A retrospective of John Cage’s revolutionary music, dance, theater, and art will be held in Washington at major museums, the Library of Congress, the French Embassy, and universities September 4-10 for the centennial of his birth September 5.
This year is also the 60th anniversary of Cage’s most famous, or infamous, composition, “4’33”. In 1952, David Tudor sat at a piano, turned the score’s pages, consulted a stopwatch, but never struck one note during those four minutes and 33 seconds. The startling piece became one of the most important works in 20th century avant-garde music.
The original manuscripts of “4’33” are displayed September 1 at the American University Museum as part of John Cage’s “STEPS: A Composition for a Painting, Selected Watercolors, and Ephemera”. (The AU celebration, September 1 through October 21, is a prelude and postlude of the centennial.)
Never-before-exhibited items include original manuscripts that show the progression of his inventive and provocative musical scores, as well as five enormous watercolor works from Cage’s “STEPS” project.
Cage (1912-1992) even staged the first “Happening”, a 1960s phenomenon, and the beginning of “performance art.”
The many happenings of the John Cage Centennial Festival honoring the “father of avant-garde music” include performances of more than 50 of his musical works, and four exhibitions of his art.
Premieres of ten tribute works, including one by famed composer Philip Glass (on a program with “4’33”) at the Kreeger Museum September 8, are highlights of the celebration. For the complete festival schedule and to buy tickets, click here.
Several events feature Cage’s collaborations with renowned dancer/choreographer Merce Cunningham (1919-2009). They were life partners from the 1940s until Cage’s death.
The festival’s opening night at the Corcoran Gallery of Art offers a panel discussion about Cage and his legacy; an informal reading of Cage’s radio play “James Joyce, Marcel Duchamp, Erik Satie: An Alphabet”; followed by a reception in the Corcoran Atrium.
The opening and the closing concerts of the festival will be at the National Gallery of Art, and feature the NGA New Music Ensemble. The centennial celebration was initiated by Stephen Ackert, who heads the National Gallery’s Music Department.
The first concert September 5 will include tribute works by Christian Wolff, who studied composition with Cage, and David Felder.
The final concert, on September 9, is in the spectacular atrium of I. M. Pei’s East Building. The National Gallery is displaying six of its prints in “John Cage: Rocks, Paper, Fire”. For these, he used fire as a printmaking medium and stones as templates for tracing.
The Phillips Collection also has a Cage concert and exhibit. “John Cage at the Phillips” displays three of his watercolors — he used a guinea hen feather to trace a stone, but no fire.
At the Phillips on September 6, violinist Irvine Arditti performs the American premiere of Cage’s complete, monumental “Freeman Etudes”, with real-time sound environment created by Jaime Oliver.
Arditti first performed the initial 16 Freeman etudes in 1988. Cage said in “An Autobiographical Statement”, “I wanted to make the music as difficult as possible so that a performance would show that the impossible is not impossible and to write thirty two of them.”
Arditti performs also in a concert starring cellist Alexis Descharmes and featuring the premiere of a tribute work by Beat Furrer at the French Embassy’s La Maison Française on September 5. It follows a lecture on Cage’s “Anarchic Harmony” by Bard College professor Joan Retallack.
One of the most Cage-y events is a four and a half hour film screening, noon to 4:30 p.m., September 6 at the Library of Congress’ Mary Pickford Theater. The public is invited to arrive at the beginning, wander in and out, or arrive in the middle and stay through the end.
Henning Lohner’s riotous “Musicircus” documentary is three and a half hours of 53 Cage compositions by 77 performers, screened for the first time in the United States. Cage originated “Musicircus” in 1967 as a happening: “The idea of this composition is nothing more than an invitation to a number of musicians, who perform simultaneously anything or in any way they desire.”
Preceding and following “Musicircus” is Elliot Caplan’s haunting film “Beach Birds for Camera”, of a Cage-Cunningham collaboration, originally for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.
The University of California, Washington Center presents two watercolor workshops on September 9 and two dance performances on September 10.
The workshops are given by Ray Kass, founder of Virginia’s Mountain Lake Workshop, where Cage made 125 extraordinary watercolors during four residencies, and also collaborated with Cunningham. Emma Desjardins and Jamie Scott perform Cage’s “STEPS: A Composition for a Painting to be Performed by Individuals and Groups”.
Cunningham once participated in “STEPS” by painting/dancing via the inked wheels of his wheelchair.
“Of all his collaborations, Cunningham’s work with John Cage…had the greatest influence on his practice,” says the official Merce Cunningham Trust. “The most famous and controversial of their radical innovations concerned the relationship between dance and music, which they concluded may occur in the same time and space, but should be created independently of one another.”
Cage’s impact on dance is less a focus than his influence on music and art. He was a major influence on his friends Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. The Phillips’ current retrospective “Jasper Johns: Themes and Variations”, 100 prints spanning 50 years, cites Cage’s influence in many of these works.
Despite his enormous influence, Cage has yet to be embraced or even accepted by the performing arts establishment. (Most of the centennial events are at museums, including the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery and Hirshhorn Museum.) Kennedy Center is not participating in the festival.
Some have never adopted Cage’s philosophy — “Get yourself out of whatever cage you find yourself in.”
Acceptance has improved somewhat in a half-century since the US premiere of his “Atlas Eclipticalis With Winter Music” (Electronic Version) in 1964. Some members of the New York Philharmonic hissed the composer, and a third of the audience walked out.
But those who understood him, like the renowned Arnold Schoenberg who taught Cage, once described him as “not a composer but an inventor of genius.”
One of his many specific inventions was “preparing” pianos. He put nails, coins, paper, wood, rubber bands or other objects between the strings to alter the piano’s sounds.
Other specific inventions included using varied objects like toys and small household appliances as instruments.
He said music was everywhere, and could be made from anything, including literature, like his 1979 work, “Roratorio, an Irish Circus on Finnegan’s Wake”.
Cage considered almost all sounds, even noise, potentially musical — chopping vegetables, sipping water, tapping on flower pots, 12 radios playing at once … He certainly drew attention to the sounds of silence in “4’33”.
“I don’t like meaningful sound. If sound is meaningless, I’m all for it,” he told an interviewer a month before he died.
As for the meaning of Cage’s work, “The New Grove Dictionary” states, ‘He has had a greater impact on world music than any other American composer in the 20th century.'”
Discover this for yourself during the John Cage Centennial Festival.