Cage at 100

If you surveyed the concert programs of orchestras, opera companies, and chamber music ensembles across the country, then sorted the statistics, you would think that the center of gravity in classical music was slowly rotating through Central Europe—with occasional vacations to France, Italy, and Russia—as it did from the early 18th to early 20th centuries. But statistics can lie—or in this case they can appear to be measuring quality and aesthetic importance when all they’re really showing is quantity, measured by what administrators think can sell tickets. Drill down by region, parse individual years and seasons, and you’ll find that in New York this year one of the leading names on concert programs is John Cage. If you’re an administrator, that’s a sentimental choice: Cage was born 100 years ago this month, and what better reason to honor his name for a season?

Petr Kotik and John Cage, August, 1992, about a week before Cage’s death. Photo: John Maggiotto.

Cage is, of course, one of the most important figures in the history of art since civilization began. And that he was a New Yorker for a half-century has a parochial appeal to administrators and conductors here. But he also embodied a real shift in classical music, how it’s thought about and made, moving the sun around which composers and musicians revolved from Europe to America.

As revolutionary as Cage was—and he was truly destabilizing to the accepted order—he didn’t spring forth like Athena from the head of Zeus, armed with supernatural powers. He worked his way there, through desire, persistence, inclination, and the fortunate accident of being born an American, especially a Californian, unburdened by the received wisdom of European culture that still hamstrings much thinking on the East Coast. He was confident and charmingly naïve as a young man; an autodidact, with no more than a bit of college and a revelatory series of lessons with Arnold Schoenberg; and, midway through the journey of his life, a genius.

He appears, with the possible exception of David Diamond, to have been the only composer supported by both Schoenberg—through lessons—and Charles Ives—through money, channeled through the composer Henry Cowell and others. This transfer of power and authority was like an ancient myth, the young composer spawned in a land made fertile by Ives, seeking insight from the founder of the Second Viennese School (a brilliant, somewhat bitter reactionary who hoped to preserve the centrality of the forms and structures of his beloved German music), then realizing he had been seeking wisdom from the wrong sources, discovering within himself ideas that would make him the center of the New York School of composers (with Morton Feldman, Earle Brown, David Tudor, and Christian Wolff), at the forefront of American music and in the center of the overwhelming growth in mass media.

The avant-gardist’s avant-gardist, Cage was also a star. His friends and colleagues included not just Merce Cunningham and Marcel Duchamp but also Yoko Ono and John Lennon. He was a creative and important writer and visual artist and a leading mycologist. He was the subject of documentaries, was featured in Nam June Paik’s global broadcast “Good Morning Mr. Orwell,” performed a concert with Sun Ra, appeared in a nutty short film, “Sound”, with Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and participated in not one, but two television game shows: He was a contestant on the Italian show Lascia o Raddoppia (“Double or Nothing”), and he performed his Water Walk on I’ve Got a Secret, which says something about the possibilities for true weirdness in popular culture when the executives aren’t looking. In terms of breadth, accomplishment, and importance, Cage had very few peers, if any. Perhaps St. Augustine, Michelangelo, da Vinci, Cocteau…

There is so much to celebrate, so much to experience—hundreds of pieces, a dozen or so books and collections of interviews—and so much to comprehend. Look at it a different way, and it appears there is only one thing to comprehend, but what that thing is requires so much unlearning that it appears, still, invisible, not only to general audiences but to many other composers and musicians. Cage is sometimes seen as a Trickster figure, a view that misunderstands him and makes him easy to dismiss. His personableness, patience, and humor in public were not indicative of his work, which was always serious, even if the results were light-hearted or deeply beautiful. Early in his mature career, which falls on the near side of the dividing line of 4’33” in 1952, his own performances of his spoken-word pieces were met with intense, even physical derision, and he frequently scolded audiences for their lack of seriousness in listening to what was going on. He didn’t need people to appreciate his work (though of course he preferred that they did), but he did expect someone who had come to see his pieces to at least pay attention. What he was saying was that music was sound, not just pitch, happening in time, and all sounds had equal value. Maybe if you heard it this way you might discover unexpected beauty and peace.

Cage is seldom derided nowadays, but he still does not seem fully understood. He is a famous figure, and fame draws attention, even if it’s uncomprehending. 4’33” has become a fetish, available on multiple recordings, though there has never been a piece so little in need of any recording. There have been frequent Cage concerts since the beginning of the year, played and witnessed by musicians and audiences spanning multiple generations; the crowds have been substantial and attentive. The results, though, have been uneven: sometimes spectacular, sometimes earnest but not well-played, with some performers simply not understanding what is going on. Music is a discipline, and Cage was the most disciplined musician of all. His pieces are rigorous explorations of his conscious artistic ethics and morals, made through demanding systems that ensured he would not waver from those values; when his compositional procedures gave him answers he didn’t expect, he relinquished his well to those results. Playing Cage requires quick, exact, and unbiased thinking, technical facility, and a commitment to a style that is unfamiliar to most musicians.

It was rewarding to see so many Juilliard students eager to play Cage during the winter “John Cage at 100” series at the Focus! festival, but the results were mostly poor. The best pieces were those that found familiar elements of harmony: Postcard from Heaven for harps and “44 Harmonies” from Apartment House played by a baroque string quartet. But the String Quartet in Four Parts was uncomfortably played, and the Concert for Piano and Orchestra with two “arias” from Song Books was misconceived. In March, the great American Mavericks festival began with So Percussion’s often spectacular “We Are All Going in Different Directions” program, with the duo Matmos. So plays the early percussion music with tremendous energy and a swinging feel that adds to Cage’s stiff, sharp rhythms. The mix of music on the program demonstrated how hard it is to follow in Cage’s footsteps as a composer or musician: Needles was enjoyable but an imitation of Cage’s Child of Tree, while Dan Deacon’s piece for the audience, Take a Deep Breath, proved through negative example that Cage was against “anything goes” and purely random, frivolous thinking. It was fun, but it was all going in a very different direction. Cenk Ergün’s Use, with instructions like “use gravity, use friction,” really worked, though, in both understanding and execution.

Cage’s Song Books was also on the Mavericks program, and New York has been amazingly lucky that this great culmination of Cage’s ideas has been performed three times this year. At Carnegie Hall, Jessye Norman sang and typed, Michael Tilson Thomas made a smoothie, Joan La Barbara gave a gift to an audience member, Meredith Monk did jumping jacks, and San Francisco Symphony musicians played cards and dribbled basketballs. There is a Cage performance style, and not everyone had it down: The “real” musicians had trouble projecting past the ringers, who were arch (La Barbara and MTT), playful (Monk), and wonderful (Norman). Song Books has also been presented by the ensemble Alarm Will Sound twice, for free. Their performance closed this summer’s River to River Festival, and was superb. The strange, seemingly random, but highly organized actions (such as “Make feedback three times”) felt natural and clear, a young man strolling the hall wearing a horse’s head was unremarkable, and Courtney Orlando singing while she hung laundry was simply moving. Just as it should be.

Between my writing this and its publication, there will have been the second New York performance of the 12-hour spoken-word piece Empty Words, from Varispeed, and a day dedicated to Cage at the Museum of Modern Art. The best is still to come. At Greenwich House Music School, Menon Dwarka has organized an unCAGEd series, opening September 20, dedicated to the New York School, who were themselves associated with Greenwich House. There will be performances of Thirteen Harmonies, But What About the Sound of Crumpled Paper, and piano music from Feldman. At Miller Theatre, this season’s Composer Portrait series also opens on September 20 with a Cage concert, with the International Contemporary Ensemble led by Steven Schick. Schick is developing a fascinating idea for the program, which has some early pieces that show the heavy influence of not only Satie but also Debussy on Cage, along with Music for ____, Atlas Eclipticalis, and more, which will be interleaved with Pierre Boulez’s Le marteau sans maître.

Cage and Boulez were mutual friends and admirers for a time, and their collected correspondence reveals that fact, as well as the narrative of their severe rupture. Both composers, following Schoenberg, sought a way to completely systematize their music, and it’s quite possible to hear their pieces from the 1950s as sharing complete sympathies in the way they sound. But the way they were made was so different that it drove the two apart. It was a question of values: Boulez took the serial technique of pre-determining pitch and extended it to all aspects of his piece, while Cage developed questions about all aspects of his pieces, using the I Ching to answer them. Boulez was committed to his determined ideas, Cage to indeterminacy. Wars have started over less.

The break gives some idea of how difficult it was to be Cage, to work and think like him. Even he and Feldman eventually drifted apart, Feldman’s careful, notated style almost neo-Romantic in comparison to Cage’s. Petr Kotik is exploring both deeply in the Beyond Cage festival he’s organized, opening October 22 at Carnegie Hall. There will be orchestral and chamber concerts, new music from new composers, and discussion panels. The festival runs through November 7 and features some important and rare music: Conrad Harris will play the Freeman Etudes; Kotik’s mesmerizing, six-hour Many Many Women will be at the Paula Cooper Gallery; there is a concert of Feldman’s orchestral works with American premieres of Flute and Orchestra and Violin and Orchestra played by the Janacek Philharmonic; and the series opens with Winter Music and Atlas Eclipticalis, reprising what became an impromptu and important memorial concert to the composer. Kotik has a profound understanding of this music. It’s a good year to be 100, and American, in New York.

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George Grella

GEORGE GRELLA is a composer finding his way through Cage's legacy, who writes about music for the Rail, ClassicalTV.com, and the Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is the Critic-in-Residence at Galapagos Art Space. He publishes a blog at thebigcityblog.com.