Dear.John: A Canon on the Name of Cage
Pauline Oliveros

(Notes on the computer realization
 by Larry Polansky)


Dear.John: A Canon on the Name of Cage is a piece by Pauline Oliveros, written in October, 1986.

It was first realized at the Mills College Center for Contemporary Music in a prototype of HMSL (Hierarchical Music Specification Language) written by Phil Burk, Larry Polansky and David Rosenboom. The original version, a commission from West German Radio, was written on an early prototype of HMSL, running on an S-100 68000 ERG computer, using Phil Burk’s prototype object oriented FORTH implementation. It controlled a Kurzweil 250 keyboard synthesizer. Scot Gresham-Lancaster collaborated on the realization and the recording of the piece.

Dear.John was intended as an installation: giving anyone the option of starting the piece by pushing a button. Each time the piece is started a new version is generated. The piece was premiered in December 1986 by WDR for Cage’s birthday in a recorded version. Because the computer was not easily moved to Europe, the original "installation" was not realized as intended for the birthday celebration. Six different recordings were made, however, and performed alternately.

The new version was written in 2003 by Masaki Kubo, in Max/MSP, with consultation from Pauline Oliveros and Larry Polansky, at the Dartmouth College Bregman Electro-Acoustic Music Studio. It is a reasonably direct "translation" of the original code and ideas. In 2011, John Bischoff updated this version to a more recent version of Max/MSP. 

Three pages of the original Forth/HMSL code.

The Piece
Some number of voices (in the original 12, in the newer version 16), play the pitches C-A-G-E. The piece is divided into cycles of fixed duration. For each cycle, each voice chooses:
When a cycle ends, the voices pick new values, and start again. Additionally, each note in the piece has a 50% chance of sounding or not (being a rest).

Loudnesses for a given cycle for a given voice interpolate from the starting loudness to the ending loudness over the duration of the cycle.

Durations are picked randomly from a fixed table of simple divisions, and once a voice picks a duration, that duration is retained for the entire cycle.

Each voice is assigned to its own MIDI channel. In the original, each MIDI channel has a single MIDI program (chosen by the composer). The new version allows for some flexibility in terms of MIDI channel and MIDI program (as well as some other new controls).

Each cycle has a fixed length (in the original, about 40 seconds, in the new version, variable by the user). There there are eight cycles in the piece.

Six recorded versions of the original piece

1986, on the HMSL/S-100/Kurzweil Machine
Mills College Center for Contemporary Music



Max/MSP Version
The new Max/MSP version, written by Masaki Kubo, has its own documentation.

Update by John Bischoff (December, 2011).