Imagine: The John Cage Master Class and Competition

The John Cage Master Class in Halberstadt, Germany, took from September 14th to 20th, 2020

Imagine attending a master class and receiving at least 90 minutes of undivided attention from incredible faculty every day. Imagine getting ideas about vocal technique from one of the contemporary singers you admire most, which breaks the ice on a long-standing vocal uncertainty you’ve had. Imagine wanting to work on a totally unknown quartertone piece for voice and violin and having a violinist arranged for you free of charge. Imagine having the instructions to a performance piece written for you and then performing it with your fellow singers in an hour-long happening which takes place in a space where John Cage himself may have organized his own happenings and where his 639-year composition is unfolding day and night right next to the institute. Now imagine leaving such an experience with 1200 Euros which covers tuition and housing and travel, leaving you with some 700 Euros to spare.* That is what happened to me this September at the John Cage master class led by soprano Sarah Maria Sun and composer Christoph Ogiermann and organized for the John-Cage-Orgel-Stiftung in Halberstadt, Germany, by Ute Schalz.

No, leaving with a stipend is not a typical function of this program – this contemporary vocal master class, which has taken place biannually for several sessions, culminates in a competition for which the John Cage Institute receives a rather generous sum of money solely for the purpose of remunerating the winners. Predictably, there were few participants in the program this year, four to be exact (three sopranos and one countertenor), and so, probably to avoid a situation where only one person would leave empty-handed, they split the money between all of us. I came in second, it seems, after an amazing singing actress named Siddhii Devii Lagrutta. But, given the situation, it felt more like receiving a stipend than placing at a competition. 

And, yes, for flavor I will add that we singers were invited on multiple occasions to shared dinners with cold cuts, abendbrot, as it were, and instructed that we must eat what we wanted in the fridge at the tiny kitchen of the John Cage House. I only share this to illustrate the familial, warm atmosphere of this informal, middle-of-the-pandemic training program. 

I only found out about this master class because I follow the work of Sarah Maria Sun, an incredibly charismatic and knowledgeable soprano specializing in contemporary repertoire. I wanted to use the master class, among other things, to work on a quartertone song cycle by Czech composer Karel Reiner to German and Czech texts about death by poet Karel Hynek Mácha. The cycle, however, was for voice and violin – imagine that Ute Schalz, the organizer, arranged for a violinist willing to come to Halberstadt to play for me, covered by the John Cage Institute. It was her grandson-in-law, Ludwig Schulze, a violinist at once technically impeccable and imaginative, recently appointed principle at a major opera house in Berlin. 

I was, as I have been before, the only non-German but, unlike at the master class with Thomas Quasthoff, this was not a liability. And, of course, being half-American was not a liability either – the institute is named after an American, after all, and its mission is to play his 639-year-long piece for organ, to keep this composition going like an ancient holy fire at a temple. Photos of John Cage fill every corner of the institute. “Oh, another one,” said the composer Christoph Ogiermann, drily, when he asked me to sing descriptions of the room we were in and I arrived at one of many portraits of John Cage displayed in a picture frame on the windowsill. “And here’s another portrait of John Cage,” I sang jaggedly and with little musical invention. “In this one, he’s wearing a crown.” 

I was singing descriptions of the room because both Sarah Maria Sun and Christoph Ogiermann observed I disconnected from the world around me when I sang. Being “present” is a buzz phrase that has almost lost its meaning now but, yes, being “present” was what they were asking of me. “Public aloneness” (veřejná samota), as I’ve heard it called by someone in Czech, can be useful. It is that alternative world you enter when you are alone on stage and the fourth wall is up. Given the specificity of that criteria, though, “public aloneness” is a tool, not a universal performance practice. And true music-making is public togetherness, an intense union. I needed reminding of this. Like so many performers during the pandemic I have spent, and still spend, the bulk of my time making music alone and this has accentuated my natural tendency to disassociate under stress (this tendency has allowed me never to succumb to debilitating performance anxiety, despite my perfectionist and introverted nature – but I realize, now, that in this function, it is a crutch more than a tool.) 

“Forever – is composed of nows,” Emily Dickinson wrote. Being implored to be “present” at the John Cage Institute while ever within a stone’s throw of that gutted cathedral where Cage’s 639-year-composition purrs day and night and where, perhaps, it will continue to purr long after all of us alive today are dead, was poignant, sure. But I would like it to be known that I do not worship at the altar of these kinds of existential experiments. I find Cage’s As Slow as Possible meaningful only if seen as at once serious and not serious - an extended joke on human folly, even as it is itself a product of human folly. I can only guess as to how Cage and his enablers “meant” it. Like much of experimental modern art, is a form of camp, though we cannot always know if it is “pure camp” as defined by Susan Sontag. 

On a more down-to-earth note: Sarah Maria Sun is a solid technician. Unlike an ordinary classical singer, she has had to cultivate a multitude of sounds. I witnessed her produce the sound of radio static so realistic as to seem like a magic trick only to flip into a pure, church-like head voice. This ability makes her more aware, I think, of how to produce a healthy sound without attachment to the vocal mannerisms so many singers mistake for “technique.” She alerted me to an aspect of technique which no one, after all the voice teachers I have worked with, has explicitly drawn attention to. I had been close to resigned to trying to smooth out certain anomalies in my voice “blind,” without understanding where they physically came from (a method of trial and error which did work to some extent) but with Sarah Maria Sun’s insights, I have much more clarity as to what I need to do, which has been a relief. 

Christoph Ogiermann gave a day-long workshop on notation, namely the way in which (and here I hope I am interpreting what he said correctly) notation is a contract between composer and interpreter that is much more subjective than we would like to think and how capturing music fully is always just slightly out of notation’s reach (he mentioned a theory that the singing of Medieval monks was “destroyed” when it became a convention to write it down –ironic that this moment is sometimes considered the birth of European music.) Naturally, we talked quite a bit about graphic notation (when music is notated using visual representations, like pictures or arrows, instead of the standard notation of European music – a practice which emerged in the European avant-garde sometime in the 1950s). Mr. Ogiermann noted the irony that graphic notation, free from precision and seemingly devoted to subjectivity, eventually divided musicians into factions which consistently interpreted certain symbols in certain ways, resulting in arguments about who was “correct.” More importantly, it simply became impractical for musicians who interpreted graphic sheet music differently to play together though (the new music world being small) they had to play together. The desire for a common language is too great for conventions not to emerge – and the tendency of humans to form dogmas and factions around these conventions is too great not to eventually become obstructive. I suppose this can lead to civil war or revolutions. In the case of this particular conflict, it prompted the eventual return to “common” notation, though graphic notation is still alive and well alongside it. 

During our lessons with Sarah Maria Sun, Mr. Ogiermann sat, barefooted, at the back of the room, drawing and scribbling things, occasionally humming to himself. I thought this was simply what he did, how he took notes. It turned out he had been writing graphically-notated pieces for each of us participating in the masterclass (mine is the image at the top of this blog post) which used fragments or images from the pieces we were singing as well as fragments of the vocal exercises we did with Sarah Maria Sun. (Naturalist that he is, Ogiermann confessed to us that, with all due respect, the vocal exercises were the most aurally thrilling moments in our classes.) We all performed our pieces at the same time over the course of an hour-long happening on the top floor of the John Cage House. 

There are so many more things I could say about the John Cage master class (I wish I could opine about the incredible improvisation which Christoph Ogiermann initiated with the violinist Ludwig Schulze at the end of a long day, which I was lucky enough to be the only one to stay behind for.) I rode a train back home part of the way with Sarah Maria Sun and I remember telling her that I was struck by the incredible kindness of everyone at the master class. It’s such a simple thing, kindness. I didn’t realize how little I had experienced it in the world of music training. 

I finish the long-postponed blog post just as the elections in the United States have finally been called. Maybe because of the election, remembering my time at the John Cage Institute this September got me thinking about those two opposing forces which seem to be present in every human society– the conservative force, the one that upholds tradition, and the force that deconstructs tradition, questions conventions. Without the former, we would never pass down the complex knowledge which makes humans so strange and unique. Without the latter, we would never have any knowledge to pass down – because every tradition we have created has been, at some point, the product of a flights of fancy, an experiment (even, I think, the first human act, whatever that may have been.) 

In this sense, culture is like a very long, slow composition, torn between the need to develop and the need to stay coherent. 

While I can’t guarantee that you would have the luxury of taking part in a four-singer program, I would recommend the John Cage Master Class in Halberstadt to any singer who wishes to explore contemporary repertoire with real, and incredibly knowledgeable and pedagogically gifted, representatives of the new music scene. There was talk of making this master class an annual event and building the John Cage Institute into a prominent center for contemporary vocal music. Keep an eye on this program if that's something you would like to participate in. 

*I realize starting with the financial side may seem shallow, but this is in the context of my observations on the financial exploitation of young opera singers.