Interview with János Négyesy

János Négyesy:

Not knowing anything what will happen in 1984 in Ivrea when I premiered the first two books of the Freeman etudes. It was a Cage festival and half of the program was in Milan in the conservatory and one half in Ivrea in this Rococo theater which was just rebuilt a month before the festival. I go on stage, take a bow, play two notes and already a dozen people were screaming “bravo maestro.” I thought “Well, you will get tired.” This is 84, 80 minutes and after half an hour I noticed, they didn’t get tired at all. About 20 young kids were running all over the theater. Then they started to make airplanes out of the program, throwing at me, then they found toilet paper rolls, which they rolled up and threw at me; and after an hour I figured this: I have no choice. Either I finish the piece or I will be killed. So I decided, “János, you’ll do the job. If you have to die that’s really too bad. Not knowing that soon after I was sure that I have to continue, a shoe landed close by, and, of course, it was terribly noisy because the ushers were running after the kids. The kids were running away from them, and rest of the audience said “pss-sh-s.” I felt I was in Paris at the beginning of the 20th Century, hearing of Sacre du Printemps riot. I was on the last page and a big glass of water landed a meter away from me on stage, of course breaking and splashing all over the place; and I remember my heart stopped, but not for real because I remember. I finished and it was just [an]absolutely phenomenal coulisse of noise. ’cause everybody was screaming, booing, whistling, applauding. I left stage and saw a whole row of white faces from the stage crew. They didn’t say anything, and I just took a deep breath and John Cage comes, grabs my arm and says: “János, let’s go take a bow.” “John, they almost killed me. He says while pulling me on stage: “I admire your strength, János, but wasn’t it marvelous? So we didn’t until day after what happened, because this certainly wasn’t a spontaneous riot. So the next night I repeated the Free etudes in a conservatorio which was live televised in Italy and the entire block was cordoned off by the police on horses and plain cloth police in the first row just to make sure nothing really happens, and nothing happened. However John Cage was terribly disappointed. There was no riot the second time. And I remember ten years I premiered the second half of the etudes in Ferrara, in care of high security again because they remember 10 years ago of this riot in Ivrea. And nothing happened and including the newspapers and John Cage, they were so disappointed that no more riot happened. That’s in a nutshell the story of the Freeman etudes.

I remember when he finally finished the etudes, I remember I asked him: “Did you plan, John, that the last etude is the 32nd etude? He said, no, no. And then we toured in Germany, and in Osnabrück I played at the university and they applauded like 40 minutes long. So at one point I told Cage “Can we stop walking back-and-forth?” He said “János, of course, but can you play the last etude again as an encore?” So I knew that he was lying prior this; that he planned it. And it sounds really in these contexts like Monteverdi’s last piece.

The etudes have so many questions raised by not being clear—the notation. And any time I asked Cage for example if he wants double-stop that he has two lines after the picked notes, longest, he wants it. But sometimes it starts and the one ends here and the other goes, and it’s not clear. And any time I asked him, “John what did you mean? Is it this or this?” “János, I can’t remember.” I had to decide myself because I also recorded all 32 etudes on two CDs. And the total duration is 146 minutes something. And I always play with no break, just one piece.

I’d met him first in 1970 in Paris and he recorded Atlas again with the Musique Vivante ensemble. I remember he asked me after the concert “János, do you have any recordings?” I said, yes, I’m going back to Berlin tomorrow and I’ll send them to NYC. I didn’t hear from him until I moved to California ’79. He told me a year later in La Jolla if I would do the West Coast premiere of the first 8 etudes. Of course I said yes, because I didn’t know the Freeman etudes. So, I don’t if had known if I had said yes. Paul Zukofsky who actually transcribed John Cage’s star atlases into pitches, rhythms and colors, he came to San Diego (I invited him to talk about the Freeman etudes), and he walks into a classroom (there were grad student composers) and he said, “Hi, I’m Paul Zukofsky. These etudes are unplayable”. So I lifted my double CD and said “I know.” I can assure you I couldn’t play now some of the etudes at all up to speed. And for some reason I can play if it’s a red light, if it’s recording or I’m on stage. I don’t know what happens because I invented also this color system, because it’s so fast (the changes are so fast) that actually you can’t read. [There] is no time to read it. So I have all 40 (?) signs. Blue, piano, pianissimo, yellow, and I have sul ponticello, green, col legno I have kind of brownish color, because it’s absolutely impossible to read first and then play, which normally you do.

It was a big fall out when John started the third and fourth book, because Zukofsky said, “I can’t do this anymore. Because I’m a violinist and you write a chord and I have to do this for ten seconds, arranging my fingers and basically I  have no time to play a whole row [of] complicated chords. For years they didn’t talk, ’cause Cage was mad and Zukofsky was mad; but then I tried to convince both that it would be good if they would finish. So he did. See, each etude has two pages always and one of the later etudes he wrote so many notes that they don’t fit on two pages. So he made ictuses with a asterix and he has just vertical lines, no notes, and then you have b or c ictus printed very small but that long.

Then the number pieces came and I found the one6  which is 45 minutes long, it has long notes only, up to three minutes, one. And I just couldn’t decide to go on stage and play almost an hour long notes. So for some reason must have been a destiny because I saw an exhibition by Japanese sculptor Mineko Grimmer—she lives in the States—and she has these beautiful kinetic sculptures. This one was a big pool filled with water and there are bamboo pieces come to the center above the water and then she has of this sculpture two piano strings attached to the end of the pool and she has a suspended upside down pyramid—pebbles and ice—suspended on the ceiling above the water. My idea was, this is all about gravity. The pebbles and they ricocheting as water melts. Sometimes they hit the water, sometimes hit the bamboo pieces, or hit the piano strings, and because one6  has no gravity, and the sculpture is only gravity, and I thought that must be just fantastic. And it turned out—it was the last time Cage was in San Diego, just few months before he died in the fall, and I remember I had plexiglas music stand especially made for this and I printed the score pages on transparencies with yellow ink, when you looked at me, you didn’t see anything there. An because the bottom of this pool was black, so I could see the music, but you didn’t see anything from the audience part. I remember there is a picture of that — after the show Cage came and said, “János where is the music?” I said “John, in front of your nose.” And there were lights on, so it was white behind it, so he couldn’t see. So I had to go behind it with my back showing him the score. And after this he wrote one10 which is the same idea, is 27 minutes and only harmonics, but also long, same idea. And then he said, “Oh, you should record these two pieces. Then I understood why it was 27 minutes, the second one, and not an hour. Because 45 and 27 fits perfectly on a CD.

Georg Hajdu: Päivikki, did you also meet Cage?

Päivikki Nykter: He was quite different, I mean, I never met anyone like that, so gentle, so kind and you felt like you’d always known him. It’s just how he impresses you. Somehow the “who are you—a new person,” just warm, warm, warm. Wonderful, I can feel how you were totally fascinated by him—he was great.

János Négyesy:

I saw him only once, he was really angry, ’cause, I was in Ferrara premiering [the] Freeman etudes and he had his 101—the orchestra piece with the Züricher orchestra and he wrote an open letter to the Zürcher Zeitung to the orchestra “shame on you”. He was almost exploding, I never saw him like this. He was always absolute gentle, because they just made jokes, they never learned what to do. They are just like kids in kindergarten, but otherwise he was just a delight.

Georg Hajdu: Did you also play his music too?

Päivikki Nykter: Only his ensemble pieces—Atlas and others, but none of the solo stuff, no.

János Négyesy: Oh, I started to tell you the story in Chicago when he was doing Atlas with a local ensemble and the local pianist’s wife was a frenetic enemy of all new music. So this time she walked in, she found some music stands and was throwing [them] on stage while they were performing, so they called the police. So they took the woman out of the hall, and after the concert in the Green room, Cage sat down. Everybody was absolutely paralyzed, nobody says anything just standing there. And suddenly he says that. “Is this woman still here?” “Yes, Mr. Cage, she’s between two policemen outside. “Can I talk to her?” So they thought, now it’s the end. The cops brought her in, and Cage turned to her and says: “You know we’re going on tour next week. Would you come and do the same?” That’s John Cage.

Päivikki Nykter: But he love all that extreme, he never considered anything noise. If there was a window open, that was part of the piece, whatever he heard from there. Totally different concept, if you think of the stuffy concert hall etiquette, you know. Just only that is the music. But he always thought anything, baby crying, that’s part of his music.

János Négyesy: Only once and that was in Buffalo, January, February, in a gallery. Cage was sitting here, and here was sitting a guy with a cough of a horse. You know this “uahuhoh,” and so loud and so unpredictable, so I looked at Cage while playing, asking should I stop ot not. And I decided to stop this guy’s coughing. I started because he was pretty close to me, I started to make frenetic gestures, really dangerous looking gestures, and the guy didn’t cough for eighty minutes. Soon after I took a bow, he went again “uahuhoh.” To play music is really a powerful thing.

See, I always stopped in New York coming to Europe from San Diego just to see him. Have dinner and all, asking questions and never getting any answers from him about Freeman etudes. I knew pretty well his loft, I knew the pictures and where they were. And once I went there was a black painting, looked like Rauschenberg’s white paintings, but it was black. So I asked him, “What is this,” and he blushed, once in my lifetime I saw him blushed. He told me the story that Rauschenberg gave him this white painting in the early 50s, and he moved and he forgot it somewhere in the attic and rain came and it started to rust, the picture—brown. And he said, he was somewhere else and Merce asked Rauschenberg: “What can I do? This is your white painting but it looks just like brownish all over because of the rust.” And Rauschenberg said “I just paint it black.” So that’s the only black White painting by Rauschenberg I know of.

It was 6th Ave and 18th East, corner. Suddenly it was raining, summertime, so we opened the windows to 6th Avenue and suddenly he said, “Can you hear that?” I said, what? It’s 5 o’clock on 6th Ave, Monday or Tuesday, just cab drivers. “No, no, no. Listen to the rain and listen to the tires and the wet concrete.” And then you just filter out anything else.

I recall sitting in Milano at the airport and heard this story when Beckett died, before Morty Feldman visited him for the opera and ask Beckett, how are you? And he said, Morty I’m empty. Next day he was dead. He wasn’t ill. So I told Cage, because he said, I don’t know this story. I’m telling, finishing this story, and he looked at me and said, I’m getting emptier too. He was dead three months later.

Georg Hajdu: Why was Cage so preoccupied with maps?

János Négyesy: Probably that’s the easiest way to come to indeterminacy, because we have so many on transparencies. You don’t have to do anything except you move the paper or the transparencies to get different constellations, I think. But he always claimed that this is real hard work and that the end is freedom, basically, end of the hard work

Georg Hajdu: BTW, freedom, freeman, what about Betty Freeman?

János Négyesy: It’s still a dispute. One version is because Betty paid or commissioned this, but also “free men,” Cage’s idea, was also part of the etudes. And I consider also as a performer that ultimately it’s an absolute freedom play these pieces. Because this is beyond any human capability, if you wish to say this way to play this. The freedom is beyond anything you can do. To reach this stage of being, that you are not anymore executing, that’s beyond. Maybe I’m played by the Freeman etudes.

Georg Hajdu: What was your most memorable concert?

János Négyesy: I remember one in Stanford. I did one6 and one10. One show was at 8 o’clock and one show was at 10. So I played twice both pieces. And because of the nature of both pieces, you do basically this (slow gesture) for more than two hours. I’m glad you asked this question, because when I premiered in San Diego One6 I had the dress rehearsal at 5, I think, and since it was the first time I played the entire piece I forgot my legs, because I was worried about it doesn’t start to shake my bow by that slow speed. I remember when I finished the dress rehearsal, suddenly I had no legs, they were sleeping, both. So I what I did just very quickly, because I had the instrument, just sat down on the floor massaging them. I could have fallen on my face, into the pool. That was really scary, I never had this. Suddenly I looked at my legs and they were there but I didn’t feel them. So I was just a torso.

Yes, Hans Otte has a beautiful piece, Alltagsmusik for solo violin and I designed it that I sit cross-legged on stage on a Japanese pillow and I learned that you take care of your legs. Either you play One6 or you sit like this. So I constantly was moving my muscles while playing. It’s almost an hour piece and you had 60 pillows for the younger people in the audience, on the floor, and for the old farts in the back a few chairs. I remember I finished the piece, and nobody cared about the performance they just wanted to see whether I can get up.

Päivikki Nykter: I was turning pages, so I figured I take his fiddle. Actually, I handed him the violin and then afterwards I took the fiddle and he just jumped up like a little kid. (J.N.: Frenetic applause). People were just like “huh.” (J.N. Not for the piece, just for the action to stand up from sitting cross-legged.) No problem whatsoever.

János Négyesy: …. but I do remember, the house in NY where he lived had a Tread elevator, these humongous things that come to the street with these metal gates, for transporting every stuff. And once I rang the bell and he came and said, “Oh János, I take the Tread elevator, just go outside and wait for me. So I went outside, smoked a cigarette. I heard the thing started to descend; he was on the fifth floor. But then it stopped somewhere up. So had another cigarette, went up, stopped, down, up, about twenty some minutes. It finally landed on ground level, and I see John’s fingers opening that much the gate and [he] said: “János, I made it” I said, “What?” “Finally I could stop the elevator exactly on floor level.” Because it was either too low or too high. He said, “You have to come and you practice too.” So we spend another hour, it’s really difficult. That’s also John Cage.

… I remember once, go in, tralala, and he says, “János, you have to see my new computer”. So we go in another room, there’s an ugly beige IBM and I said, “can you show me what it’s doing so?” “Oh, I don’t know how to turn it on.” That was also John.

… So after ten or some years, I suddenly remembered that I had sent him 1970’s Doors LPs. So asked him, “Did you get his LPs?” “Oh, yeah, thank you so much.” “Did you listen?” “Oh, no.” I said, “I don’t get it. Why didn’t you listen to these LPs you asked for?” He said: “János, I don’t have a turn-table.” And he didn’t. I heard from Merce that he got daily dozens of LPs, now CDs. There was a guy, his role was to collect when it was big enough package and send it to one of the university libraries. He never had any at home.

[We were] sitting somewhere in the airport, and he had already quit smoking, so I said, “I go out, just smoke” and then I asked him: “But how did you quit? You were a chain smoker.” He said, “I divided myself into a smoker and a non-smoker, and every time the smoker lit a cigarette, the other guy started to laugh at him. So by the end he was laughing constantly, so the guy couldn’t light a cigarette anymore.

When you know, when you have all these stories happening to you with him, you get a complete different ‘sculpture’ of Cage, or different sides or layers, ’cause this is not the guy who wrote [the] Freeman etudes, apparently doing big time to brake an elevator on floor level.

Georg Hajdu: Eternal child!

János Négyesy: You know this famous quote by him, was early 80s, it’s published somewhere. He says, “I never learned how to take care of myself. Finally I’m getting much better at it, and I’m sure I’ll be in a perfect condition when I die.

But see about the Freeman etudes he writes about real difficulties in society. So we drive ourselves into a cul-de-sac, there’s no escape. So we produce an impossibility of life, because we corner ourselves—talking about politically, maneuvering ourselves into no outlet, no escape. Comparing the Freeman etudes, this is the—how does he formulate?—the manifestation of the impossible.

Päivikki Nykter: But does he have any such pieces. Isn’t this totally unique? I don’t know any pieces anything even near… J.N.: Even the piano pieces.

Päivikki Nykter: There is nothing else in this repertory.

János Négyesy: And if you compare; you can say this to virtuosity per se. But this a different kind of any virtuosity on a violin, because it’s not only… You have fast passages running up and down or complicated chords, it is the speed of, from one action to the next, and the distances between two actions, physically or emotionally or color-wise. Because he diligently writes to each note which string you’re supposed to play it, the dynamic level of that very one pitch and the dynamic range which is always between ffff and pppp.

Georg Hajdu: You mentioned the cul-de-sac, but apparently he got out of that. He found different metaphors. [The] world is complicated, after that the world was suddenly simple. What happened?

János Négyesy: I think it’s pretty simple. You drive yourself into this cul-de-sac which becomes freedom, because you already decided, you don’t need to go out; you are in. If you turn the cul-de-sac the other way, that’s where we have the freedom, because the cul-de-sac is behind you.

Päivikki Nykter: [about how few people play this “crazy stuff”—”unbelievable.”]

János Négyesy: The funniest thing is that Paul Zukofsky who actually transcribed all star maps into these 32 etudes, he played only the first eight, never learned any of the rest.

Päivikki Nykter: “But he came to your concerts.”

János Négyesy: I remember, Beethovenhalle in [Bonn], it was July and the philharmonic orchestra was doing Beethoven’s Ninth in the big hall, and was with the Freeman etudes in the small [hall]. Of course both audiences were gathering outside, and it was just a panopticum, because all the Beethoven people were in tuxedo and evening gowns, the ladies, and the others with beards and jeans and T-shirts, they were for the other [concert]; and both looked at each other like “you dirt.” So, by 8 o’clock we departed, and I walk on stage and in the first row is a couple, he is in tuxedo and she is in evening gown, and I thought that won’t go too well tonight. So played maybe five notes and hear her say “Erich, ich glaube das ist der falsche Saal,” and they ran out of the hall. So at the end of the very? concert, I took a bow, left stage and there is a man [who] looks like Sherlock Holmes with a trench coat and a hat, comes to me shakes my hands and says, “Good job, Paul Zukofsky” and left.

Always happened, the same story, regardless where I played this piece, since I’m sliding a bit, so I know exactly where I am, I thought. And what happens every time, somehow I don’t know where I am. I suddenly I looked the number and it’s either 31 or 32, and in between I remember first five or six. But I could suddenly do the same until 32, but I can’t remember what happens between the 5th and the 30th, because I have no recollection seeing any numbers or music in between.

Georg Hajdu So it’s like a trance

Päivikki Nykter: Also for the audience, I think. Even the shorter version, if you play half; but especially the long version, when you play all 32. …he played in Nito, in this theater, and the seats were just wooden benches, no cushion, no nothing… and there was a Japanese woman in front of me, and I swear she did not move once. And it happens always that within the first 10-15 minutes, whoever is going to leave, will leave, because after that you get into the trance of some sort; and sometimes I have even played this game: “No this time, I will count the etudes, where we are going. I always loose track. You just can’t, even just for fun you try it, you loose it. And you go somewhere else, you are not sitting in the concert hall. You’re somewhere else. First everybody uncomfortable, and they keep moving, and once 10, 15, 20 minutes have passed, all the people that can’t take, clearly they realize, this is not for me, they leave, and after that you just go somewhere else. It’s like you’re meditating. I’ve never experienced this with any other piece, I don’t know, maybe there’s a Feldman piece, if that’s what people get from that, I don’t know, I have never sat through anything that long, one piece, I don’t think.

János Négyesy: You know also because this music doesn’t go anywhere. There are events, one up to the other, one way or the other. Basically you write the piece, you make connections between events. It’s like looking at the stars. They have no connection, you go from this one to look at this. You made this. Maybe this is one reason why people are so captured, because you are forced if you are sitting down, to find all this. And because of the fact that nothing repeats ever; so you can’t say, you don’t have an Aha-Erlebnis, because it’s always different.

Päivikki Nykter:  Quite a unique experience to sit through something like that. I don’t think I have experience any other piece…

János Négyesy:  I’m not sure whether I’d like to sit…

Päivikki Nykter:  But that’s why you play this.

János Négyesy:  And whenever I finish any performance of this piece. I’m just standing there and I have not a clue what happened, right after. You always told me you like you go out in space. There’s absolute no connection to any …

Päivikki Nykter:  No expression. You are just like “what am I doing here, what’s going on?”, really.

Lappeenranta, March 29, 2007