Igor Mandić: From a "Well-tempered" Piano to a "Prepared" Piano

On youthful fervor about the MBZ, musical shocks and the escapades of John Cage (An elderly witness recalls past youthful fervor)

mbz, mbz, mbz, mbz, mbz… MBZ, MBZ, MBZ, MBZ, MBZ, MBZ, MBZ…

This magical acronym has been buzzing in my ears for decades, roaring in my head, enchanting me nearly all my entire rational life, bounded by my early student fervor (after all, I was barely 22 when I attended the first Music Biennale Zagreb in May 1961 – “barely” because I was born in November 1939) and these current, too mature, older (to be completely honest: senior) years. As it happens, if I live to see the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the MBZ in 2021, I will again be “barely,” but this time 82! So, this magical acronym has determined my (modest, in layman’s terms) “musical outlook” enough to last me an entire average lifetime (of 60 years). How could I, now, recapitulate all those Biennales that have rushed by me, left their mark on me (not exactly every one, as I skipped some), so contrasting, and turned my understanding into a knot difficult to untangle? The solution is simple: just as in his late eighties the Holy Father in Vatican still preaches to his flock on the same topics and using the exact same words he was taught when he was a child, let’s say since he was 8, so does yours truly (si licet parva…) have no choice but to try to illustrate, in my eighties, that magic the 1st/2nd.... MBZ left behind when, at the age of 22, I fell into a MUSICAL SHOCK (which resulted in PTSD that I still feel).

Thus, as it is futile and unnecessary that I be a chronicler of the first experienced Biennales that have brought the “new sound” to our musty Croatian, i.e. then Yugoslavian, spiritual climate, I would simply like to recount my (joyous) wonder. I come from a stagnant provincial milieu – Split, where I graduated from the Classical High School in 1958, but never finished my musical education in violin, thus have always been and will be an untrained fiddler. Well, at least I managed to become the second violin in the school orchestra, performing A Little Night Music as a chore. My abhorrence of the unchanging demimonde Romantic-Classicist repertoire, supported by a folkloristic quasi-tradition in the national music opus, out of which piquancy of operetta occasionally erupted (as brilliantly described by P. Selem in the Novi zvuk collection, NzMH, Zagreb, 1972), was an additional determinant to escape this milieu immediately after graduation and go to Zagreb, which I then perceived as the capital of all that was spiritual-cultural-artistic-intellectual, only to come across – the very same!!

We learned about the trends in the then modern Western music only indirectly: from the hard-to-get textual sources, mostly gleaning it in Italian and French publications from which, even in the early 1960s, one could find a lot about the so-called experimental music – which was perceived here as a welcome insult of the capitalist production – that already included electrophonic sound (mockingly called here, “engineering”) and the incorrectly named atonality (actually anti-tonality), not to mention the superficial Hollywoodish performances in which water was allegedly poured into the pianos on the stage… As I said: we learned this way, indirectly, but fortunately we also learned in a small circle, at the Department of Art History (at the time still in the Old Town, in Ćirilometodska Street) where the brilliant Krešimir Fribec let the interested new-music fanatics listen, while he commented, the latest compositions from the Warsaw Festival (Lutosławski, Penderecki…); learning thus, sparingly, of such abundance, we could hardly wait for the first MBZ (17–24 May 1961) to overwhelm us with its novelty. Experiencing the transition from A Little Night Music to Cage’s prepared piano was genuinely STRESSFUL, and has taken/enticed me, almost to this present near-end of mine – in the wrong direction!

1961 was turbulent on all fronts, so it seems appropriate that the MBZ is associated with it: J. Gagarin in space, A. Eichmann being tried in Israel, J. F. Kennedy inaugurated as the President of the United States, the Berlin Wall went up, C. G. Jung died, Th. Beechman died, E. Hemingway committed suicide; The Midsummer Night's Dream by B. Britten, Elegy for Young Lovers by H. Henze, Intolleranza by L. Nono were premiered; G. Grass published Cat and Mouse, J. D. Salinger Franny and Zooey; Luther by J. Osborne, The Collection by H. Pinter were performed; M. Antonioni showed his La Notte; there was a gush of movies by A. Resnais, F. Truffaut; Americans unsuccessfully tried to invade the Bay of Pigs in Cuba, the preparations for the Second Vatican Council began; and here – the first edition of Razlog was published, Ivo Andrić as a Yugoslav author received the Nobel Prize for Literature, B. Miljković committed suicide, the movies Martin in the Clouds by B. Bauer, Emperor's New Clothes by B. Babaja came to theaters, Traitors by A. Šoljan, Solid City by S. Novak were published, and at long last Flowers of Evil by Ch. Baudelaire as well as the works of Kafka, Camus, Moravia were translated; and we must not forget the scandal regarding the 29th issue of the Zagreb magazine Književnik, the death of the Secretary-General of the United Nations Dag Hammarskjöld in Congo… and yours truly published a fairly large, i.e. scatterbrained pamphlet/homily “Pandemonium on pandemonium: Cage as a sorcerer?” in Studentski list (24 October 1961).
I do not want to clutter this text with too much information, but it is necessary to recall just how and when all sorts of events interconnected on the national, European and global levels, so that a group of already prominent musicians, composers (led by the truly magnificent Milko Kelemen) and music organizers (among whom there were also those well-connected with the higher echelons of the socialist-communist government) actually managed to impose practically crazy ideas on the socio-political establishment, namely, that Zagreb – long since the “graveyard” of any kind of modernity – should host a diverse entourage of absolute destroyers of all types of institutions, not only musical, but indirectly also socio-political, as well as stiff-necked pundits stuck in a pseudo-tradition! The ones commemorating this milestone should be those who closely followed the organizing of the revolutionary first MBZ, an event inconceivable in a socialist country.

Unfortunately, John Cage (born 5 September 1912) did not personally attend the first MBZ, “only” indirectly, as the excellent Mauricio Kagel included his Concerto for piano and orchestra in the program of his concert (20 May 1961). From the customarily uninformed text in the program leaflet one could not find out that the piece dated from 1957-58 nor that it was “open” or a “work in progress” (the author of the note copied Cage’s words from a brochure, Ed. Peters, Henmar Press Inc., N.Y. 1962, that somehow ended up in their hands, just as it ended up in mine by some miracle). This Concerto without a score, with an arbitrary number of instrumentalists, in which the pianist has at disposal 84 different compositional elements that may or may not be performed at will and in order, with the amazing pianist David Tudor, a permanent accompanist and main performer of anything that Cage conceived… this Concerto was Cage’s first piece that we could hear live in Zagreb. Cage did attend the 2nd MBZ (1963) and staged several hilarious anti-musical, i.e. meta-musical escapades, provoking eruption of whistles and applause in all concert halls (among these noisemakers, yours truly was among the loudest, which turned out to be (seriously!) a recommendation when, a few years later in Vjesnik, in the editorial office of culture, I managed to “snag” the writing of musical reviews from Andrija Tomašek (born 4 October 1919) (my colleague died, but when he was 100, on 31 January 2019, so I am not to blame for it as well, am I?). In a group of, more or less, peers, students from different universities and academies, we behaved provocatively, one might even say “coarsely,” commending all kinds of shenanigans of that “crazy mushroom forager of contemporary music,” as I titled his “in memoriam” (he died on 12 August 1992, and my farewell text – for others I do not know – was published on 22 August 1992).

However, these shenanigans or antics were the result of profound and hidden thoughts: it is no coincidence that John Cage was the follower of Zen Buddhism. The destroyer of everything has built a true cathedral of sound, with my favorite chapel, titled 4'33'’ – the chapel of silence: this tacet for any instrument or a combination of instruments is the essence of “the composition of silence” as in 4 minutes and 33 seconds not a single tone must be consciously produced on stage: all involuntary noises, on stage or in the auditorium – are welcome! This seemed to me to be the culmination – or the “rock bottom” – of the inner understanding of music, this openness of a being towards Nothingness. So, whenever in trouble, I mutter the mantra: “om mani padme – Cage”.

When my colleague A. Stamać and I visited him at the Esplanade Hotel in May 1963, I “planted” the mentioned text from October 1961 for him to sign (as an inaugural hymn to his appearance among the folkloristic natives), and he scribbled something on its edges, while on the (Peters’ quoted) brochure he “thanked us for the visit and friendship” in a couple of words. I tried my best to compile the many things – both good and bad – that the MBZ has brought me, brought us, in the booklet From Bach to Cage (Mladost, Zagreb, 1977).

I have still not discerned a middle ground between these two extremes – between a “well-tempered piano” and a “prepared piano,” meaning that I am still as silly in my eighties as I was in my distant twenties!