A Happening Place: John Cage’s Multimedia Collaborations at the University of Illinois, 1967-1969
Composer John Cage moved from New York to Champaign-Urbana in 1967 to become an Associate of the Center for Advanced Studies and Visiting Professor of Music. In New York, Cage was affiliated with a group of composers, artists, and performers who were interested in staging unconventional visual and performing arts presentations. One of these artists, Allan Kaprow, studied composition with John Cage in the late 1950s, around the same time that Kaprow began creating performance art that he called “happenings.” This term became commonly used to describe loosely defined “choreography” that encouraged spontaneous interactions between “visitors” (i.e., the audience) and “objects,” (e.g., performers and musical instruments).
Cage’s appointment at the University was due in part to the efforts of Lejaren Hiller, who served as the director of the University’s Experimental Music Studio between 1958 and 1968. They eventually worked together on the piece “HPSCHD,” which premiered in 1969 at the university’s newly-built Assembly Hall. Throughout his tenure at Illinois, Cage also worked on happenings with many other faculty members, students, and local residents, including Ben Johnston, Salvatore Martirano, William Wegman, Ron Nameth, Herbert and Norma Marder, Kenneth Gaburo, Laetitia Snow, and Morgan Powell.
NOTE: With exception of the HPSCHD LP, inquiries about any items depicted on this page should be directed to either the Sousa Archives and Center for American Music or the University Archives as indicated in each caption, as only the LP is held at MPAL.
Musicircus Photograph, November 1967
The Musicircus happening took place in the University of Illinois stock pavilion. John Cage positioned the audience and performers in a way that reflected the facility’s standard use as an arena for judging livestock. The performers were placed on raised platforms to mimic the judges, who typically sat in the stands above the central arena, while the audience took on the role of livestock roaming around the floor. Cage worked with artist William Wegman to create some of the inflatables that were installed at the pavilion as well as other composers and performers from the University.
US Air Force Headset and Oxygen Mask, (H-145-AIC, MB-3), c. 1950
M.C. Holloway wore this modified headset oxygen mask for the first performance of Salvatore Martirano’s “L’s GA,” which premiered at A Passage without Definition, a happening staged by John Cage in Urbana in 1967. “L’s GA” was one of many pieces performed during the event, which also featured artwork by William Wegman, media projections by Ron Nameth, and compositions by John Cage, Ben Johnston, and Lejaren Hiller. About twenty minutes in length, “L’s GA” is a mixed-media work scored for “gassed-masked politico, helium bomb, and two-channel tape.” Holloway debuted as the politico at the happening, where he recited a modified version of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address interspersed with his own poetry, in combination with Martirano’s taped sounds. During the entire performance, Holloway wore the headset and oxygen mask, which was filled with a mixture of nitrous oxide and helium to raise the pitch and emotional intensity of his voice at the very end of the piece. Martirano included the terms “gassed-masked” and “helium bomb” in his description of “L’s GA” to refer to this headset and oxygen mask and the mixture of gasses inhaled by the politico.
A Passage Without Definition Poster, December 1967
John Cage staged A Passage Without Definition in Urbana on December 16, 1967. It was the second of several “happenings” he produced in collaboration with local artists, performers, and composers, and over one thousand people, including the audience and performers, were involved with the event’s realization. Like many happenings of that era, it was meant to actively engage all participants in a psychedelic, avant-garde, total sensory environment that featured music, dance, sound, light, theater, film, and poetry, including the use of glow-in-the-dark body paint, massive balloons, and dancing girls inside of a giant bag. According to the poster, the creators’ intent was to experiment with “art and technology to transform architectural space by a 4th dimension-TIME-into a totally new mind awareness.” In a Champaign News-Gazette interview about A Passage Without Definition, John Cage explained, “The art object cannot be separated from the person examining it. It is within the viewer, not the object being looked at.”
Music Circus Performer-Composer List, November 17, 1967
Although this list separates the title of John Cage’s piece into two words, the more commonly used spelling was Musicircus. The title also served as the name of the first of Cage’s happenings in Urbana. The piece has been staged by other performers several times since its 1967 Illinois premiere at the University’s stock pavilion. Musicircus stretched the definition of a music score by including only a set of loose instructions specifying that a gathering of people should simultaneously perform whatever they want, however they choose to perform it.
Champaign resident Norma Marder was one of the performers who participated in the 1967 premiere of Musicircus. She sang as dancer Ruth Emerson performed on one of the elevated platforms set up in the stock pavilion. According to Marder, the large number of performers and ambient noise from the audience made it nearly impossible to hear any of the performers distinctly, but she remembered feeling exhilarated about creating “art for art’s sake.”
The happening lasted for nearly eight hours, and between those in attendance and those who helped stage the event, over three thousand individuals participated. Two particularly notable performers included the French-born mime Claude Kipnis, who founded the Israeli Mime Theatre in 1966, as well as Carolyn Brown, a founding member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.
Musicircus Photo Spread, November 18, 1967
The Daily Illini published several articles about and images of the Musicircus happening, including this series of photographs. From left to right, starting in the top left-hand corner, they feature a percussionist who played at Musicircus, a portrait of John Cage, an anonymous hand painting graffiti, two horn players, and the audience surrounded by gigantic balloons that were installed at the event.
In a November 17, 1967 review of Musicircus, published in the Daily Illini, reporter Bruce Zumstein writes, “It was a night not so much for blowing your mind as it was for blowing your eardrum, and it was a real Happening.” He continues by describing the makeshift “cage of lead pipes in the center of the [stock] pavilion [that] enclosed hollow tubes, which participants could rap against the sides.” Beyond the clanging of the pipes, numerous performers added to the cacophony of sound, and a film of a man’s face, alternating between laughing, smiling, and frowning was repeatedly projected on the north wall of the pavilion. A full-service popcorn station completed the “circus” environment that Cage established in part by choosing the University’s livestock pavilion as the setting for the evening.
University in Motion Flier, Undated
The University of Illinois celebrated its centennial in 1967, the first year of John Cage’s appointment as an associate of the Center for Advanced Study. To commemorate the occasion, the Center presented a series of events between November 15 and 19 titled University in Motion: Matrix for the Arts. John Cage’s Musicircus happening was one of the featured events during this celebration.
HPSCHD Poster, 1969
Several posters and screen prints were created to advertise the premiere of HPSCHD. Gary Viskupic was an art student at the University of Illinois when he designed this image, which features a cartoon of John Cage as a dragon slayer. Viskupic also designed a poster to advertise Musicircus earlier in 1969. The dragon’s three heads depict the composers Mozart, Beethoven, and Schumann, whose pieces are excerpted in the harpsichord solos of HPSCHD. In addition, the tape by the dragon’s feet bears the logos of 3m and gaF, two of the companies that donated supplies for the HPSCHD happening. Cage was careful to recognize their support in marketing the event.
HPSCHD LP Album, Issued 1969
HPSCHD, composed by John Cage and Lejaren Hiller, consists of seven harpsichord solos and fifty-two* electronic sound tapes. The composers only stipulate that a performance must be comprised of at least a part of one solo and one tape, but performers may choose to play all of the solos and tapes at the same time, or in any combination and portion thereof. This album features three of the solos and a composite of the electronic tapes, and was released shortly before HPSCHD premiered at the happening of the same name in May 1969.
Underlying the composition of HPSCHD is “Introduction to the Composition of Waltzes by Means of Dice,” a piece that is attributed to Mozart and consists of instructions to write and perform music based on the throw of a pair of dice. To simulate rolling dice, Hiller created a computer program that not only followed the rules prescribed in Mozart’s piece, but also randomly generated numbers based on oracular statements represented by 64 hexagrams found in the ancient Chinese text, the I-Ching (3rd century BC), which greatly interested John Cage because it introduced the element of chance in music composition and performance.
The results of Hiller’s computer program were then converted into electronic music and recorded on reel-to-reel tapes. Each of the tapes lasted twenty minutes in order to meet the time limitations of the long-play format. Because Hiller and Cage had already signed a contract with Nonesuch Records to record HPSCHD before the piece was finished, they kept the work’s components within the limitations of the LP format as they completed it. For the same reason, Cage composed each of the harpsichord solos to last for only twenty minutes.
*While the album cover and other sources state this as 51 tapes, it is in fact 52, as described by David Eisenman:
“Each HPSCHD tape has sounds created by dividing the octave differently — from “5 to 56 tones”, as those same LP notes state. The result, obviously, is 52 different tonal divisions. It’s a simple math mistake that Jerry or John made when writing the LP notes: you can’t subtract 5 from 56 to get the number of different tonal divisions — because 5 itself is one of the possibilities. I was there, helping with the HPSCHD premiere; Bill Blakeney,who restored the HPSCHD tapes for his CD version of HPSCHD, has confirmed that the correct number of electronic channels is 52.”
HPSCHD Program, 1969
HPSCHD premiered on May 16, 1969 at the largest and most elaborate happening John Cage helped stage while he was at the University of Illinois. Its production involved over 8,000 slides and forty film projections; enormous translucent plastic screens; seven harpsichords; hand screen-printed paper smocks; spotlights, blacklights, and other lighting equipment; and an army of tape decks, speakers, and electrical amplification equipment. Antoinette Vischer commissioned the piece and was one of the seven harpsichordists who performed at the happening. They were joined by fourteen performers responsible for playing HPSCHD‘s fifty-one sound tapes as well as many others who helped with tasks ranging from running a slide projector to mounting the fifty-two speakers around the dome.
The event ran from 7:30 p.m. until just after midnight, and almost 7,000 people attended. At 8:30 and 11:00 p.m., the sound tapes were played on all available channels, although various tapes and harpsichord solos continued throughout the evening. Instruments were loaned from locations as far away as Michigan and Cincinnati, and the projected images came from slides provided NASA and other institutions, film from the Museum of Modern Art, and film and slides by number of individual visual artists, who were responsible for hand-painting over 1,500 slides.
The large size and design of the happening were tailored especially for Assembly Hall. Taking the spaceship-like shape of the venue into consideration, John Cage and the others who collaborated on the production of HPSCHD intended the film and slide projections to represent the abundance and scale of the cosmos and contrast with the microtonal composition of the music. Further, all of the visual elements, like the musical composition, were randomly selected using a method found in the I Ching. Although HPSCHD emphasized the ideas of chance and randomness, in reality the happening was a carefully planned and executed event. It received strong critical reviews and is remembered today as one of the most significant happenings of the era.
Center for Advanced Study Brochure, ca. 1968
University of Illinois Archives
This brochure announces the second year of Cage’s appointment to the University’s Center for Advanced Study. The purpose of Cage’s appointment was “to produce a musical composition utilizing the facilities of the electronic music studio.” The composition, “HPSCHD,” was created in collaboration with Lejaren Hiller, and premiered at a happening of the same name in May 1969, just before the conclusion of Cage’s appointment at the University of Illinois.
This exhibit was prepared and mounted in the Marshall Gallery of the Main Library at University of Illinois at Urbana-Chapmpaign by Elizabeth Surles, July 2011.
Each HPSCHD tape has sounds created by dividing the octave differently — from “5 to 56 tones”, as those same LP notes state. The result, obviously, is 52 different tonal divisions.
It’s a simple math mistake that Jerry or John made when writing the LP notes: you can’t subtract 5 from 56 to get the number of different tonal divisions — because 5 itself is one of the possibilities.
I was there, helping with the HPSCHD premiere; Bill Blakeney,who restored the HPSCHD tapes for his CD version of HPSCHD, has confirmed that the correct number of electronic channels is 52.