Chicago: The Greatest Show on Earth

Chicago: The Greatest Show on Earth

Scott Winship
Scott Winship
Photo by Kathryn Gritt

I didn’t hear a thing, I heard everything…well, at least in the eyes of John Cage, that is. Nothing and everything was happening at the Chicago Composers Forum’s Chicago premiere of John Cage’s multitudinous Musicircus at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

Even though it received its premiere in 1967 just down the street at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champlain, Musicircus has never been performed in Chicago. The ideas of Cage’s Musicircus exist mainly in various writings—Cage never actually wrote or published a score. As David Patterson puts it in the program notes to the performance, the idea of Musicircus brings together “the expression of several of Cage’s fundamental ideas about artistic creation and execution.” In a letter dated June 6, 1973, Cage wrote about Musicircus:

“You simply bring together under one roof as much music (as many musical groups and soloists) as practical under the circumstances. It should last longer than ordinary concerts, starting at 7 or 8 in the evening, and continuing, say, to midnight. Arrange performers on platforms or within roped-off areas. There must be plenty of space for the audience to walk around. If you have more groups than places, make a schedule….There should be food on sale and drinks (as at a circus). Dancers and acrobats.”

Well, as much as I wanted there to be elephants walking around at the Museum of Contemporary Art, that was not the case. There were, however, clowns (the Environmental Encroachment marching band), “Siamese” twins (a violin duet of young identical twins), and instead of a bearded lady, there was a mustached lady performing as Salvador Dali, providing mustaches and free Dali-esque portraits on Post-it® notes for the audience. All that and a DJ named Jesus, men in dresses, a guy in a wolf suit chasing a man in underwear with a deer hoof as a phallus, a ninja band, and way too many things to list in this article.

After attending so many new music concerts, I now realize that those that have the special ability to reduce me to the mindset of a giddy 5-year-old, such as this concert did, have been too few and far between. I was telling everyone (even strangers) that they needed to go just to see what could possibly happen. How many times do you get to see musicians, performance artists, dancers, and ordinary people all thrown into a blender and served up for a good solid four hours? The CCF performance was the brainchild of its current president, Christopher Preissing who, while working on his Ph.D. dissertation in multimedia, coincidentally at UI-UC, got more involved with the works of Cage and decided to bring this one to fruition in Chicago. As Preissing put it to me, Musicircus was a great vehicle to “build awareness” about the CCF, create a “very welcoming and opening kind of event” (not only for the audience, but for the performers as well), “and bring together the music community in Chicago.”

And bring it together they did. From my recollection, every new music ensemble operating in Chicago was represented and then some: a Suzuki guitar class performing “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” in a room next to male performers dressed in drag; performers dressed up in painters outfits (complete with respirators) being cheered on by cheerleaders as they chant; more traditional ensembles such as a full choir with piano accompaniment, brass quartet, or percussion ensemble, next to multiple radios and performers realizing Cage’s Imaginary Landscapes No. 4; and while using the men’s room, those of us at the urinals were treated to a performance art piece by young women sitting in the stalls having a conversation (reading passages to each other). True to Cage’s aesthetic, no bias was made and all told there were about 100 different ensembles and over 500 performers.

Spread across all three floors (indoors and out) of the MCA there were so many things going on that by the time you went from bottom to top and back again the ensembles had changed and you could start fresh again.

One of the things that really surprised me was the fact that so many ensembles decided to use this opportunity to perform many of Cage’s other works. Although this was never part of the design of the event, several groups choose to do this, which provided a wonderful opportunity to actually hear many of his works (a large amount of which I had never heard performed live).

The event proved to be a huge success with between 4,000 and 5,000 people attending. The MCA was so pleased that they are hoping to have the CCF do the event again next year. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for some musical elephants the next time around.


Scott Winship is the Associate Director and Youth Jam Coordinator for Rock For Kids, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping Chicago’s homeless children through Holiday relief programs and Youth Jam, a free music education program for underprivileged children. He has received degrees from Central Michigan University (music education) and Bowling Green State University (composition). Currently living in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, he tries to find as much time as possible to write music, attend concerts, and drink good beer. Upcoming performances of his work will be taking place in Chicago and Tucson.

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