Re-Caging UnCaged (with a few unlikely helpers) by Danny Clay

2012 UnCaged runner-up Danny Clay writes about his new audio-video collage and the process of collaborating with elementary schoolers (and me) for this new work.
I’d say the most notable part of my project for the 2013 UnCaged Toy Piano festival is not my unusual instrumentation, but my unusual collaborators: five classrooms of elementary schoolers.
In addition to composing, I teach music at a small school in San Francisco called Zion Lutheran School. Being the proud owner of a pink baby grand toy piano, I jumped at the opportunity to bring it into my classes and share it with the kids. We looked at the first piece of music ever composed for the instrument – John Cage’s suite – and talked about the character that defined each movement. We then discussed how one goes about drawing the sounds we hear, and each kid got a chance to listen to and create their own notation for a movement of the Cage. These graphic scores – ranging from painstakingly calculated figures to hastily scrawled scribbles to amorphous creatures named Dumbo – were then given to toy piano virtuoso (and UnCaged artistic director) Phyllis Chen to interpret. The students also got a chance to interpret and record their drawings, both on the toy piano and as a group using hand chimes.
These collaborations have led to, frankly, more material than I know what to do with. I mean, when you have scores to work with like this:
and verbal descriptions of movements like:
-a blossom floating through the wind
-the sound of chimes exploding
-a pupa turning into a butterfly
…not to mention the slew of brilliant sounds recorded by Phyllis Chen and the creative young minds at Zion – it’s easy to feel overwhelmed with possibilities.
As a result, the culmination of this project at UnCaged, “five pieces,” will feature an immense amount of sensory information crammed into a short amount of time — five fixed-format works bursting at the seams with audio and visual responses to each respective movement of John Cage’s suite. Each work consists of a sequence of the kids’ own graphic interpretations of that particular movement as performed by Phyllis, followed by a larger collage incorporating recordings by the kids, translations of their scores to other musical media (music box, GameBoy, and other various small objects) and mangled versions of Phyllis’ own recording of the Cage suite.
Why? It’s a question I’m still asking myself, but I prefer to stay focused on the “why not.” Why not give sixty elementary schoolers a chance to have a mini-world premiere? Why not allow John Cage’s work to serve as a springboard for new creative pathways? And why not toss in a few squiggles and doodles named Dumbo along the way? Although those who see the work on the 14th will only be experiencing the tip of the iceberg, I sincerely hope that it offers as much joy in viewing as it has for me in putting it all together.