Birthday Cage

Pianist Michelle Schumann celebrates a musical innovator

Birthday Cage

So, you're down at the Home Depot, and the helpful Home Depot employee asks if he can help you, and you say, yes, that you're looking for a medium bolt, and he asks what for, and you explain that you want it to wedge in between some piano strings for a piece of concert music.

So it goes when you're working on a recital to mark the 90th anniversary of the birth of avant-garde composer John Cage (1912-92). That's what pianist Michelle Schumann learned when she decided to throw a birthday party in honor of the 20th-century musical pioneer. It was not uncommon for Cage to call for bolts, nuts, weather stripping, pennies, rubber, and wood to be wedged in the strings of pianos so as to produce singular percussive sounds and tones, and if you want to duplicate those sounds for an audience, well, you have to get the materials.

Unfortunately, Cage wasn't always all that specific when it came to the types of items he wanted wedged into his instruments, so Schumann has spent much of the past year engaged in a process of trial-and-error concerning the exact kinds of hardware that would produce the appropriate sounds. Hence, the Home Depot excursion. And she has had to compensate for not only a certain amount of imprecision in the description of the materials that Cage required, but occasionally for the fact that technology has moved forward a bit in the half-century or so since Cage created some of his signature compositions. For instance, where, pray tell, does one locate a "typewriter bolt" these days? Could you substitute a "mouse ball"?

Schumann might not have gone to all the trouble had she not enjoyed such success with a performance last year of Cage's solo-prepared piano works. "Lots of people came out of the woodwork for that recital," according to BarbWire Music project manager (and Schumann spouse) Matt Orem, "and Michelle fell in love with the music." So she cooked up the idea of the birthday bash, drafting the Tosca String Quartet to help her present a version of Cage's 1949 "String Quartet in Four Parts" and percussionists Thomas Burritt and Tony Edwards to bang out "Credo in Us," a work for percussion quartet with phonograph and live radio.

These musicians have devoted months of preparation to the event, spending hours and hours in rehearsal -- make that experimentation -- with no small effort devoted to seeing that this penny or that bolt doesn't fly out of the piano during the piece, or, say, a screw doesn't work its way down into the piano's soundboard. The works have been demanding, to say the least -- after all, says Orem, "you don't really know what it's supposed to sound like" -- but "they're worth it," he insists, "they're really worth it."

Intrepid concertgoers willing to discover that for themselves will be aided by Schumann, who will introduce each piece. And if the commentary and music and clanging and visuals aren't enough, well, it is a birthday party, so you can be sure there will be cake. Happy 90th, Mr. Cage, wherever you're banging around now. end story

"Happy Birthday, Mr. Cage" takes place Friday, Sept. 6, 8pm, at Austin Lyric Opera Armstrong Community Music School, 901 Barton Springs Rd. For more information, call 474-2331 or visit

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John Cage, Michelle Schumann, BarbWire Music Project Manager, Matt Orem, Tosca String Quartet, String Quartet in Four Parts, Thomas Burritt, Tony Edwards, Credo in Us

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