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Swinging Modern Sounds #43: Formative Experiences

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Often, I find, the musical experiences that have had the most lasting impact on me were not immediately apparent to me at the time. For example, I have often written about hearing Armed Forces by Elvis Costello and the Attractions–a very important album in my teenage development, at my high school radio station–and thinking at first it was too cute and a bit dull, whereas I now think it exhibits pop genius of the most significant order. I remember hearing The Minutemen when I was in grad school, a friend meanwhile spieling, Hardcore is the next big thing, and thinking, well, not exactly. Thought it then turned out to be exactly my next big thing for four or five years almost to the exclusion of anything else. Or there was the learning intensive at the hands of my friend Josh Cole, once upon a time, in which we explored Kind of Blue, of which I at first heard little that he was hearing. Now it’s one of my very favorite albums. And what about first encountering Straight Outta Compton? Or, at the other end of the spectrum, what about first hearing Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Volume II, in 1995, or thereabouts, and being unprepared for a new tour around the world of the very somber and the very electronic.

So: I find I am often unwilling to understand originality and singularity at the moment I first experience it. Or: I am unwilling to be either formed or transformed without prior notification. This is a disagreeable fact of musical life. That said, the formations and transformations often take place whether I want them to or not, often with repeated exposure (how long did it take me to realize that Never Mind the Bollocks was hilarious and great?), which I suppose means that I am a cautious listener though at the same time one who prizes the genuinely original over the transiently, ephemerally novel (Go-Go in the late seventies, Shoegazing in the late eighties, Space Age Bachelor pad in the early nineties, Freak Folk in the middle oughts).

In retrospect, the teaching moments are profound moments, even if I am too stupid to realize they are taking place. And today I mean to describe and anatomize and document one such moment, and it goes like this: at my boarding school, St. Paul’s School, in Concord, New Hampshire, where I went to high school, you had to go to chapel four days a week. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday. This was something that many students were trying to find ways to skip (despite the fact that if you skipped you got a detention of some kind), and which many others were trying to find a way to sleep through. Generally, chapel consisted of a couple of pieces of organ music, some kind of speech or stirring call to excellence by an educator, or perhaps a short musical performance. Then some announcements. The elapsed time was never longer than half an hour. I myself gave a bad speech there on one occasion, and also played piano once. I was also in the St. Paul’s School chorus for a couple of years, and we performed at chapel now and again—in robes.

In my senior year, one morning, a student a year or two behind me got up to give a speech in chapel (no one seems to be able to reconstruct the exact date), walked to the microphone, and said nothing at all for what seemed like an eternity. He just stood there, as close to motionless as you could get, and we sat and watched, half expecting something to happen, though nothing was happening, reading into the stillness of the performer, listening to the shifting of adolescents on stiff wooden benches, waiting, and waiting some more, and then when the eternity was over, he walked away from the microphone, and the postlude happened, and then the announcements took place, as per usual. For many students (see below), this event came and went with little notice, and without much discussion after the fact, but because I was doing some theater in those days, and was therefore occasionally in the thrall of the incredibly gifted professor of theatrical stuff, Robert Edgar, I recognized that something performative was taking place. In fact, I soon learned that the performance in question had been a very specific performance, of John Cage’s seminal work 4’33”.

The performer, moreover, was a student called Will Schwalbe, who was affable, brilliant, exceedingly well-mannered, but with an impish and unpredictable quality, of which the performance was but one noteworthy example. Schwalbe was known for his theatrical chops in those days, but he went on to be an editor of note (in fact, he was editor in chief of the press called Hyperion for seven years), and an Internet entrepreneur, and, most recently, an author (of the bestselling End of Your Life Book Club). Schwalbe’s performance that day took a lot of courage (I can’t entirely do justice to how intimidating the interior of that chapel is—you kind of have to see it), but it went largely unnoticed. I have polled a bunch of schoolmates who could plausibly have been there at the time, and the vast majority of my class was either not present, or not awake, and people closer to Schwalbe’s age seem to remember, but never heard about the John Cage part of the event at all.

For me something really stuck. I can’t tell you that I instantly converted to the work of John Cage that day, but I can tell you that I listened during the performance, and that various Cage principles began, in that setting, to work their fiendish and unpredictable way into my consciousness—chance operations, the I Ching, tape music, field recording, nature—such that by the time I finished college, a few years later, I was already very smitten by the strange, singular, American lineaments of that work.

The St. Paul’s students may not have gotten it. (“Yes, I remember that morning, but only vaguely, as a genius Schwalbe moment. Like other genius Schwalbe moments in memory, it is sorta misty.” “I do remember it, but I do not remember ever getting an explanation of what occurred. Unfortunately, I do not remember any discussions about it afterwards, which it should have provoked.” “No clue. Will was always doing something brilliant, so any particular event fades in the mist. Only chapel I remember in 4 years was when Jai Packard performed selections from Broadway hits . . .” “In retrospect was sorry to have missed it, but remember bagging chapel that morning for excellent traying on a snowy upper freaky with Ohrstrom and Coogan. Another silent celebration…” “Not in my memory, sorry. Hard to believe, though, since that would have been a pretty uncomfortable silence undoubtedly broken by whispering and giggling throughout the Chapel, and I would have thought it was sheer genius.”) But it is a measure of the surpassing excellence of educational life at St. Paul’s that we were exposed to this performance (notwithstanding some carping from faculty, ex post facto) at all, and to its revolution, via Will Schwalbe and his wristwatch, a seminal work in the modern canon of experimental music. Usually, in chapel, we learned a lot about Bach and Purcell.

And: it has been for some months now, in the aftermath of the John Cage centenary, that I have been revisiting his music, and not just the early piano music, which many people love (try “In a Landscape” or “Dream”), or the high period of chance operations (e.g., the incredibly lovely “Cheap Imitation”), but also the percussion music (of which the most interesting, in my view, are “The City Wears a Slouch Hat,” a radio play by Kenneth Patchen with a score by Cage, and “Credo In Us”), the tape compositions (“Fontana Mix”) and also the less well-known “numbered” pieces from the seventies and eighties, and so on. There is beautiful, lucid, moving music from each of the five or so decades in which Cage produced his revolution. Cage, as Alan Hall, English department chair, noted back in my St. Paul’s School class on Romantic Poetry (circa 1979), not long after Will’s performance, Cage was perhaps a more accessible writer on music than he was an accessible musician, and yet now we have the leisure to go back and face the work, fearlessly, and to listen for what is there, and to find that it is not so difficult, at all, especially as its influence has been so widely dispersed among things we know better. There is so much there.

Let me say, however, that my transformative experience, the one that I didn’t quite know was happening until later, happened largely because of Will Schwalbe, and his studies, in those days, of experimental and avant-garde theater. I, therefore, thought it might be enjoyable to talk to Will about what he remembers of the performance of 4’33” and to see how those years influenced what he does now. Which I do below. Will and I spoke the day after Christmas 2012 (a hundred years after the birth of Cage), in Will’s apartment, which is also remarkable for another of his passions: contemporary Chinese visual art. Will, as he always has been, was charming, funny, articulate, humble, brilliant, and possessed of a wildly diverse set of interests and preoccupations.

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The Rumpus: Do you remember when you got the idea to perform for “4’33”?”

Will Schwalbe: I’ve got a pretty good idea. I was taking a class from a teacher named Bob Edgar, and it was a theater class, and he was very busy exposing us to theater of the sixties in particular. Late sixties, early seventies, and particularly I got fascinated with guerilla theater, and also with site-specific pieces. I was very interested in the stuff that was going on in the Judson Memorial Church. The idea of Judson church: performance in a church and religion as a kind of performance or spectacle. It really appealed to me. I don’t know if it was through that class or otherwise I learned about the Cage piece, but I got this kind of burning desire to do it in chapel. It fit the guerilla model too because I wanted to a whole series of things. That was actually just one of the series of things I did, guerilla style, around campus. So I sort of planned it as a series, and that was the first.

Rumpus: What were some of the other guerilla actions?

Schwalbe: There’s a little play, a brother and a sister and they scream at each other either about how much they hate their mother, or about how much they love their mother. So I’d heard about this play and it was a very short play, and I had the idea to do it in the dining hall. I think it was the dining hall called–what was the big room? Middle dining hall? Lower dining hall? Not the fancy one.

Rumpus: The regular one, the one we used all the time. For lunch.

url-12Schwalbe: Exactly. So a fellow student and I filled our trays with glasses and cutlery and plates, and we walked in and we both, on cue, dropped our trays. Which caused a mess, shattering dishes, and everything, and which caused everyone to stop what they were doing and to wheel around. Usually people applauded. When the applause stopped we went right into this play. We performed this three minute play, and then we sat down. It was very exciting because by the time everyone figured out what we were doing it was over. It was really for our entertainment. That was the second one we did. I think there was a third guerilla action but I can’t remember what it was.

Rumpus: Who was your actress in that piece?

Schwalbe: Kristin Orr.

Rumpus: Of course. [Actually, as the events in this story are 34 years old, it now appears that Schwalbe may have used a different actress entirely, namely Christina Robert, who had this to say about the whole story by e-mail: “I know he walked into the dining hall at lunchtime. He walked into the middle of the room and announced the performance by dropping a tray full of silverware. It was very dramatic. I was part of it somehow—I think I had to stand up from my table and hold the space. There must have been a few of us scattered around. Thinking about it makes me miss the brilliance of that particular SPS community.”]

Schwalbe: Beautiful brunette, and she wanted to be an actress, and she was very game to go along with this. [The above could certainly be said of Christina Robert, too, without fear of injustice to either party. –ed.] I think actually she may have, I may have done a kind of spin during the Cage piece. She may have actually been there as a kind of accompanist, as though I was going to play and she was going to sing, or something. I can’t remember if that’s right.

Rumpus: Were these pieces for class credit, or just for your own personal development?

Schwalbe: There was no credit, no one knew I was doing them before I did them. I didn’t discuss them with Bob Edgar or of my teachers or anybody, I just did them myself. [Edgar, when queried on the subject, appears, to his regret, to have been absent from school on the day in question: “How annoying. I seem to have a history of missing things. The famous Harvard Yale game of the fall of 1968, for instance. I was a senior, so I was given a free ticket. My best friend and I went (as seniors we got free tickets) but left at the beginning of the third quarter, because Yale was clearly the better team and was trouncing Harvard”. –ed.] I thought in the spirit of guerilla theatre I just had to do it, and I didn’t want to get anyone in trouble and it would’ve ruined it if I told anybody. So the only person who knew was Kristin. Nobody else knew.

Rumpus: How did you approach the issue of getting permission to perform in chapel? Do you remember that?

Schwalbe: Well, I was a really goody two shoes. I was on the student council, I won awards, I got good grades. In a way I realized a part of the context for the piece was the fact that no one would see it coming, that if I had been what we used to call a Bad Att, you know, the kind of kids who used to stand around smoking cigarettes by the hockey rink then the context would have been different. Then there would have been skepticism about allowing me to give a speech, people would have wondered why, and the minute the performance started everyone would figure out that something was going on. So I knew I had the cover of being a good kid. I said I would like to speak in chapel, I made up a topic that was bland, and sure, you know? The kid wants to speak in chapel, let the kid speak in chapel. That was easy. And the dining hall one, we had no permission, we just did it. And it was over so fast. Some kids dropped their trays, and said something weird, you know, what are you going to do. But the Cage performance did have some mild repercussions.

Rumpus: Such as?

Schwalbe: Some of the faculty members were furious, they were furious, and I heard directly from a couple of them and then I heard indirectly from even more of them that they felt I had disrespected chapel, and that I had made a mockery of it.

Rumpus: Really?

Schwalbe: They didn’t get it. They didn’t get it and they were very angry.

Rumpus: Meaning they knew nothing of the Cage piece?

Schwalbe: Meaning they knew nothing about the Cage piece. They thought I had done just done–it was like I was Pussy Riot or something. [Laughing.] They were very mad but again because I was a good kid they could only get so mad. I think part of the ethos of St. Paul’s, which I internalized very quickly, was the idea of getting away with things. At least at the time we went there the prevailing ethos was: How much can you get away with? And if you can get away with it, you can do it. Really nothing was out of bounds that you could get away with, and if you got caught doing something then the crime was that you were stupid enough to get caught. It’s not doing the thing. Would you agree with that? [Laughing.]

Rumpus: I would say that is well put.

Schwalbe: So there was a kind of duality to performing these performances. I also remember one of the other plays I put on, in the art gallery, was about a boy who had an erection that would not go down—a hysterically funny little play. It has the single best monologue I know, which is the chant he says to himself to get his erection to go away. Which involves—I remember to this day—water falling, water, the lakefronts of Chicago, Detriot, the naming of wet or industrial places. Again, a couple people were annoyed about that play, they didn’t think I should be putting on a play about erections. But other than hearing that someone was irritated there were no consequences.

Rumpus: I assume Mr. Edgar would have instantly recognized what was taking place. Were there other masters, or members of the community who understood immediately ?

Schwalbe: I don’t think so. There were a few that were amused by it, but I think Bob Edgar, and the Barretts (who taught art) were the only ones who got it. I think, too, I was partially inspired by something he had done before we were there. He had put on a show for a parents’ weekend, and the kids had written it themselves, which started out quite earnestly, and then a kid kind of forgot a line, and then a prop was missing, and things got worse and worse. Bob wanted to see how long he could keep the play going before the parents realized it was a joke, and by the end sand bags wer falling from the sky, and the stage was chaos. But I love that idea of the kids got to essentially make their parents the play, to see how embarrassed their parents would be. And obviously one of the really interesting things about the Cage performance, was that it was an experiment and I wanted to see how people would react. I was fascinated to see how people would react, and I remember that very clearly. There was a real silence, a hushed silence, that turned into a nervous silence because you could hear the fidgeting. Then one or two people started to applaud like they were kind of in on a joke and they were applauding, and then everybody applauded, and then they stopped all by themselves, applauding, and more silence took place. Then there was nervous laughter, a little more nervous laughter, then that stopped. Then I got up and sort of took my bow and exited. There was a very distinct silence, and then a smattering of applause from people who either got it, or were just glad it was over. I really remember trying at the time to be very present for that because you know I wasn’t going to have that opportunity again, and the whole point was I got to hear this, what silence sounds like. It was cool and it was exciting for me because it was real. I didn’t know where this was going to go, I didn’t know what people were going to do, and, so, unlike so much theater that I was being exposed to then and I’m exposed to now, theater that’s totally predictable, this was an approximation of what theater really should be. This was live. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I felt a sense of danger. I really love theater but I go rarely because it’s so hard for me to find that quality of liveness, of unpredictability.

Rumpus: I couldn’t agree more. Now: you’ve talked about the performance in a theatrical context but I’m kind of just interested in whether or not, for you, you thought about it in the musical context. Did you think about it as though silence were a musical contribution to chapel and did you think about it as though that indeterminacy of applause and ambient noise were some kind of music? Like our normal musical fare in chapel?

url-16Schwalbe: I was very aware that Cage was a musician. He wasn’t an actor, he was a musician. I was clearly aware that he thought of it as a musical piece. But because people knew that I liked to put on shows, I knew regardless of what I did they would see it as a performance. So I suppose I thought of it more as musical theater, an adaptation of what he did with musical theater context. But I definitely saw it as a musical event, bounded by that time, and that the sounds and the actions were a piece. That they were the composition. That’s why I had to remind myself to be aware, because you’re up there nervous and you’re excited and you’re just a kid, and I sort of remember saying to myself, You have to listen because you’re never going to hear this again.

Rumpus: What did you use for your timekeeping? Do you remember that part? Did you just use a watch?

Schwalbe: I just used a watch.

Rumpus: And you didn’t have a score, right? Because sometimes when people perform they use the actual score. Which, as you would suppose, is mostly blank.

Schwalbe: I didn’t have a score. But I had set up everything to indicate to everyone that there was a moment when I was about to begin, and so it definitely had a start. It wasn’t just standing up there aimlessly. I was very careful to behave in such a way that people would know it had begun—because it doesn’t work unless that happens.

Rumpus: A couple more questions, if I may. I find it incredible that you could have been insightful about all of this experimental theater stuff in those days, only to completely leave your theater career behind. Do you feel like this theater work was foundational for what you’ve become professionally since, or was it just an aspect of youth?

Schwalbe: No, I think it was pretty foundational. I was very turned on by the theater stuff. At the same time, and this is my amateur psychologizing, I was out gay to myself at St. Paul’s and realized very quickly—in that time, in that environment—that I couldn’t really tell anybody. There was actually one minister there to whom I spoke, and she sort of agreed that it was not a good idea to come out at St. Paul’s. At that time there had never been an out teacher or an out student. And so it just seemed too complicated. If I was a braver kid I might have done it, but I’m not sure that would have been a wise call. My life would have gone in a different direction. To some degree, I liked this theater stuff because it was like having a secret on the school and it was a way to play out with those identities, and I played out with them other ways. Actually for our class ring, even though St. Paul’s didn’t really have class rings, I organized a class earring for boys and girls, a big dangly clip-on class earring. Even though we didn’t really have proms, I organized a cross-dressing prom where everyone had to come dressed at the opposite sex. So the theatrical events and the plays I was in, plays like Spring Awakening, were also playing with secrets. When I came out in college some of the need for the acting out, literally acting out, went away, and then I saw theater in college as this means to an end. I put on two plays in college, again guerilla style, didn’t have anyone’s permission, I put them on in the basements of buildings. One was the very first AIDS fundraiser at Yale, to raise money for Gay Men’s Health Crisis and AIDS Project New Haven, and that was in 1983 and we raised a couple thousand dollars. Then, though this is probably too much biography, I got involved in Gay Men’s Health Crisis and the hotline, and the theater stuff I was doing seemed trivial. Just didn’t seem like where my energies should go. I wrote a long play, a play that has never been produced and I enjoyed writing that, I’m going to drag it out and do something with it some day. Then I become a journalist and then I found as I became a book publisher I felt people had so many things to say that I wanted to help them say. I just didn’t feel an urgency about my stuff and I didn’t feel that same kind of excitement around the theater or I didn’t feel like that’s where urgent things were happening, with some major exceptions, like Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, which is a great, explosive, artistic, amazing work that was really out there. For all these reasons I just drifted away from theater but I still feel passionately about the possibilities of the theatrical event, that live energy of theater. For me there’s still nothing like it, like in the work of Peter Brook, who I think, is one of the greatest living geniuses of the theater.

Rumpus: Agreed. And since you’re in literature now can we ask the same question of literature? Can literature still be dangerous?

Schwalbe: I definitely still think literature can be dangerous. A very tame example is Rule of the Bone by Russell Banks. Great novel, in some ways a young adult novel, lots of pot smoking kids. Try giving that to the kids of your more conservative friends and see what happens. They’re not going to be happy with you but you’ll create readers. Those kinds of books can be dangerous. That’s why I’m still excited about books, they can push people past their comfort zones, they can challenge. At their best they are not predictable at all. I mean a book, even a very, very popular book like Gone Girl. Which everyone is reading, it’s a big thriller, it’s great fun to read. It’s a really cynical book about marriage, I think it’s one of the most cynical books about marriage I have ever read. If you take it for a metaphor about marriage in general it’s kind of a dangerous book, and I think that’s cool. That’s part of what makes working in literature so exciting, I think, that you never know which books will turn out to be dangerous and exciting. Dangerous and exciting writing can come from anywhere.

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Photo of Will Schwalbe by Michael Lionstar.


Rick Moody is the author of five novels, three collections of stories, a memoir, and a recently released collection of essays, ON CELESTIAL MUSIC. Moody's band, The Wingdale Community Singers, just released their third album, NIGHT, SLEEP, DEATH, on Blue Chopsticks Recordings. It's available at iTunes and Amazon.com. More from this author →