The following notes were written for a performance by the InterArts Ministry Ensemble of Hymnkus, which took place on April 26, 1988 in the Rubloff auditorium at the Art Institute of Chicago. The second half of the program, An Evening with John Cage, featured the composer reading his lecture James Joyce, Marcel Duchamp, Erik Satie: An Alphabet.

Hymnkus [1986]
Peter Gena, 1987.

Still in the throes of his 75th birthday celebration (which has been going on now for well over a year), John Cage maintains a creative pace that would frazzle many composers forty years his junior. In February, he was the subject of a weeklong festival/symposium at Wesleyan University. Europeras I & II, premiered in Frankfurt last November, will receive their American premiere this July in Purchase, N. Y. Mr. Cage has been appointed as the next Charles Elliot Norton Professor at Harvard University.  His first trip to Russia has him attending a concert of his work in Leningrad this May, accompanied by the 95 year-old musician/interpreter Nicolas Slonimsky.  Recently, he has donated his new book, The First Meeting of the Satie Society to the Whole Earth Lectronic Link, which can be freely accessed through a modem.

Hymnkus is a commission from an NEA Consortium Commissioning Grant received by the InterArts Ministry Ensemble, the Rélâche Ensemble, and the Cornish Institute. Its first Chicago performance took place last year in the Trading Room of the Art Institute. There are 14 instrumental parts which are made up of repeated verses (hymn), the number of which are specified as is the length of each repetition; and each verse has 17 events or syllables (kus, i.e. haikus). A performance can use any number or combination of the instrumental parts. Pitches are notated from a shared chromatic range of eight notes; and durations are proportionally indicated as long or short. Thus, articulations are perceived as vowels or consonants. In Hymnkus the sense of time-flow is a logical variant of Cage’s approach to proportion as heard in his music or seen in his etchings. The lengths of the repetitions of each of the verses can be slow (1 min.), medium (45 secs.), or fast (30 secs.). With each change in length, the durations of the 17 events of a verse change in speed, though their relative proportions remain the same (Cage uses a special mechanical ruler in his music and etchings that can change in length while maintaining equal subdivisions). The number of repetitions for corresponding verses among the instrumental parts is different, so that the instruments do not necessarily move to subsequent verses at the same time. The nonlinear quality of events consistent in much of his work, of course, points to that present consciousness of Zen, but moreover because of this layering, one’s perception is taken beyond just that of the center or the now—perhaps towards what the American pragmatist William James and others referred to as the specious present. In each performed verse the varying repetitions of specious present(s), or overlapping series of specious present(s) define the center or now as a present with a short lag from the past and a brief foretelling of the future (how James and his contemporaries identified the specious present). This yields over the thirty-minute duration a beautiful prosaic echoing, not a literal one as heard in Morton Feldman’s Piece for Four Pianos (1957), but one of déjà vu and premonition.

Re & Not Re Cage | Gena Web