Sunday, November 21, 2010

John Adams Puts John Cage In Context

In today’s New York Times Review of Books, composer John Adams reviews a biography of John Cage, the most famous—and, depending on your perspective, most infamous—of 20th century avant garde composers.

Cage is best known for 4’33”: four minutes and thirty three seconds of a performer not playing the piano. At its premiere, 4’33” irritated many audience members, who thought they were getting the musical equivalent of the silent treatment. About them Cage later said:

They missed the point. There’s no such thing as silence. What they thought was silence, because they didn’t know how to listen, was full of accidental sounds. You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third the people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.

In his review, Adams aptly summarizes that Cage “upended long-held conventions about the listening process and prodded us to re-evaluate how we define not only music but the entire experience of encountering art.” However, Adams’ most interesting comments are elsewhere in the issue. In the “Up Front” section, where the editors provide a brief profile of Adams, they write:

Does Adams listen to Cage very often these days? “It sounds absurd to say that Cage was ‘hugely influential’ and then admit you rarely listen to his music, but that’s the truth for me, and I suspect it’s the same for most composers I know,” Adams said by e-mail. “Cage helped to open my awareness and acceptance of sound — all sounds, not just the pitches of the musical scale. And he set an example for liberating musical forms from the hand-me-down archetypes of European tradition. I don’t agree with those who consider Cage the most important composer after Stravinsky. I think much of his later work is fundamentally, even tediously, didactic. A work like 4’33” is a demonstration, a lesson in how to listen, so to speak. But to equate its artistic value, as some have, with a work like The Rite of Spring is to confuse art with philosophy.“

On the paradox that is John Cage’s legacy, the above is the best paragraph’s worth of wisdom I’ve ever seen.

[The quote by Cage is from his Wikipedia page, sourced there to Richard Kostelanetz’s Conversing with John Cage.]

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