Fall Arts: Celebrating John Cage's Zen-tennial

Music's inadvertent revolutionary influenced arts far beyond it.

A musician (like his mother) and an inventor (like his father), John Cage was not merely the most innovative composer of the 20th century, shaking millennium-old aesthetic assumptions to their roots. His influence also extended to other art forms like no other musician's ever has. Yet his iconoclasm was almost inadvertent; never a bomb-thrower, he simply dropped a Zen pebble into a quietly complacent pool and watched the ripples spread beyond music to dance, literature, the visual arts, theater, and more.

Born in 1912 and raised in Los Angeles, Cage studied with Arnold Schoenberg, but soon realized he had "no feeling for harmony," as he put it, so there was no point in emulating his teacher's obsession with pitch and pitch relationships. What Cage did have was a fascination with time and its musical manifestation, rhythm, plus an unquenchable curiosity about sound and sound-making.

Luckily, an opportunity arose that encouraged these explorations: Bonnie Bird, head of Cornish College's dance department, hired Cage as a piano accompanist for her classes. In just two miraculously productive years here, 1938–40, Cage made three groundbreaking discoveries. 1) In Cornish's tiny radio studio, he experimented with a nascent form of electronic music by manipulating the speed of turntables playing a record of a pure tone, thereby making the pitch fluctuate. 2) He invented the "prepared piano" by attaching objects to the strings. (As Bird recalls it, a section of a brass fireman's pole—intended for a dance—accidentally rolled onto the piano's strings, and Cage was rapt by the transformation.) 3) He organized a percussion ensemble to create music concerned only with rhythm and timbre rather than pitch. One of its members was a dance student fresh from Centralia, Merce Cunningham. He and Cage began a personal and artistic partnership that lasted until Cage's death in 1992.

Later, after leaving Seattle, Cage's interest in Eastern philosophy led to the most far-reaching change of all, the use of randomness in composition—a challenge to the basic premises of Western art music: expressiveness, intentionality, the centrality of the composer. Cage moved sound itself into the center, likening his compositional process not to the providing of answers, but the asking of questions: What could we hear if . . . Making a piece became the setting-up of a situation in which sounds could "be themselves" without anything coming between them and the audience. For example, his most famous work, 4'33", is a "silent" piece in which a performer does nothing; Cage places a conceptual frame around a period of time within which any sounds that may or may not occur can be heard, contemplated, and relished for their own sake.

This is the aspect of Cage's aesthetic that seeped into other fields—rethinking the relationship between any art and its maker. It influenced Cunningham's choreography, often also based on chance operations like the I Ching; in his collaborations with Cage, the two created separately, thinking not in terms of one art leading and the other following, but of both arts being poured into the same "empty vessel," a length of performance time. Cage also influenced Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, who designed sets and costumes for Cunningham's troupe, and whose interest in erasures, found objects, and monochromatic paintings can be considered visual-art translations of Cage's ideas about sound. The patron saint of the '50s–'60s Fluxus movement, Cage inspired their provocative video, film, and performance art. And Cage applied chance operations to his writings as well—as in his epigram-packed 1961 anthology Silence, where spoken-word pieces brush the boundaries of theater.

This doesn't mean Cage was opposed to beauty. (Is a sunset or a sequoia less beautiful because no one person "made" it?) But the misconception that non-intentionality and beauty are mutually exclusive makes people wary of his music. And if silence and randomness can be dour, Cage's embrace of surprise and humor can seem too unserious. Would Cage mind if we in the audience nervously tittered? Asked that on the '50s game show I've Got a Secret, he puckishly but beneficently responded, "I prefer laughter to tears."


Thus it was delightful to hear that Cage's work would, at last, storm the citadel of Benaroya Hall. An October 19 Seattle Symphony concert will commemorate both his centennial and the 50th anniversary of our World's Fair with music from 1962. The program includes pieces by some of contemporary music's scariest composers (Scelsi, Xenakis) alongside Cage's Variations III "for one or any number of people performing any actions." (Cage's birthdate, September 5, has already been marked by the percussion quartet Pacific Rims, using among other instruments a bag of potato chips and a suitcase filled with what sounded like silverware; the multi-character solo opera Neal Kosaly-Meyer made out of Writing for the Second Time Through Finnegans Wake; and the Esoterics' wacky, improv-class approach to Cage's Songbooks.)

The Songbooks return in November in Stacey Mastrian's show "Voicing Cage" at the Henry with Stephen F. Lilly (both are members of Washington, D.C.'s Bay Players Experimental Music Collective). An intrepid soprano, Mastrian recently told me that she relishes the scope that Cage's music offers. "Although there are definite parameters [in Cage's scores]," she says, "you never quite know how someone will interpret the specific things that are there.

"Most of my training has been [to] learn to do a piece a specific way, [to] get so you can produce it this way all the time . . . With Cage, I feel like there's more opportunity for play. You just have to trust whatever is going to come out at the moment." Plus there's the pleasure of stepping off the Verdi/Puccini career treadmill: "[When] 50,000 people do the same opera aria, it's nice to be able to offer something to people that can leave a lasting impression in a way that other pieces might not be able to—and you get to explore so many aspects of your voice and of your personality."

Boston pianist Stephen Drury, also a Cage devotee, will play his Concerto for Prepared Piano and Orchestra (1950–51) with the Seattle Modern Orchestra in November. Growing up in Spokane, Drury told me, he discovered Cage's music early. In seventh grade, he picked up a new-music history textbook at his piano teacher's home; its description of 4'33" captivated him—and led eventually to working with the composer. To know the man, he says, was to have your assumptions upended. "The only thing I've really learned for sure about Cage," Drury explains, "is that as soon as you think you know something, he would explain that no, that wasn't quite it. Everyone who knows 'the way it should go' is wrong."

Drury elaborates: "There's such a world of listening available; [Cage] has such a way of letting you discover how to listen, in a way that a composer who tells you exactly what to listen to doesn't give you room for. This [concerto] in particular is such a pivotal piece—he just started to use chance operations in a very basic way . . . you really feel him teetering on the cliff. [In] the big, big silences in the last movement, you can see the silent piece coming up."

Surrounding the sonic toy box that is the prepared piano with an equally varied one-of-everything chamber orchestra, Cage allows a constellation of color to coalesce out of the randomly selected individual sounds—beguiling the ear in a way Drury takes pains to emphasize: "And it's also just gorgeous. It's so pretty to listen to."


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