In 1966, John Cage sent a letter to Roberto Gerhard requesting “a manuscript or page, rough or finished, pencil or ink” as an example to be used in his forthcoming book ‘Notations’. The book was intended to capture and illustrate the plethora of notation techniques and styles being used and developed by contemporary composers at the time, featuring contributions from Milton Babbitt, Pierre Boulez, Charles Ives, Mauricio Kagel, Yoko Ono, and more. In response Gerhard wrote an original work ‘Claustrophilia’, for eight harps (or more, in multiples of four), four shortwave radios, and loudspeakers. While the piece could superficially be dismissed as a joke at Cage’s expense, Gerhard’s extensive engagement with Cage’s philosophy of music and his conception of the ‘open work’ indicate that ‘Claustrophilia’ was a serious attempt to engage with the ideas that Cage was known for. In his letter to Cage, Gerhard said: “I’m certain with you and David Tudor as Monitors [mix engineers] you’d make a stunning composition of it.”
Gerhard had met Cage in the summer of 1961 when their paths crossed during Gerhard’s visit to the USA as a teacher in composition at the Berkshire Music Centre, Tanglewood. The two had a cordial relationship while Gerhard was in America, however their correspondence did not continue when Gerhard returned to England. It’s clear that Gerhard was interested in, but also very critical of Cage’s ideas of composition. In many ways, Cage’s work served as a challenge to Gerhard’s ideas of craft and intellectual integrity. “He’s [Cage] the model of the man with the artistic temperament, gifted with a considerable amount of unspecific talent. They say his ideas have influenced everyone in our days. … The trouble with Cage’s ideas is that they are poor ideas and the music is chicken-feed” wrote Gerhard, in his notebooks with characteristic bluntness.
‘Claustrophilia’ is Gerhard’s only composition written outside of traditional notation, excepting the performance indications for the tape part of ‘Symphony No. 3 (Collages)’. The score consists of a stage diagram and six paragraphs of text instruction. The work embraces Cage’s ideas of indeterminacy in multiple ways. The harpists are to perform any solo piece, study or orchestral part they like, starting in silence and performing when they “feel compelled to strike a first sound”. Meanwhile, the shortwave radios slowly scan, pausing when any attractive noise-pattern is picked up, but avoiding speech or music unless they can be rendered as noise through performance. There is also an extensive role for two mixing engineers, with one balancing the mix of the four radio performers and the other balancing the overall musical image in the space, fusing the electronic sound with the music of the harps and panning the electronic sound across the stereo field. These decisions are left to the inspiration of the two “Monitors”.
‘Claustrophilia’ highlights the differences between Cage and Gerhard – the former saw himself as an experimenter in sound, while Gerhard always claimed he was an explorer of sound. It’s clear that the element of Cage’s philosophy that appealed to Gerhard was the role of choice, not chance, in a performance; of the ownership of decisions by the individual, not the ego-less removal of decision making by chance procedures.
Gerhard wrote ‘Claustrophilia’ on the back of a draft page of his ‘Concerto for Orchestra’, probably because he had no other large enough piece of paper on which to compose the piece. Ironically, it was this draft notation that was ultimately used for the book, not ‘Claustrophilia’. It is not known why the decision was made to use this piece of more conventional notation over Gerhard’s specially composed work. ‘Claustrophilia’ remained unperformed until 1 April, 2012 where it was realised by Gregorio Carcía Karman at the Conservatori del Liceu, Barcelona. Video documentation of this performance is available here.