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Cage’s painstaking labor created the illusion of chance


On Oct. 24, Berlin-based musicians Werner Dafeldecker and Valerio Tricoli perform a concert at the Goethe-Institut that includes their collaborative piece “Williams Mix Extended,” a 35-minute digital expansion and interpretation of John Cage’s 1952 tape piece “Williams Mix.” Four-and-a-half minutes long, “Williams Mix” required hundreds of field-recorded fragments, manually cut and spliced into eight simultaneously-played single-channel tapes, according to instructions derived from chance operations. (Cage likened the 193-page score to “a dressmaker’s pattern.”)

The work was laborious: Cage, with composer Earle Brown, pianist David Tudor, and electronic-music pioneers Bebe and Louis Barron, spent months putting the tapes together. At the time, Cage was teaching a summer session at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, and proposed a seminar in which students would help him assemble “Williams Mix.” No one signed up.


“Williams Mix” was a culmination of early experiments in the medium; Cage created it for the “Project for Music for Magnetic Tape,” which also produced works by Brown, Christian Wolff, and Morton Feldman. (The project was funded by architect and Black Mountain alumnus Paul Williams, hence Cage’s title.) The piece captures both Cage’s determination to realize his ideas, and something of his sense of humor: musique concrète at Warner Bros.-cartoon speed.

Its complex, exacting construction, combined with Cage’s dissatisfaction that it was still essentially a fixed object (chance-derived or not), made the piece something of a dead end. And yet “Williams Mix” became a landmark, especially after it was recorded as part of Cage’s 25-year retrospective concert at New York’s Town Hall in 1958. By that daisy-chain provenance — score to tape to playback to live recording to vinyl — it entered the electro-acoustic canon.

In the late 1990s, composer Larry Austin created a computerized realization of “Williams Mix.” The underlying software, “Williams [re]Mix[er],” automated the chance operations at the heart of the piece; Cage’s original blueprint is just one of countless schemes that could be used to generate further realizations from a preloaded library of sound files.


Dafeldecker and Tricoli’s piece is even more thoroughgoing, using digital means to both imaginatively translate Cage’s tape techniques and expand the time frame, aurally zooming in on the sounds and their manipulation. The original’s handmade aspects have yielded to intricate, frictionless computation. In a way, it deprives “Williams Mix” of its cheerfully defiant impracticality; but, then again, it turns the piece into a template for a quintessentially Cagean ideal: constant, unpredictable reinvention.

Non-Event presents Werner Dafeldecker and Valerio Tricoli performing “Williams Mix Extended” and solo sets, Oct. 24 at 8 p.m. at the Goethe-Institut Boston, 170 Beacon St. Tickets $8-$12.50 in advance, $10-$15 at the door. www.nonevent.org .

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.