Passion Party #466 - John Cage

From some of my earliest memories about music and composition, I was attracted to the avant garde and the "mavericks".  Mozart was pretty, and Beethoven's symphonies could be moving, but for me the lights really turned on when I was in high school and my first music theory teacher, Mr. Edwards, played our class a recording of Charles Ives' "Putnam's Camp, Redding, Connecticut":a short 6 minute "symphonic scene" that captures the sound of two marching bands playing to two keys and two tempos marching towards each other.
You can hear it here, if you like

Then, in the summer of 1968 I saw a performance of John Cage's "Radio Music", a piece he wrote in 1956 for 1-8 performers, each with their own radio (once again - 6 minutes long, hmm...).  This composition, as you can guess, sounds different every time it is performed, depending on what shows up on the radios.  It was than that I realized that anything was really possible with music - all you had to do was have the willingness to open up your ears.

By the end of my freshman year in college in 1970, I had set myself on a course to be a music composition major. I studied Schoenberg, Webern and Berg,  I studied Bartok and Stravinsky.  I studied the Bach Chorales.  I learned the keys, the modes, and the values of each note and how they related to the notes around it.

What I did not realize at that time was that I was too late.  In 1952, the year I was born and John Cage was 40 years old, he wrote 4' 33", which is performed in the absence of deliberate sound; musicians who present the work do nothing aside from being present for the duration specified by the title.
Here is a very formal performance of the piece by full orchestra.  The audience bursts into thunderous applause at the end of the piece, around 6:26 into the video.
Although I think John Cage would have preferred this black screen video version of the piece as a more personal, interactive presentation.  Check this out
Or this "classic" performance by David Tudor, one of Cage's long-time friends and associates, and the pianist that premiered the piece in Woodstock NY in 1952.

Cage's belief was that music is the interaction of sound and silence and the organization of these two elements. 4'33" is the logical extreme of this philosophy.  I use the word "philosophy" on purpose, because I find Cage's music to really be more a precursor of "performance art" than music per se. He blew the doors off the barn the year I was born, and all the horses had escaped by the time I began formal study.  The music conservatories and university music departments had decided to ignore the memo, though, as they have continued to do for the last 60 years.

Cage never stopped creating.  In 1973 I organized a performance by John Cage at Brandeis University. Cage had been to Brandeis in 1965 to perform ROZART MIX, a composition for tape loops to be played on at least a dozen tape recorders.  By 1973 Cage had moved beyond tape loops, and had started to focus on spoken word pieces that involved taking writings and deconstructing them into their individual words.  His performance, in the "all purpose room" of the Student Union, consisted of texts by Henry David Thoreau.  Looking now at Cage's list of published works, it seems it was a version of  his "Song Books (Solos for Voice 3–92)", published in 1970.  Speakers were set up around the room, and various recordings of Cage reading the words would come from each set of speakers.  At the same time, Cage sat at a table on the stage in the front of the room with a small desk lamp, reading a version of the text in his sing-song, high pitched voice.

The result was a cacophonous mix of spoken words, all of which made no sense, as hard as one might try to make sense of it.  The room was set up with rows of chairs.  Some people sat in the chairs.  Others moved about the room to get closer or father away from the various speakers.  As time passed, and the drone of words continued, some people started to leave.  Other people, sensing that perhaps this was one of those artistic "happenings" they had heard of, started taking the chairs and piling them into a sculpture in the middle of the room.  Finally, someone raced the stage, pulled the plug on Cage's light and microphone, and ran out of the auditorium through a side exit.  Staff quickly reconnected Cage's light and equipment, and the performance continued until the end.

At a question and answer period after the performance, Cage was asked if he minded that people were piling chairs and making noise during the performance.  He answered that he had no problem with that - but he was enraged that someone would come up and pull the plug on his performance.  "I don't care what you do, but you have no right to stop me or interfere with my performance."  This was, for me, the essence of John Cage - Creative, opinionated, always searching, and if you don't like it, please leave me alone and let me do my thing.

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