Most of John Cage’s music comes preloaded with a preposterous philosophical challenge of some kind. Cage the playful instigator, the experimental trickster, must have loved the sound — the actual sound — of people arguing over what is and what is not music. It is hard not to view the intellectual hubbub that attends his work — the debates, the defenses, the visceral disgust, the dense rationales — as a movement of the work itself, part of the tune, as it were: words like rain on the roof.
Many other 20th-century composers (and radicals in all the arts) explored automaticism and indeterminacy: techniques of freeing art from the artist’s intent, from the social conditions of meaning and interpretation, ways of recognizing and practicing art as a “happening.” Sometimes, in Cage and in others, this comes as a quiet Buddhist attention to the moment at hand as the ultimate creation, other times as highly technical methods of incorporating random processes into traditional compositional disciplines. Other times still, it is about playing the audience and the cultural process itself like a cheap accordion.
There’s an implicit element of argument and aesthetic theory in all of it, but few artists rival the gadfly conceptual theatricality of John Cage: piles of radios; barrels rolled down the aisles in theaters; the composer himself detuning a cello with his teeth while a cellist performed; and most famously of all, a tuxedoed pianist sitting down to perform four minutes and 33 seconds of nothing on the piano while the venue’s HVAC, the crickets and the wind and, increasingly, the perplexed and disgruntled audience provide the music for the timed interval of the piece. And for that extra element of philosophical showmanship, Cage is revered and reviled; but even the revilers love to have him around. John Cage is necessary.
Among musicians of certain stripes, 4’ 33” is regarded as a joke of a conceptual idiocy only a cut or two below Nigel Tufnel’s “It’s one louder.” It’s regarded (and enjoyed) as the ultimate intellectual fleecing and the choicest article of evidence in the case against the avant-garde. But the question remains: How many of us have actually listened to the piece? For all of Cage’s devious provocation, his prime directive was always: Just listen, will you? And, remarkably, most people can’t seem to.
Just listen. I did this week, and was unsurprised to discover how much of Cage’s music I enjoyed — especially the suspenseful spacious music for toy piano and much of his work for percussion. It really is music, not argument.
On Saturday, November 17, the John Cage Trust at Bard College and the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts will present John Cage: On & off the Air. The program highlights Cage’s work with technology, especially radios. Many of his best-known pieces will be performed by a formidable cast of modern specialists (this is Bard, after all), including the world-famous NEXUS percussion ensemble. And yes, 4’33” is on the program.
Much of the fun with Cage is reading about the inventive, chance-driven compositional methods that he developed. The Fisher Center website provides a concise, lucid description of these in the event’s program guide at https://fishercenter.bard.edu/press/releases.php?id=2358.
John Cage: On & Off the Air, Saturday, November 17, 8 p.m., $15, $25, $35, $45; Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, Sosnoff Theater, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson; 845-758-7900, https://fishercenter.bard.edu.