Saying Something About John Cage

Two homages to 100 years of legacy. A Californian composer and his quiet influence on the next generation’s creative spirit

Cage’s carefree yet careful approach is an enduring avant-garde inspiration | Photo: Barbara Klemm

The composer John Cage was one of most innovative spirits of the 20th century. A father of the avant-garde, his compositions, with their fragmented melodies and stretches of silence, are mysterious, whimsical, and odd. They are up-beat, off the wall, and way out. But audiences continue to be delighted and his music is still influencing artists, composers, and dancers today.

Cage was born in Los Angeles in 1912. To mark the centennial year of his birth – and the twentieth anniversary of his death – Vienna’s MuseumsQuartier is paying a tribute to this Californian spirit with an exhibition through 6 May entitled Membra Disjecta for John Cage: Wanting to Say Something About John.

And on 1 Mar., the Odeon Theater offers the rare chance to hear eight pieces by Cage, a homage by the ensemble Phace | Contemporary Music called “I’ve Got a Secret”.

Audiences in Vienna have a fondness for wallowing in the familiar: Perhaps the secret is that the legacy of John Cage is finally in Europe.

It took a while. In Silence, Cage’s libertarian musical manifesto, he writes: “To have something be a masterpiece you have to have enough time to classify it and make it classical. But with contemporary music there is not time to do anything like classifying. All you can do is suddenly listen, in the same way that when you catch cold all you can do is suddenly sneeze. Unfortunately, European thinking has brought it about that actual things that happen… are not considered profound.”

As a young man in 1930s Los Angeles, Cage was a student of Arnold Schoenberg. Here was a clash of cultures: As described by Marjorie Perloff in her memoir, The Vienna Paradox, Cage was informal, non-judgmental, and Zen-like – a true Californian. His famous teacher, while admired, confronted Cage with the “gloom and paranoia” of his Viennese past. While Schoenberg considered his pupil “an inventor – of genius”, twelve-tone music would not become Cage’s paradigm.

Cage was interested in noise, not the freeing of harmony. As he wrote in 1937: “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. The sound of a truck at fifty miles per hour. Static between the stations. Rain.”

And Cage was interested in the Far East. In 1950s California, Asia wasn’t far away. San Francisco’s China Town saw Chinese opera on small stages next to dim sum joints; Indian philosophy and Zen Buddhism were surfacing in American alternative circles. In 1951 Cage was introduced to the I Ching, an ancient Chinese text for identifying order in changing events, and he began to use it for creating chance-controlled music.

Stephen Addiss, ENSO (Zen Circle), 2010: A Cage-inspired work at MQ | Photo: Stephen Addiss

A year later he composed his best-known – and also most controversial – work, 4’33”. The title denotes the length of the piece, during which the performer is instructed not to play a single note. The result is not silence: Listeners are forced to pay attention to the sounds of the environment around them.

My favourite piece by Cage is his 1950 String Quartet in Four Parts, which will be performed at the Odeon Theater. This meditative piece was composed, as recommended by Cage’s teacher for Indian music and philosophy, “to sober and quiet the mind, thus rendering it susceptible to divine influences.” Its gently rocking movements and dance-like quodlibet lend the feeling of another time and a faraway place.

Cage is also known as the inventor of the “prepared” piano. Looking like an instrument of torture, with screws, nails and other unmentionable things stuck between the strings – the horror of any piano tuner – the sounds that come out of Cage’s piano are like a dream. Tones that combine a gamelan with a child’s toy piano, that lie between the distant beat of a drum in an Indian temple and a nightingale singing in a lonesome Japanese valley.

Truly in the spirit of Cage, the MuseumsQuartier presents an assemblage of sounds and images that mingle to create a multimedia environment, a virtual work of art in itself.

As homage to Cage’s use of chance, Kris Vleeschouwer has created the interactive installation Beautiful Day. Goldfish swimming past a sensor in an aquarium set off a trigger activating an ingenious device across the room that rolls dice in a case. And in Performing Silence, a tribute to Cage’s 4’33”, artist Tyler Adams has compiled a video wall showing various “performances” of the piece, wherein each musician dutifully refrains from playing, some with majestic solemnity, others with camp-like ribaldry.

Into this random atmosphere comes artist and composer Christian Marclay. Posted at various locations on the walls of the gallery are pieces of white A4 paper printed with a message: “A sign will instruct visitors to play the ring tones programmed on their mobile phone… a random soundtrack around the exhibition.”

At last! A place indoors where we needn’t be worried about our cell phone going off. No, let it ring. Let it become part of a symphony of chance to celebrate the birthday of the player of dice, the thrower of the I Ching, the doyen of musical indeterminacy: John Cage.

Additional reporting by Gina Lee Falco


Membra Disjecta for John Cage: Wanting to
Say Something About John
Through 6 May
MuseumsQuartier, freiraum quartier21
7., Museumsplatz 1

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