Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Man Who Changed How We Think About Music

John Cage's life spanned most of the 20th Century.  Born 100 years ago this year, he died in 1992.  [I get enough google searches for "If I were born in 1912 how old would I be?" to think about putting the birth date down, but I'll assume most of my readers can figure it out.]

Cage truly revolutionized how we think about music. Maybe not directly, since most people have never heard of him, but he did change how musicians think about and how they make the music we listen to.

He moved beyond the idea of human created melodies and musical structures and focused on the sounds that exist in our world - Manhattan traffic sounds was one example - that had no meaning beyond themselves.  And silence was part of the sound palette for Cage.  To the extent that one piece, 4:33, was written for a pianist who sits at the piano not playing the notes for four minutes and 33 seconds.

His music focuses on sounds, not organized into the patterns we normally think of as music, so many people do not know how to interpret what they hear.  But it set the foundations for much modern music, including electronic music.  

I was particularly struck, at UAA's bookstore faculty forum last Thursday (September 13),  by a video clip of Cage as the guest on the 1950's tv show "I've Got a Secret." (See the I've Got A Secret YouTube is below.)  The celebrity panel is supposed to guess what the guest's secret is.

Cage's secret was that he composed a piece for three radios, a bathtub, ice cubes, blender, water pitcher, goose call, bottle of wine, whistle, and a bunch more items.  And was going to play it for them.  Watching Cage run from item to item to create the sounds in sequence, I realized that seeing the music performed was far more accessible for an audience than simply listening to what, without the visuals, would be random sounds.

This realization was reinforced when faculty member Dr. Laura Koenig described watching a performance of ball bearings frozen in a block of ice that melted allowing the ball bearings to drop and make different sounds depending on where they landed followed by a violinist responding to the ball bearing sound.  Dr. Koenig describes it on the video excerpts  below from Thursday's forum.  There are also some excerpts of John Cage discussing his music in the video.

There were three music faculty - Chris Sweeney, Phil Munger, and Laura Koenig - and art professor Sean Licka.   The bookstore's Rachel Epstein, who works so hard to create these interesting panels, was hovering around making sure people were speaking into the microphone so it would be caught for the UAA podcast that is now up.

You can hear the podcast of the whole talk here.

This post is totally inadequate for the subject.  I feel I should be writing more.  This was a man, not wealthy, who had an obsession.  Who lived close to poverty for years to pursue that obsession.  People understood that he was talented, but his ideas seemed crazy to most.  (Listen to how Gary Moore talks about his secret in the video.)  Yet he persevered.

A couple of people mentioned that Cage wouldn't be in most people's top 10 American composers of the 20th Century, yet he probably had the most influence on music.  This speaks to the contributions that people, who we tend to think of as odd, can make if they are allowed to.  He heard a different beat and didn't let it go.  He's both an inspiration to me to pursue what I think is important, and a lesson to see through the masks of the people around me to find their inner humanity and worth. 

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