In Germany, John Cage rings out

BOCHUM, Germany — Of all the worldwide celebrants for the 100th anniversary of John Cage’s birth on Wednesday, the Germans seem to be the most adamant. Berliners are even complaining of already being “Caged-out,” there having been so much of the revolutionary American composer’s music in the capital this year. And lots more is on the way with this month’s Berlin Festival.

That’s nothing new. Unlike in the United States, where most of our big arts institutions shy away from the slightest challenge, the Germans like nothing better than an artist with big ideas or bold ideas; they first began taking Cage’s radical approach to sound and silence seriously — very seriously — more than a half-century ago. The most extensive Cage festival ever was a monthlong series of daily concerts mounted 20 years ago in Frankfurt to celebrate the composer’s 80th birthday (although Cage had died a few days before, having just finished new pieces for the event).

Five years earlier, Frankfurt Opera premiered Cage’s largest-scaled work, his “Europeras 1&2,” in 1987. Arguably the greatest American comic opera, it has never been produced by an American opera company. Now Germany is the first country to stage it twice, this time with a spectacular, if petrified, new production here. It is the centerpiece of the Ruhrtriennale, the government-funded international arts festival in northwestern Germany, which also commissioned a revelatory new theater piece by Robert Wilson based on Cage’s “Lecture on Nothing.”


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As a prelude to last Wednesday night’s Bochum performance of “Europeras 1&2" (the fourth of six sold-out performances), I made a whirlwind tour of other provincial Germany cities, and it seemed that everywhere I turned, I ran into the birthday boy.

Darmstadt, my first stop, is a small town outside of Frankfurt that calls itself a city of science and culture. In 1958, Cage appeared at Darmstadt’s new music courses, where the international avant-garde famously congregated every summer to further the cause of total control over all elements of music. German music was never the same once Cage offered a formalized freedom as an alternative. His presence, in fact, created a huge rift in Western art music.

This summer in Darmstadt, it’s John Cage. The central railway station now has a Cage quote — “If you celebrate it, it’s art. If you don’t, it isn’t” — in giant red letters across the full length of the facade. The refreshment stand has been renamed Cage & Cola. A Cage Stage has been constructed in the park across the street.

At Mathildehöhe, Darmstadt’s art nouveau artists’ colony, the current large exhibition, “A House Full of Music,” looks at how a dozen different “Cagean strategies” influenced music and art in the 20th century. Cage used to like to say, “Here comes everybody,” and that is taken to heart. The strategies (such as “destroy,” “be silent”) are broadly enough chosen that they make room for just about anybody, allowing the likes of the Beatles, Bill Viola, Luciano Berio, Samuel Beckett and William Burroughs to fascinatingly play off one another in the displays.

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Underneath the exhibition space is a musty, century-old waterworks. The German composer Heiner Goebbels’ tribute to Cage is to invite visitors into the depths for a gorgeously spooky sound and light installation in tribute to Cage. There was a row of rubber boots for waders, but the guard discouraged that the afternoon I entered the depths. Goebbels also happens to be the new head of the Ruhrtriennale as well as the director of the “Europeras” production.

More Cage exhibitions are on in Stuttgart and Hamburg, and Cage hangs over the atmosphere of the international art show, documenta 13, in Kassel. One tie-in between “A House Full of Music” and documenta is that the extraordinary environmental sound artist Janet Cardiff is a star of both. In Dortmund, a 10-minute train ride from Bochum — both bustling small towns in a part of the northwest that was once known as Germany’s rust belt — there is a large, muted exhibition, “Sounds Like Silence,” that looks at ways artists over the years have responded to Cage’s acceptance of silence.

“Europeras 1&2,” though, is the big deal. In it, Cage made every aspect of opera unpredictable and discrete. The singers (this production used 10) choose their own arias from popular operas in the public domain, but Cage used chance operations, such as tossing coins and consulting the Chinese book of oracles, the “I Ching,” to determine when they will sing, where on stage they will sing and what they will wear (based on what’s on hand in the company’s wardrobe).

Every player in the orchestra has a part from a different opera, with chance procedures once more selecting what, when and how long to play. Lighting is also determined by chance. Stage properties and backdrops are similarly indeterminate. There is no conductor, just a clock to watch. A blimp flies over the stage (or there was one in Frankfurt anyway). Even the plot synopses (12 of them) come from familiar operas chopped up through chance procedures.

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“Europera 1" lasts exactly 90 minutes; “Europera 2,” 45 minutes, and each is a masterpiece of musical and theatrical engineering, resulting not in chaos but sweet surprise. Every aspect of opera feels naked, vulnerable and heartwarmingly quaint. I remember seeing tears in the eyes of the audience of Cage’s original Frankfurt production.

The Bochum version was not held in an opera house but a magnificent space, the town’s Jahrhunderthalle (Centennial Hall), a converted 20th century power station that becomes its own forbiddingly dominating presence. Taking advantage of the space, Goebbels turned this “Europeras” into a stylized, elegant affair, impressively done, beautiful to look at. There was no pit for the orchestra and the players were on the building’s overhead beams. Stark projections were used for backdrops.

What makes the “Europeras” so moving is the way the performers must find their own individuality within all the commotion, the way they become themselves. But these singers appeared mechanical, and the amplified sound was mixed into a blandly graceful blend. The Jahrhunderthalle felt ever the German power station it once was. From the look of it, this could have been a slightly edgy German opera production of “Traviata” or “The Ring.”

“For two hundred years, the Europeans have been sending us their operas,” Cage wrote of “Europeras.” “Now I am sending them back.” On this occasion, you’d never know the operas had left.

On the other hand, Wilson’s reading of “Lecture of Nothing” — which contains one of Cage’s much-quoted lines, “I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry as I need it” — proved a brilliant example of an artist being able to reveal something about himself through Cage. In his 70-minute performance, Wilson punched out the words. Other times he spoke with whimsy or screamed with hilarious impatience. He sat at a white table surrounded by a mess of newsprint. At one point he lay on a bed, while a recorded excerpt of Cage reading the lecture was played.

Wilson took far greater liberties with his presentation of this text than Goebbels did with “Europeras,” beginning with an off-putting blast of alarmingly loud electronic sound.

But that may have been a kind of joke, because there was little here to indicate the stark Wilsonian coldness of old. The director has spent a lifetime absorbing Cage, and it seemed here in his deliberate reading that Cage had given Wilson permission to be, on stage, deeply human, practically vulnerable yet still powerfully original.

There are great German Cage performers, and I have heard some of the finest performances of Cage ever in Germany. But a certain willingness to let down the defenses is necessary. For me last week in Germany, it was the American Cagean Wilson who most effectively let that happen. Now it should be his turn to send his illuminating work to America.