John Cage was one of the great provocateurs, inventors and innovators of his time, and of his art.
A measure of his influence even now, some 21 years after his death, can be measured in the blowup that’s followed a highly critical essay by Daniel Asia in The Huffington Post, to which Asia responded again Monday.
It’s the kind of controversy Cage probably would have relished, and the New World Symphony next month is paying tribute to the composer’s centenary (which actually fell last year; he was born in 1912) with a series of concerts that will surely be one of the most significant explorations of his legacy to be held anywhere.
The New World, whose founder Michael Tilson Thomas organized the festival, is doing three programs, beginning Friday, Feb. 8, with a selection of Cage’s pieces from the 1940s and 1950s. Soprano Jessye Norman, pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin, composer/vocalist Meredith Monk and vocalist Joan La Barbara will be on hand for 10 of the composer’s pieces, including Water Walk, which made for some remarkable TV when Cage performed it on I’ve Got a Secret in 1960.
Saturday, Feb. 9, features a major work of Dada when the NWS forces perform Cage’s Second Hand, a collaboration with Cage’s life partner, dance master Merce Cunningham, in which the music of French composer Erik Satie is deconstructed according to patterns suggested by the I Ching, the ancient Chinese Book of Changes, which Cage used for much of his compositional life. Also included will be the Song Books, tiny fragments of song and song-speech based on texts by Thoreau, E.E. Cummings and others.
The festival concludes Sunday, Feb. 10, with three major works: Dance /4 Orchestras, the Etudes Australes for piano, and Renga, a work for orchestra and soloists based on drawings by Thoreau and Japanese poetry; chance plays a central role in these pieces, particularly Renga, which gives the orchestral players lots of freedom to improvise.
As part of the runup to the celebration of this unique American thinker, the New World is calling on interested parties to create their own video version of Cage’s 4’ 33”, his piece of organized silence, in which the music of the work is whatever ambient sound happens to be going on at the time. Performers are asked to make a video of their performances, adhering to the actual piece, in which the first movement is 30 seconds, the second is 2 minutes and 23 seconds, and the finale is 1 minute and 40 seconds.
After you upload the video to YouTube, it will be used by artist Mikel Rouse in a video installation to be seen in the SunTrust Pavilion at the New World Center. The deadline is Friday, so there isn’t much time, but it could be great fun to do, and you can always stop by the center afterward and see your work as part of the installation. It seems fair to say that Cage would have loved it, and it seems entirely in keeping with his questing spirit.
Here are the instructions in case you want to participate.