Un-Caged Melody

Avant-garde composer John Cage was a genius, an instigator and a lover of all kinds of sounds

September 5, 2012

John Cage at the 1971 Shiraz Arts Festival in Shiraz, Iran.

John Cage’s name never quite fit. As one of the 20th century’s most important experimental composers and intellectuals, Cage, who died 20 years ago, resisted constraints, striving instead to allow sounds to be sounds.

“I remember loving sound before I ever took a music lesson,” he said in the 1949 talk “Lecture on Nothing.” “And so we make our lives by what we love.”

The John Cage Centennial Festival, which runs through Monday at venues all over Washington and marks the 100th anniversary of the American composer’s birth, works much like one of Cage’s compositions, providing portals of insight into this great thinker’s art — which, in addition to music, included dance, painting and writing.

Cage’s compositions are more than just notes on paper. (In the case of his famous 1952 piece “4’33”,” which consists of four minutes and 33 seconds of silence, it’s not about notes at all.) Rather, they are wide-eyed invitations to open your mind and tune into the aural elements of everyday life.

As Arnold Schoenberg, one of Cage’s teachers, once said, “Of course he’s not a composer, but he’s an inventor — of genius.” Cage used found objects (scrap metal, kitchen utensils) for percussion, stuck objects into pianos to toy with tonality and employed the “I Ching,” an ancient Chinese text on divination, to construct his pieces randomly.

If all of this sounds a little weird for your tastes, that’s a great thing — and exactly how Cage would want a newbie to encounter his work.

While Cage can be appreciated without prior study, the Centennial Festival is making a point of educating audiences on his background and legacy via panel discussions and pre-concert lectures.

“You’re preparing the environment for the listener,” says musician and festival co-creator Steve Antosca. “You’re giving them some material to work with, to understand what’s about to happen.”

If the sheer scope of the festival seems overwhelming, or understanding its namesake’s way-out methods too daunting, consider the advice Cage once gave himself, as told to Joan Retallack in 1991 for the 1996 book “Musicage”: “What I’m proposing, to myself and to other people, is what I often call the tourist attitude — that you act as though you’ve never been there before. So, you’re not supposed to know anything about it. … If you get down to brass tacks, we have never been anywhere before!”

Coming Together for Cage
One of the Centennial Festival’s finest achievements has been getting so many diverse venues and organizations — including the National Gallery of Art and La Maison Française — to work together. Even finer, it has united a huge range of talents who were directly involved with Cage, including pianist Margaret Leng Tan.

“There won’t be a lot of opportunities in the future to have this collection of people together who worked with Cage,” festival co-creator Steve Antosca says. “It’s one of the more powerful aspects of the festival.”

Painter Ray Kass, author of 2011’s “The Sight of Silence: John Cage’s Complete Watercolors,” is another member of that shrinking club. Kass will direct two live performances of Cage’s “Steps,” a composition for a painting that will be performed by dancers Emma Desjardins and Jamie Scott (Mon., 6:30 p.m., at the University of California Washington Center). It’s the festival’s closing event, a wonderfully apt multidisciplinary piece that captures Cage in all his humor and wonder.

Zen and the Art Of John Cage
“[Music] is an affirmation of life,” John Cage said in the 1957 lecture “Experimental Music,” “a way of waking up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and one’s desires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord.”

Buddhism had a tremendous influence on Cage’s work, and one of the most elucidating talks will be “Cage and Zen” by Centennial Festival co-creator Roger Reynolds (Sat., 6:45 p.m., at the Freer Gallery of Art).

Pianist Margaret Leng Tan will then perform Cage’s “Four Walls” (1944) and “Music for Piano #2” (1953), with the latter accompanied by “10 Stones,” a piece of video art by Rob Dietz based on Cage’s 1989 watercolor painting of the same name.

“My concert is a good starting point because the music is so listenable,” Tan says. “It’s not that ‘kapink-a-ponk’ style of music. It’s very much from the heart; it’s a very honest, personal piece.”

“Four Walls” was a “dance-drama” composed for choreographer Merce Cunningham, Cage’s life partner and frequent collaborator. The more meditative “Music for Piano” series was created by following the imperfections of the paper on which they were written.

With the two pieces, Tan says, “You can see the two sides of John Cage’s personality: before he discovered Zen and after he discovered Zen.”

Don’t Miss
Friday is all about hitting things at American University. At 4 p.m., Thomas DeLio gives a lecture on “Organic Structure in John Cage’s Early Percussion Music,” followed by six hours of performances by Percussion Group Cincinnati and Red Fish Blue Fish.

On Sunday at 6:30 p.m., festival co-creator Steve Antosca performs with the National Gallery of Art New Music Ensemble at the gallery, tackling a wide range of pieces by Cage and others.

Various venues, through Monday. For a full list of events, venues and performers, visit Johncage2012.com.
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Rudi Greenberg | September 5, 2012