September 5, 2012

Happy Birthday, John

         John Cage in The Hague, Netherlands, 1988
                   photo by Paul Bergen/Courtesy of Redferns

The photograph above is my favorite of any I've ever seen of John Cage, the American composer, music theorist, writer, and artist who was born on September 5, 1912, one hundred years ago, today. Romantic, yes, but to me the photo mirrors the music he composed, richly dark and brooding.

Much can be said about Cage. He was a seminal leader in the Avant-garde music scene. To some he was more important as a thinker than a composer. To many artists, he was one of the most inspiring figures of the 20th century. To a large segment of the public, he was a charlatan who convinced people that sitting onstage in silence for four minutes and 33 seconds could be construed as performing a work of music; his music was never meant to be accessible to populist taste. His work often appears weird, dark and forbidding but his output was broad and deep.

In 1944 the avant-garde composer wrote Four Walls, a 70-minute work using only the white keys of the piano. A 2008 performance in Santiago de Compostela, EspaƱa, can be seen and heard on YouTube. It was the music for a “dance play” in two acts by the dancer and choreographer, Merce Cunningham, who was Cage’s lifelong partner.

There are celebrations to honor his birthday planned all over the United States. There is a 7-day John Cage Centennial Festival In Washington, D. C., with events happening all over the city. Houston has concerts scheduled to honor him, Seattle and Los Angeles are paying their tributes as well.

The following extracts say more about Cage and say it better than anything I could.

What 33 musicians had to say about John Cage on NPR.

In the review by James Chute in the UT San Diego News on the Corcoran Gallery of Art exhibition, which opened the John Cage Centennial Festival in Washington D.C. yesterday, September 4, Chute quotes the late San Diego Zen Center teacher, Joko Beck, who used to call Cage's music, ...'choiceless welcoming', a non-judgmental acceptance of the moment (which is the next moment, and the next and the next…)."

In the Washington City Paper review of the celebrations by Jonathan L. Fischer, Fischer said, "Orchestras love anniversaries as reasons to draw up theme programs, but only when those anniversaries are for composers most people enjoy: Mozart, Beethoven, and the like. John Cage is not one of them. He was an already weird composer of random ambient sounds before he discovered Zen Buddhism in the 1950s and got even stranger, at times jettisoning instruments and music altogether; his influence is felt more in the noise-rock and anti-art scenes than modern classical."

In the article, Music of the Unquiet Mind, by Margaret Leng Tan in the New York Times which referred to the work, Four Walls, Tan quotes Cage: "Why do you not do as I do? Letting go of your thoughts as though they were the cold ashes of a long dead fire?" 

In his review in the LA Times, David Ng said, "What Jean-Luc Godard is to film and Marcel Duchamp was to the visual arts, John Cage was to music -- a radical experimentalist who constantly sought to reinvent the art form."

In the Baltimore Sun review of John Cage by Tim Smith, Smith said, "He was an amazing creative artist who taught the world that music is not defined by dots and bar lines on a page, or restrained by conventions of time and structure. Ironic, then, that his name was John Cage".

All of these people have come to the same conclusion: he was an innovative and ground-breaking man who made our lives richer.

Thanks for all the great sounds and non-sounds, John, happy birthday.


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