Wednesday, September 5, 2012

John Cage

It's safe to say that John Cage changed my life though it's safer to say I couldn't really explain how.  My first encounter with Cage came in the Fall of 1980 (or possibly 1981) when I was an undergraduate at the University of Alabama.  He visited campus and all I knew is that he made strange music, something that immediately drew my attention.  The concert in the student center's auditorium (the spot that ignited my cinephilia though that story is for another time) was packed and consisted of Cage pieces interspersed with Satie.  Of course I had no idea who Satie was but I immediately liked the piano music that almost wasn't music.  The Cage pieces I mainly remember for having the music faculty and grad students parading around tapping on cardboard - they didn't seem very amused but I was.

The following day made perhaps a greater impression.  Cage gave a short lecture and longer Q&A, the main point being that people should be open to more experiences and that academics in particular are far too compartmentalized.  Seems pretty obvious to me even though my exposure to academia at that time was quite slight.  But it wasn't obvious to many, maybe most, of the faculty in the audience who were quite annoyed and didn't hesitate to say Cage was wrong.  Cage wasn't argumentative, in fact wasn't even trying to convince people at least not in the way we're familiar with seeing.  That I now know as typical Cage but this kind of discussion without debate, without attempting to impose your view (possibly even a variation on negative capability) was a revelation.  (And in its own way so was the academics' responses.  I've spent many years working alongside but not in academia and though there's a lot of talk given to crossing disciplines it's no more fluid than it was then.  The odd thing is that most academics I know are quite curious, open-minded people; they just aren't too concerned about what's outside their pastures.)

Since then I've spent a lot of time reading material by and about Cage and of course listening to his music.  He seems to some degree a trickster figure (not a charlatan, a quite different thing), laughing at wayward ideas, strange coincidences and the sheer bounty of thought, sharing beautiful little objects he found, running after some stray sound.  I've always loved that nearly every photo of Cage shows him smiling.  And though some people take him as such I've never found Cage a particularly deep or even revelatory thinker - he was far too taken with ideas instead of systems.  Maybe that's why the music has lasted instead of stuck in the museum alongside other modernist inventions.  He didn't always know what it would sound like at the end but he cared about the end and even more about getting there, not about the method itself.  I think it was Kyle Gann who said Cage inspired countless people but almost no imitators and maybe that's the real point.  We're so concerned with methods and algorithms and results and winners that we have pretty much no vocabulary to describe how we might think about using and enjoying all this (and the failures too! and the stuff that doesn't matter!) in the way that Cage often did.  Or maybe the point is just listening to his prepared piano sonatas, the Europeras, the Imaginary Landscapes, the early string quartets, the number pieces that I can never keep separate and whatever might be floating past as you read this.....