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Let's Celebrate John Cage's 100th Birthday!

How New Yorkers are marking the centennial of this giant of avant-garde art and hero of electronic music.
October 5, 2012, 2:00pm

One could argue that the best way to celebrate John Cage's 100th birthday is by doing nothing. For all the novel ideas on indeterminacy and open-ended interpretation left to us by the legendary composer and sound artist— typified most famously in his composition "4’33"", in which the pianist is instructed to sit motionless at the piano bench for precisely four minutes and 33 seconds—devoted fans might very well find it appropriate to express their love of Cagean music and aesthetics by staying at home, stopwatch in hand, and listening to traffic outside or a noisy party in the apartment next door.


They would, of course, be missing out. In addition to the Cage-inspired dance and music events taking place at the Dumbo Arts Center, earlier in September, members of the New York Mycological Society staged a performance of Cage's "49 Waltzes for the Five Boroughs for Performer(s) or Listener(s) or Record Maker(s)" at Cooper Union, reproducing the ambient noises of 49 locations in New York City with recorded sounds played from a set of speakers spaced around the Great Hall. Credited as the Society's founder, Cage's experience as a mushroom forager was so extensive that he once was able to identify 24 mushroom varieties by their Latin names while a contestant on an Italian game show, a translated transcript of which was recently made available online by the John Cage Trust. Excellent.

John Cage identifying mushrooms on Italy’s famous game show, Lascia o Raddoppia, in the early 1950s

Last Friday, admirers gathered for a screening at NYU of "Cage on Cage: An Interview" (1982) in which the artist, then 70 years old but showing little sign of aging or fatigue, chatted with art dealer Virginia Dwan about his life and work. Their conversation ranged from music to art to social science and philosophy, and was at times chillingly timely, with Cage making explicit references to the effects of pollution and conflict in the Middle East, waxing wistfully about how the world would be if people weren't always "at each other's throats." Anne Kovach, who works at the Dwan Gallery Archives, suggested that "Cage on Cage" could soon be distributed to a wider audience, though this was the first time the interview had been screened in public. It was also the first time some of us had ever heard John Cage's voice, a gap in understanding that led a younger audience member to ask his companion if she agreed that he sounded like horror movie star Vincent Price.

John Cage on “I’ve got a Secret” (1960)

Vincent Price on the Muppets (1976)

Meanwhile, over on the internets, the John Cage Trust has supervised the development of a CagePiano app for iOS or Android devices. Users interested in reproducing Cage's Sonatas and Interludes (1946-48) can play from a "keyboard" of 36 high-quality samples from Cage's "prepared piano," whose wires have been modified with an array of bolts and screws. The resulting pieces of music are easy to share, making it possible for anyone who wants to show off his or her skills in experimental music. Alternately, you can save the composition locally on your phone, which can come in handy if you'd like to impress members of the opposite sex with a really, really weird ringtone.

CagePiano Demo #1 (2012)

CagePiano Demo #2 (2012)

Uptown, the National Academy is showing an exhibition of watercolors Cage made while he was an artist-in-residence at the Mountain Lake Workshop in Virginia in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Using an arrangement of smooth, deltoid stones as stencils and a set of brushes that could easily have been borrowed from a Zen temple (one set is made from feathers, another, built to glide in wide strokes like a pushbroom, had to be dipped in a wooden trough of Cage's own design), they are characteristically quiet, understated, and whimsical. Even the paintings' presentation is an homage to Cage's insights on chance-oriented composition, with the museum having arranged them according to random choices within the symbol system described in the I Ching—a favorite composition tool in the artist's work.


John Cage New River Watercolor, Series IV, #4 (1988)

If you're just getting around to appreciating Cage's work in the visual and aural arts, this could be the perfect place to start. The National Academy is also sponsoring an event series of readings and performances titled "Chance Encounters" with artists, poets, and avant-garde musicians delivering lectures and performances dedicated to the Cage legacy. Next week, Margaret Leng Tan, an accomplished classical pianist who collaborated with Cage for eleven years, will have a public conversation with curator Marshall Price and perform Cage's “Suite for Toy Piano.”

Towards the end of the month and into November, the S.E.M. Ensemble will be staging performances that span the breadth of Cage's influence up through the present day. The Janáček Philharmonic Ostrava will perform orchestras by Morton Feldman, at Paula Cooper Gallery, the FLUX Quartet will perform Petr Kotik's "Torso," and the Orchestra of the S.E.M. Ensemble will perform Christian Marclay's "Shuffle" and Cage's "Atlas Eclipticalis" and "Winter Music." The series provides an opportunity to hear experimental music interpreted by performers who know the work of John Cage as well as anyone alive.

But you can only see it if you leave the house.