On the evening of 29 August 1952 a crowd of avant-garde aficionados and local music enthusiasts filed into the Maverick Concert Hall near Woodstock to hear a piano recital by the young virtuoso David Tudor. That they should be here, tucked away in the Catskills, was already extraordinary. The Maverick is more hermitage than concert hall: a wooden, barn-like structure, set - in 1952 at least - in several acres of woodland. Water Music by John Cage, a Californian composer whose recent work had been feted in New York, opened the programme and baffled its audience. It involved Tudor performing various actions at seemingly random intervals: blowing a duck-call, tuning a radio, shuffling and dealing playing cards. After subdued applause, Tudor sat back down at the piano. He played pieces by Christian Wolff, an 18-year-old student of Cage's, and by Morton Feldman, Cage's friend; and thundered through Pierre Boulez's fiendishly difficult first sonata. The penultimate piece on the programme was Cage's latest, 4'33". Tudor shut the piano and sat still. The wind rustled in the maples. Half a minute later he reopened the lid, then shut it. The summer rain could be heard falling on the Maverick's wooden roof. Another couple of minutes - Tudor opened and shut the lid again - and muttering broke out in the hall. People began shuffling towards the exit. Four minutes and 33 seconds without a note played and Cage had stamped himself on music history with the most radical contribution of his generation. At the end of the concert, a local artist drew himself up and bellowed: 'Good people of Woodstock, let's drive these people out of town.'
LRB 19 August 2010 | PDF Download