I'm a closet Cage fan. Long story, but it involves mushrooms, meditation and Sonatas and Interludes, not necessarily in that order. He deserves a much, much bigger piece than I can deliver today, but I hope this is better than nothing, at least to start with. Glad that he's getting a whole Prom more or less to himself this summer.
He has been termed music’s greatest iconoclast. But now, in his centenary year, is the composer John Cage going mainstream?
His Musicircus [was aired on Saturday] at the Aldeburgh Festival; later this summer, a whole evening at the Proms is devoted to his works. Classical music doesn’t get much more mainstream than that. Yet in his lifetime, often struggling for a living, balancing on an idiosyncratic tightrope between classical music, eastern philosophy, visual art, contemporary dance (his partner was the choreographer Merce Cunningham) and ‘chance operations’, Cage (1912-1992) might have regarded this outcome with incredulity.
Cage’s outlook could scarcely have been more different from Benjamin Britten’s, on whose territory Aldeburgh is founded. It wasn’t just Cage’s prepared pianos, plucked cactuses and so forth that upset the establishment; more than anything, it was the way he incorporated into his music the notion of chance – eliminating the creator’s ego and instead making choices with, for example, the I Ching. This was the opposite of what most composers do; avant-gardists of the mid century like Pierre Boulez and Iannis Xenakis were promptly alienated.
Musicircus is not a concert but a “happening”: as many different performances as possible go on at the same time, piled together in one big-top-like area, while the public wander about. “You won’t hear a thing. You’ll hear everything,” Cage once explained, hoping that attendees would “get the joyousness of the anarchic spirit”. At Aldeburgh, the ensemble Exaudi and sound artist Bill Thompson promise[d] to “throw open the doors and let the sound stream out”.
Cage’s most famous creation is 4’33 – four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence. The point isn’t the irony of a musician playing nothing. It is that we listen to whatever we hear, experiencing the world and our consciousness as music.
Anarchy, joy, chance and fun aren’t precisely traditional elements of classical concerts – but isn’t it time we grew into them? In his quirky way, maybe Cage can set us free.