John Cage – HPSCHD – Roundhouse Theatre

While I was Production Manager at the Roundhouse in the last few years of the 60’s and the first few years of the 70’s, we had an amazing range of events of one sort or another, many of which made one hell of an impression on me.   One of these was a most extraordinary concert of a piece by John Cage, called HPSCHD (Pronounced “Harpsichord”).

Here is a description from Wikipedia of what it was supposed to be:-

HPSCHD is composed of 7 solo pieces for harpsichord and 51 computer-generated tapes. The harpsichord solos were created from randomly processed pieces by Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann, Gottschalk, Busoni, Schoenberg, Cage and Hiller, rewritten using a FORTRAN computer program designed by Ed Kobrin based on the I Ching hexagrams. Cage had initially turned down the commission (stating that he hated harpsichords because they reminded him of sewing machines) but Hiller’s proposal reignited his interest in the piece, which provided an interesting challenge for both Cage’s chance experiments and Hiller’s use of computer algorithms in musical composition.

Twenty-minute solos for one to seven amplified harpsichords and tapes for one to fifty-two amplified monaural machines to be used in whole or in part in any combination with or without interruptions, etc., to make an indeterminate concert of any agreed-upon length having two to fifty-nine channels with loud-speakers around the audience. […] In addition to playing his own solo, each harpsichordist is free to play any of the others.

Following the debut at Urbana, Cage acknowledged the chaotic nature of the piece and the performance, explaining: “When I produce a happening, I try my best to remove intention in order that what is done will not oblige the listener in any one way. I don’t think we’re really interested in the validity of compositions any more. We’re interested in the experiences of things.”

So now you know.

The version above is not really much like what I saw and heard in the probably better environment for such a “concert” of the Roundhouse, where there was ample room for the various stages and the public to wander from player to player at will.


But it gives at least a bit of an idea of what we experienced, even though ours went on for about 3 hours, rather than the 30 odd minutes of the one above.

What it in fact consisted of at the Roundhouse was five small stages, each with a harpsichord placed on it, and no seats for the audience, who were thus free to wander around as they wished.  Each harpsichord had a  world class player who seemed to me to be simply playing whatever they felt like, and as often as they wanted to.

I have no recollection of any computer generated music though I assume it must have been happening.

In the course of the “concert” these musicians played happily away, engaged people in the audience in conversation, allowed members of the audience to take over their harpsichords if they wanted a break, or had to go to the lavatory and were generally rather more engaged with the audience than with the music.  It was a truly gentle, pleasing and actually quite interesting event…And John Cage himself was wandering around among the audience, apparently enjoying it all as much as we all were.

The musicians played a wonderful mix of Baroque, modern and even pop music, but never related to each other in any fashion, but simply played away for the three hours the concert lasted.   Total gentle anarchy it was, and I really enjoyed it myself.

I am also happy to be able to report that John Cage turned out to be a very pleasing man to talk to.  He and I discussed what was happening on the various stages, but also simply talked about life in general and our own views about what life, the universe and everything was all about.  One of the nicest people I met while working there.

Share with us:
If you ever met John Cage, or listened to HRPSCHD do share any thoughts you might have about him or it.

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