19 Waltzes - September 19
19 Waltzes is a city-wide performance event that invites participants to 57 locations across Vancouver to participate, listen, or make a record on September 19. I talked with Dory Hayley, Artistic Co-Director of the Blueridge Chamber Music Festival, about how the project came together, random experiences, and how this is an ideal event for these strange times, read more below!
So, tell me about 19 Waltzes
This project is a large-scale community performance of a piece by John Cage. Like many of his works there isn’t any music in the score, just instructions about what to do. For this piece the instructions are to use some kind of random method to choose addresses in your city, and then for as many people as want to participate to go to those locations and listen and/or perform and/or make a record.
John Cage wrote 49 Waltzes for the 5 Boroughs to be performed in New York in 1977 and he had the idea that it could be ‘transposed’ for different cities, so that’s what we’ve done.
What kind of method was used to choose the locations?
Cage spent a lot of time studying Eastern religions and philosophies and one of the things that he was really interested in was the Chinese I Ching (the ‘Book of Changes’), which is a fortune telling method that he used to compose with chance. It requires a lot of deep study to really understand the I Ching, so we took a data set from the City of Vancouver’s public data sets which lists all of the intersections in Vancouver. Then we used a random number generator to choose the line that the intersection was on.
You’ve also provided a ‘Random Experience Generator’ which provides delightful performance suggestions such as “Read a poem aloud. Say every word with an F in it 3 times”, “Listen to the ambient sounds of your location for 5 minutes. Write a letter to a friend. Sing a note into the envelope before you seal it”, and “Take a video of something that looks or sounds yellow.” Can you tell me more about this?
We made up the random experience generator because we thought there might be people that were interested in participating in the project but have no idea what to do, so the random experience generator helps to get people thinking about the types of things they could do. Basically, you can do anything! The actions that we made up are the random things that I thought would be fun to do, and they’re based on the types of interventions that I think would be in line with Cage’s thinking.
In addition to being an important composer, John Cage was also an influential thinker and one of his most original ideas was that music is not just something that professional musicians play in the concert hall, but it includes all the sounds we hear around us. His most famous piece is 4’33” (where the performers sit in silence for 4 minutes and 33 seconds), but for Cage that piece is not about silence, it’s about attention. It was about being in a concert situation but hearing all of the ambient sounds in the hall, which might be somebody coughing, people whispering, or someone rustling their candy wrapper, and for Cage, all of that was music. 49 Waltzes for the 5 Boroughs is the first of what he called his ‘municipal compositions,’ where he said he wanted to “make the city audible to itself.” And it’s really kind of an expansion of 4’33” where as a participant, what you’re doing is opening your attention to what’s around you.
I’m thinking that this is going to be something akin to a giant three-hour-long flash mob that happens all over the city…
Exactly! Except it’s not coordinated at all, so you could have ten people in the same place all dancing to different music or all singing different songs, and that would be great. If people choose to perform, they can perform anything: they can sing a song, they can read a story out loud, they can dance, they can play an instrument, they could play music on their phone. They could even do an action that we don’t usually think of as a performance, like yelling or popping a balloon or stomping their feet. Anything that is a deliberate action counts as a performance.
I'm looking forward to seeing what people come up with. Another thing that they can do is make a record it and send it to you - what kinds of things are you hoping to get and what will you do with them?
If people choose to make a record, it can be a sound recording of a performance, it can be a video, or it could be any other sort of tangible memory of their experience in this event. So it can be a picture of what they heard or saw, it could be a written account or a poem or a story, or anything they can think of that is a record of what they did or heard. Any of those things can then be sent to us (firstname.lastname@example.org or Instagram #19waltzes) and we’ll upload them to the website (19waltzes.com) where we have a separate page for each of the locations. The idea is that we’ll create this time capsule of all of these things that happened on this day in this city at this weird, strange time in all of our lives.
What is the inspiration behind this/how did you come up with the idea?
I’ve been interested in John Cage for a long time and when I perform Cage’s pieces I have extremely strong, emotional reactions and a real sense of connection. I think it’s because of his inclusive understanding of music as any of the sounds around us that anyone can make, which opens the door to meaningful community experiences when we perform his music. I’ve had this piece in mind for a long time because I thought it was interesting, and then when COVID happened I just thought it was the perfect thing to do because potentially thousands of people could participate in this event and yet not congregate at the same place at the same time.
There have been so many innovative online projects that people have come up with that have happened online, and I’ve been so grateful for the interesting online work I’ve had, but I feel there’s still something missing there. First of all, we’re missing the connection with other collaborators, that sense that we’re doing something in real time and we’re all in it together and taking part simultaneously in this big event. And second, a connection to place. he acoustic and feeling of a performance space makes such a difference to the way you play. This project really allows you to connect with a bunch of different places -- you could even sing the same song at four different locations and see how it feels in each place.
Whenever I’ve done pieces with chance operations I start off thinking, ‘yeah, I’ll do what the composer says but that I’ll also have to make some adjustments to make it “artistic.”’ And then by complete chance everything always works out! This time, by total chance we ended up with four or five parks, three schools, and four locations on the Arbutus Greenway, as well as residential street corners, busy thoroughfares, and industrial spots. Going to all of these places that I’ve never been to, or maybe I’ve been to but never noticed before, has been really cool--and I hope that that’s the experience that people have as well.
19 Waltzes takes place on September 19 from 1-4pm at 57 locations across Vancouver. I've already got my locations picked out, now I just need to decide what to do. Maybe we'll bump into each other? Also, there will be featured artists at some of the locations, including John Littlejohn at 64th and Poplar and John Korsrud at Hastings and Heatley, plus others that may or may not also be named John.
More information: 19waltzes.com
Blueridge Chamber Music Festival: www.blueridgechamber.org/