Swimming with the whales and John Cage

Harpists assembled for “Postcards from Heaven”/Courtesy of YU and FearNoMusic

For John Cage’s “Litany for the Whale,” YU, the contemporary art center, and FearNoMusic, the contemporary music ensemble, situated us in the garage of the Yale Union Laundry Building, Friday night, a large and resonant space, its lighting augmented by stage lights.

We sat on simple, rather flimsy upright chairs painted silver, two long rows on each side of a corridor. Before the performance began, that set-up, spare and expectant, was rather beautiful all by itself.

Then the crowd assembled for “100 Years of John Cage,” which featured 10 different works of the composer spread throughout the old building, sometimes simultaneously, started filtering into the space, filling the chairs quickly, and the late arrivals started weight-shifting in the area closest to the door, maybe two or three in hundred in all, a healthy fraction of the total number of us who’d arrived for the event.

Baritone Robert Ainsley, who conducts the Portland Opera chorus and has a degree in mathematics from Cambridge, found his way to one of the long corridor and stood with his music in hand, waiting for Kevin Walsh, a fellow baritone who is called upon to sing in a variety of contexts, from Bach’s St. John Passion to David Schiff’s “Gimpel the Fool,” to begin.

Robert Ainsley performing “Litany for the Whale” at YU/Photo Karen Wagner, courtesy FearNoMusic

I tend to think of John Cage as a conceptual artist, the aural Duchamp, maybe, jester and provocateur, except with a bit more of the fox in him, tracking and responding to lots of different currents in the culture. I speak of him in the present tense, but even though he’s been dead for nearly 20 years, perhaps I should employ the future. The future, as William Gibson has noted, is unevenly distributed and I for one haven’t yet caught up with Cage — Cage lies ahead of me more than behind. And “100 Years of John Cage” provided an opportunity to start moving ahead, in the right place, by listening to his music.

So, yes, Walsh started singing “Litany for the Whale,” and the future sounded a lot like… Gregorian chant, a long recitation and response, in “plain” voices, no vibrato, according to very simple instructions and a small set of tones, corresponding to each of the letters in “w-h-a-l-e.” And if you were busy with thoughts of a thousand sorts inspired by the chatter of the primates around you, the deliberate cadence of “Litany for the Whale” had the ability to slow you down, if you let it, and glancing around the audience, it seemed that most of them were — slowing down a bit. I know I was.

“Litany for the Whale” doesn’t sound like whales. Do a quick YouTube search, and you can hear real whales growling, grunting and squealing, sometimes in a fine baritone, sure, but only occasionally. Still, “Litany for the Whale” somehow manages to project “whaleness” at the same time that it acts as a sort of combination apology and prayer for better things ahead. Maybe I’m reading to much into these musical phrases? I’ll let you be in my dream, if you let me be in yours.

“Litany for the Whale” lasted something like 25 minutes, long enough to flush out a few “sight-seers” and to start to work on our brains. It slowed us down, but did thought drain away altogether? I suspect only if you were a Zen adept (the LA-born Cage had a strong early affinity for Zen and famously threw the I-Ching, among other chance techniques, to “decide” which path he should take in a particular composition; Einstein, dismayed by the probabilities of quantum mechanics, said that God doesn’t play dice, but Cage did). Still, I detected some deceleration of my own monkey chatter, as I said.


I have argued before that in today’s culture, we commit a radical act by slowing down long enough to get beyond what Daniel Kahneman calls System 1 thinking, the first flush of intuition about something, and into System 2, where we can begin to draw on more of our brain’s humble resources, especially cognitive ones, but I’d suggest other processing approaches, too. “Litany for the Whale” is about as “approachable” as Cage gets, but for me it challenges my dim habits of mind every bit as much as 4’33”, his “silent” piece, or his work with noise makers of various sorts. It’s odd but true: Plainsong, beautifully sung, aligned with the forces of insurrection.

Ainsley and Walsh finished. The crowd applauded. Took a second. Headed back into the main rooms of the building, where most of the other Cage pieces were going to be played. The chatter resumed, new circles were formed, Cage’s music was played. I heard “Credo in Us,” a percussion/prepared piano/radio/doorbell buzzer piece with enjoyment, “Apartment House 1776,” “Fourteen.” But you know? I really didn’t want to replace “Litany for the Whale” for a while. And so I took a last look at all the people and all the musicians and left.


The ArtsWatch crew was out in force for “100 Years of John Cage,” and with any luck, we’ll publish yet more accounts of the evening.

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