-page 6-10- One day, while performing in a smoky club in San Francisco, it finally dawned on me that there was no future left for me in the rock and roll business. The reason was obvious, but it took my training in music for theatre before I would allow myself to believe it. You see, when I was not performing in clubs, I never visited them. I did not smoke, rarely drank more than a glass of wine at dinner. Yet here I stood, out in front of a couple of hundred people, all of whom paid good money to enter this same club to have a good time by becoming part of that general scene. In effect, I was promoting a lifestyle that I was not really part of. My rock and roll dream had a built-in flaw. But then, I wanted to know, how else does a musician get work in our culture?
I returned to the theatre, and spent several key years providing music for various dance, pantomime, circus, and drama troupes. Composer John Cage became a major influence. His own music assured me that art was, in reality, whatever you could get away with. Once, in just that spirit, along with composer Jack Briece, I coproduced a media event on a San Francisco beach. We placed twelve contact microphones all over the body of an old upright piano. Each microphone was hooked up to its own amplifier. Twelve large speaker columns surrounded the piano, like a vision from Stonehenge. Then we soaked the piano with kerosene. At that time in my life I had been suffering from bronchial asthma, a condition that was triggered whenever I overexerted myself physically. Luckily, I had also leaned to cure an attack by sitting quietly, repeating a precise breathing exercise through a bamboo flute.
Five hundred people showed up for the event, including one of the American TV news shows. I started a mile down the beach from the piano, lit a kerosene-soaked torch, and proceeded to sprint along the surf as the sun slowly and into the sea. By the time that I reached the piano I could no longer breathe properly. I touched the torch to the piano which at first stared to burn slowly, and then quite ferociously. Then I sat on the sand between burning piano and ocean, and commenced to play the asthma remedy through a thirteenth microphone set up for the occasion. Over the next full hour, five hundred people watched and listened to the breathy flute sonata accompanied by the very hot snap, crackle and pop of the spectacularly burning piano.
The upshot was that I emerged from the fiery event as something of an authority in the poorly understood field of music and health. It seemed an important direction for further exp;oration. So next I composed a piece of music for a local radio station, KPFA in Berkeley, entitled Cigarette Piece. Cigarette Piece went something like this:
Ten people sit crossed-legged in a circle around a live studio microphone. Each person has a bell, a windchime, an a rattle. A large Chinese gong stands within easy-reaching distance of all. The piece begins as one person at a time lights up a cigarette; so on around the circle. Each time a player takes a puff he or she rings a bell. Every time he or she flicks an ash the gong is struck. Everyone exhales against windchimes and shakes a rattle for the duration that smoke is in his or her lungs. Each evening's live concert varies according to who focuses upon which activity. For example, some nights four people will only shake rattles, four more will ring bells, two more will strike the gong. The next night might introduce a completely different variation. However, each night in turn demands more activity from each person, so that on the tenth night all ten people will be shaking. striking, blowing, and ringing.
Each night's piece lasts for the duration it takes all ten participants to smoke one cigarette apiece: about twelve minutes. Performed live over radio, the piece put an inordinate amount of emphasis upon the usually unconscious act of smoking a cigarette. It took no more than four nights before a number of the smoker/musicians could no longer stomach the taste and smell of cigarette tobacco. By the sixth night, all ten participants had switched from tobacco to a less toxic smoking mixture of lettuce and sage.
Both Asthma Burning and Cigarette Piece were prime examples of the conceptual music so popular in the Bay Area at that time. But although I cam e to respect the power of this blatantly intellectualist's approach to music making still I could not find a way to consolidate such dry methodology with my own personal yearning to be actually playing music. No matter how hard it tried, conceptual music could not move my soul. Once again, I decided to drop out of the prevailing scene. This time I headed south, to Mexico.
Typed by Cheryl Vega 3-18-95