The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
By Sebastian Spreng, Visual Artist and Classical Music Writer
“I think our aim should be to have more and more access to the enjoyment of life” said John Cage (1912-1992) one of the most remarkable and controversial artists of the second half of the 20th century, who would have turned 100 last September. Tremendously influential and seldom understood, these 100 years have been full of controversy and enjoyment of his art, to which the New World Symphony will pay tribute Feb. 8-10 with an interdisciplinary celebration that promises to introduce or reintroduce audiences to a genius who carved out a unique niche for himself in the artistic world, to a cultural icon.
The evenings offer the opportunity to experience Cage through the artistry of Michael Tilson Thomas and a lineup of musical stars that includes Meredith Monk, Joan La Barbara, Marc-André Hamelin and Jessye Norman (as well as such talented locals as Patrick and Joseph Quigley), a unique opportunity regardless of one’s previous acquaintance with or affinity for this unclassifiable, radical artist.
They will literally open the cage and allow us to enter Cage’s delicate and transcendental world, though at the enormous risk of remaining imprisoned there forever. Whether one is in or outside that cage, to take utmost advantage of this unique New World Symphony celebration, suggestively titled "Making the right choices," it’s a good idea to prepare oneself by watching these two DVDs, released for the centennial.
The first summarizes the year Dutch director Frank Scheffer spent with the composer. It is divided into five parts (plus experimental films - fruits of the two’s collaboration - included as bonuses, though they are in fact as or even more significant than the main course). It’s an extraordinary, very personal, document in which Scheffer successfully transmits - infects us with - the fascination Cage inspired in him. (EUROARTS 2059168)
The second one is the newest. Made by Paul Smaczny and Allan Miller (From Mao to Mozart and the 1990 I Have Nothing to Say and I Am Saying It), it captures the everyday Cage, his passions (he loved hunting mushrooms and became a meticulous professional mycologist), his closeness to nature, his consummate assimilation of the Eastern philosophies (Sri Ramakrishna, the Zen Buddhist master Suzuki and the book of changes, the I Ching so instrumental in his body of work), and his relationships with other artists of his time (including Wolfgang Rihm, Christian Wolff, William Anastasi, Steffen Schleiermacher, Yoko Ono, John Lennon, Irvine Arditti and David Tudor), who offer priceless insights into Cage’s life and work. (ACC 20246)
The two documentaries complement each other. Scheffer’s more subjective view is balanced by Miller’s more consciously distant (“I make it a rule never to try to become friends with the subjects of the films that I am making”), general and biographical film, which also includes juicy bonus footage.
A lover of sound for what it is and as it is, out of context, sounds that neither compete nor love nor fight each other nor tell oft-told tales in myriad ways. Without renouncing the “other standard music”, Cage opens a window of perception that is reached from a simple and equidistant point. Like a child, full of disarming laugh, this eternal pioneer puts together and takes apart, playing alone or with anyone who wants to join him. His invitation to play always stands open.
Arnold Schönberg, Erik Satie, Henry Cowell and Marcel Duchamp above all preannounce the idiosyncratic Cagean universe. The sunny son of L. A. was the eternal anarchist, astute inquirer, hard-core irreverent, influential transgressor, prophet of the Global Village, elegant poet and draftsman, interdisciplinary creator who can be appreciated from different angles and readings and whose mark transcends “natural” limits to spill over into other artistic manifestations. His universe of sound, his disarming generosity and his humility are not surprising because that’s him, a man consistent with himself. Reality amazes him, and it’s fascinating to watch him talk, stroll, look around and even sing on both DVDs. It’s like watching a wise child, brimming with freshness and endless wonder. And that’s why it’s impossible to leave out of the story “playmates” like Merce Cunningham and Robert Rauschenberg. The three appear in a historic short, included as a bonus in Miller’s DVD.
So much freedom and universality fascinates and disorients the intellect, which whirls around until dropping, exhausted, dizzy, and thirsty from its own dryness. And because the remedy of pseudo-mystical pap doesn’t work either, by elimination it becomes obvious that the secret to accessing both composer and composition – paradoxically, as with Mozart – lies in turning to the child in each of us, in learning to relate from the maturity of childhood, in unlearning until we recover the essence to enjoying his art. The rest is utterly irrelevant.
Cage, a boundless citizen of the world, dwells in a different dimension of ours, orbits a different place. He doesn’t cross his legs but meditates in his study as he composes and only evokes the Egyptian scribe when he contemplates the sands of Ryoanji, there he also pursues that absolute silence he knows he will never experience because it’s filled with him ("Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating”) and because it’s part of his chess playing with Creation itself; he can find calm in the chaos of the world.
This could be another case where the artist (“I am not interested in myself… I make a music for which I am not so much the composer as the listener too”) comes through, without trying, as more seductive than his work. To watch him on either DVD is to be trapped by his indescribable charm and thus to love him, the easiest way to understand him (as anything else). Cage challenge us, teach us to just listen (to change us forever) and paraphrases like a cat with a mischievous smile giving away the key to uncaged him: “Kant said there are two things that don’t have to mean anything to give us pleasure; one is music, and the other is laughter.” Don’t be deceived, because he will shut the cage behind you, leaving you trapped inside. Checkmate.
*All events take place at the New World Center, Miami Beach, FL - click here for tickets, schedules & additional details