Home just now from tonight’s concert at Issue Project Room, the S.E.M. Ensemble performing works by John Cage, Christian Wolff, and Petr Kotik, part of the Darmstadt: Essential Repertoire Festival. Wonderful concert, I’m really glad they do this series (and really glad to see the capacity crowds!).
Listening tonight to Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra (Joseph Kubera on piano), I recalled a post from a week or two ago by Kyle Gann, where he pointed out that the NY Times, in a companion piece to his review of a new book on Cage, asked John Adams “whether he actually listens to Cage’s music.” Gann posted Adams’s answer: “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.” Well, yes, actually, it’s completely absurd. It’s ridiculous. I’m tempted to say it’s offensive. Gann rightly asks, “would [the Times] have asked the same question about any other composer?”
It’s an attitude one runs across a lot, that Cage is very interesting to talk about and to think about, but not satisfying to listen to. This attitude starts in the classroom, in fact. Some of the first things one learns about Cage as a music student are that he was admittedly terrible at harmony, didn’t have an “ear” in the traditional sense, and that famous anecdote where Schoenberg calls him, and I’m paraphrasing, a genius but not a composer. I think I learned these things before I ever even heard a note of his music or looked at a score. More recently, in response to something I posted about listening to a recording of Atlas Eclipticalis, and a friend (also a composer) said something to the effect of “great concept, but it fails as a piece of music.”
This attitude just baffles me, though, because I so often find such incredible pleasure listening to performances of Cage’s music. Tonight’s performance just absolutely glistened. It was incredible. The crowd applauded heartily for what seemed like several full minutes. I have this experience a lot, actually. As another example, in 2007, when I still worked full-time for EMF, I produced that year’s Ear to the Earth Festival, which included the NY Premiere of Cage’s A Dip in the Lake. A couple hundred people came out for that piece, which was over an hour long, the visual aspect of which consisted only of three musicians standing and pressing buttons on CD mixers, and the crowd simply roared when it was over. Like tonight’s packed house, they weren’t cheering the idea of the piece. They were responding to the music. Recordings of Atlas Eclipticalis, 101, Winter Music, Williams Mix, Imaginary Landscape No. IV, Music of Changes, several Music for pieces, and many of Cage’s other works are constantly in rotation on my iPod, not because I’m studying them, but because I get pleasure from listening to them. The guy understood something about sound, about time, about proportion, about wonder, about attention, and, if this isn’t going too far, about love. The music moves and shimmers and lulls and surprises. It’s glorious!
I think Cage probably suffers from how interesting he is. People get so obsessed with the randomness that they ignore the decisions! Cage’s oeuvre has a style – there is most certainly a Cageian sound, and it’s no accident. It’s right there in the notation. Plenty of composers work with chance in one way or another, but few get the kinds of results Cage does. He knew what he was freaking doing.