JOHN CAGE, ANARCHY, AND ME
I first really encountered John Cage personally in the early 1980s.
During my high school and college years in the 1970s, I was an avid record collector. Schooled in rock and Motown, I graduated to Progressive Rock, all the while refining my sense of what was well-recorded or not, and learning the beauty of good musical arrangements. I followed my Prog Rock heroes in publications like Melody Maker. There, those I revered (King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Genesis, Henry Cow, etc.) would mention their influences: from Cage and Stockhausen to Bartok and Stravinsky. Lucky for me, the LP bins were full of deleted “cut-out” LPs of these composers, supplemented by the wealth of recordings on the budget Nonesuch label. My interests piqued by these musicians’ recommendations, I began to buy this music and investigate.
The early 1980s was a great time for concerts of New Music in New York City. I would attend several each week, broadening my exposure. At that time, Cage also went to many of these concerts, whether his music was on the program or not. We would run into each other at so many concerts that we began to address each other with a nod. But I didn’t dare to speak to this seemingly gentle master.
Finally, during an intermission, I believe it was at Alice Tully Hall, I spied Cage sitting all by himself. I realized that I hadn’t purchased a new Cage LP in a long time, so I mustered the guts to speak with him and ask if anything new was to be released. He replied that some musicians (Michael Pugliese and Frances-Marie Uitti) were performing a recent work of his (Etudes Boreales) very beautifully, but no one was interested in releasing it. I don’t know what came over me, but I suggested to Cage that maybe I could do it. “That would be marvelous”, he said, and he gave me his phone number. And so Mode Records was born.
My years of record collecting and listening gave me a good sense of how I wanted things to sound. But now I had to research how to make a recording and how to manufacture an LP. Once these things were figured out, I contacted Cage. He offered to not only attend the recording session, but help pay for it (another technicality that I had not really factored in yet). As chance would have it, Etudes Boreales was too long for one LP; Cage then suggested adding Ryoanji with mezzo Isabelle Ganz (multi-tracked) again with Pugliese. Delighted with the edited results, he then offered to design the front cover, a “rock” drawing in pencil.
Several months after the release of Etudes Boreales and Ryoanji (mode 1/2), I received a message from Cage on my answering machine. He offered me another recording if I was interested. Mode’s second release, Cage conducting his Atlas Eclipticalis with Winter Music, a 4-LP set (now on an expanded version on 3-CDs), was the result.
Following that, Cage began to invite me to meet musicians he admired, as they passed through New York City, including Irvine Arditti, Margaret Leng Tan, Stephen Drury, etc. He would advise me that these were the people who should record particular works. Together, I accompanied Cage to many performances and festivals (the Twice Festival in Ann Arbor, a Cage festival directed by Drury at New England Conservatory, another curated by Neely Bruce at Wesleyan University, etc.), where I arranged to have everything recorded in the hope of getting worthwhile performances to release. The results could be variable, sometimes magical, sometimes a good performance spoiled by ambient problems (I would differ with Cage that a listener doesn’t want to hear the “same” cough or truck rumbling by every time they listen to a piece of music). Other times Cage would turn to me to say that a performance was “hopeless”. But, if he would feel that the musicians were serious and the performance had promise, I would see him work with a musician or ensemble, helping them to make it better.
Clearly, a performance or recording of Cage’s music was not all accepting and “anything goes”. He was a composer who knew what he wanted and could tell if it was correct, had potential or was hopeless.
From these experiences and recording sessions, little by little, I began to understand the Cagean sensibility and technique directly from the composer. After several such sessions, he told me that he no longer felt the need to be at the recordings, that I was capable of supervising them myself. For me, this was a great honor. I understood the Cage aesthetic, I had his trust.
Between 1983 and his death in 1992, I had the pleasure to work with and meet with Cage. I remember fondly the meetings in his apartment, including the dinner party he concocted to get violinist Irvine Arditti and pianist Stephen Drury together, the intended result to be recording sessions which became several discs in Mode’s Cage Edition. But beyond such meetings, Cage and I would sometimes meet to just to catch up on things, this happened frequently in the early days, less so as the years went on – we didn’t need as much contact.
The John Cage I knew was unique, unlike any person I had ever met before or since. Without directly, consciously, doing so he changed my life – opening my mind and ears on how to listen, see and understand things in new ways. He introduced me to amazing musicians, who in turn gave me access to other composers I was interested in, thus expanding Mode Records' range.
Because of these gifts from Cage, I feel obliged to do something in return. To date Mode's Complete John Cage Edition is up to 45 volumes, but I never had – and still have – no preconception as to how many volumes this will take, or when the Edition will be completed. I simply believed that the goal should be, and would be, met.
There were times when we discussed anarchy, Thoreau (both so dear to him) and society. Much as I appreciated the concepts of anarchy and those of Thoreau, I could not agree that society was ready for this now – perhaps never – that there would always be some people who would take advantage of an anarchic situation. These were not heated disagreements, but gentle discussions, between gentle-men.
Which leads me to a situation very relevant to me, the entertainment industry and to smaller record companies in particular: the decline – collapse, even – of the record industry, especially as it relates to contemporary and innovative music. In 1992, even up to 2007, there was not great but still steady growth in Mode’s business. I was confident that I could achieve Mode’s goal to document Cage’s music, properly. Sadly, I am no longer confident that I can achieve Mode’s – and my personal – goal.
The music business is truly in a state of anarchy now. People seem to feel that they are entitled to have their music for “free”, or almost free. The Internet is rife with illegal, non-paying, downloads of, yes, even Mode releases. The decline of physical CD and DVD sales is one thing, the lack of growth in digital (download and streaming) sales another. The grand entrance of unlimited streaming services such as Spotify, which pay a mere $0.0045 per stream (regardless of the track’s length), a sum which then has to be shared with the artist as well, is not sustainable. Yet this is the new “model” of the record business. Create your music, everyone can have easy access to it (if they can find it) – but don’t expect to earn a living from it. More than ever, every listener’s choice of how to hear their music has a direct societal effect with ramifications. And that is where Cage's belief that people must have a personal responsibility for their actions comes into play, not only in a musical performance but in one's life and one's part in society.
Since Mode’s first recording in 1984, the costs to make a quality recording have gone up, not down. Between 1984 and 2011, Mode’s actual wholesale cost per CD has risen a mere 25 cents. Only the actual manufacturing cost of the CD disc itself has gone down since Mode’s first CD release in 1988. Despite the seemingly high cost of a CD for the consumer, very little profit is actually made per disc; some releases never make a profit at all. This was sustainable for me because Mode was a labor of love, not a business (a businessman would have folded decades ago!). For two-thirds of the time I continued to freelance in graphic design to make ends meet, only devoting myself full time to Mode in 2005. Throughout this period, banks freely offered credit, making it possible to finance even the most ambitious recording ideas. The faucet ran freely until suddenly the double whammy of the depressed entertainment industry and the financial crisis of 2008.
While it may be true that the major labels made fortunes on the music they released, they controlled their own manufacturing and distribution thus cutting out middlemen, the modern independents – the niche labels devoted to new music, classical music and jazz for example – never had it so easy. It was always a struggle to make a quality recording when the best sales one might expect were 3,000 (a verifiable hit in classical music) – now one is lucky to achieve half that. The lauded digital sales revolution never made up for the decreased sales of physical CDs, and now industry-wide digital sales have been level for a couple of years and not likely to experience any real growth. The convenience of streaming and illegal downloads have dealt their blow.
And so, Mode Records, and many independent labels catering to niche markets, now face a dilemma, an obstacle, with a market that is not of our own doing. How to survive as an independent new music label in a time of diminished income? At a time when society’s new models of music distribution offer incomes of fractions of a cent per sale, rather than the modest few dollars?
I made a promise to myself to make available all of Cage’s works in one place. As time wears on, I realize that I, and some of the musicians I still have the privilege to collaborate with who knew Cage, have a responsibility to properly document his work and aesthetic, so younger generations can understand. I still hope that Mode can weather this storm to complete its goal.
I wish that John Cage were still here so I could discuss society’s present situation with him. I wonder, whatever would John Cage have to say about all of this today?
– Brian Brandt, October 2011 - August 2012