The year of John Cage
Once, when asked how he thought history would consider his work, John Cage responded that he had made so much, getting rid of it all would be very difficult. Twenty years after his death he has been spectacularly proven right. This year marked the 100th anniversary of the composer’s birth in Los Angeles on Sept. 5. As part of an international celebration, Cage’s work appeared and continues to appear in concert halls, opera houses, museums, galleries, clubs, alternative spaces, reconverted industrial buildings, parks, street corners, atria and even a dock or two by the bay.
Cage literature is adding a groaning shelf-worth of material. No media remained untouched. New releases keep appearing on vinyl (both at 331/3 and 45 rpm!), CD, DVD and Blu-ray. A spare 100-gigabyte hard drive would be handy for all the new Cage downloads. Cage apps and e-books are a growth industry.
Cage conferences were held on the Canadian island of Victoria, at the Sorbonne in Paris, in Moscow, in the Polish town of Lublin and many more places. Germany went Cage crazy. The Chinese got on the bandwagon. European radio stations became fixated on the American composer. Colleges in five continents added Cage courses to their curricula.
The art world has been going gung-ho with exhibitions aplenty. Cage’s profound influence on poetics, philosophy and aesthetics gets endlessly debated. So too does his sexuality (gay or bi?) and whether his so-called silent piece from 1952, “4'33",” in which no intentional sounds are made by a performer, was really a silent cri de coeur of the closet and/or a comment on the stifling atmosphere of the McCarthy era.
No day in 2012 has likely been Cage-free. Something was happening somewhere. Still is, for that matter.
But does this mean that this most radical major composer of the 20th century, who challenged the status quo in nearly every activity he participated in, who expanded the definition of music to include all sounds and all silences, has finally gotten co-opted by the establishment? Has a gorge been carved to permit him entry into the mainstream? Cage always said we could solve art’s and the world’s problems simply by changing our minds. Have we?
Of course not. The work remains radical, shock-worthy even. The music can still empty an auditorium. Cage was often misunderstood. He still can be. The year brought inspired tributes and deep new understanding to Cage and by extension insight into the way the world works. It also brought tomfoolery. And no doubt to the comfort of traditional audiences and performers alike, most of the major classical music institutions, particularly in this country, went right on ignoring Cage as they always have.
Neither the New York Philharmonic nor the Boston Symphony, the orchestras with which Cage was most closely (if never contentedly) associated, played a single note of the composer’s music in 2012. The Philadelphia Orchestra hasn’t exactly jumped on the bandwagon, despite the large Cage festival taking place in its city in conjunction with a major Cage exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The Kennedy Center steered clear of Cage during a weeklong Washington, D.C., Cage centennial festival. No, the U.S. Postal Service didn’t bother to commemorate one of the most influential — and proudly American — artists in our history.
Even official Los Angeles willfully twisted its gaze elsewhere from its celebrated native son. Rather than, say, proclaiming Sept. 5 John Cage Day, the county of Los Angeles instead picked that day to extend its official gratitude to Plácido Domingo for his service to Los Angeles Opera. The presentation was at the Music Center, a few blocks away from Good Samaritan Hospital, where John Cage had been born exactly 100 years earlier. Unlike, say, the Staatsoper Berlin, which mounted Cage’s “Europeras 3 and 4" (with the great bass René Pape included in the cast), the only centennial L.A. Opera observed this year was that of the British composer Benjamin Britten.
But Cage’s influence was unmistakable in opera as it was in many genres of modern music. Two days after Cage’s birthday, for instance, Long Beach Opera presented the U.S. premiere of “The Paper Nautilus” by Gavin Bryars, a British Cage acolyte who around the same time produced a superb radio documentary about his relationship to Cage for the BBC in London.
Still, there was Cage galore. Los Angeles had two eager and illuminating Cage festivals hosted by Southwest Chamber Music in Pasadena and downtown L.A., and another by Jacaranda in Santa Monica. The Los Angeles Philharmonic was one of only two major American orchestras to perform Cage this season (the San Francisco Symphony was the other) — the La Jolla Symphony and in New York the American Symphony and the S.E.M. Ensemble helped fill in the gaps.
But maybe that was all as it should be. My experience of the Cage year was that, with pointed exceptions, institutional Cage was, for the most part, the most conventional and thus un-Cagean.
This was especially true in the art world, where the tendency among curators was to connect Cage with his art-world predecessors (most notably Marcel Duchamp) and successors (most notably Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns), which is hardly revelatory and often fell, as in Philadelphia, into a deadening masterpiece syndrome.
Sometimes things got a little out of hand. Whereas an exhibition based around silence in Dortmund, Germany, was merely gloomily informative, “Silence” at the Menil Collection in Houston screamed its fashionably contrary message. Texas being Texas, this show included Andy Warhol silk-screens of the electric chair along with other art-world death imagery, which hardly mirrored Cage’s cheerful attempts to draw our attention to the wonders of the world that we otherwise overlook.
I found quieter pleasure at what would have seemed too-modest Cage tributes from the three colleges he attended. At Pomona College, from which Cage dropped out after two years, a small exhibition called “Zen Ox-Herding Pictures” revealed the flabbergasting Zen-like beauty of paper towels on which Cage had experimented with brush strokes.
In the early ‘30s, Cage took Arnold Schoenberg’s classes at USC and UCLA. The USC Thornton Percussion Ensemble took an attentive look at where that led the young composer. A somewhat contentious UCLA symposium on Cage in L.A. at the Hammer Museum ended with a glorious performance of Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano by Gloria Cheng that brought everyone together.
On the other hand, CalArts, the only school from which Cage agreed to accept an honorary doctorate, made an astonishing mockery of Cage’s “Song Books.” The daylong event happened on Super Bowl Sunday, and some students tried to pawn off watching the game on their laptops as an interpretation of this ode to anarchy in a charged series of musical and theatrical actions. To hear the “Song Books” done right required a trip the next month to the Bay Area, where a stunning performance of selected songs from the cycle by the San Francisco Symphony, featuring music director Michael Tilson Thomas and sopranos Jessye Norman, Joan La Barbara and Meredith Monk, made amends.
Too bad, as well, that the CalArts students didn’t have the resource of the first complete recording of “Song Books,” which was released this fall by the Brussels-based Sub Rosa label. Even though he made plenty of them himself, Cage didn’t care for recordings. But most Cageans do. And, as with this “Song Books,” the best of the new ones are a revelatory and undoubtedly lasting legacy of the Cage year.
This is especially true in the performances of a new generation of Cage specialists who have found ways to make some of his most formidably abstract music come to life. One is Giancarlo Simonacci, who has been recording Cage’s piano music for the budget label Brilliant Classics. His latest is of the neglected Music for Piano, a two-hour series of 84 chance-derived miniatures from the mid-'50s that in the Italian pianist’s lyrical hands sweetly sparkles like twinkling Christmas lights.
The even more formidably random “Etudes Australes,” from two decades later, is the result of star charts transferred, through intricate change operations, to staff paper. These virtuosic studies can seem interminable, and the German pianist Sabine Liebner plays them, on a well-packed four-CD Wergo set, more slowly than ever. But at those navel-gazing tempos time slows down just as it can when you lose yourself in scrutinizing the starry sky on a clear night.
Nothing, however, equals going to the source if you want to sense how Cage could shake things up. The composer gave a series of lectures at the summer new music courses in Darmstadt, Germany, in 1958 that changed the course of new music in Europe. One of those sessions has been released as “Darmstadt Aural Documents Box 2" by the German label Neos, and it is riveting. “When we separate music from life,” he says early on, “what we get is art (a compendium of masterpieces),” advice not much taken this year by many of the German Cage fetishists.
Three CDs, under the title “John Cage Shock!,” document concerts Cage gave in Japan in 1962 with the pianist David Tudor and Japanese musicians (including Yoko Ono). They are beautifully produced on CDs or LPs by Omega Point and quite startling.
No one has ever been able to speak for Cage as well as he could for himself. An excellent way to discover this is in the new documentary “John Cage: Journeys in Sound” made for German television by Allan Miller and Paul Smaczny. It looks and sounds brilliant on Blu-ray.
Meanwhile, two small books offer fresh material. In 1976, a young student of religion sat down with Cage to speak about Zen for two hours and Larry A. Fader has now made a transcript of that interview available as “120'00".” The Slought Foundation in Philadelphia has brought out visual artist William Anastasi’s “The Cage Dialogues.” An artistic advisor of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Anastasi was also Cage’s chess partner for 15 years, and his memoir is an affectionate real-life portrait of Cage by an astute observer.
What next? The Cage year has left us with so much more material that it will be even harder to get rid of it all. And unless the supposed Mayan prophecy comes true and everything gets destroyed, more, much more, is to come.
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