All Cage, No Cages

August 28, 2012

I spent last weekend on the beach listening to avant-garde composer John Cage (1912-1992). I had no MP3s, no CDs, no radios. There were no headphones jammed in my ears, no speakers in front of which to sit.

But I listened.

I heard gulls and waves; children laughing, howling; the wind screaming around the trees.

Cage’s most famous piece, “4’33”,” calls for no instruments, no performances. It’s just four minutes and 33 seconds of listening to the environment. But how could that be considered a composition? The same way Beethoven’s music works: It focuses your attention. But where Beethoven was influenced by Mozart and Hayden, Cage looked to principles in Zen Buddhism and the I Ching.

“4’33”” can be played anywhere, all day long. It’s about tuning into your immediate surroundings and, perhaps, the universe.

The John Cage Centennial Festival Washington, D.C., featuring lectures on the influential composer, dance and music performances of his work, and paintings and drawings by Cage, runs Sept. 4-10 at various venues. Go to Johncage2012.com for tickets and full information.

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