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John Cage on his first trip to Japan in 1962. Photo by Yasuhiro Yoshioka, Courtesy of Sogetsu Foundation

Cage Shock: Homage to John Cage’s First Japan Visit

By Masa Hosojima, December 20, 2023

This season, Japan Society presented a four-part series, John Cage’s Japan, culminating with ”Cage Shock: Homage to His First Japan Visit.” The series was curated and performed by Tomomi Adachi, in collaboration with experimental sound artists Tania Caroline Chen and Victoria Shen.

Through renditions of Cage’s iconic pieces, such as “Haiku” and “0’00,” Adachi captured the spirit of that groundbreaking tour. The program also featured Toshi Ichiyanagi’s “Sapporo,” which premiered in 1962, conducted at first by Seiji Ozawa and then by John Cage. Toshi Ichiyanagi (1933-2022), a renowned Japanese composer, was the first husband of Yoko Ono. He developed a close friendship with Cage during his 1950s residency in New York City and played a pivotal role in organizing Cage’s initial trip to Japan, with visits to Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, and Sapporo.

The original Cage performance featured traditional acoustic instruments and a bicycle. Adachi’s contemporary version of Cage Shock was updated through the use of more recent objects, such as an aerosol bottle, laptop computers, and sound processors. Chen’s and Shen’s shiny dresses added a dichotomy of contemporary avant-garde femininity: beautiful yet powerful. Adachi’s absurd, physically challenging and humorous performance set a new direction for sound art performance. The stage was full of color and 21st century gadgetry with a diapason of sound that the audience, including myself, enjoyed.

As a performer and a composer Adachi is known for his work in experimental and electronic music, particularly in the field of vocal art. He explores innovative techniques, and has contributed to the development of new forms of expression within sound art, such as injecting absurd elements into his performances, for example, singing while upside down or jabbering nonsense syllables. Adachi’s creative philosophy of transcending the ordinary with Fluxus-like theatrical gestures and audience involvement emerged in his performance interpreting “Cage Shock.”

Fluxus drew significant inspiration from composer John Cage, particularly his belief in initiating an artwork without a predetermined endpoint. Cage also emphasized viewing the work as a space for interaction between the artist and the audience, and prioritizing the creative process over the final outcome.

The following segments that constituted the performance were largely successful in maintaining Cage’s intent.

"Haiku" (1958) by John Cage

"Haiku” originally had no specification for musical instruments, only notations for 5, 7, and 5 “events” indicated across three transparent pages. This structure mimics the form of a haiku, a short poem with lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables. However, Adachi interpreted Cage’s piece with three performers including himself using electrically manipulated voices. Chen improvised and included contemporary music, played the piano and other found objects. She also punctuated the proceedings with vocal outbursts. Shen’s sound practice is concerned with the spatiality/physicality of sound and its relationship to the human body. Her music features analog modular synthesizers, vinyl/resin records, and self-built electronics. She used these tools to great effect in “Haiku” in her interpretation of her page of the notes.

"Sapporo" (1962) by Toshi Ichiyanagi

The late Toshi Ichiyanagi composed "Sapporo" for any number of performers up to 15, plus a conductor who may also make sound. The score consists of several loose-leaf sheets, assigned one per performer. Each sheet contains symbols denoting sustained sounds (horizontal lines), glissandos (angled lines) and short, accented sounds (dots), to be played over the course of the performance, whose duration and instrumentation (conventional or otherwise) are left to the discretion of the interpreters.

Additional symbols mandate occasional points of interaction between the performers, but the majority of their actions are uncoordinated, lining up by chance. During the performance musicians, including the excellent musicians from the International Contemporary Ensemble, moved around the stage at undetermined intervals and exchanged scores with each other, lending a sense of absurdity as one musician would start playing, stop and then exchange the score again with an air of imperative direction.

Adachi's asynchronous conducting provided a lively and entertaining showcase of chance operations. In the performance, Maestro Adachi occasionally turned around, conducting not only the musicians but also engaging with the audience, even signaling to them behind his back. This being New York, the audience spontaneously responded to his unconventional conducting style. The experience resembled Fluxus acts involving both Cage and Ichiyanagi, resulting in a delightful ensemble. Adachi truly crafted a joyful Fluxus Ensemble with his unique approach.

4’33” (NO.2)(0’0”) (1962) by John Cage

Ten years after 4'33” (1952), in a reversal of his original concept, Cage brought media technology (the transformational power of amplification) into the sequels of his “Silent Piece.” The score of his composition 0'00”, (also 4'33” No. 2) from 1962 reads: “In a situation provided with maximum amplification (no feedback), perform a disciplined action.”  For this piece Adachi was the singular performer. Following Cage’s contrasting direction for 4’33’’ (No.2), Adachi combined extreme amplification of the electromagnetic waves emitted from the laptop. In that sense, it's faithful to the music score. Throughout the performance Adachi was writing a letter that was intended for an anonymous audience member. Coincidently, Chuck Bettis, an experimental musician who had collaborated with him in the past was in the audience and he ultimately handed the letter to him.

The social awareness that Cage brought to his music was also present in this performance as events in Gaza managed to make their mark on the evening. After receiving the letter, after the performance Bettis commented, “Silence” in the artistic context is all about deep listening. In stark contrast, silence in the political context = death, which is why we need a permanent ceasefire now! Let us collectively truly learn from the mistakes we keep on making from the past and to never ever repeat them. Let us be anti-war all the time.”

Aria and Solo for Piano with Fontana Mix by John Cage (1957-1958)

Cage originally composed three independent pieces to be performed separately or simultaneously. Adachi arranged the Aria and Solo for Piano with Fontana Mix in a way that allowed each to be performed independently, The entire performance was marked by abstract chaos. Stage left, Adachi performed extended vocalizations and postures. Center stage, Chen performed on prepared piano and found objects, with maximum physicality. Stage right, Shen was scratching an original analog record that she produced and intensely creating sound by misusing a bow in various ways. It was visually chaotic yet they sounded like one ensemble. Adachi expanded on his vocal repertoire through the incorporation of elements such as Nonsense Syllables that had the character of a toddler babbling syllables that sounded like the formation of words. As the performance kept going he fell to the floor and then had his feet bound to a hook and astonishingly sung without interruption while hanging upside-down.


Before the concert I had a chance to interview Adachi on the subject of the Making rationale, my own series of interview projects  "From the view point of Making.”  Adachi told me about his role as a "medium" merging universality into his art for a creative identity. Presenting himself as a conduit, he positions his work as a channel for universality, bridging the audience to a collective understanding.

Adachi told me, “I do not want to leave the audience with nothing.”  He stresses the importance of leaving a lasting impact on the audience's minds, committing to art that endures in memory.

Adachi's disinterest in personal acclaim adds complexity to his persona, emphasizing a focus on the art and its impact. His selflessness aligns with his vision of contributing enduring meaning to the collective artistic consciousness.

A correction was made on Dec. 27, 2023: The first photo for Cage in the body of the article had described him as sitting in the Nanzenji Temple. He was sitting in the Ryoanji Temple.

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Masa Hosojima, writer, trained in music composition, is an artist exploring, composing, making objects, curating, and conducting interviews about visual and auditory culture and aesthetic practices. He has published a catalog of his curated exhibition, “Women On Making.” and translated books about Jewish refugees escaping to Japan during World War II.

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Jake Price, photographer, contributes to National Geographic, The New Yorker, the BBC, and The New York Times. After the 3/11 triple disaster he helped raise ¥3,139,500 ($42,000) for tsunami victims in collaboration with Kodansha's 3/11 Photo Project. His immersive web doc on Miyagi, "Unknown Spring," was awarded by the World Press Photo Foundation, and his documentary on Fukushima, "The Invisible Season," premiered at the New York Film Festival.

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