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John Cage at Aterforum Festival
(Ferrara, July 1991)

In the summer of 1991, in Ferrara, the main protagonist of Aterforum Festival's program was John Cage, who would be in Italy for one of his second to last appearance in Italy.
Various pieces by John Cage were played together with works of Charles Ives (the exact title in the program was Cage / Ives / Thoreau), and some works were presented in Italy or in Europe for the very first time. This was the full program:

Newspaper articles about Aterforum Festival, 1991

(the articles below were found via the online archives of la Repubblica and l'Unità)

Aterforum, homage to John Cage in Ferrara

(by Giordano Montecchi, l'Unità, Wednesday, June 5, 1991)

The new edition of Aterforum, the musical festival in Ferrara that every summer for the last sixteen years – battling against meager budgets and the risk of uniformity – painstakingly manages to create some original ideas, offering music and authors out of the ordinary trails, was presented. From June 25 to July 9, the ancient halls of Casa Romei and their Castello Estense will hear ancient and new music following that double path which characterizes Aterforum: on one hand Echi del diletto (voices from the Renaissance and Baroque), on the other hand Cage/lves/Thoreau (a hundred years of inventive American music). The ancient Music section hosts ensembles like Pro Cantione Antiqua (June 25), Tallis Scholars (June 26), Antony Rooley's Consort of Musiche (June 30), but also musical rarities such as La morte delusa (June 27), by G.B. Banani, never staged in the modern age and performed by Stephen Stubbs's Ensemble tragicommedia or The Fairy Queen in a theatrical version for puppets by Paolo Comentale.

The other section of Arteforum is basically a homage to John Cage (who will be in Ferrara on July 1). It is an odd tribute however, because Cage's music – some of which will be performed for the first time in Italy like the Freeman Etudes (Books III and IV, 1-7 János Négyesy, violin), Europera V (July 2, Yvar Mikhashoff, conductor) and Postcard from heaven (July 7, Harp Ensemble of Milan) – will be only the start of a journey within a cultural and musical landscape that is still obscure here in Europe (it sounds weird as it is American music, but that's how it is). Among the ensembles we must mention the Ives Ensemble (June 29), the Schoenberg Ensemble (July 5), and the Orchestra dell'Emilia-Romagna (July 6 and 9).

In the festival manifesto, besides Cage's name, we can read those of Ives, Copland, Gershwin, Carl Ruggles, Georges Antheil, Steven Sondhelm. Leo Omstein, Conlon Nancarrow, Paul Bowles (more known as writer), William Duckwort, Michael Torke. It is not just curiosity though: Aterforum will try to introduce Cage as part of a cultural background for which we have always had no interest: it is no coincidence that one of the names to which the festival is dedicated is the writer Henry Thoreau. In this portrait therefore the adventure of Cage and his travel mates becomes something that little has in common with the European avantgarde. And this is the main interest of this new edition.

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Cage, an adorable provocateur

(by Giordano Montecchi, l'Unità, Wednesday, July 4, 1991)

Crazy old people are more insane than young people stated more than three centuries ago by Rochefoucauld. And he was not only thinking about John Cage, but also about each one of us; a clinical record that for the artists, trained on paradoxes, morphs into that miraculous process called maturity. Rochefoucauld had certainly John Cage in mind as well as his way to pronounce the word music. A way that, compared with the scornful babbling of the young composers fostered in the schools of music, always seems, even more than thirty years ago, that of a nutty inventor, an angelic transgressor.

Aterforum recently brought Cage to Ferrara, allowing a large and varied audience to enjoy his almost metaphysical presence; that of an old man who looks beyond us; a man with a sculpted face and a sudden laughter, so rare – and unique perhaps – for a composer today. John Cage is an old man in jeans. His irreverent and candid expression belongs to those who tell us with music or words, things which no one dares to say, or to those who, paradoxically, maintain the aura, the charisma of art and of the artist, intact. The very same person who seemed to have spent all his life to disrupt them.

Maybe the secret of the wholesome fragrance of his provocation lies in the fact that today people embrace him and his music with a worshiping attitude, even more than in the past. Once people would insult him, whereas now they applaud him and if someone is enjoying his music too noisily, here comes the nearby guy's rebuke: Un po' di rispetto per favore! Respect! That's Cage's final and most subtle exalting victory. The same coercive force that imposed stillness on the public for an hour and twenty minutes during János Négyesy's performance of the Freeman Etudes XVII-XXXII for solo violin. Or that made the audience transparent in order to silently disentangle from the thin web of sounds laid on the rarefied and fully accomplished nonsense of his 'always-different/always-the-same', that is: single sounds, one after the other, utilizing all the possibilities offered by the violin medium. But no violence please. Sounds built through long solitary travels guided by stellar maps, precious combinations, either casual or determined, but always divinely useless. The Freeman Etudes cannot be heard. You can either accept the contemplative mysticism as they unravel (Cage was quietly slumbering), or you go away. Many people were walking out, but those whispers of the violin seemed to be expressly devised to reveal the squeaking of the shoes and the clicking of the heels.

The following evening another Italian premiere: the recent, fifth episode of Europera, a one hour long musical landscape, reinvention of an imaginary condominium populated by music fans, mostly opera fanatics, where the walls had suddenly dissolved. Here is a piano that sometimes plays poignant opera transcriptions (performed by the outstanding Yvar Mikhashoff, conductor of the piece) and some other times is mute and only the mimic remains. Here and there tables with stack of pop records, an old gramophone on which old 78-rpm of opera arias are spinning, a television that at some point turns on showing a random commercial; two singers, Lisa Hirst and Omar Emrahim, that at times sing (not really well) Don Giovanni or Carmen or whatever, and at some other times put on animal masks. Finally the truckera, a muted sound that penetrates space like a truck whizzing by before our nose. Lights are casual; they illuminate what does not matter, but everything has no meaning here: it's just simply there. Only old music, gleaned from attics and carefully selected to evoke who knows what. In the meantime, time goes by and you are left there, curious as children waiting for a surprise, charmed and happy to clap your hands aloud at the end.

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John Cage, a marvelous messy guy

(by Fabrizio Festa, la Repubblica, Saturday, July 7, 1991)

Let's get it straight: John Cage is a very serious person. After all, we could not doubt it, although that clownish halo, the enfant terrible fame which, despite of his being almost eighty years old, still precedes him everywhere he goes, overshadowed the rigor of his artistic discourse. Sure, it was not a mystery either for the connoisseurs or for his many friends and supporters, who packed the Teatro Comunale in Ferrara the other evening. A rare chance – the opening of the week that Aterforum dedicates to his works as of those of Charles Ives and other American composers – to embrace him again, waiting to steal the secret of such an amusing musical longevity.

Maybe, if there's a secret at all, it consists of his detailed accuracy, the same that Cage reveals in every page, so methodical to remind us of the seriousness that any child unfolds while playing. Here is Europera, whose fifth version was presented in Ferrara and for the first time in Italy, standing in its playful completeness. Cage says: When the theater in Frankfurt commissioned it, I posed to myself the problem of the voices. I then asked: can I write without vibrato? They answered no, as the singers would have vibrated anyway.

Therefore he makes a simple and singular decision at the same time: If they don't do what I want, they are free to sing whatever they want. Let them choose their own arias. So that is what happened. They brought and could bring on stage the opera score they prefer. The music goes by itself; the costumes selected for the first two versions come from an encyclopedia; the staged actions from a dictionary; every section stands alone though they are all connected by those chance operations, that sort of combinatorial calculus based on stellar maps or the I-Ching hexagrams, so much loved by the American composer.

His entire art lies in this marvelously arranged chaos. The thirty-two Freeman Etudes for solo violin are similarly strange. Their incipit is somehow traditional: to face all the possibilities of the instrument in order to reach the limits of what can be actually played. Even Paul Zukovskji, the first performer, renounced due to their impossibility, so it would be Irvine Aridtti and János Négyesy, who played the second series at Aterforum, the first fearless interpreters. Stellar maps and the I-Ching again (to give to each of the Etudes its own specific attribute. One dedicated to attachment, the other to detachment; one to single notes, others to sequences of two-three or more sounds).

Perhaps, the peak is reached in the Etudes number 17 and 18, where the density of the score is such that Cage had to add a note: play as many notes as possible. After all, to come to an end – the author explains – I had to employ a musicologist who, after reconstructing what I had previously written, taught me what I had to do. He smiles. He smiles pleasantly, after he seriously expounded, even slightly upset, to the audience his little tricks with chance, though leaving little room to irony. Some inklings here and there, but that's it. It is his sovereign lightness, so distant from the boring presumptuousness of other more experienced composers, and still endowed with a child's thoughtlessness.

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Cage, postcard from heaven

(by Giordano Montecchi, l'Unità, Monday, July 9, 1991)

Not just one Cage, but many. As many as his compositional methods that the Californian musician has happily explored for more than sixty years. Ferrara Aterforum for two weeks, offered to an hungry audience a taste of old and new works, some of which unreleased in Italy. Cecilia Chailly and the ten harpists of the Harp Ensemble of Milan, were the protagonists of the closing concert.

Aterforum ended after having covered, during its usual two intense weeks, a double path: the recognition of a distant or forgotten past and the exploration of the present (or recent past). At the end of the second itinerary, suggestively labeled Cage/Ives/Thoreau – that is, after trying to place John Cage in his original culture within ten concerts – the conclusion is that Aterforum achieved a praiseworthy, highly institutional result. A series of old and new works of Cage has been performed, often for the first time in Italy or in Europe. At the same time however – resulting in a more interesting occasion – those works were immersed in that sophisticated American Twentieth Century music which, as the title suggests, is surely the child of Ives and of the transcendentalist Utopia of Thoreau, Emerson & co, but paradoxically remains for the audience one of the most obscure and unknown musical territories (a paradox because, on the other hand, American music dominates the worldwide scene).

Cage today is seventy-nine years old, but he does not look it. His music is even younger, but it's hard to tell how old it is. And that's what Aterforum demonstrated: there is not one Cage only, but there are many, infinite, each one comprised in one of the ways to compose and to think/conceive the musical medium that the Californian musician has experimented in over sixty years. This is a well ascertained fact already, though it becomes evident – and jarring – if we compare his method to that of the European avantgarde, which has never ceased to consider the radical obedience to principles as an unquestionable value, a fixed star. This does not configure a title such as Cage or contradiction. Since it's the term itself, contradiction – a mainly dialectic, European term – that with Cage, Ives and Thoreau (but also with Gershwin, Nancarrow, Copland, Griffes, Bowles, to cite some other names), transforms into a useless or damaging tool, as if molding clay with a scalpel.

The winning element is then Cage's Happy New Ears the invitation to happily open one's ears before the messianic, juvenile catastrophic inclination of I come to bury music, not to praise it. In Cage it prevails the irreducible pragmatic idea of an experimentalism that welcomes flexibility and that does not place the real invention in the maniacal search of originality, but in what already exists that is, to connect things in a different way.

The outcome can be an incomparable Europera, but also some improbable Freeman Etudes or Cheap Imitation. Last evening, Cage's lassez laire became a stage on which ten impotent harps were deployed. Cecilia Chailly, leader of the Harp Ensemble from Milan – a team of young harpists dressed up in Missoni garments – initially plucked an aged Winter Music, written in 1957 by means of the Chinese I-Ching and usually performed via a number of pianos oscillating between 1 and 21. There were ten harps instead and the result was quite amorphous (as it would have been with the pianos anyway). An harp alone (played a little bit too shyly by Cecilia Chailly) accomplished an archaeological, though prophetical In a Landscape (1948), also originally conceived for piano. Fifteen years ago it would have sounded like an unbearable Americanization . Totally constructed on an uniform, smooth, euphonic and gentle arpeggio (yes, with an harp) In a Landscape today is a new-romantic, minimal piece forty years ahead of its time, endowed with an amazing (intolerable for some) equilibrium/balance between mildness and rigorous synthesis.

Lastly, a European premiere: Postcard from Heaven, Postcards for which Cage indicated only that they should last a half hour, that once the middle is reached, we must 'walk back' and that certain ragas and scales must be used as well as certain rhythmic combinations. The rest is up to us. From the ten harps touched by such gentle hands, a more endemic soundscape could not have been created, which hovered above an atmosphere filled with contemplative euphony, where the young performers manifested an excessive need of scheming the events against the variability of improvisation. The applause poured fluently, reassuring those who had initially seen the audience’s fondness of Cage's music slowly drifting to drowsiness, once having tasted a little piece of it. Perhaps Antonin Artaud had already understood this music completely when he wrote in 1934: To my dear friend Edgar Varèse whose music I love I love the music without having heard it yet and because as I listen to you talking about music, I can dream of it and because I know that through your rebel music we could finally come to a new condition of the world. If we replace Varèse with Cage, the statement makes sense, until we really listen or even think to try to change the world.

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