Apartment House 1776 is one of Cage's 'musicircus'-style works, in that it involves small groups of musicians playing independently against one another, within the confines of a larger scheme. In this work it is to be performed within the confines of a single stage, and there is a fully written-out score, rather than loose instructions. The one performance I have seen of the work required about a dozen groups of 1-4 instruments dotted around the stage, and in addition various recorded folksongs were played over the concert hall's PA.
As its title suggests, Apartment House 1776 was composed to mark the bicentennial of the American Declaration of Independence in 1976. It's actually one of several works Cage was commissioned to write for the occasion, and at least one other has an overtly political aspect. Lecture on the Weather features 12 American men who had become Canadian citizens (and as a result avoided the draft) to read extracts from the work of transcendentalist poet Henry David Thoreau. In the case of Apartment House 1776, the political edge comes through the choice of music materials Cage employs, and the nature of musicircus itself. It's also one of a long line of works in what might be called the 'American experimental tradition' to make extensive use of ready-made, explicitly American materials, a habit that goes back to Ives. In the mix of music played amongst the musicians on stage are 44 early American choral pieces, which Cage has distorted through chance operations, removing some notes and extending others. In doing this, Cage says, he retained something of their 18th-century flavour, but without the sacred reference. These are incorporated within a gumbo of 18th-century melodies, civil war drumming and Moravian church music. Over the PA system were played recordings of Protestant, Sephardic, Native American and African American songs. It doesn't take much thought to realise that you are being presented with a musical cross-section of American history and society.
In his treatment of this music, however, Cage achieves something quite remarkable. As the different musical elements are layered on top and alongside one another, in the fashion of the big Musicircus, each element in its turn is both elevated and equalised. Since each element (aside from the important exception of the distorted hymns) is played straight, and given dignity and presence within the sound, at one time or another (times selected, naturally, through chance operations and not the taste of the individual), there is a curious effect of privileging everything at once. The piece becomes a joyous, eloquent celebration of the American ideal put to paper in 1776. But it is not, certainly, a piece about America in 1776, or even 1976. But elements that grow from the music are applicable today – to America, and the world. It sounded to me at the time a much better, more honest, more accurate, more celebratory collage than Stockhausen's Hymnen, simply by virtue of, quite clearly, aurally obliterating the ego of the composer – and very often of the players too. The questions of responsibility, of the intersections between place, time, music and history were much more powerful – and difficult, and lasting – than other similar works in which the composer's ego is allowed to intrude and to influence.
Cage's method has an equalising effect – this was at the core of much of his philosophy – but it is a mistake that the individual elements are brought down to the same level. Cage's genius – and why, in fact, the ego of the composer (wherever that might be) is still crucial to his music – is to elevate these elements above everything else. All sounds may be created equal, but the ones Cage asks you to play are more equal than others. That is something to think about.