It’s been a big year for composers and milestone birthdays. Sound Of The City has spent much of the year covering the 75th birthday celebrations for composer Philip Glass (which will continue next weekend when Glass plays the Temple Of Dendur with Tim Fain), and now it’s time to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of John Cage. Unlike Glass, Cage will not be here for the festivities—he died in 1992, in St. Vincen’t Hospital —but his contributions to modern composition are every bit as important as Glass’s.
Newcomers to Cage should know that he composed plenty of “real music”—i.e. sound that involves instruments, notes, etc.—often in collaboration with dancer Merce Cunningham, his lifelong creative and romantic partner. Granted, his compositions (like HPSCH, which I recently found hiding in my LP collection) can sound so abstract that they can make the most inaccessible Glass composition sound like Britney Spears.
Cage’s theoretical pieces stand out the most, often angering music critics and regular listeners alike with cries that the “emperor has no clothes.” One of them, “4’33”,” took the internet by storm this week, thanks to a YouTube video that mashed up moments of Nicholas Cage acting without speaking for four minutes and 33 seconds. John Cage’s “4’33″” debuted in 1952 and, judging from the comments about “Nic Cage Does John Cage,” his avant-garde piece still has the power to make people go apeshit with anger six decades after its premiere. Cage had the good sense to leave this mortal coil long before the Internet was abundant, but he wrote the kind of music that seems especially made to make trolls angry.
Contrary to many comments, Cage could “write music,” and although much of his work used minimalism, “4’33″” is not exactly about silence, as such. It’s about making people — musicians, conductors, and audience members alike—aware of the sounds around them. Here’s a more traditional performance of “4’33″”:
I have never seen “4’33″” in person, but judging from the constant creation of noise in the world now (cell phones ringing, PDAs beeping, yammering) I can only imagine that a piece that forces people to listen, self consciously, is probably more relevant today than when Cage composed it.
Another controversial piece of Cage’s is How To Get Started, which will be performed at Symphony Space on May 4 as part of the PEN World Voices Festival. It was only performed one time previously, in 1989. I’ll be attending the 10-hour performance—part stand up improv, part monologue, part audio engineering feedback loop—and live blogging it. In advance, anyone can contribute their ideas to Cage’s experiment at howtogetstarted.org.