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In Cage’s ‘Apartment House 1776,’ echoes of a newborn nation

John CageGlobe file

On June 20, as part of the Summer Institute for Contemporary Performance Practice (SICPP), the Callithumpian Consort performs John Cage’s “Apartment House 1776,” originally commissioned for the 1976 American Bicentennial. (The premiere — by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Seiji Ozawa — was performed simultaneously with Cage’s “Renga,” a graphic score derived from drawings by Henry David Thoreau.) The title indicates Cage’s conception: an aural snapshot of the fledgling country, as if it were a crowded residence with thin walls. Four uncoordinated instrumental quartets play deconstructed versions of early American hymns and tunes; four vocalists (either live, as with Monday’s performance, or on tape) represent 1776 demographics: Protestant colonists, Sephardic Jews, Native Americans, and Negro slaves. (“They decide which songs they will sing,” Cage instructs, “the only stipulation being that the materials be authentic.”) Much like the country it commemorates, it is a free-for-all, but an intricately designed one.

The circus of “Apartment House 1776” embodies two parallel, sometimes contradictory patriotic strains. The source materials could be an acknowledgement of the American civil religion, the concomitant, non-denominational deification of “one nation under God.” But Cage’s experimental process channeled the Enlightenment faith in reason and progress that was also woven into the country’s fabric, a faith that, in 1976 — with Watergate and Vietnam still all-too-recent memories — expressed itself in forward-looking terms, through technology, via the American penchant for invention and ingenuity.


Indeed, the manipulated hymnody undergirding “Apartment House 1776” went through a development as deliberate as any industrial process. Wanting to keep the flavor of the early American hymns while, at the same time, eliminating their harmonic predictability (which, he said, he found “obnoxious”), Cage hit upon the idea of subtraction — randomly removing pitches from the originals — but his first experiments were “no good at all,” he recalled. After several tries, he came up with a method of working line by line, voice by voice, erasing some pitches but extending others. This provided the desired result: “You can recognize it as 18th-century music; but it’s suddenly brilliant in a new way.”

Cage’s methods recall how another famous innovator, Thomas Edison, differentiated between discovery and invention. Edison admitted that “In a discovery there must be an element of the accidental, and an important one, too,” but most of his own inventions were “the result of countless experiments, all directed toward attaining some well-defined object.” In “Apartment House 1776,” Cage’s well-defined object was the country’s elusive essence: clamorous yet elliptical, ingrained yet forever incipient, its churn yielding chaos and grace alike.


Matthew Guerrieri

The Callithumpian Consort performs at Jordan Hall, New England Conservatory, on June 20 at 8 p.m. Free admission.

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at