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Exercise 29: Steiner, a challenge

16 March 2010

Director: Jon Mikel Euba

Venue: Proforma Studio

I began transcribing passages of Steiner’s book The Foundations of Human Experience as the basis for my approach to this exercise. When I became aware of the time left in the run-up to Primer Proforma, I realised my first technical errors: the act of transcribing focuses too much on the substance (the content); there is no pleasure to be found in the process; and my own impatience had not been factored into the equation. The first effect of this awareness was to abridge the process: it seemed more practical to photocopy everything in the book that I had previously underlined. Once I began photocopying the selected pages in Steiner’s book, and in view of the considerable volume it was taking on, I realised that even so I would not have time to do everything I intended to in working up to this exercise. It was then that I recalled an anecdote of Cage’s about how he came up with his Composition for prepared piano in 1938.

It is generally believed that the importance of that piece must lie in the fact that it transgressed the uses of an instrument with a long-established tradition. I.e., on the basis of the outcome, as if it were the product of a strategy designed to achieve an end. This is a common perspective, but it is mistaken and, what is worse, castrating.

The fact is that Cage was invited to write a piece of music for a choreography. He got to work on the music with the instrument he had at hand at that moment: a piano. Two days before the opening, he met with the choreographer to see the piece. He was horrified to see the piece undeniably demanded percussion. He returned home, troubled by the difficulty of getting hold of the percussion he felt he needed in only two days. His thinking was: “It’s not my fault, I’ve been working on my music and the choreographer has been working on her choreography, what’s the problem?” The answer was: “the piano”. He went into the kitchen, found a few jars and other objects and placed them under the piano strings, played his piece and, on hearing the sound, knew he was on the right track. From then on, he gradually selected the objects he would use and decided on how he would fix them. The rest is history.

Thinking right, as Cage did on that occasion, is very challenging, but the effects in terms of transmitting experiences in a way that verges on the banal is always empowering for the listener, since it’s not about being clever, but about thinking right.

With the pages out of Steiner’s book photocopied for this exercise, I have to work out how much time I have left, pin-point each phase in the process where I may be facing a problem and solve it. This exercise can be seen as a countdown.

“Style is the result of an obligation carried out in a specific timeframe”