys, followed by the text by Boris Porena Who, what is John Cage? that accompanied it in the booklet of the Feste musicali a Bologna (courtesy of Cramps Records archives).

At the end of the page you can find instead some articles: some published after the Empty Words concert in Milan, where Cage reveals the basic idea underlying the upcoming happening Il Treno di John Cage, and another one from newspaper l'Unità few days before the event.

Schedule of Il Treno di John Cage

(from the booklet of the Feste musicali a Bologna, June 1978)

John Cage's train schedule

Who, what is John Cage?

(from the booklet of the Feste musicali a Bologna, by Boris Porena, June 1978)


Here are some answers.
1) End of the fifties. Inside a house in Rome some adults and children are sitting in front of a blanket guessing who is hiding under it; a matchbox springs out of the blanket for few seconds; then a tiny ivory elephant; then an orange; scissors; a tiny elephant and a candle: scissors, orange, matches; a family portrait and a fork…
To me – I was there – Cage is a tiny ivory elephant, an orange, a matchbox; or the gap between them, the nothing or the something that binds or separates them; or the children laughing and the adults enchanted by a fork. (Boris Porena)

2) The Cage phenomenon is quite singular and to understand its impact the traditional parameters of the European music must be abandoned, particularly the strict rational constructivism, that is its essential premise. If any (not that much actually) invisible thread ties the American avantgarde composers of this century, this consists of the pioneering freedom from the historical European dictum. Compared to Varèse and Ives however, Cage shows a tendency towards a different kind of experimentalism… which is totally concerned about the most obvious ordinariness and the usage of sonorous feedbacks immersed into a basically demeaning combinatorial game. As H.K. Metzger pointed out, Cage's feat begins from an extreme alienation, that establishes a randomness on which the composer refuses to intervene: 'to compose' becomes a simple contact with diverse objects or musical toys, either traditional or extracted from any context… It is not only the aspect of 'sound' that Cage degrades by means of paradoxical and deliberately ironic/destructive practices, but also that of form, that is, apart from his declared controversial attitude, Cage proceeds on dismantling any possible structure with absolute nonchalance… Cage aims at replacing the idea of the sonorous object with experience: as in Rauschemberg, also in his music the informal gesture moves, after the abstraction of Stockhausen, Boulez and Pousseur's total serialization, towards freely associated sounds, even better when occasional or unpredictable. The act of composing could be, in some not too extreme cases, just a ritual of gestures touching the most diverse sources of sound. (Armando Gentilucci: Cage entry, Enciclopedia della musica, Rizzoli, 1972)

3) He is not a composer. (Arnold Schönberg)

4) He is a mushroom expert. (G.S., telespettatore)

5) John Cage was born in Los Angeles, 1912. He studied with R. Buhlig, H. Cowell, A. Weiss, A. Schönberg. In 1949 he was nominated by the National Academy of Arts and Letters for having extended the boundaries of music with his works for percussion and the invention of the prepared piano (1938). In 1951, with the aid of musicians and sound engineers, he founded a laboratory for the research and the creation of music on magnetic tape. In 1952, at Black Mountain College, he presented a 'theatrical event' which is considered the first happening. He has been collaborating for years with choreographer Merce Cunningham and his dance company. He taught in various American colleges and frequently traveled in Europe. His compositions (many of which despise such a definition) deeply influenced the international avantgarde of the 50s and 60s and all the contemporary musical scene. Among his writings, Silence, 1961, and A Year from Monday must be mentioned. (from a reliable biography)

6) John Cage is someone who points at obviousness, not exceptionalness. By doing this however, he makes it unique (the tiny ivory elephant for example). John Cage's silence is an ear open to the sound pervading the world. The children who in the first year of elementary school exercise their binary system sound/silence, often prolong silence to such an extent that is intolerable for adults. In such silence, environment produces meaning: a buzz suggests a fly, a distant siren social apprehension, an unknown voice the proof we are not alone.
Among the effects caused by Cage, there is a new musical pedagogy, there is a chance to work for a 'basic' musical experience, open to everyone because it precedes the construction of any grammar or syntax.
Cage, the realist, transforms the everyday horizon into the Utopian point.
Sometimes those who practice music with a political slant, negatively interpret Cage's Americanism and blame him for his passivity towards the world, for his disinterest in changing it.
I do not know what Cage thinks about the world, neither if or how he is willing to modify it; nevertheless, I and we can all see that his passage is influencing it very much. I remember Darmstadt in the 50's, the stronghold of the avantgarde in music. I recall his cultural terrorism and the frustration of those who were not aligned to it. I remember in 1958, the primeval smile of Cage, the fall of that terrorism and the liberty of listening to a dripping faucet.
There is a wonderful story by Borges. Of the occult protagonist, Almotasim, the direct actions are unknown, unlike his imperceptible traces in the world.

7) Cage is Almotasim. (Boris Porena)

8) 'Cage' in Italian means 'cage'.

9) Alla ricerca del silenzio perduto, 3 escursioni in un treno preparato, variazione su un tema di Tito Gotti, by John Cage assisted by Juan Hidalgo e di Walter Marchetti.
Traces of Cage in Tito Gotti, Juan Hidalgo e Walter Marchetti.
Juan Hidalgo (born in Las Palmas, 1927; he studied composition and piano in Spain, France and Switzerland; he collaborated with Bruno Maderna in the Phonology Lab in Milan; after a long stay in Madrid, he now lives in Italy) and Walter Marchetti (born in Canosa di Puglia, 1931; he held various job positions; he is a self-taught musician; after a long stay in Madrid, he now lives in Italy) were the promoters of ZAJ, a Spanish avantgarde ensemble that clearly stems from Cage. Both ZAJ and Tito Gotti had previously dealt with trains and stations. Today we will find them with Cage along the lines Bologna-Porretta Terme (June 26), Bologna-Ravenna (June 27), Ravenna-Rimini (June 28). An expressly equipped train – by Teatro Comunale in Bologna – will gather its own sounds that will be electronically treated for the passengers and the people in the stations. It will also gather and mix the sound locally produced – those of local bands, small groups and solo musicians for instance – together with the usual bustle of a train station.
At the end of June 1978, John Cage will be a train leaving from Bologna.

Newspaper articles about Il Treno di John Cage, 1978

(courtesy of Cramps Records from which the original scans of the two 1977 articles were retrieved and the Historical Archive of l'Unità for the 1978 one)

We can make very nice concerts using the music of trains


(subtitle: Meeting with the American composer John Cage. An outrageous musical work that will take place next June in some train stations near Bologna. The idea was born during a conversation between Cage and Tito Gotti. A Musicircus: a lot of msuic, including noises, offered to the audience altogether)

John Cage is one of the fathers of today's experimental music. Even if his age – he was born in 1912 – does not allow to place him among the great masters, the teaching and experience he managed to transmit to many composers after WWII and his provocative, at times baffling, spirit consent to regard him as a mandatory reference of the musical evolution in our time.

Cage has recently been in Italy for the concert at the Teatro Lirico in Milan and for a visit to the Teatro Comunale in Bologna, where he is conceiving a musical project for next summer. During a brief interview, we asked Cage some more details about the upcoming event.

The idea was born after a phone call with Tito Gotti from the Teatro Comunale in Bologna, who called me last year as I was in Paris. He proposed me to arrange in Bologna a Musicircus, which I had presented in two other occasions in USA and which I had just performed in Paris. At that time however I was very busy; I suggested that he postpone it in the summer of 1978 and that he write me to explain his idea more clearly. Hence it's a collaboration between Gotti and I. He wrote that he was particularly interested in doing things inside trains and in the stations. He sent me drawings of the train cars and maps of the railways nearby Bologna. He added he would have liked to bring the people aboard the trains and make musical events during the various stops.

Today, after this visit, I decided to further the project. We made a short trip on the train around Bologna: the sounds of the train were really fascinating: the noises in the stations, the bells, the whistles, the shrill of the rails. I think that this very enjoyable occasion will take place next June for three days: each day a different route and a Musicircus in every station.

Could you please tell us more about this term, Musicircus?

It's quite simple: we usually build concert halls that are made for keeping the music away, free from the influence of all the other kinds of music that are living outside. In a Musicircus instead of isolating music, we try to bring to the audience as much music as possible: altogether and in any form, because even the sounds of everyday life are music, including those made by a train.

What kind of equipment will be used for this happening?

I hope we could host musicians of the area, folk groups and bands for instance. Moreover, the people that live near the stations can be performers as well, together with the church choirs and other similar ensembles. Also, there will be the sounds of the trains and towns, which could be recorded and amplified. Maybe we will also have some tapes, that the audience could play, featuring those wonderful sounds of bells, alarms, whistles: anything that can be heard in a station. Then I believe that some speakers will be installed on the trains to transmit what has been recorded in the previous station.

What do you think the role of the audience and of all those who will be involved, will be?

Everyone will confront with an unfinished, complex artistic work; it's like dealing with nature, that is often complex. It will be like walking in a forest: there are many things to watch and if you ask yourself what the role of who is walking in the forest is, you immediately realize that everyone can play a different role and have his own experience. In my case, each one will be able to choose and change his role simply moving throughout the train.

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John Cage, concerto for train and railway

December 1977, by Berenice


There was a great outburst of whistles and applauses at the Teatro Lirico in Milan, some evenings ago, after John Cage's concert. Interviewed since his arrival at Linate airport to his departure to Paris by car (the snow canceled all flights), Cage was forced to talk even during the concert. But most of all, during the press conference, when the famous author of the avantgarde in music, who rebelled against the pentagram, proposed, even though cautiously, his doubts about the certainties of the '68 movement, questioning the validity of those cultural and revolutionary ideas, and leaving out of the door the reminiscing fans of Verdi. Who instead had entered and had asked him about those infernal, dantesque squeals shoved into the scores that seemed to be purposefully conceived to derange (if needed) the nervous system of the musicologists.

It was not easy to make John Cage talk after all this delirium of words. However it was (as this article proves) possible. Before Paris (then – maybe – Cologne) Cage secretly sneaked to Bologna. And it was there that we met him; to have him tell us all that he did not want or had the chance to share with the journalists in Milan, together with friends Mino Bertoldo (director of cultural space Out-Off, where Cage was hosted for his press conference) and Juan Hidalgo, who is not the Juan Hidalgo of three and a half centuries ago (1610-1685), but his present homonym, John Cage's right (and at times left too) arm. Between June and July 1978, John Cage will organize a new kind of concert that will be produced only with the aid of Tito Gotti (the cultural counselor in Bologna) and of FS (the Italian railways). It is a concert that will take place on a 7 cars train featuring passengers who will not pay an ordinary ticket, but the usual kind sold for concerts.

NOISE AND MUSIC.
There will be three concerts; their dates are fixed already (June 30, July 1 and 2) and the train will be played as the main instrument of Cage's music. Each concert will correspond to a specific route which features programmed stops. The overall duration of every concert is around 5 hours.

The title of concert's score is self-explanatory: the concert, that it seems to me it should be rightly defined for train and stops, is entitled In search of lost silence; subtitle: Variation upon an idea by Tito Gotti (assisted by Juan Hidalgo e Walter Marchetti). Here is the new kind of concert (perhaps the most audacious work within the Cagean oeuvre): aboard a train equipped with internal and external speakers, the music of Cage, performed in the last car of the train and amplified throughout the other ones, will blend with the internal and external noises of the train: shakes, squeaks, vibrations, the beat of the railroad (which is actually the catalyzing element of the score, the one destined to scan the rhythm of the concert), every sound and noise produced by the train will be amplified and included in Cage's music. At the same time, the ZAJ ensemble (Juan Hidalgo, Walter Marcheti e Esther Ferrer) will perform.

Every stop lasts 20 minutes. During this span of time the train will emit the previously recorded sounds of the first part of the trip through the external speakers. At this point the concert will incorporate a new musical element: that of the train stop. The official band of the town, the church choir, various ensembles, solitary musicians, singers, dancers (the typical Italian ballroom dancers will be inevitable), but also (local) painters and sculptors with their voices, cooks with their food specialties, will all be absorbed by the concert, that will record and integrate the whole happening and move to the following stop enriched by these new folkloric features.

The June 30 concert will take place on the Bologna-Porretta line. We do not know the other routes yet. Neither do Gotti nor Cage anyway; the concert for train just exited the projecting phase and entered the organizing one. This is the concert schedule: from 8.00 pm to 1.00 am. The idea of the train concert follows that of an unrealized Musicircus: a bunch of orchestras and ensembles should have played altogether under a circus awning. This wasn't done John Cage says but it will be. It wasn't done, presumably, because the complex of the simultaneously performing groups would have resulted in a total mess.

In order to set up his concert for train, Cage will fly back to Europe from USA next June 20. He will arrive when things are already arranged. Almost. Gotti, Hidalgo and Marchetti started to work on the actual project as soon as Cage left to France.

Meantime, Cage, questioned about the pleasure for his concert in Milan, told me: I was pleased as a musician, as I was interviewed and as a macrobiotic cook. You know that I always travel with my little bags of brown rice, seeds, flours and soybean oil for tempura. Well, at Gianni Sassi's place I managed to cook an incredible rice in spite of the malfunctioning of the stoves (but the quality of the cloth that is mandatory to cover the pan throughout the cooking process was exceptional). Then Cage added: Even if I am quite strict, almost maniacal, when it comes to cook, I was able to accomplish an exquisite dish refining with vegetable water and pepper a millet soup prepared by Valeria Magli, who was with us.

I asked Cage one more question: will you replicate your concert for train in some other countries? The famous composer replied: It won't be easy to find other European countries ready to embrace this kind of cultural project; it's not a matter of railways, but of responsiveness to people's imagination.


N.B. Gianni Sassi is the producer of musical avantgarde (Cramps Records). Tempura is the usual term for fried food in the Eastern cuisine, which macrobiotic stems from. This interview was done at the restaurant of the train station in Bologna and written on a train between Bologna and Rome.

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Here is a train loaded with sounds and noises

(from l'Unità, Friday, May 23 1978, by Marco Venturi)


Next Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, a strange, certainly unique, animal will ramble through Emilia-Romagna: John Cage's Train. In order to distinguish itself from the other trains that travel on rails, this one will carry along, apart from seven cars for passengers plus two (one for the sound direction and the other one for the electricity supplier), a very long and revealing subtitle: In search of lost silence, three escursions for prepared train, variation on theme of Tito Gotti, by John Cage assisted by Juan Hidalgo and Walter Marchetti.

What is a prepared train? (Do not waste time searching for it on the encyclopedia, you will never find out!) We thought that the best way to understand it was to talk with Cage's collaborators, so we went to Harpo's Bazaar, the recording studio which is taking care of the technical assistance.

Sound absorbing panels, recorders, mixers, tapes, scissors and other devices that we do not know how to name: this is Harpo's Bazaar, a studio that, according to Oderso Rubini's words, deals with electronic music (his 'compositions' were performed at Teatro delle Moline and in the Galleria d'Arte Moderna). Here we could interview John Cage's assistants: Juan Hidalgo and Walter Marchetti; both musicians and, together with Esther Ferrer, members of the Zaj ensemble.

So, what is a train, nay, the first prepared train anyway? If we would give a description such as Essay upon the Avantagarde in the Arts during the Twentieth Century, we could briefly condensed it into slogans like theatrical space, re-visitation of everyday life, train-instrument, or recall parallelisms and divergences with Futurist poetry. However, besides the audio-visual devices scattered throughout it, the train aims at being first of all a train normally used to move from one place to another, where people chat (without knowing what is a performance) and trees seem to flee away. Then there is something more: the amplification of what is happening inside the train; the mechanical (let's abandon these obsolete terms and say electrical instead) amplification by means of audio-visual devices, but also psychological amplification due to the awareness that people are not into a normal situation, but in a situation.

Let's now try to understand how the train is actually prepared. Marchetti says:
There are sixteen microphones placed in and around the wagons to gather the sounds of the train (squeaks, rattles, the usual beat on the railway, etc). After, the sounds so collected converge to the direction wagon where Cage, Hidalgo and I blend them through six mixers (thirty-six channels overall, but only sixteen are used for this purpose) which resend them, amplified and mixed (no acceleration or distortion of the signal is employed though), into the other cars where they will be spread via a set of speakers, one set per car. Moreover, video-cameras and screens are installed in the wagons, so that the people can see what is happening in the other cars. Other speakers – Marchetti adds – are located on the roof of the cars, ready to be turned on when the train stops in a station. The direction has also twenty tape-players and 210 pre-recorded magnetic tapes at its disposal. During the travel some musicians (some with synthesizers, others with traditional instruments) will walk around the train playing their favorite music.

As we leave to the reader the counting of the hundreds of meters of electric cables necessary to connect the various parts of such an equipment, or to imagine the spectrogram generated by the collision of all those sounds together, we ask more information about the 210 tapes previously mentioned.

Hidalgo replies: We've been working on the tapes since May 10. At first we visited the locations where the train is stopping and we recorded the typical sounds of those areas. We captured the noise of Bologna's train station, of traffic and open-air markets, of bars and schools, of church bells, of craftsmen workshops, of factories, of animals in the farms; in Romagna we also recorded ballroom dance music, not a complete song, just an excerpt in order to document it. Later, we made a selection of all these sounds and we transferred them on tape unchanged. That yielded up to thirty tapes, one for each station where the train will stop. A sort of sonorous portrait.

When are these materials gathered on tapes going to be played during the trips?
When the train comes to a stop, through the speakers mounted on top of the wagons roofs – Hidalgo continues – The train will stop at the programmed stations, the passengers will get off it and the speakers will emit in every direction the sounds of Bologna's station together with those recorded in that location.

What will happen in the stations?
There will be a party. The local governments – Hidalgo adds – planned and arranged the train stops. People could drink and eat food specialties of that place, then there will be bands, choirs, rock groups for instance or anyone who would like to play some music. There will be singing and dancing. Various screens tuned on different channels will be placed in the stations. And there are going to be the local people.

What is the function of direction in this whole program?
In the car where the direction works – Hidalgo informs – sounds, both those of the train and those of the tapes, will be mixed according to Cage's compositional choices. (Yes, he says compositional!) This is where these sounds could lose their primitive meaning and their links to familiar situations and morph into something else. But in the end, what will happen is the most normal thing: we hardly perceive isolated sounds during a day; most likely, they clash, they blend, they come altogether.

One of the peculiar features of this action is its unrepeatability, the impossibility of replicating it without obtaining a new experience.
Sure, this experience is really an happening. It is something 'happening' that is, you can do it many times, but it cannot be replicated, it will always be different because it is made by the participants. There is an idea of making three live recordings out of it, one disc per trip, but this doesn't imply that an experience is a finite work. The recordings will just be a testimony.

Moving to the train trip, how will it end?
During the return trip – Hidalgo concludes – there will be no stops. The trip will be accompanied by the sound of the train only. Finally, when the train comes to a complete stop, we will hear the sounds of the station at night: empty and calm; and we will find the Lost Silence.

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