John Cage: a great of the musical avant-garde, with Seattle roots

Jul 15, 2012

Many experts call him the greatest iconoclast of 20th-century music.

The avant-garde composer John Cage is perhaps best known for his pioneering use of silence in music. He also broke ground with the use of everyday objects as instruments, electronics and chance in composition.

He was born in California and died in New York. But some of his most formative years took place in Seattle.

Festivals around the world are celebrating his centennial this year, many of them highlighting innovations that Cage first developed in the Pacific Northwest.

Case in point: the Acht Bruecken festival of new music, in Cologne, Germany.

An open-air tribute to Cage opened the eight-day celebration of his vision. At the foot of the famous Cologne Cathedral, four choirs, two orchestras and a big band performed a new piece called  EurOratorio.  It’s an hour-long collage of quotes from well-known classical tunes, peppered with weird sounds and unconventional instruments. Power tools, hair dryers, even a car that drives onto the plaza were part of the composition.

Along with singing and conducting, Baritone Thomas Bonni got to play a lawn mower and his favorite: a nail gun.

“That’s really a nice instrument. Very funny, fun for boys, very heavy and ‘paff!’ …super!” Bonni exclaimed, smiling after the show.

He says this kind of work inspires him, because he gets to play such an active role. The performers communicate via radio headsets and are given general instructions, such as “create a field in A minor.”

“But we can also use our own impression and do what we want. We can react on what the others are doing. It’s like playing, like playing like children play,” Bonni says.

Festival Director Louwrens Langevoort, says as noisy as the opening performance turned out, it’s above all the composer’s pioneering work with silence that sets him apart, especially the famous piece, 4’33”, in which a pianist comes on stage and sits there for 4 minutes and 33 seconds, never playing any notes.

“He made people discover the music or the sounds around themselves. Or: the fact that there is never no sound. And that’s something which was new for his time and I think it’s still very revolutionary,” Langevoort says.

Langevoort is also the head of the Cologne Philharmonic. He says Cage wasn’t afraid to do unorthodox things.An interactive display inside the lobby of the symphony hall illustrates that with one of his most famous innovations: a prepared piano.

Passersby are encouraged to put screws, straws, bits of paper and ping pong balls between the piano’s strings, to experiment with altering its sound.

Langevoort demonstrates how a clear note is dampened and ends up sounding more like a gong.

"And if you do that on every note in a different preparation, you get a very interesting score, in which we say, ‘are we playing piano? Or is this a percussion instrument?’ And that makes it so funny,” he says.

And Langevoort says the fascination with Cage becomes more meaningful because his ideas extended beyond music. He was also interested in visual arts and collaborated for most of his life with his partner, Merce Cunningham, a modern ballet dancer.

‘Let’s say, he was not stuck only on music, but he was really an artist who was wide into arts. And that's something which is different with quite a lot of composers, who make beautiful music, but are forgetting that they're living in a world which is bigger than only music,” Lagevoort says.

Some say Cage’s interdisciplinary approach first blossomed in the Pacific Northwest.

“It was really in Seattle that Cage emerged as a professional composer,” says Jarrad Powell, who teaches composition and gamelan at Cornish College of the Arts.

Cage worked there for two intense years, starting in 1938. He was an accompanist and composer in the dance department.

“Ultimately, he wasn’t here that long. 1938 through 1940. But while he was here it was a very fertile time for him,” Powell says.

Powell says Cage developed ideas in Seattle that influenced his music for the rest of his career - innovations in materials, methods and structure.

While at Cornish, he wrote the very first piece for prepared piano – which for the next decade became one of his signature sounds.

He founded an avant-garde percussion ensemble that toured around the region, with dancers performing many of his compositions.

And he began experimenting with electronics. Powell says Cornish had one of the first radio schools in the US. Cage saw an opportunity in the studios.

He made a piece called ‘Imaginary Landscape No. 1’ , which used the turntables in the radio studio and records  of test tones that were meant for testing the equipment. Cage turned them into musical sounds and  blended them with acoustic sound sources, such as a bowed symbol and a piano.

"And a lot of people cite that as the first example of DJing and hip hop or something – because he’s actually not just playing a record, he’s using the record itself and the turntable as a musical instrument,” Powell says.

Powell says this kind of innovation flourished because of Cornish and its founder’s philosophy, which created a good atmosphere for interdisciplinary adventures in creativity.

“Nellie Cornish was very innovative. Cornish was a school of allied arts. And that was a rare thing in the world. One where you could have dance and music together as well as visual art. And of course Cage met Morris Graves and Mark Tobey here – huge influences on his career. They were visual artists. He met Merce Cunningham here, a dancer. So those people were all huge influences on his life.”

But as much as the environment fostered him, Powell says it was also John Cage’s unique spirit that pushed his art forward. He was a lighthearted revolutionary with a sunny disposition. In situations when people might be  inclined to mock him, he would just smile and power through. A great example of this was his appearance in 1960 on the popular TV game show, What's My Line.

“The audience loved him because of his personality and how he was able to communicate to them. I think that was one of his strengths. So over time, people opened up more to his music. And now, you can’t – you have to consider him to be one of the important composers of the 20th century, even if your musical interests do not embrace his music.”

Cologne’s festival director Langevoort says that spirit is alive and well in all of the interactive music they’ve been re-creating – like the prepared piano that people are encouraged to alter with straws and ping pong balls. He says installations like this one take the art off a pedestal and help grow the audience for classical music.

“It’s just fun. And if you make fun of music, you’re much closer to it,” Langevoort says.

Cologne’s festival is one of dozens of events all over the world this year, honoring John Cage’s centennial.  Seattle artists will gather in September to put on a concert on what would have been his 100th birthday. And at Cornish College of the Arts, there will be a concert of Cage's chamber music on September 14th. Watch the Cornish web site for more details.