What IS John Cage? An eclectic celebration fit for an eclectic human being.

On Sunday, February 12th, The University of Iowa hosted a day-long celebration of John Cage’s life and work.  There were several happenings throughout the day, including a panel discussion with Cage experts, a recital of works for prepared piano, the Musicircus (of which there is also a review in this blog) and others. The culmination to this day of celebration came as a recital of Cage compositions for different chamber groups, which was held at the Riverside Recital Hall at 7:30 pm.

The crowd was not huge, but it was a special kind of audience. What made this audience so special was the presence of many Cage scholars, who came from all over the country to be a part of our celebration. And even besides the Cage scholars, it’s not just anyone who would brave the February cold on a Sunday night to hear this music. The stage was well set for what would be a memorable evening, showcasing more than four decades of John Cage’s work.

I must admit that I did not fully realize what I was in for at this recital. Unfortunately, my knowledge of John Cage’s music is inadequate at best. With the lightness that stems from ignorance, playing and listening at this recital turned out to be a rather enlightening experience for me. In the wider culture, and in my mind as well (to an extent) John Cage is (in)famous for his use of silence and seemingly random musical structures. Almost every musician in the world knows of one of his compositions; namely, 4’33”. This piece was, perhaps, the one in which Cage took his appreciation of silence to the farthest extreme. The beauty of our recital lay in the fact that, although some pieces did make use extensively of silence (such as the Concerto for Prepared Piano and Chamber Orchestra), almost every work showed a different aspect of Cage’s output.

The surprises started right from the beginning of the program, with the First Construction in Metal, which dates from 1939. This is a piece that features, as the name implies, metallic percussion instruments. The music is full of verve! Rhythms sound deliberate and driving, not at all like the sparseness that was to come in later works. Incidentally, all of the driving metallic sounds evoked in my mind images of a busy construction site.  I have not been able to ascertain whether Cage had this effect in mind as he named the piece, which is part of a set of three Constructions written between 1939 and ’42 for unorthodox percussion ensembles.

Next in the program was Speech from 1955. In this piece we were introduced to another iconic facet of Cage; his use of chance. Cage’s composition indicates to the performers at what points they need to turn the volume dials on their radios up or down, and also at what point they need to switch to another station. The instructions are very precise, but just what sounds come out of the speakers varies at each performance.

What followed was a radical departure from anything I ever thought to represent John Cage. His 44 Harmonies from Apartment House 1776, from 1976, are fully tonal. Upon careful listening, one discovers that they are, also, fully Cage. There is still the signature silence, and the rhythmic material isn’t as straight-forward as the open harmonies would lead us to believe. Interestingly, this piece, which was the most “conservative” sounding in the program, was also the latest.

What a contrast with the earliest Cage piece in the program, the Six Short Inventions from 1934! In these miniatures, Cage used an unusual chamber instrumentation of strings and winds, often calling for extended techniques. I appreciated his sense of humor in that there was only one of every instrument represented, except for the viola, of which there were TWO! Well done, John Cage! (Disclaimer: at the time of this writing, the writer is a full time violist).

The grand finale of the program was the Concerto for Prepared Piano and Chamber Orchestra, from 1950-51. This piece is representative of another unique Cage facet: his appreciation for individual sonorities. Each instrument is basically assigned a few sonorities, which cycle again and again through the piece. This has to do with Cage’s use of charts and geometric shapes as compositional tools. You can find a brief explanation here.

All of these wildly contrasting aural experiences got me thinking, and I had to ask myself this question: What exactly IS John Cage’s music, and what is he trying to tell me? Who knows, perhaps everything at once, perhaps nothing at all.


1 Comment

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One response to “What IS John Cage? An eclectic celebration fit for an eclectic human being.

  1. michaelschnack

    Very interesting that the youngest work on the program seemed the most tonal and conservative — who would have expected that? From the title (44 Harmonies from Apartment House 1776) and the year of composition (1976) it seems obvious that this was a piece written for the US Bicentennial: is the conservatism of the music related to this historic celebration in some way?

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