John Cage at 100

Composer John Cage’s 100th anniversary is today (why no Google Doodle?). A gentle soul who created some of the most fearsomely controversial music of the 20th century, and, for me at least, the most memorable and generous.

Am reading Kyle Gann‘s No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage’s 4′ 33″, enjoyable in the way a really good grad school seminar is enjoyable. It circles around Cage’s most famous work, in which the performer does not make a sound per se, for the indicated time. Unlike most compositions, the composer, the performer, and the listener are equal in this experience, and the musical process is happening in real time.

It won accolades and enemies from the very start (David Tudor performed it at Carl Fischer Concert Hall in NYC on April 14, 1954.) Whether it touches your Zen place, your humor place, your “happenings” place, or folds up a lot of mid-20th century art into a deceptively simple piece of origami, it is something wondrous to experience. (It’s also, in a jokey way that Cage probably would have appreciated, a ring tone that is available for dead cell phones, and was once iTunes download of the day.)

Gann points out that 4’33″‘s legacy is rich. Musical minimalism is one part of the offspring, (he’s got fascinating bits on Steve Reich’s response), and a whole landscape of sound art, even multimedia art in general, was fed by this river. (I hadn’t known that Naim Jun Paik started out as a musician before he turned to video art. Would Cage even think there was a distinction?) I just experienced the sound piece, “The Murder of Crows” in New York, and its spooky, immersive effect owes something to Cage as well.

Deceptive Cadence, the NPR classical music blog has a post in honor of the anniversary, http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2012/09/05/160339846/silence-and-sound-five-ways-of-understanding-john-cage 

Of the grainy YouTube videos they curated, Cage’s performance of “Indeterminacy” resonated most with me. It’s worth the nine minutes. Cage would probably frown on it, but I’d love to “direct” an evening of Cage stories some day.

More Cage, from a letter responding to a critic of 4′ 33″. (Imagine it being spoken in that musical voice.)

Original ms. of 4’33” at the New York Public Library

“…[N]othing is single or unidimensional. This is an action among the ten thousand: it moves in all directions and will be received in unpredictable ways. These will vary from shock and bewilderment [referring to criticism of 4’33” in the letter] to quietness of mind and enlightenment.”

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