I Dreamt John Cage Yodeling in the Zurich Hauptbahnhof

program notes

The Birth of a Fairy-Tale,  early September 2002  Sunday evening.  I just got off a train in the Zurich Hauptbahnhof.  I enter the big Hall with its turn-of the century glass roof. The hall seems empty, except for a mysteriously beautiful sound – long suspended vocal tones – circling around its cavernous walls.  Magically I am drawn to this sound but am unable to tell  where it is coming from.  Then I see a lone passenger, an old man pushing a luggage cart.  Like many Swiss, he was wearing corduroy Knickerbocker pants, and mountain-walking boots, a white shirt, a vest and a red bandana tied neatly around his neck. He is short in stature and has a neatly trimmed white beard as he pushed his cart slowly and randomly  in this vast empty public space, and Yodeled in a full powerful and extremely pure voice, as if in the open Berner Oberland- and with a naturalness of someone who had discovered the perfect acoustical space for their own music.  He moved here, then there, stopping –moving- singing with no apparent purpose other than to savour the  acoustic delays and reverberation of his own voice.  Alowys, as I later found out, came  to the Bahnhof periodically to sing for pure pleasure.  He came from the Mountains.  He even looked like a charming mountain goat himself.  His spontaneous music which intersected  the space and lives of anyone who happened to pass through there must have seemed too, the most natural of events – for it was not some plastic Muzak, nor urban boom-boxing nor a mendicant’s busking song – it was the sound, par excellence of the Mountain People,  of fabled men  women and animals who live in all the magical childrens books.  Could I have had a more inspiring experience to begin a new  piece of radio-art?  With the help of  my dear friend Margareta Peters we were able to track down this mysterious old yodler, and even get him to agree to return there – to the Bahnhof – to let us record him and with a clear agreement that his voice would be used in a composition of mine; afterall, he had sung for the pope in rome too.  Enter John Cage.  John too was like a mountain goat.  Nimble, curious gregarious always on the move and living in extreme meta-geographical regions.

Regions of the mind where oxygen was scarce, but transcendence abundant and iminent.  Maybe I was dreaming, maybe it was Cage who was Yodeling and Alowys who composed avantguard music, besides what could be a more avantguard theater-piece than pushing a luggage cart in an empty Railwaystation and yodeling at full volume?  A new work was beginning to emerge.  Burkhard Schlichting (my producer) was the first to hear about it,  and gave it  immediate approval.. So now I must write about what I do not know, or in the words of John Cage, “when my feet felt the path that my eyes could not see” That is: what is this dream that we are about to listen to and how can we realize the impossible task of composing sound, as if in a dream...Are not all musics waking dreams ?  are not sounds which are hunted, caught, splayed, disemboweled, hung to dry, salted and then consumed at a later time, a kind of ritual food which we indifferently ingest while both awake- consciously and asleep-unconsciously... enough idle speculation..

This piece like all of my  music is a continuous process of distillation, of my finite sound-imagination – a continued “story-telling” without words.    Putting together disparate sound events, such as Alowys Yodeling together with Choral Music of mine based on texts by John Cage (Music is not Music, ) with recordings of my playing a Stalactite organ from the Luray Cavern’s in Virginia, together with packs of howling wolves, children playing with the echoes in a long tunnel and elk  in rut, trumpeting across vast spaces are the kinds of polyphony natural to me and the structures which easily illustrate the inherent music in all things.   The great hall of the Zurich Hauptbahnhof is a place where millions of men and women have passed through, carrying their anonymous, ordinary, humble or famed and glorious personal histories and thoughts, even if for a minute or two.  The collision of thought, sound (real or imagined) memory, idea, language and imagination  in such a space, or anywhere,  can produce  a Don Giovanni just as simply  as it can generate other fleeting signs of human folly and illusion,  “I Dreamt John Cage Yodeling in the Hauptbahnhof Zuerich” is for the moment part of this streaming process.

Alvin Curran

18 October 2004

Produced and first broadcast by Südwestrundfunk, Baden-Baden, 2005. Listen to an excerpt.

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