Saturday, October 13, 2012

John Cage

I've never been really tight with the work of the famously eccentric and avant-garde composer whose birth centenary was a month ago, but I've enjoyed some of his music, and I appreciate his sense of whimsicality (his most notorious work is the one consisting of the performer sitting there for 4'33" not playing anything; I get the point Cage is making by this, even though I disagree with it). So I thought I might like a little centenary festival that Stanford put on the last couple of days, consisting of a discussion panel, and a piano recital and chamber concert each containing music by Cage and some compatible (in the programmers' view) composers.

Wrong. It ran fast up against the limits of my interest in and tolerance for Cage, and was terminally tedious. The main problem was the performances, which were all serious and sanctified. Even Rzewski's Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues, an astonishingly stomping piece of piano music that I've heard and enjoyed before, was dull. The Cage pieces, none of which I knew, seem to have been picked to fit with the context, and the context included a lot - too much - of Christian Wolff, but then he was there in person. The result was a lot of the cold, disconnected "bleeps and whispers" school of modernism, rather than the gentle, warm delicacy of Cage's best work.

I passed the time between sets reading from the epically-detailed new biography of Henry Cowell, a favorite composer of mine and one of Cage's mentors, and learned an interesting piece of Cage's background I hadn't known before. In the mid-1930s, Cowell and Cage took an auto trip across the U.S. (Cowell did most of the driving, as Cage tended to wander around the roadway.) They spent a lot of time in roadside diners, and got rather annoyed by the continual sound of the penny jukeboxes. Cowell remarked that he'd be willing to spend a penny for a five-minute record of silence. Fifteen years later, that germinated an idea in Cage's mind ...

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