September 4, 2012
by Alex Ross
John Cage would have been a hundred years old tomorrow. Scratch that: Cage is a hundred. He remains a palpably vivid presence, still provoking thought, still spurring argument, still spreading sublime mischief. He may have surpassed Stravinsky as the most widely cited, the most famous and/or notorious, of twentieth-century composers.
His influence extends far outside classical music, into contemporary art and pop culture. When I wrote at length about Cage in 2010, I noted that he accomplished something like a colossal land grab, annexing the entire landscape of sound, from pure noise to pure silence. If you hear several radios playing together, it sounds like Cage. If the P.A. system makes a horrible noise during a lecture, it sounds like Cage. (I’ve used that joke more than once.) Because Cage made his music sound like the world, the world sounds like Cage. It’s a neat trick, and it could be done only once.
I’ve attended quite a few Cage concerts this year—an event at Juilliard’s FOCUS! Festival, last winter; tributes during the San Francisco Symphony’s American Mavericks festival, in March, including an uproarious concert by So Percussion; portions of a performance of Erik Satie’s “Vexations,” in the marathon format pioneered by Cage in 1963; a vibrant outdoor show by Third Coast Percussion, at MOMA; and, most recently, “Europeras 1 and 2” in Bochum, Germany, reviewed in this week’s New Yorker—and it strikes me that much of the resistance to this composer has melted away. Even more than the pioneering radicals of twentieth-century music, Cage requires a fundamentally different mode of listening: you need to relinquish expectations that successive sounds will fall into familiar harmonic relationships, or indeed relationships of any kind, and instead treat each moment in isolation. You “regard” the sounds as you would objects in a gallery. More and more, audiences are arriving with the right expectations, or, at least, without the wrong ones. On a deeper level, Cage’s anarchic view of the world, his profound distrust of institutions and traditions, may have an especially broad appeal at the present time. For much of his life, Cage was cast as a court jester or holy fool. As empires crumble, he seems saner than ever.
The global scope of the Cage celebrations has surprised even the composer’s most committed admirers. The calendar maintained by the John Cage Trust lists dozens of concerts this week, from Russia to Australia to South Africa. Two especially significant American celebrations are a seven-day Centennial Festival in Washington, D.C., now under way, and a festival presented by the superb Southern California series Jacaranda, starting on Thursday. Here in New York, the S.E.M. Ensemble will present a Beyond Cage festival in late October and early November. If you have a taste for mushrooms, the New York Mycological Society, which Cage co-founded, is hosting several events at Cooper Union; Peter Canby previews those festivities in the Talk of the Town this week. There’s a Cage installation out on the High Line, in the vicinity of Fourteenth Street. Third Coast Percussion has a superb new disc of the percussion works on the Mode label, whose Cage Edition now runs to forty-five volumes. And iPad users can play with the John Cage app, sampling the sounds of his prepared piano.
Even if a Cage event isn’t within easy reach, you can still mark the day by listening to the world around you with open ears. Allan Kozinn, who wrote Cage’s obituary for the New York Times, recently contributed a fine essay on this theme, talking about how he treated himself to a private performance of Cage’s most famous work while riding on the A train. The piece has a beautiful chance ending, courtesy of the former Times critic Tim Page, and by way of closing I’ll simply send you there.