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HPSCHD - an introduction

In 1962, the Swiss harpsichordist and art collector Antoinette Vischer commissioned John Cage to write her a new composition for harpsichord. Cage though didn't really enjoy the sound of the instrument, "It sounded to me like a sewing machine". So he said that he didn't really have the time just then. It wasn't until five years later, when Cage started to work on a computer-based composition at the University of Illinois, that he returned to the idea. Lejaren Hiller wrote an I Ching program for him with the help of an IBM 7094 computer. The computer allowed Cage to analyse the melodic structure of Mozart's music statistically. In return, Cage would use the statistics to generate a piece that would not have been Mozart's, but was rooted in Mozart. The reason that Cage was so interested in Mozart's work was that it had, for him, a simultaneous variety that suited his conceptions of abundance and multiplicity.

Cage and Hiller worked day and night, for two years, on what would become HPSCHD, a work "for 20-minute solos for one to seven amplified harpsichords", more than fifty tape machines, and sixty-four slide projectors. The seven solos were based on works by Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin and Schumann. Everything can be used "in whole or in part in any combination with or without interruptions, etc., to make an indeterminate concert of any agreed-upon length".

Multimedia jamboree

For the premiere of HPSCHD on May 16, 1969 in the Assembly Hall of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, hundreds of slides of the first manned landing on the moon were obtained from NASA, and scenes of some four hundred films involving space, were selected. Banners, surreal posters and portraits of the heads of Cage, Mozart, Beethoven and Schumann were added to create a visual carnival. The press had been fed a stream of information about the work during its production, and ultimately the premiere became a world event.

The performance started at seven thirty and ended after midnight. Seven thousand people attended this five-hour multimedia jamboree, including students, children, mothers with babies and formally dressed couples, who moved in and out the hall and witnessed this sonic experiment "like the random sounds of civilization". Cage had decided that artists should turn their attention to society. The themes of the evening were diversity and abundance. In contrast to a concert hall performance, where the public and performer are on the opposite sides of a stage, the audience for HPSCHD is inside the performance, moves about in it, walks past the harpsichord players positioned throughout the space, listening to the individual solos, sometimes looking over the players' shoulders at the scores. The players play their parts, then perhaps take a break and play them again.

Uncontrolled simultaneity

I first learned about HPSCHD during the 1990s, when composer and radio producer Boudewijn Buckinx asked me to play one of the harpsichord parts in a performance during the festivities of Radio 3 in de Stad in Aalst. I immediately fell in love with the music and with the concept of the uncontrolled simultaneity of sounds and events. The concept made its way into some of my own compositions of the 1990s, and the very idea of combining different independent layers into a composition is the point of departure of my composition The Eye (2013). 
I have had the opportunity to organize several performances of HPSCHD since then: once in Ghent (de Bijloke), in Bruges (Concertgebouw) and in Brussels (Klarafestival). What I considered a major challenge was to express, or update, the initial optimism of the late 1960s regarding technological development, culminating in the landing on the moon, that was channelled with such enthusiasm during the first performance of HPSCHD. Mentioning this to Boudewijn Buckinx, he advised me to contact philosopher and filmmaker Frank Theys, whose tryptic Technocalyps (2006) gave a fascinating but critical state-of-the-art assessment of technical developments and their ethical boundaries. With Theys's permission, the three documentaries were simultaneously shown on different screens during the performances in Ghent, Bruges, and Brussels.

At the last performance in March 2018 in Brussels, I also invited Janna Beck and Wouter Steel of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp to participate with some of their students and alumni in what was at that time their “Growing Gifs” research project. The result was magnificent, and although the organization had opted for two shorter performances of only half an hour each, their participation made the performance much stronger and richer. The acoustic diversity and abundance of the earlier performances were now enriched by a truly visual carnival. People did not only experience "the random sounds of civilization" but were also immersed in an overwhelming visual world.

A specific experience

Every experience of HPSCHD veers unpredictably from irritation (with the invariability of the tonality, timbre and activity) to pleasure (in the immense amount of detail, the number of differences to be appreciated), from festivity to desperation, and the desire to escape and to be submerged. A listener hears HPSCHD, inundated with images, as a massive attractor, around which float hundreds of impressions. The experience is entirely specific to each listener as he/she walks around, lies or sits on the floor, thus shaping a highly personal performance. The experience of sound and image is entirely different for every position in the performance space.  

1969-2019. Fifty years on, HPSCHD continues to be a revolutionary work, a hybrid concept, and a daring enterprise, still setting the standard for multidisciplinary happenings. Cage was an optimist and in the late 1960s the North American society shared this belief in progress. Needless to say the situation in 2019 is different. Even so experiencing HPSCHD throws us back into the extravagant, exuberant and wild late sixties with its flower power, Fluxus and psychedelic counterculture. 


Written by Frank Agsteribbe, initiator of the HPSCHD happening during ARTICULATE 2019. This happening takes place on Wednesday October 23 in De Lange Zaal of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp. It starts at 18:00 and is accessible free of charge.