American composer John Cage in 1982. (Peter Noble)

To many artists, he was one of the most inspiring figures of the 20th century. To some musicians, he is underrated: branded, unfairly, more important as a thinker than a composer. And to a large segment of the public, he’s a charlatan: a man who convinced some people that sitting onstage in silence for four minutes and 33 seconds could be construed as performing a work of music.

John Cage — composer, philosopher, visual artist, mushroom enthusiast — would have been 100 years old on Wednesday. This week Washington, usually somewhat conservative in its musical tastes, is challenging its own image with an eight-day celebration, opening Tuesday and spread throughout some of the city’s flagship arts institutions, that may be the largest Cage centennial in the country.

The festival honors Cage the polymath, touching on every aspect of his creativity: theater pieces, visual arts, dance, as well as music. Certainly it will include plenty of Cage’s music: more than 60 Cage works, many of them performed by heavy-hitting musicians who worked closely with him (Irvine Arditti, Margaret Leng Tan). But a look at the participating venues says a lot about Cage’s legacy — and about Washington. The National Gallery of Art, the Phillips Collection, the Corcoran, and the Hirshhorn are hosting shows, concerts, lectures. But the Kennedy Center, Washington’s leading performing arts institution, is not involved. Nor is the Washington Performing Arts Society.

In short: the art world has no problem accepting and celebrating the work of John Cage. But in the classical music establishment, Cage the composer remains suspect, too modern — and one of the most underperformed figures of any major composer.

Who was John Cage? The photographs and videos show an impish figure with a big laugh that creased his eyes shut; a tall, handsome, slightly sardonic man who looked not unlike a cross between Mickey Rourke (the ravaged skin, the mischievous glint in the eye) and David Byrne, with the air of slightly shy self-possession common in those who follow unusual visions and know that many people will receive their work with incomprehension, and laughter.

John Cage painting at the Mountain Lake Workshop in Virginia. (Courtesy of Ray Kass)

Laughter was fine with Cage. Music, he once said, is “a purposeless play,” its point to help us focus awareness of the world around us. Some of his scores are sets of instructions for what seems like play indeed. A grown man blows a goose call into a pitcher of water (in “Water Walk,” 1959); or makes a smoothie, and drinks it, on the stage of Carnegie Hall, as the conductor Michael Tilson Thomas did when he presented Cage’s 1970 “Song Books” with the San Francisco Symphony in March.

But the antic streak, the joy in creation that is so fundamental to Cage’s work, has helped foster a perception of him as a kind of musical clown, devoted to poking holes in tradition and countering the high seriousness of classical technique with deliberate randomness. In the 1950s, his student Christian Wolff gave him a copy of the first complete English translation of the I Ching or Book of Changes, the classic oracular Chinese text consulted by throwing sticks or coins, and it became the major tool in Cage’s compositional process, helping him to determine everything from duration to dynamics to the placement of notes on the page.

In fact, Cage was anything but a clown, though like many profound thinkers who are profoundly misunderstood, he did nothing to counteract people’s misimpressions. It’s true that he came relatively late to music — he first planned to be a writer, or a painter — but he studied with some of the great musical mavericks of the 20th century, from Arnold Schoenberg to Henry Cowell, and he approached composition, even the application of chance principles, with formidable intellectual rigor. He was a musician to the core — just read his trenchant analysis of the works of Virgil Thomson, a composer with whom he had very little in common — and his use of the I Ching was as exhaustive, and perhaps no more random an organizing principle, than another composer’s use of the 12-tone technique.

“If one is making an object and then proceeds in an indeterminate fashion, to let happen what will, outside of one’s control, then one is simply being careless about the making of that object,” he said in a 1962 interview with the composer Roger Reynolds, one of the directors (along with Steve Antosca and Karen Reynolds) of the John Cage Centennial Festival Washington DC, which opens Tuesday. This is hardly the statement of a man who takes a random approach to his work.

So why was he so important? The short answer is that Cage was in the vanguard of a way of thinking about art that became central to many artists after him, testing its mores and meanings and definitions. Where does the “real world” end and “art” begin; what makes one object “art” and not another; what defines a performance?

One answer — that art is simply a space in which perception occurs — arose as early as the much-maligned “4’33.” The point is not that there is no noise, but that, in the focused quiet of a performance situation, people begin to hear sounds they otherwise would not: the rumble of a passing train, the sound of crickets in the woods around the hall in upstate New York where the work was first performed in 1952. All sounds, Cage held, are music.

While his thoughts on art had widespread application, the focus of his work was on sound — finding new ones, or casting new light on old ones — from the beginning, and he paved the way for a lot of the musical life that came after him. In the 1930s and 1940s, he wrote percussion works, exploring the sounds you could make by striking one object with another. (The Cage festival in Washington spotlights percussion on Friday and Saturday at American University, with Steven Schick, the ensemble Red Fish Blue Fish, and others.) He wrote some of the first-ever electro-acoustic works (such as “Imaginary Landscape No. 1,” from 1939). He experimented with modifying the sound of a concert piano by placing objects between, upon, and under the strings; the “prepared piano” has remained a composers’ staple. (Jenny Lin, Stephen Drury, and Leng Tan will offer some of these works in Washington.)

This music is not about ideas; it’s about sounds, and listening to sounds, and even exulting in sounds. And even after the element of chance came into play, the work is very much tailored to its performers. Take the Freeman Etudes for solo violin, which Arditti will perform on Thursday at the Phillips Collection in their American premiere. The etudes were written for and with the violinist Paul Zukofsky, no stranger to tough contemporary scores, who called them “the most difficult music I have ever played.”

The festival aims to stay true to Cage’s spirit by showing every aspect of his creative life. But one of the main things that emerges from the cornucopia of events — panels, discussions, tribute works — is that the celebration will offer a rare chance to hear a lot of Cage’s music live in a short, concentrated period of time: something that may help remind people that, as important as Cage’s ideas have been, the music comes first.

The other is that Washington, where artistic life centers on museums and conservation, is ready to welcome John Cage, an icon of the avant-garde. This could be seen as a gradual shift in Washington where Antosca, the National Gallery’s Steven Ackert, the Library of Congress, the Maison Francaise and others have been working hard to cultivate a contemporary music audience. But it also reflects a shift that was happening even during Cage’s lifetime, as he changed from a provocateur to an institution. This festival, you might say, even crowns him an American institution. Which means that it’s high time you heard him.


John Cage revolutioned music too

John Cage Centennial Festival Washington D.C.

Opens on Tuesday at the Corcoran and continues through Sept. 10 with a watercolor workshop at the University of California, Washington Center. For highlights, schedule details and a list of participating institutions, visit