From some of my earliest memories about music and composition, I was attracted to the avant garde and the "mavericks". Mozart was pretty, and Beethoven's symphonies could be moving, but for me the lights really turned on when I was in high school and my first music theory teacher, Mr. Edwards, played our class a recording of Charles Ives' "Putnam's Camp, Redding, Connecticut":a short 6 minute "symphonic scene" that captures the sound of two marching bands playing to two keys and two tempos marching towards each other.
You can hear it here, if you like
Then, in the summer of 1968 I saw a performance of John Cage's "Radio Music",
a piece he wrote in 1956 for 1-8 performers, each with their own radio
(once again - 6 minutes long, hmm...). This composition, as you can
guess, sounds different every time it is performed, depending on what
shows up on the radios. It was than that I realized that anything was
really possible with music - all you had to do was have the willingness
to open up your ears.
By the end of my freshman year in college in 1970, I had set myself on a
course to be a music composition major. I studied Schoenberg, Webern
and Berg, I studied Bartok and Stravinsky. I studied the Bach
Chorales. I learned the keys, the modes, and the values of each note
and how they related to the notes around it.
What I did not realize at that time was that I was too late. In 1952,
the year I was born and John Cage was 40 years old, he wrote 4' 33", which is performed in the absence of deliberate sound; musicians who
present the work do nothing aside from being present for the duration
specified by the title.
Here is a very formal performance of the piece by full orchestra. The audience bursts into thunderous applause at the end of the piece, around 6:26 into the video.
Although I think John Cage would have preferred this black screen video
version of the piece as a more personal, interactive presentation. Check this out
Or this "classic" performance by David Tudor, one of Cage's long-time friends and associates, and the pianist that premiered the piece in Woodstock NY in 1952.
Cage's belief was that music is the interaction of sound and silence and the organization of these two elements. 4'33"
is the logical extreme of this philosophy. I use the word "philosophy"
on purpose, because I find Cage's music to really be more a precursor
of "performance art" than music per se. He blew the doors off the barn
the year I was born, and all the horses had escaped by the time I began
formal study. The music conservatories and university music departments
had decided to ignore the memo, though, as they have continued to do
for the last 60 years.
Cage never stopped creating. In 1973 I organized a performance by John
Cage at Brandeis University. Cage had been to Brandeis in 1965 to
perform ROZART MIX,
a composition for tape loops to be played on at least a dozen tape
recorders. By 1973 Cage had moved beyond tape loops, and had started to
focus on spoken word pieces that involved taking writings and
deconstructing them into their individual words. His performance, in
the "all purpose room" of the Student Union, consisted of texts by Henry
David Thoreau. Looking now at Cage's list of published works, it seems
it was a version of his "Song Books (Solos for Voice 3–92)",
published in 1970. Speakers were set up around the room, and various
recordings of Cage reading the words would come from each set of
speakers. At the same time, Cage sat at a table on the stage in the
front of the room with a small desk lamp, reading a version of the text
in his sing-song, high pitched voice.
The result was a cacophonous mix of spoken words, all of which made no
sense, as hard as one might try to make sense of it. The room was set
up with rows of chairs. Some people sat in the chairs. Others moved
about the room to get closer or father away from the various speakers.
As time passed, and the drone of words continued, some people started to
leave. Other people, sensing that perhaps this was one of those
artistic "happenings" they had heard of, started taking the chairs and
piling them into a sculpture in the middle of the room. Finally,
someone raced the stage, pulled the plug on Cage's light and microphone,
and ran out of the auditorium through a side exit. Staff quickly
reconnected Cage's light and equipment, and the performance continued
until the end.
At a question and answer period after the performance, Cage was asked if
he minded that people were piling chairs and making noise during the
performance. He answered that he had no problem with that - but he was
enraged that someone would come up and pull the plug on his
performance. "I don't care what you do, but you have no right to stop
me or interfere with my performance." This was, for me, the essence of
John Cage - Creative, opinionated, always searching, and if you don't
like it, please leave me alone and let me do my thing.