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John Cage At 100: Remembering A Revolutionary Composer

September marked the centennial of the birth of composer John Cage and celebrations are being held around the world in his honor. His compositions include spoken texts, radios, toys and the sounds of vegetables being chopped. Cage died in 1992. Fresh Air listens back to an interview with Cage from 1982.




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Other segments from the episode on October 26, 2012

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 26, 2012: Interview with Robert Moog; Review of "My Muse" the new recording by pianist George Cables's trio; Interview with John Cage; Review of the film "Cloud…


October 26, 2012

Guests: Robert Moog – John Cage

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Robert Moog, creator of the first music synthesizer, died in 2005, but he's still remembered and celebrated as one of the key pioneers of electronic music. A two-day music festival called Moogfest begins today in Asheville, North Carolina, showcasing dozens of Moog enthusiasts, including Thomas Dolby, Nas, Morton Subotnick and The Magnetic Fields.

Moog lived and worked in Asheville, where his company still manufactures synthesizers and another eerie-sounding instrument, the Theremin. Electronic music was still a new concept in the mid-'60s, when Moog created his synthesizer. It didn't take long for other people to manufacture their own versions of the instrument.

The synthesizer caught on in all forms of music, from the avant-garde to rock, pop and novelty. This medley includes just a few examples.


BIANCULLI: That was Sun Ra, Wendy Carlos from "Switched-On Bach," Todd Rundgren from a compilation of Thelonius Monk tunes and Kraftwerk, Heart, The Who, The Beastie Boys, Parliament and Stevie Wonder. Terry Gross spoke with Robert Moog in 2000. For their interview, he brought a mini-Moog to the studio and gave a demonstration.

ROBERT MOOG: OK, so here's a plain sound.


MOOG: This is a pure electronic pitch. Now I'll - I will frequency modulate it. By that I mean that I will vary the pitch of its tone periodically.


MOOG: So most people would say that was a different sound than just this. Now I can speed up and slow down the modulation.


MOOG: Or make it a different shape.


MOOG: Here's what we call a square wave. It makes the tone sound like a trill.


MOOG: So that's just one example of how we can use one electronic circuit to periodically or even aperiodically change the operation of another one and make musically interesting sounds in the process.


Now, you know, regular instruments, acoustic instruments operate through physically doing something to the instrument: You pound it, you press it, strum it, bow it, blow air into it. Compare that with the principles of an electric music instrument like the Moog.

MOOG: The energy to make the sound is there. It comes out of the wall. So the...

GROSS: Electricity.

MOOG: Yes.

GROSS: And so your knobs allow you to just change the shape of the sound wave, the amplitude, the shape of it.

MOOG: Yeah. And we can increase the complexity of the sound, for instance...


MOOG: There's one tone. Now we can add a second tone.


MOOG: Here's one, the other, together...


MOOG: They form a richer, third tone. So we can add sounds and waveforms together. We can use one waveform to shape what we hear from another circuit. We can also filter out the overtones, the harmonics that are made by these waveforms.

GROSS: Do you want to give me an example of that?

MOOG: Here's...


MOOG: Let's get a brighter sound. There.


MOOG: This is called a low-pass filter. Originally, it was a technical term, but musicians these days - at least the ones who plug in - understand what that means. So I'll close the filter, and we'll cut out first the higher overtones, and then all of them.


MOOG: Now when I vary the filter slowly like that, you can hear what's happening, that the sound is getting more mellow and less bright as I turn down the knob here labeled cut-off frequency. But, if instead of my turning the knob, I use a waveform that goes up and then down every time I hit a key, we'll get a sound like this.


MOOG: Now that opening and closing of the filter was done not by me, but by the envelope generator. Now I'll make it faster, and you'll see what effect that has on the sound.


MOOG: And still faster...


MOOG: Now that happens so fast, that we - if I had to do that with my hand, I couldn't possibly, because my hand can't move that fast. But electronics can move that fast. So now I have a different sort of sound. I have a plucked-string-like sound.


MOOG: Because I've set up a sound here that's bright and with lots of harmonics at the beginning, and then within, say, I don't know, 30 or 40-thousandths of a second, it dies down, and our ear identifies that as a string-like sound.

GROSS: Now your Moog synthesizer was designed to do things that a piano could never do, yet you gave it a piano keyboard.


GROSS: Did you ever consider alternate design, since you were creating a new system altogether?

MOOG: We considered a lot of alternate designs, and, in fact, the first synthesizer systems that we built in the mid-'60s had a wide variety of control devices. Besides a keyboard, we had a device called a ribbon controller that you run your finger along, as if it were a violin string. We had drum controllers. We even had doorbells. We experimented with everything, joysticks, and we arrived at a keyboard because: A, musicians were familiar with it. B, at that time, they were readily and cheaply available so that we didn't have to spend a lot of money on tooling. And B, it did serve a musical purpose at least some of our customers wanted served - not all, but some of our customers were interested in playing convention melodies and harmonic content from a keyboard.

GROSS: Right, exactly. I mean, you know, on the one hand, you had, like Walter Carlos, later Wendy Carlos, performing "Switched-On Bach," using the Moog to play a kind of new-fangled-sounding version of Bach. And at the same time, you had a lot of avant-garde composers and musicians using the Moog synthesizer to create a kind of avant-garde music that hadn't been possible before.

MOOG: That's right. One of our first customers was Vladimir Ussachevsky, who at that time was the head of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center. He was - he's sort of the grandfather of taped music in this country, and he was interested in getting away from the keyboard. He bought quite a few electronic modules from us, but he never bought a keyboard from us.

GROSS: Are there records from the '60s, when you were first - and the early '70s, when the Moog was first catching on, that you think sound almost embarrassingly dated today?


MOOG: Well, you know, the first use of Moog synthesizer on the West Coast sounds embarrassingly dated. It's a record called "Zodiac Cosmic Sound."

GROSS: How can that not sound dated?


MOOG: What happened is - this was in 1967, and we were wondering whether we could stay in business because, you know, we weren't making any money, and nobody understood our products. We were invited to exhibit our new synthesizers at the Audio Engineering Society on the West Coast. So at that exhibit, we were then invited to bring this one instrument that nobody had ever seen out there to a recording session of "Zodiac Cosmic Sounds."

And a synthesizer was used to make some distinctly novel electronic - it begins the album. What the album is, it starts off with very conventional-sounding Hollywood movie music.


MOOG: And then with a low organ tone, the narrator comes on. He had a voice as deep as crude oil, and he said: Nine times, the color red explodes like heated blood. The battle's on. And...


MOOG: Like that. The producers at the time were very impressed with themselves about how in this was and how hip and how many they were going to sell. Now, when you play it, people just break out laughing.

GROSS: So is it the bum-ba-bums that you were doing on the synthesizer?

MOOG: No. They were done more or less conventionally.

GROSS: Where did the synthesizer come in?

MOOG: Just drop-in sounds. Let's see if I can set one up. The mini-Moog is really not big enough to do all the sounds that we did, but for instance, let's start with one sound.


MOOG: Play another sound.


MOOG: OK, that's about a whole tone apart. We'll add a third sound.


MOOG: OK. Now, that's the general sort of sound that they liked.


MOOG: Then we just glide up a little bit here.


MOOG: That sort of sound.

BIANCULLI: Robert Moog, speaking with Terry Gross in 2000. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 2000 interview with Robert Moog, inventor of the Moog synthesizer and a pioneer in the field of electronic music. His legacy is being celebrated today and tomorrow at the Moogfest in Asheville, North Carolina.

GROSS: What are the early records - the first records that you think really helped the Moog synthesizer catch on?

MOOG: The biggie was "Switched-On Bach." In light of that, everything else pales. "Switched-On Bach" came out at the end of 1968. I can remember playing a cut from it at an Audio Engineering Society convention in New York City about a month in advance of its release, and I can remember all those cynical, experienced recording engineers listening to this and being so overjoyed that a piece of work so innovative and of such high quality was being done that they give Carlos a standing ovation.

GROSS: Did you like "Switched-On Bach"?

MOOG: Oh, yes. Yes. In fact, I visited Carlos several times while Carlos and his associates were working on the piece, and I was just bowled over every time I came. Something new was there to be heard.

GROSS: Well, why don't we hear some music from "Switched-On Bach," and it was Walter Carlos back then, wasn't it?

MOOG: Yes.

GROSS: Yeah. So this is Walter Carlos at the Moog synthesizer.


GROSS: That's Walter Carlos playing "Switched-On Bach," the record that helped really establish, commercially, the Moog synthesizer. My guest is Robert Moog, the creator of the Moog synthesizer and the related synthesizers that he's since created. He's a pioneer of electronic instruments.

When you created the first Moog synthesizer, was it out of an interest in electronics or music, or both?

MOOG: I had been building electronic musical instruments since I was a kid. It was always a hobby of mine, and I always approached it as an electronics person, you know, somebody who liked to work with a soldering iron and a pair of pliers, who also had some musical training.

By the time I got to building synthesizers, I had perhaps 20 years' experience building electronic musical instruments.

GROSS: Well, I know you built Theremins, and we'll get to that in a couple of minutes. What else did you build?

MOOG: Back in the '40s and early '50s, building simple electronic projects was a popular hobby of many people. Back then, you could buy, you know, a few parts and - with tubes and build something on your kitchen table, and it would actually work.

So there were magazines describing all sorts of hobby projects, and I can remember building one-note organs, two-note organs, radios, a phonograph, you know, amplifiers. And that was my life. That's what I did back then. Other kids went out and beat each other up or played baseball, and I built electronics.

GROSS: I think your father was an amateur radio operator?

MOOG: Yes, he was. He was a professional engineer. He worked for Consolidated Edison in New York City.

GROSS: That's the electric company.

MOOG: Yes, it is. And he worked for them all his life, and he was also an amateur radio operator.

GROSS: So this was HAM radio?

MOOG: Yes.

GROSS: So do you think your father's HAM radio stuff had an impact on you?

MOOG: Why, sure. He was the one who taught me how to do electronics. He taught me how to use a soldering iron. My father had a very complete hobby basement with machine tools and all sorts of electronic stuff. I used to love to go down and just be with him and work with him.

GROSS: It was a real guy thing for you?


MOOG: I think so, yeah, yeah. It was a dad-and-son thing, especially.

GROSS: Did mom ever go down to the basement?

MOOG: No. Mom had the rest of the house.

GROSS: Now, before you started inventing your own instruments, you built Theremins. So let's start with what a Theremin is. You've brought one with you. I imagine this is one that you've built.

MOOG: Yes, it is. Well, it's one that my company built.

GROSS: Right. That's good enough.


MOOG: Close enough.

GROSS: Give us a taste of the basic sound of the Theremin. Our listeners will recognize it from lots of science-fiction movies.

MOOG: OK, let me describe what I'm doing. I'm not touching the instrument when I'm playing it now. I'm moving my hands around it to control the volume and the pitch of the sound. I'll just make a very quick sound, and then maybe later I can actually try and play a melody.


MOOG: So when you wave your hands around a Theremin, that's the sort of sound you get. It's not particular musical, but it certainly sounds different from a piano or even a synthesizer. A Theremin is an electron musical instrument with two metal antennas. One is a vertical rod on the right-hand side of the instrument. The closer you get your right hand to that rod, the higher the pitch goes.

So if you imagine a violin string in the air between your shoulder and the pitch antenna, and by moving my hand along that string, you can imagine the sort of gestures I make.

GROSS: But it's an imaginary string.

MOOG: It's an imaginary string. I'm not touching anything when I play. On the left-hand of the instrument, there is a loop, a metal loop which controls the volume. The closer I get my hand to that loop, the softer the sound gets. So my gestures consist of moving my right hand back and forth from my right shoulder to the pitch antenna to make the notes, and moving my left hand up and down as if I'm conducting an imaginary orchestra out there to control the volume, articulate the sound.

GROSS: Would you play us a science-fiction effect on the Theremin? You could even play something from one of the movies that the Theremin, one of the movies - scores that the Theremin was used in.

MOOG: A science-fiction effect. I'll try.


GROSS: And do you get that little vibrato by wiggling your hand back and forth?

MOOG: Yes. I move my right hand from my wrist rapidly back and forth, just as a violinist does.

GROSS: Would you like to leave us with some music on the Moog synthesizer?

MOOG: Let's see...


MOOG: Well, that's some music. I don't know how much, but it's some.


GROSS: Robert Moog, it's been a real pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much.

MOOG: Thank you, Terry. I'm glad to have the opportunity.

BIANCULLI: Robert Moog, speaking with Terry Gross in 2000. He died five years later. Today and tomorrow, a music festival called Moogfest in Asheville, North Carolina celebrates the spirit and legacy of Robert Moog. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli sitting in for Terry Gross. In the 1970s and '80s, George Cables was the pianist of choice for saxophonists Dexter Gordon and Art Pepper; Pepper called him his favorite piano player. Cables also recorded a lot with jazz stars Joe Henderson, Freddie Hubbard, Bobby Hutcherson and Frank Morgan.

George Cables has his own new album, a jazz trio. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says this time it's personal.


GEORGE CABLES: (Instrumental)

KEVIN WHITEHEAD: George Cables' tune "My Muse," from his new album of the same name, a tribute to his late partner Helen Wray. Over the years, Cables wrote three songs on it for her. Whether he's in a playful or tender mood, these tunes are from the heart. He can swing and sound lost in reverie at the same time.


WHITEHEAD: George Cables on the standard ballad "My One and Only Love." He's a terrific pianist, but his new album is short on flashy gestures and long on tuneful refinement. It reminds us great jazz can be about restraint as well as abandon, about freedom within established forms. Power drummer Victor Lewis is mixed a little low for my taste, given his discretion to begin with; he radiates quiet strength, stoking a low fire instead of torching the place. The drummer sneaks a Brazilian march rhythm under "Helen's Song."


WHITEHEAD: George Cables is so fluent in the ways of the keyboard and pedals and song forms and harmony, so aware of his available options every second, he doesn't need to fall back on ready-made licks. But not all of the trio's decisions are made in the moment. As a structural feature, he loves yoking together his left hand and Essiet Essiet's bass, to give the music an extra-fortified low end. They play in tight unison so often, those doubled bass lines are the trio's signature. Fused piano and bass have such a distinct color, when they merge it's almost like another instrument making an appearance.


WHITEHEAD: George Cables and Company, making a silk purse out of Marvin Hamlisch's "The Way We Were." The trio polish their music to such a high gloss, you could underestimate it if you think jazz always needs a healthy dose of grit to stay real. "My Muse" is so unassumingly good, you could miss just how good it is. It gives good taste a good name.


BIANCULLI: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure, Downbeat and Emusic, and is the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed "My Muse," the new recording by George Cables on the HighNote label. Coming up, an interview from our archives with composer John Cage.This is FRESH AIR.

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: This fall, arts organizations around the world are celebrating what would have been the 100th birthday of composer John Cage, who was born on September 5th, 1912.

John Cage began serious music studies in the 1930s, and quickly gravitated to the avant-garde and the idea of composing music through chance. He wanted to release his music from the limits of his own taste, memory and emotion. His radical ideas about composition led to equally radical experiments with instruments. By 1937, Cage created what he called the prepared piano, a method of altering the piano's tonal and percussive qualities by placing wood, metal or rubber objects on the piano strings. He later became one of first composers to use synthesizers and computers. Sometimes Cage didn't use instruments at all but used recorded voices and even radio static to help build his chance compositions.

Here's a excerpt from his 1959 work "Indeterminacy," in which Cage tells 90 stories in 90 minutes taking about one minute for each story. The piano and electronic music score was composed and realized by David Tudor. The collision of dialogue and music, like the collision of ideas, is purely intentional.

JOHN CAGE: This summer I'm going to going to...


CAGE: ...give a class in mushroom identification at the New School for Social Research. Actually, it's five field trips, not really a class at all. However, when I proposed it to Dean Clara Mayer, though she was delighted by with the idea, she said, I'll have to let you know later whether or not we'll give it. So she spoke to the president who couldn't see why there should be a class in mushrooms...


CAGE: the New School. Next she spoke to Professor MacIvor, who lives in Piermont. She said: What do you think about our having a mushroom class at the New School? He said: Fine idea. Nothing more than mushroom identification develops the powers of observation.


CAGE: This remark was relayed...


CAGE: ...both to the president and to me. It served to get the class into the catalogue and to verbalize for me my present attitude towards music: It isn't useful, music isn't, unless it develops our powers of audition. But most musicians can't hear a single sound. They listen only to the relationship between two or more sounds. Music for them has nothing to do with their powers of audition, but only to do with their powers of observing relationships. In order to do this, they have to ignore all the crying babies...


CAGE: engines, telephone bells, coughs, that happen to occur during their auditions. Actually, if you run into people who are really interested in hearing sounds, you're apt...


CAGE: find them fascinated by the quiet ones. Did you hear that? They will say.


CAGE: In 1954, when I went to Europe, I no sooner arrived in Paris then I noticed that the city was covered with posters publicizing a mushroom exhibition that was being held in the Botanical Gardens. That was all I needed.


CAGE: Off I went. When I arrived, I found myself in a large room filled with many tables upon which were displayed many species of fungi. On the hour from a large centrally-placed loudspeaker a recorded lecture on the deadly, poisonous...


CAGE: ...amanitas was delivered. During this lecture, nobody in the hall moved or spoke. Each person's attention was...


CAGE: to speak, riveted to the information being given. A week later, I was in Cologne...


CAGE: Germany attending a concert of electronic...


CAGE: There was also an audience and a large loudspeaker. However, many in the audience were dozing off, and some were talking to their neighbors.


CAGE: I went to a concert upstairs in Town Hall.


CAGE: The composer whose works were being performed had provided program notes. One of these notes was to the effect that there is too much pain in the world.


CAGE: After the concert I was walking along with the composer and he was telling me how...


CAGE: ...the performances had not been quite up to snuff.


CAGE: So I said, Well, I...


CAGE: ...enjoyed the music, but I don't agree with that program note...


CAGE: ...about there being too much pain in the world. He said, what? Don't you think there's enough?


CAGE: I said...


CAGE: I think there's just...


CAGE: ...the right amount.

BIANCULLI: Terry Gross spoke to John Cage in 1982 when he was 70 years old. He explained that he really wasn't drawn to music the way most composers where.

CAGE: My father was an inventor, and I've never thought that, as many people do, that music should be in my head and that I should learn how to write down what I already hear. I really can't hold a tune and I don't know solfege at all - so that I found ways of writing music to produce sounds that I haven't heard, and that other people haven't heard. If I'd study solfege, if I had a feeling for harmony, which I don't, I think I would simply write what people have already heard or what I would've thought - thought I heard. The result is I have a curious feeling every time I write a new piece, particularly one for an orchestra that involves so many people and so much trouble you know to bring into existence. I think up until the last minute that maybe it's just going to be...


CAGE: ...a great mistake, or that we won't discover anything with it.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: A lot of your work hasn't been about that relationship with sounds to other sounds but of sounds in and of themselves, individual sound, a sound for itself. Is that too, do you think, from not wanting to work with harmony?

CAGE: I had an interest in each single sound from the beginning. At first I began putting the sounds together into - as I'd been taught - into motives and repeating them and varying them. But gradually, and through a study of oriental philosophy and through the use of chance operations, I have found ways, I think, of letting sounds move from their own centers rather than centers in my mind.

GROSS: What's your attitude towards random sounds in your home? I'm thinking now about...

CAGE: I just love them.

GROSS: Uh-huh. Like apartments in Manhattan, which is probably the noisiest city in the world.

CAGE: I live on - and 6th Avenue is very, very noisy. And sometimes there's burglar alarms...

GROSS: Oh yeah.

CAGE: ...and they may last three of four hours. It's quite, that's quite a problem. I think that our, we almost have an instinct to be annoyed by a burglar alarm. But as I pay attention to them they're curiously slightly varying.

GROSS: What if you're paying attention to something else at the same time?

CAGE: Well, I think that one of our most accessible disciplines now is paying attention to more than one thing at a time. And if we can do that with equanimity, then I would suggest paying attention to three things at the same time. And you can practice that as a discipline. I think it's more effective than sitting cross-legged. I mean to say cross-legged in relation to...

GROSS: In meditation.

CAGE: Yes. It opens the - I think the meaning of meditation is to open the doors of the ego from a concentration on itself to a flow with all of creation, wouldn't you say? And if we can do this through the sense perceptions, through multiplying the things to which we're able at one in the same time to pay attention, I think we accomplish much of the same thing. At least that's my faith.

GROSS: You've rejected taste and memory in the chance processes work. What's restricting about taste and memory for you?

CAGE: There's a beautiful remark of Marcel Duchamp: To reach the impossibility of transferring from one like object to another the memory imprint. And I think the trouble with memory, both from a poetic point of view, is made clear too by the remark of René Char, the French poet, that each act is virgin, even the repeated one. To see things as being new rather than things that we already know before we are experiencing them.

I think this is one of the things that leads to trouble between two people when someone says of another person, I knew what she would say or I knew what he would say. I would hope that we don't get into that frame of mind with respect to one another, hmm?

GROSS: You know, it's interesting to me because you have such a really rich and detailed memory and use it so beautifully in your storytelling and in your writings, which become your pieces also.

CAGE: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: I know that that memory does come into play.

CAGE: There's another remark I've come across in the last year or so that I like and it's by the composer Erik Satie and it's related to that remark that I just quoted from Char - he checked his version. Satie says experience is a form of paralysis.

Do you see the relation? If we think we know what the other person is going to say, hmm, and if we don't approach things as virgin, hmm, then our minds and our attitudes turn out - become paralyzed and that's why we want to have each thing new, hmm?

To have - to realize that two Coca-Cola bottles are not identical and what makes them not identical is that they're not at the same point. They can't be at the same point in space. Since they're not at the same point in space they automatically receive - each one receives light differently than the other.

So that it can be as fascinating as going to a museum to look carefully, attentively at two Coca-Cola bottles, hmm? And something of that is implicit in a great deal of 20th century art.

GROSS: I like to think of you and Marcel Duchamp playing chess together because here...

CAGE: Well we actually didn't play much.

GROSS: You didn't play?

CAGE: No. No.

GROSS: Oh. Oh.

CAGE: I played with Teeny Duchamp, his wife and he would criticize our game.


CAGE: And he said to me once, he said, don't you ever want to win?

GROSS: Did you play to win when you played chess?

CAGE: I didn't then. I played chess in order to be with him. I wanted to be with him as much as possible. Now that he's dead, my game has improved.

GROSS: Did you talk much during those chess games with Teeny, talk with Duchamp?

CAGE: No, I had a kind of confidence that if I was just near Duchamp that that would be enough, that I didn't have to ask him questions or converse. Once I remember he said let's sit down and have a conversation. We sat down. I don't remember what we talked about.


GROSS: Well, that's...

CAGE: I just liked being with him.

GROSS: Was that so, that being with him and not talking got for you some of what you wanted to be around him for?

CAGE: Yes, I think his presence, his being, was both question and answer, hmm?

BIANCULLI: John Cage, speaking to Terry Gross in 1982. He died a decade later at the age of 79. September 5th marked the 100th anniversary of his birth and celebratory events are scheduled throughout the fall season. Coming up, "Cloud Atlas." Film critic David Edelstein reviews the new movie starring Tom Hanks. This is FRESH AIR.

DAVID BIANCULLI: For "Cloud Atlas," the sibling directors of "The Matrix," Larry and Lana Wachowski, teamed with filmmaker Tom Tykwer, who directed "Run, Lola, Run," to co-direct an adaptation of David Mitchell's epic bestselling novel. The omnibus film stars Tom Hanks in multiple roles and also features Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent and a large ensemble cast. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: First I need to talk about the book, because it's not as if "Cloud Atlas" the movie came from nowhere. And if you think it's only the movie you want to know about, I think you need a context for what's onscreen. Author David Mitchell writes exquisite pastiches and "Cloud Atlas" is in the form of six distinct and enthralling novellas set in six different eras with six different literary styles.

First comes the journal of a 19th century lawyer for a slave-trading company. Then a series of early 20th century letters from a down and out composer who apprentices himself to an elderly musical giant. We jump to a 1970s paranoid conspiracy thriller, then a 2012 tale of a debt-ridden publisher tricked into signing himself into an old age home.

In a totalitarian future, a South Korean restaurant is staffed by female robots called fabricants, a couple of which are beginning to think for themselves, with tumultuous social consequences. The last story is set in a post-apocalyptic future in which some denizens are hunter-gatherers, others cannibals.

From story to story there are echoes, counterpoints, variations, characters in one time aware of characters in the previous one through print or film or oral history. So it's as if a baton is being passed. The idea that everything in the universe is connected doesn't come from a character's speech. It seeps into you as you read.

The movie, directed by Andy and Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer, doesn't have discreet episodes. Every one of its stories is interwoven with every other. It's an epic hash of crisscrossing fragments tied together by music in a vain attempt at fluidity. I found it disjointed, distractingly busy.

Unlike the book, it telegraphs the theme from its first scene on. The main actors have parts in all six stories, often in egregious disguises. They're a very uneven stock company. Tom Hanks, speaking in a sub-literate patois, opens the film as a post-apocalyptic tribesman, then shows up with a putty nose and snaggle teeth in the 19th century, and so on.

I like Hanks, but when it comes to transforming, he's no Peter Sellers. It's always: Hi, Tom. The even less versatile Halle Berry is primarily a gossip rag reporter who ferrets out chicanery in the nuclear industry. Hugo Weaving plays sundry one-dimensional villains while Hugh Grant manages to embody a cannibal in war paint without losing his English lockjaw.

Korean Doona Bae is the fabricant. She has a lollipop head and a live body but it's hard to detect much under the surface. There is one fine performance: Jim Broadbent as the publisher. And one splendid one: Ben Whishaw as the young composer. But the dialogue is full of flashcards and placards.

Tom Hanks gets to sum the film up in the episode in which he's a nervous nuclear scientist with blond hair in love with Halle Berry's reporter.


TOM HANKS: (as Isaac Sachs) Belief, like fear or love, is a force to be understood as we understand the theory of relativity and principles of uncertainty, phenomena that determine the course of our lives. Yesterday, my life was headed in one direction. Today, it is headed in another. Yesterday I believed I would never have done what I did today. These forces that often remake time and space, that can shape and alter who we imagine ourself to be, begin long before we are born and continue after we perish.

EDELSTEIN: "Cloud Atlas" is never dull. It's like a series of clunky but energetic B movies, inflated by lines like: Separation is an illusion. And: My life exists far beyond the limitations of me. It's certainly passionate. You can see why the Wachowskis were drawn to the book. They've expressed a belief in the transmigration of souls, the body but a weak and temporary vessel, and politically they're radical.

For them, every age has oppressors with unchecked power who preserve artificial boundaries - racial, sexual, economic, spiritual. As in "The Matrix," the answer in "Cloud Atlas" is free your mind. Once you do, there is but one possibility: overthrow the man.

My own mind was too dismayed by all the howlers in the dialogue and acting to be freed. The movie is too literal-minded to be a good head trip. But I should add that audiences at the Toronto Film Festival premiere reportedly stood and cheered for 10 minutes. With its busy transitions and metaphysical heft, "Cloud Atlas" could be this year's "Inception." You'll travel farther, though, if you read the book.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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