100 years of John Cage

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Published: 5th September, 2012

This year Australia has engaged with iconic contemporary composers in an unprecedented way. The Steve Reich concert was a rare, five-star event. How often does an audience get the chance to be immersed in a concert devoted to a contemporary composer, with that composer in the house?

John Cage, of course, can’t be there. But 100 years of a composer who is perennially boundary-pushing is certainly a cause for celebration. John Milton Cage Jr. was an American composer, writer, and artist born 100 years ago on 5 September 1913. He lived just short of his 80th birthday, a pioneer in his vision of what music was, and could be. The iconic and controversial composer was described by the Washington Post as ‘one of the most significant and influential of all American composers’.

But Cage didn’t quite get what the fuss was about. ‘I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened by the old ones,’ the composer famously declared. Australia has taken full advantage of the Cage centenary. John Cage Day in Adelaide involved a free concert at Elder Hall in which soprano Kate Macfarlane accompanied herself with electric egg-beater, Christopher Roberts danced with his double bass, and some music was composed by chess board. Cage’s eight-hour piano piece, ASLSP (As Slow As Possible) was performed by The Advertiser music critic and pianist Stephen Whittington.

The ABC’s presented Cage 100, a one-off digital radio broadcast celebrating the Cage centenary with 36 hours of continuous Cage content. The program presented the voice of Cage himself reading some of his writings, along with ABC Radio interviews with key Cage collaborators such as Christian Wolff, features on many aspects of his extraordinary career, and classic recordings as well as recent performances by some of Australia’s leading contemporary musicians and Cage interpreters.

The involvement of Bang on a Can All-stars will be pivotal to the success of the Sydney Opera House’s tribute to Cage in early November. ‘John Cage was one of 20th century music’s greatest icons. His inventive and unorthodox ideas influenced the musical landscape of the twentieth century. He was a visionary who changed the way music was perceived, how it was played, how it was heard and the notion of what it really was,’ the Opera House introduction notes. Perhaps the best known (but least understood) of Cage’s work is the groundbreaking and controversial 4’33”.

Composer Lyle Chan believes that ‘Cage brought us to the very edge of music”, calling on silence itself’. ‘It’s often called the silent piece. But John Cage meant the opposite of silence,’ Chan says. ‘In this work and many others, John Cage challenged us to reconsider what constitutes performance and music. It is in everything we hear and feel. It is in the sound of a page turning and the sound of your fellow audience member shuffling their feet.’ Chan, who will present a lecture at the Opera House on how and why Cage came to write 4’33” adds: ‘Cage’s music was influenced by the concepts he studied in Zen Buddhism and the I Ching. Everything is connected and the composer, the performer, the instrument – and even the air conditioner – are all part of the musical experience.’ Chan believes Cage was as much as philosopher and thinker as a composer, and finds it significant that Cage’s own father was an inventor.

Central to the Cage Centenary program is the ensemble, Bang on a Can All-stars, described by The New York Times as ‘fiercely aggressive … combining the power and punch of a rock band with the precision and clarity of a chamber ensemble’. These musicians will bring some of Cage’s legendary works to the stage in three performances that will include his chance-generated compositions Interdeterminacy and Variations 2, and pieces for prepared piano: Improvisations and Sonatas & Interludes. A number of compositions in homage to and honour of Cage will have their Australian premiere during the Centenary Celebration, alongside works by Brian Eno and Terry Riley. 

There’’s a way in which some music professionals and students can become part of the composition process, in Cage’s Musicircus – an experimental musical ‘happening’ first devised in 1967

As the Opera House tells it, in Musicircus, dozens of performers simultaneously enact different compositions. Behind it all is the hand of chance: each performer’s actions have been decided by the flip of a coin, the roll of the dice or a page of the I Ching.

 Audience members too are part of the action, as they weave in and around the players in the Western Foyer, led by the exceptional musicians who make up the core of Ensemble Offspring, including Claire Edwardes, Jason Noble and Bree van Ryke. 

 ‘With inventive compositions and unorthodox ideas influencing not just music but writing, painting and dance, John Cage helped shape the compositional landscape of the twentieth century,’ says Yarmila Alfonzetti, Producer of Classical Music, Sydney Opera House.
 ‘Producing a range of works that still challenge conventional ideas of music and performance, the Centenary Celebration has been developed as a creative homage to this leading avant-garde composer, musician and writer, reflecting his iconoclastic thinking and fertile imagination.’ Alfonzetti added that there would be performances in front of a collection of rarely seen paintings by John Cage assembled for Sydney Opera House by the John Cage Trust. The events will be an exceptional opportunity to experience the enigmatic genius that was John Cage. For details of the Opera House’s John Cage Centenary Celebration on Friday 2 November and Saturday 3 November go to the Sydney Opera House.