Tag: John Cage centenary

Are You Putting Me On?


Image courtesy of Bigstock.

There have indeed been a great number of John Cage concerts, festivals, articles, and discussions throughout the world in 2012 in celebration of his centennial and I can certainly relate to experiencing a bit of Cage fatigue, especially here in New York where the din of Cagean noise has approached a veritable roar. However, what I have a difficult time relating to is the completely cynical rejection of Cage and his legacy that the composer Daniel Asia conveys in his article “The Put on of the Century, or the Cage Centenary” published on January 3 in The Huffington Post. In this rather mean-spirited piece, which begins by noting that this year (2013) marks the 100th birthday of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Asia repeats many of the standard criticisms of Cage’s music that have been made from the beginning: that it is non-developmental, it lacks form and structure, it lacks meaningful pitch relations, it lacks tension and release, etc. He also asks the question: “While Cage is being feted this year among my musical colleagues almost as much as Stravinsky, why should this be so, and what does it mean?” The author goes on to recapitulate a bit of 20th-century music history in making the antiquated case for the supremacy of “the tonal enterprise” (i.e.: harmony and counterpoint), seemingly dismissing the entirety of modernism in the process.
I am no proselytizer for modernism, but at least I accept that it happened and that our music and culture have been forever altered by it. Nothing is essentially wrong with the “tonal enterprise,” but most of us acknowledge that in the aftermath of the tumultuous 20th-century, we live in a dramatically expanded field of possibilities. Not only do we now have a range of idioms and languages such as atonality, aperiodicity, serialism, jazz, heavy metal, gamelan, gagaku, Chinese opera, punk rock, mountain music, electronic and computer music, sound art, field recordings, noise, balloons, bird songs, sirens, mechanical instruments, MIDI controllers, free music…you name it, but we also have a whole universe of approaches to form and structure. To rely only on the traditional recipe of hierarchical relationships, the play of consonance against dissonance and the ultimate resolution of expectations, is to live in the past.

Which brings us to Cage: I believe I am in good company when I assert that John Cage is our country’s most important and influential musical thinker. It would take much more time and space for me to fully make that case, but suffice it to say that Cage revolutionized music in such a way as to make it possible for anyone to make any music they imagine. His example of openness and acceptance of diversity has inspired many to become involved in music, and perhaps most importantly, through both his own work and his proselytizing on behalf of a great many neglected or unknown composers, he essentially defined our understanding of a distinctly American musical identity. While we here on these shores are undoubtedly rooted in Western civilization, we are a decidedly multi-cultural and free-thinking nation, and as we have come to recognize, many of us identify as much with the East, the Americas, Africa, and “other” as with European ideals. Our homegrown musical culture makes this clear by its vast diversity. To ignore the complexity of our situation is foolish.

Now I don’t expect everyone to endorse or emulate Cage and his aesthetic, although a little more love for his Sonatas and Interludes would be nice—it’s probably his greatest work! (Check out Maro Ajemian’s 1951 recording first issued on Dial Records and later by CRI. Wow!) It would in fact be in keeping with his very ethic of openness and acceptance of diversity to follow your own path (he often said as much). But I do expect composers working today, especially in America, to have at least an understanding of what Cage means and why he is important. How an American composer and professor, Daniel Asia in this case, living and working in the western states no less, could still have no real understanding of or interest in a composer who is arguably our greatest and most influential figure is, well, surprising. The bigger question for me is why this should be so and what does it mean?

12th Anniversary of Annual “Happy Birthday Mr. Cage!”

Happy Birthday Mr. Cage at the MACC

Photo by Matt Bradshaw

Happy Birthday Mr. Cage, indeed! The wash of Cage performances, celebrations, remembrances, and retrospectives that started earlier this year culminated in centennial concerts across the country this past weekend, and Austin was no exception. However, this year’s celebration, while special in its own right, was actually the 12th anniversary of Michelle Schumann’s annual “Happy Birthday Mr. Cage!” event. Inaugurated in 2000, the celebration soon became a “Rite of Fall” of sorts for Austinites in and around the new music scene who came to see Schumann and other Cage aficionados perform his works. This year’s observance was marked by a marathon concert at the Mexican American Cultural Center featuring 92 performers of all stripes. The show was co-curated by Michelle Schumann and the Austin Chamber Music Center, along with Travis Weller of the Austin New Music Coop, Brent Baldwin of Texas Choral Consort, and Matt Teodori of line upon line percussion. The show was a product of nearly a year of planning, and the members of each of the curating groups brought their own unique perspective in an attempt to capture a broad look at the composer’s life and work.

Michelle Schumann

Michelle Schumann
Photo by Matt Bradshaw

The five-hour show was divided into five equal sections separated by brief intermissions. Though most of these sets were presented conventionally with one piece following another, the overlapping of works was a feature of two of them. For instance, the 5 p.m. set (see below) featured Variations IV throughout while Composed Improvisation, Solo, One4, Two, and Aria were played, and the 6 p.m. set featured 45 Minutes for Speaker which went on throughout while Four5, Variations III, Suite for Toy Piano, and Amores were performed one after the other.

cage @ 100 program

Works like Variations IV and 45 Minutes for Speaker lend themselves to this layering process, and in the case of the former speak directly to its instructions. While other works could have been put in place of the shorter works which were played simultaneously with Variations IV and 45 Minutes for Speaker, the “superimposed” works that were chosen here provided a compelling counterpoint to the “pedal function” of the longer works without overshadowing them. In short, they play(ed) well together.

Brent Baldwin of Texas Choral Consort

Brent Baldwin of Texas Choral Consort
Photo by Matt Bradshaw

A marathon concert covering the life and times of any composer is a lot to pack into an article, (especially when the event is one of many similar events occurring across the country and world) but some highlights of the marathon included Texas Choral Consort’s performance of Hymns and Variations, New Music Co-op’s presentation of Four6 for violin, contrabass, and percussion/electronics, and Schumann’s interpretations of Cage’s piano works (some for toy piano, others for prepared piano). Percussionists from the University of Texas as well as dancers and other instrumentalists from the Austin community rounded out the list of performers.

Brandt Barnard and Tristan Boyd

Brandt Barnard and Tristan Boyd
Photo by Matt Bradshaw

Despite the scope of the concert, the variety of the music, and the novelty of the presentation, nods to conventional performance (such as holding on to 4’33” until the final set) did give a sense of order and direction to the show which, of course, featured a great deal of indeterminate music. Schumann and the other curators truly shot for the moon this year in honoring Cage’s life and legacy with this special marathon. But make no mistake, next year will see yet another marking of his birthday by those whose lives have been so significantly impacted by his music.

Cage = 100: Provenance and Process—100 Waltzes for John Cage

Cage in 1992

John Cage in August 1992, the last month of his life. Photo by John Maggiotto, courtesy S.E.M. Ensemble

Sit. Think. Remember. Do a Google search or two. Read. Research. Listen. Hear the hum of the fans. Locate their points of convergence. Remember. Try not to repeat the things you already know about. Ignore your talents. Follow your most impish curiosity. Dwell on an unpleasant memory. Grind the coffee beans. Sort the pile of neglected mail. Make a cup of perfect espresso. Write.

On August 12, 1992, I was sitting in the yard of a small villa not far outside of Siena, Italy, with a group of brass players (of all people) when the word came that John Cage had died. I didn’t read his obituary on that day. I read it today. For the first time.

Find a place you trust and then try trusting it for awhile.

In many ways, this sort of unordered, untethered moment defines my connection to Cage and his work. I remember my mother once asking about him. “He had an amazing influence on so many artists,” she said, “but I understand that he did something with music too. Have you heard of him?”

Consider everything an experiment.

Reread. Highlight. Erase. Replace. Don’t you wonder what’s not here?

In 1992 I had heard an eclectic smattering of Cage’s works, compared to the enormity of his oeuvre—a handful of the prepared piano works, several of his percussion pieces, a fantastic few of his vocal puzzles, a variety of others. I had met him briefly on two or three occasions over the preceding few years, and I was always charmed by his just-finished-digging-mushrooms appearance and his completely affable demeanor.

100 years is a very long time.

Consider. Read. Research. 1912—Mahler’s 9th, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” Pierrot Lunaire. Woody Guthrie. Source material for unread theses, but not why we’re here, is it? Dwell on an unpleasant memory.

There is no win and no fail. There is only make.

I consider it one of the highlights of my performing career to have participated in the 2005 Lincoln Center presentation of Ocean, finally realized as Cage and Cunningham had envisioned it, with the orchestra surrounding the audience. Merce looked very old.

13 years is a very long time.

The only rule is work. If you work it will lead to something. It is the people who do all the work all the time who eventually catch on to new things.

Reread. Highlight. Erase. Replace. I promise, I’ll stop doing that. I can tell it’s annoying you now.

In college my friends all called me by my initials, KJ, which through time, use, and the laconic habits of college students was eventually shortened by many, to a pronunciation more like “cage.” When the ridiculously talented and humble pianist, Jenny Lin, asked me why I didn’t have my own ensemble yet, it seemed like a pretty good question.

Be happy whenever you can manage it. Enjoy yourself. It’s lighter than you think.

When it became obvious that the currents pushing my ensemble (the [kāj] ensemble—you get it now, right?) into outlandish existence would converge with the inevitability of the 36,500th revolution of the Earth since the breaking of silence by one John Milton Cage, it was once again time to sit, think, read, research, consider, talk, laugh, listen, plan.

We are breaking all of the rules. Even our own rules and how do we do that? By leaving plenty of room for “x” qualities.

I first approached the concept joining the parade of centenary performances much as anyone/everyone else. I focused on his 49 Waltzes for the Five Boroughs because it represented such strong points of connection for Cage and me—specifically, a love for New York City and the opportunity for the inclusion of field recordings and ambient sounds in the mix.

Go to the library. Search. Sit. Wait. Read.

Find a place you trust and then try trusting it for awhile.

Sometimes, the thoughtful and respectful recreation of a work is the deepest form respect. Other times, taking that work, using it as a diving board to bounce on and leap from, and landing in a cannonball to splash the snoozing pool-side adults is a much more fitting nod. I think Cage would prefer the latter.

Be happy whenever you can manage it. Enjoy yourself. It’s lighter than you think.

I don’t think that Cage chose to create (is “invent” a better word?) out of a sense of inspiration, or a desire to inspire his audiences, as much as a desire to connect. He chose to connect by listening, and by creating works that offered his audiences the same opportunity. He found great joy in sound. And he found great joy in the opportunity to connect to people. To be able to use one to accomplish the other is nothing less than sublime.

Find an I Ching website. O.K., I take it back. Ask your super-human assistant, Whitney, to find the website. She will then make six virtual rolls of the three coins five times over to find the longitude down to the sixth decimal place of the “seconds” (you know—degrees, minutes, seconds). She’ll repeat that process for the latitude. Then she’ll mark and map the location using Google Earth. Repeat 147 times.

“The [kāj] ensemble is an eclectic group of all-stars and icons from the New York new music scene. Under the direction of composer and trombonist Kevin James, the ensemble embodies the ethic and aesthetic of its namesake. Unabashed in its search for originality, guided by a love of improvisation, drawn to risk-taking, unafraid of theatrics, the [kāj] ensemble fuses the unique virtuosity of its members into a tightly unified whole, at once subtle and spontaneous, gritty and urbane, intimate and overpowering.”

The only rule is work. If you work it will lead to something. It is the people who do all the work all the time who eventually catch on to new things.

Print all the Google maps and all the attendant directions. Make a 24-hour reservation for a Zipcar. Midnight to midnight. Ask your craziest musician friends to volunteer to keep you company. Get your favorite mic plugged into your super duper state-of-the-art HD recorder. Stock up on batteries and bring an extra hard drive. Start in Staten Island. End in the Bronx. Stop at 80 locations in between for 3 minutes and 20 seconds each. Don’t forget to turn the mic on. Don’t fall asleep. Don’t be late with the car. Rest two days. Repeat (ten hours this time around). Rest two days. Strap a camera to your bike helmet. Strap your recorder to your chest. Mount your mic in a backpack. Pack extra water, fruit, and Cliff bars. Don’t forget your map and list of locations. Ride for ten hours—Governor’s Island is the midpoint. Time Square means you’re done. When you finish, it won’t be your legs that hurt.

Google “the world’s 100 most favorite waltzes.” Compare the lists in order to come up with your own super-cool, completely definitive list. Download all of the scores in PDF format. Go back to that I Ching site you like so much. Do six rolls each to determine page number, staff number (or bar number) and number of bars to include. Repeat 900 times (nine musicians—they’re funny about wanting to have their own part to play). Create slides for each of the 900 excerpts.

Do not try to create and analyze at the same time. They are different processes.

Send all the slides and all the audio samples to your software engineers. Give clear instructions. Practice trust. Give clearer instructions. Now practice trust. O.K., one more time. Give the really clear instructions. Get excited. You’re almost done.

Surround yourself with the eight other most talented, adventuresome, soulful musicians you can find. Give them permission to act on their talent, have an adventure, expose their soul.

There is no win and no fail. There is only make.

What exactly is 100 Waltzes for John Cage? It is a randomly evolving soundscape made up of nine transient iPad-equipped musicians, 100 waltzes, quad speakers, and audio from those recordings we made at the 147 New York City locations in a sublime expression of “the 10,000 things.”

O.K., I’ll break that down for you a little. Cage actually didn’t like the word “random.” He preferred “indeterminacy” and “chance operations.” But now we’ve got these nine musicians with iPads (that’s three trios worth). And on their iPads are slides with fragments of music from 100 different waltzes (remember those zillions of coin tosses). Here’s where we get to the “random” part—the slide show on the iPad is controlled by a randomizing algorithm which determines how long that particular slide remains visible to the individual musician and the order that the slides appear. The audio samples become a soundscape when loaded onto a computer and fed through a randomizing algorithm (there’s that term again) which determines how long each sample is heard, when it begins, and which of the four speakers at each corner of the room the sound will emanate from. And just to be fair, we invite the audience to get up and wander around as they please as well. Trust.

We are breaking all of the rules. Even our own rules and how do we do that? By leaving plenty of room for “x” qualities.

One of Cage’s more famous moments of clarity involved the realization that the street sounds entering the window of his studio were far more interesting than anything he was trying to put on paper that day. I think later his thinking would evolve to the understanding that the sounds themselves—timbre, rhythm, diversity, contrapuntal interactions and whatnot—despite their inherent fascinating qualities, required his window to be open and his mind to be willing in order for any connection, clarity, understanding, joy, to take place. 100 Waltzes for John Cage celebrates that window and invites its audience to experience that connection.


Kevin James

Kevin James

Composer, performer and educator Kevin James explores a broad palette in his creative work, spanning free jazz and improvisation, audience participation and multi-media to traditional forms and modal harmonies. His compositions include The Portraits Project, a 90-minute multimedia “opera-lingua” commissioned through the Meet The Composer/New Residencies Program, for which he recorded over 700 interviews with homeless New Yorkers. James is now in his second year as Director of Education for the American Composers Orchestra where he is working to increase the visibility and impact of composers in the world of New York City arts and education.

Cage = 100: As Influential as Wagner, as Interpretable as Mozart

John Cage

John Cage in August 1992, the last month of his life. Photo by John Maggiotto, courtesy S.E.M. Ensemble.

[Ed. Note: This week marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of American composer John Cage (Los Angeles, CA, September 5, 1912 – New York, NY, August 12, 1992).

To celebrate John Cage and his enormous impact on music and culture in the United States as well as abroad, we are featuring Cage related content all week. Visit NewMusicBox each day to read, watch, and/or listen to a different aspect of his legacy which, although Cage himself is no longer with us, is still central to new music. – FJO]

Since as far back as I can remember, John Cage’s music has been placed on the outside, and always, the issues of performance practice were tied to “special considerations”. I’ve never felt comfortable about that. Let’s try a different approach.

Cage is one of the composers whose works have had a defining influence on music history. I would compare him to Jean-Philippe Rameau and Richard Wagner, two composers who had a similar impact on the way people thought about music. It was not just their music that was significant; their writings were equally important. The combination of the music and the writings of Rameau, Wagner, and Cage shaped the music of their respective time periods. When Rameau published his Treatise on Harmony in the early 18th century, it influenced several generations of composers. The writings of Wagner not only redefined opera, they also helped establish the concept of a modern orchestra and the role of the conductor. Cage’s writing made a definitive break with the musical thinking of the past, specifically with the aesthetics of late Romanticism. (Cage’s rejection of the persistent residue of the 19th century might be the source of the often virulent hostility towards him.)

The Wagner-Cage comparison is quite fascinating. Both Wagner (b. 1813) and Cage (b. 1912) created their milestone compositions at the midpoint of the centuries in which they lived—Tristan and Isolde in 1856, the Concert for Piano and Orchestra in 1957—and both works still remained controversial half a century after their creation. Tristan was performed for the first time without cuts by Gustav Mahler in the early 20th century. Wagner didn’t live to see it. Performances of the Concert for Piano and Orchestra with a musically engaged and knowledgeable orchestra started only in the mid-1980s. The one truly great performance at Lincoln Center by David Tudor and Joseph Kubera was in 1993, and the first complete Atlas Eclipticalis was performed at Carnegie Hall in late 1992—performances that the composer didn’t live to attend.

Tudor & SEM at Carnegie Hall

The Orchestra of the S.E.M. Ensemble performing Atlas Eclipticalis, at Carnegie Hall / Stern Auditorium in October 1992; David Tudor, piano; Petr Kotik, conducting. Photo by Wolfgang Träger, courtesy S.E.M. Ensemble.

The idea of comparing Cage to Rameau and Wagner, should lead us to think about Cage the same way as we look at any other composer from the past or present. What should the path then be for a would-be interpreter of Cage’s music? Should he or she follow a tradition, or use an entirely new experience? What can I say?

Music is specific, not universal, and the ability to “understand” or “interpret” a score requires education—learning, and often breaking old habits. To do justice to the music of Cage, one needs to know as much about him as one knows, say, about Mozart. To be educated on how to play the music of Brahms and other 19th century composers does not make one automatically capable of playing Cage, since Cage’s music often requires a different way of reading the score and following the instructions. The most important information about how to perform music, be it by Cage or any other composer, does not come from the score; it comes from a thorough understanding of the style the music has been written in! Style is impossible to write into the score, yet, the knowledge of a style is the most important aspect for successful performance (taking the technical ability for granted, of course). Namely, every style is traced back to the composer, either through the composer’s own performances or through the performances of close collaborators and interpreters. The way we perform Chopin goes directly back to Chopin’s performances and was established by observing, listening, performing, and passing this knowledge from one generation to the next. When this chain is interrupted, as happened with early music, it is almost impossible to figure out how to perform it again, although the scores are available as they left the composer’s writing desk. Chopin’s scores do not look different from Bach’s of Mozart’s, but they surely are played differently. Ninety-nine percent of those differences are not written anywhere. How then should a would-be interpreter learn to perform Cage? He or she should associate with someone who worked with Cage and/or who has worked with musicians associated with Cage, listen to recordings, and read his writings. Playing the notes and reading the instructions is not enough. (Some of the instructions even need an interpretation.) A direct experience, performing the music in a knowledgeable environment—this is the only way to play it properly.

Do we need to “honor Cage’s legacy”? I don’t think so. The legacy of Cage exists on its own, regardless of us honoring it or not. One simply performs the music as best as one can. The legacy of anyone’s work happens through performances (exhibits, publications, etc.). Presenting the work in the best possible way creates its legacy, not arranged “celebrations.”

Cage & Kotik

John Cage and Petr Kotik, August 1992. Photo by John Maggiotto, courtesy S.E.M. Ensemble

I first encountered Cage’s ideas in 1960, when I read the Darmstädter Beiträge zur neuen Musik 1959 which contained some texts by him. Encounters with his music followed, and when we met in 1964 and performed together (first in Vienna and then a few months later in Prague, also traveling to Warsaw), I was ready to perform his music with a degree of understanding that helped forge a close musical relationship. These early experiences were very important for me and influenced the way I have been looking at his music to this day. I became convinced already then that, generally, Cage’s music is not all that different from Mozart’s. Both composers’ scores offer elements of freedom as well as elements that are precisely determined. The difference between a score by Cage and Mozart is in the nature of these elements. While the concept is similar—we are making sounds within a set of time-constrains—the details diametrically differ. This was my conclusion after performing Atlas Eclipticalis with Cage and Tudor in 1964. In fact, I believe that Atlas is a masterpiece that perfectly balances the relationship between what is given and what is open to interpretation. I have been performing this piece ever since.

When Cage started to use a stopwatch instead of counting beats, he referred to the rhythm of getting from one place to another. (Isn’t this what happens during a performance?) In the past, you traveled by horse—clap, clap, clap, clap; today, you take an airplane. It is not so simple, of course, but I like this remark very much. Since the early 20th century, we can universally observe in the music of this epoch the need to weaken—or remove entirely—the sense of the beat, especially the sense of the downbeat. You can find such ideas already in the music of Richard Strauss. In their compositions from the ’50s, Cage, Earle Brown, Christian Wolff, and Morton Feldman completely abandoned any sense, or even any indication of the beat. Feldman later returned to using bar lines, but his complex and changing time signatures completely confuse any sense of ongoing periodicities. Atlas Eclipticalis uses proportional time-organization that depends on the conductor’s signs. In this sense, it is no different from a piece by Mozart, except for the mechanics of the execution. As in a Mozart score, you will find pitches exactly notated, to be exactly performed. The difference is that Cage is giving the choice of the pitch sequence (or sounds in percussion parts), but the notes are written as exactly as Mozart’s. In Atlas Eclipticalis, the notes have to be played without the slightest deviation regarding phrasing, crescendos, etc. Mozart, on the other hand, gives you many choices to interpret the notes, create phrases and make small deviations here and there (within the confines of the style, of course).

The last issue I would like to briefly mention is the business of chance operations in music. If you go to a grocery store and pick up the box of cereal you happen to be standing nearest to, it’s up to chance what you end up buying. This is one kind of chance operation. When Cage (and other composers) decide to use chance in the compositional process (and perhaps in the performance as well), this is an entirely different kind of chance. Here, it is not about chance per se! These chance operations serve only as means to arrive at an unpredictable situation. One step does not predict the next step, and still the result fulfills the vision of the composer (or musician). And in order for these musical processes to remain unpredictable, the results (the actual music composed and performed) have to be executed with precision. The musician must be focused and execute the score with exactness. (You must not “let go” the way you would when performing Chopin—if you learned the style.) Playing Cage requires focus on the music and a state of utter devotion to the performance, the same as with any other composer. The horrors we so often encounter with performances of Cage’s music occur when the musicians believe that, because of chance operations, it makes no difference what they do. It can be this or that—like picking up a box of cereal.

Let us leave the conventional, entrenched conservatism behind. This attitude presupposes that the knowledge of performing Brahms (or beyond Brahms–composers coming out of the tradition of Brahms) is a norm that can universally be applied to every other music. This attitude lacks intelligence, musicality, and liveliness and often turns music into a dead corpse. Lately, I feel optimistic as I see rapid changes around, not just among musicians, but audiences as well. What a difference rehearsing Atlas Eclipticalis now compared to 1992! The John Cage centennial couldn’t have come at a better moment.


Petr Kotik

Petr Kotik, photo courtesy of the Ostrava Center for New Music

Composer, conductor and flutist Petr Kotík divides his time between his native Prague, Ostrava, and New York City. In New York, he continues to serve as the artistic director of the S.E.M. Ensemble which he founded in 1970. In 1992, he expanded the S.E.M. Ensemble to the Orchestra of the S.E.M. Ensemble; their debut concert at Carnegie Hall was a tribute to John Cage featuring David Tudor. In 2001, Kotík founded the Ostrava Days Institute and Festival, of which he is also the Artistic Director.

John Cage Centennial to Feature Performances of over 50 Cage Works

Aside from all of this year’s centennial hoopla, John Cage is easily one of the most under-programmed of American composers. Perhaps this is because among other acknowledged masters such as Copland, Ives, Adams, Carter, and Glass, Cage’s music is the most unique, confrontational, and subversive. It’s a pity that American concertgoers might go a whole lifetime without encountering the works of John Cage; his experimental legacy (and influence on the New York School of which he was once a central figure) lives on, but that legacy is often times eclipsed by the frequently poppy brand of postminimalism that currently dominates the new music community. To paraphrase fellow NewMusicBox contributor Colin Holter, the glaring omission of John Cage from most programs and larger music institutions might represent the single biggest blind spot in presentations of contemporary music.

Riding in as part of the rescue efforts, just in time to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Cage’s birthday, is The John Cage Centennial Festival, which will present a retrospective of music, watercolors, dance, and theater at several venues throughout Washington, D.C. Festival directors Steve Antosca, Roger Reynolds, and Karen Reynolds have partnered with venues including the National Gallery of Art, La Maison Française, the Phillips Collection, the Freer Gallery, the Corcoran Gallery, and the Hirshhorn museum for a week of concerts, showings, and panel discussions from September 4-10 (including Cage’s September 5 birthday bash). All in all, the festival will be one of the largest new music events ever to take place in D.C., as well as one of the largest presentations of Cage’s work and thought to take place anywhere.

Festival Co-director Steve Antosca elaborates:

When we set out to organize a celebration of John Cage’s accomplishments we did not realize that we would receive such a broad and open reception from the Washington art community, from funders, and from Cage experts around the world. We believe the Festival in our nation’s capital has taken on an historic importance as a unique celebration of John Cage and his achievements. The John Cage Centennial Festival will present 7 concerts with over 50 works, as well as 10 tribute commissions.

Performers and ensembles committed to the festival include the National Gallery of Art new music ensemble, Irvine Arditti, Steven Schick and red fish blue fish, and Allen Otte and Percussion Group Cincinnati, overseen by festival counselors Brian Brandt (founder of Mode Records) and Laura Kuhn, executive director of the John Cage Trust.

Throughout the week of concerts, lectures, and showings, several workshop opportunities for young people are scheduled. American University will present a percussion workshop and masterclass with Steven Schick, while the Corcoran Gallery of Art will present a dance workshop focusing on important developments in Cage’s many collaborations with Merce Cunningham, curated by former Cunningham dancer Patricia Lent. And a watercolor workshop at the Washington Center (in partnership with the University of California) will offer participants the chance to try out painting techniques as they learn about the works of John Cage—a real representation of Cage’s diverse interests, with several in-depth “Illuminations” sessions delving deep into the particulars of how Cage worked through artistic challenges.

It’s going to be a full week, so interested parties would do well to check the Cage Festival’s website in advance for a full list of offerings—I’ve barely scratched the surface in this preview. Highlights include premieres of commissioned works by Robert Ashley, George Lewis, and Christian Wolf under Antosca and the National Gallery of Art New Music Ensemble; Irvine Arditti’s heroic American premiere of Cage’s complete Freeman Etudes with real-time sound spatialization; and Stephen Drury’s recital of Cage piano works featuring the premiere of a tribute commission composed by Phillip Glass.

Washington, D.C. isn’t noted for its plethora of new music-related events, so it’s all the more fitting that such an exhaustive exploration of one of American music’s most cherished figures will be taking place just where a healthy injection of funny-smart-weird Cageian goodness is most needed.

Sincerely, John Cage

If there’s one event that can unite the American new music community, such as it is, in shared admiration, it must be this year’s Cage centennial. I spoke with my continuing-ed class yesterday about Cage, in particular his under-discussed prewar music, and it was difficult for me to convey the magnitude of Cage’s contribution to music and musical thought. One student asked, as listeners freshly exposed to Cage often do, whether Cage really expected us to take his propositions seriously; before I could answer, another student piped up that he had spent some time over the past week Googling Cage’s name in search of video and audio content. Making my heart glad, the second student avowed that, having listened to Cage talk about music, after hearing his voice, he was sure the composer wasn’t winding us up: You have only to listen to him discuss his work to know he had to be sincere.

That same student brought with him to class a concert program from 1967: As it turned out, he had witnessed a concert featuring pieces by Cage, David Tudor, Toshi Ichiyanagi, Alvin Lucier, and Lowell Cross at Hope College in Michigan more than forty years ago! The final piece was the famous 0’00”, which Cage performed by reading a book and smoking a cigarette under (as specified) heavy amplification. What a remarkable coincidence.

I’m not yet sure what Cage performances await me this year—many, I hope. However many it ends up being, I look forward to that very rare feeling that they bring: A special peanut butter cup of familiarity, comfort with the literature I owe to my UMBC education, and the unfamiliarities, the epiphanies, Cage’s music can bring about. There’s never been a better time to hear (or play!) some Cage; I hope America’s musical institutions, old and new, seize the opportunity to give the man’s work its due.

Music In Good Company

So how about that Cage centennial coming up next year? I’m pretty psyched. In January I’ll be teaching an enrichment class that will deal in part with Cage’s music prior to 1945, and in May a new piece of mine for large chamber ensemble will be sharing some program space with the man’s work (exactly which piece or pieces is yet to be determined).

When we were discussing programming for this show some weeks ago, I raised the possibility of Fourteen to round out a program including two very substantial student pieces. To be frank, my craven thinking was that Fourteen, an unbelievably gorgeous piece that I adore, might be a good choice because it’s unlikely to upstage me and my colleague; both of us will be offering very dense pieces in which texture carries affectively valent arguments (q.v.
www.dominicirving.com/temp/cccbsg.pl). Now, of course, we’re considering a much more complex and ambitious programming strategy, and Fourteen may no longer be in the running.

The conversation got me thinking, though: Is it wrong to put together a program that will show one’s own work in the best light? It’s not like we considered a bad piece: It’s just a neutral, elegant piece that won’t compete against our white-knuckled ardor for the audience’s attention. In fact, if you really like neutrality and elegance, maybe Fourteen would upstage us. But it’s not a piece that’s going to beat us at our own game. Maybe this is just good programming, not passive-aggressive self-aggrandizement. Has anybody else out there resorted to such skulduggery?