By June Lucarotti
Since the fourthirtythree: CAGED! performances, all sounds have become clearer: shoelace ends click against each other, dogs howl in mid-morning, the kitchen screen door creaks, the cat scurries across hard wood. I remember Bobbie Louise Hawkins saying that listening is the most important practice as a writer. And on Friday night, listen we did.
We listened intently as Barbara Dilley and Robert Spellman (with help from Marc Divine) brought us into Cage’s world as family sitting around a fireplace—as if it were our first “artist family,” as well. Even if we never knew him, the audience joined in sweet laughter in remembering John Cage in the creases of our upturned mouths. In 4’33’’ Inverted, a stunning performance by Kyle Pivarnik, Kirstin Wagner, and Kate Zipse, we listened to a miming piano performance pleasantly interrupted by a dancer and DJ wearing headphones. Black met white. Piano seat met street and it became clear once the audience started clapping that the pairing was explosive.
When Paul Fowler started his performance the audience thought he was still setting up. He was, but in whistling while arranging his sound system, he immediately changed our notion of performance boundaries. We began to whistle with him as he took us on a journey far beyond words as a John Cage recording in the background repeated, “I never thought that, as many people do, that music should be in my head.” In Fowler’s performance, the audience felt as if they had entered John Cage’s head. The whistles soon began to sound like a forest full of birds calling to each other, and if one closed his or her eyes for a second, it was easy to forget the auditorium entirely. Fowler continued to play music from anything he could think of: piano, the sound of metal clashing on a singing bowl to repetitions of Cage’s “I really can’t hold a tune.” Nothing was held there; everything messy and completely inspiring, the way art should be.
In contemplative fashion, Fowler separated each single sound and focused on it, the way a poet might focus on a single letter with the recording playing, “there are ways I think of letting sounds move from their own centers.” While Cage’s recording stated that discipline is paying attention to three things at the same time, Fowler coordinated sounds from his throat with three different colored boxed. In Fowler’s one-man show, we were overwhelmed with sounds of elephants, swamps, colors communicating to one another, all through one person’s vocals and beat boxing. Even when his laptop fell, it seemed to be just another “crash” sound in the sound machine, and he continued on. Later, Fowler’s vocals mirrored a didgeridoo as he played the mic like a drum. Fowler’s performance was a delightful mash-up of a Buddhist monk chanting and a beat boxer. It ended with high pitched screams and bellows, marking Cage’s musical highs and lows. Fowler even had Michelle Naka Pierce beating on the mic like an instrument to introduce the next act.
In Peter Jaeger’s reading, the names of people he mentioned mirrored Cage in that they become keys on a piano making up one whole composition. “Caroline imagines” and “John wears orange cotton.” Even the sounds of the names and the actions they created are tiles in a mosaic that brought the idiosyncrasies of the community in the poem to life.
An engaging performance by Elyse Brownell, Asalott, and Melissa Mae brought what it might be like to communicate without sound to the forefront of the evening. As Elyse mouthed words into the microphone and Melissa Mae translated in sign language, one was immediately presented with a kind of music in his or her own head. The audience was engaged in creating the words Elyse might be saying and how they might flow together. Cage’s “Lecture on Nothing” became filled with so many somethings.
Finally, a familiar sound broke the silence—a vacuum cleaner in the back of the room. But this vacuum cleaner did more than clean a carpet, it mowed grass. Joanna Rotkin’s “Indeterminacy and the Hypocrisy of Picnicking” played with sound in a way that commented on the absurdity of ownership of land, and brought Cage’s love of sound into a whole new theatrical genre.
June Lucarotti is a poet and children’s writer who grew up in San Francisco and a current MFA candidate in Writing and Poetics in the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. She received her B.A. in Social Welfare and minor in Creative Writing from UC Berkeley, working with June Jordan’s Poetry for the People and Glide. June infuses her writing with social justice, Buddhism, special education, Spanglish, and laughter.