Letter from Berlin: John Cage Season

By Stan Persky | March 26, 2012

In Berlin, while the weather may be slightly uncertain, millimetering (is that the metric term for “inching”?) toward spring, it’s definitely the season of John Cage. The American modernist composer, writer, artist, performer and mycologist was born in 1912, and Berlin, Europe’s pre-eminent centre of “new music,” is marking Cage’s centenary in style.

At the old Art Academy near Hansaplatz (there’s also a new snazzy post-wall Art Academy just behind iconic Brandenburg Gate), February weekends were given over to a dozen Cage concerts that included piano, string quartets, violin, percussion, and voice performances, featuring some of the city’s best contemporary musicians, such as pianist Steffen Schliermacher, and the Pelligrini Quartet. The following month, the annual Maerz Musik festival offered a spectrum of Cage events, and you can hear scattered Cage pieces everywhere from the posh Konzerthaus to the funky avant-garde recitals at the “Unheard Music” series (in German, the word for “unheard,” unerhort, can also mean “outrageous”). So, around here, no shortage of Cage (1912-1992).

Until now, I had heard very little of Cage’s music. However, as a near-child, I was once taken by a supervising adult, poet Robin Blaser, to a Merce Cunningham dance performance in San Francisco, where David Tudor and Cage played “prepared” pianos, and Robert Rauschenberg did the costumes and sets. I can barely recall any of the music, but I knew I was at an unforgettable evening starring Cunningham who, although I didn’t know it at the time, was Cage’s companion and mate for several decades.

Cage was the most renowned experimental American composer of my young adulthood. Yet, while I was aware of him (and his fame), I knew almost nothing about his music until now. Once more, I find myself reflecting on how much of my life is devoted to belatedly catching up with, and thereby changing, my past. I didn’t get to post-WWII existentialism until Sartre was an elderly gent; I missed most of post-modernist Theory (and didn’t begin to read Roland Barthes until 1980, the year of his death); and, as Kurt Vonnegut famously but annoyingly put it again and again, “So it goes” (I didn’t get around to Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five ‘til 30 years after the fact). This is the sort of thing that my friend Blaser meant by his remark, “A lot of people lived in the 20th century without living in the 20th century.” That is, lots of people who have easy access to their times remain oblivious to the culture, thought and politics of their era.

One of the virtues of current German culture is its memorializing character. Of course, Germany’s got a lot of horrific 20th century history that’s burned into memory. But it’s got a lot more history than that, and the country pays attention to it. Germany commemorates birthdays, deaths, centenaries, and events with particular fervour. In a time of much forgetting, Berlin remembers: whether it’s the streetnames of famous thinkers — say, the intersection of Kant and Leibniz Streets in my Berlin neighbourhood — or plaques on building walls to denote the residences of prominent authors — the one I like on shady Nollendorf Strasse marks the 5-storey walk-up where Christopher Isherwood, author of Goodbye to Berlin, looked out the window and announced, “I am a camera…” When a notable musical date rolls around — last year it was the hundredth anniversary of the death of composer Gustav Mahler — the city reminds us by performing, in Mahler’s case, just about all of his major works. In the instance of Cage’s birth centenary (he died 20 years ago), the occasion provides the opportunity to reassess the artist’s work, and reputations accordingly rise and decline in the course of a season’s performances.

The work on display ranges from Cage’s earliest songs, including setting a few Gertrude Stein poems to music, to the very late “103” (1991), a 90-minute orchestral performance by 103 musicians positioned throughout the concert hall and accompanied by an abstract light-and-shadow film. Since I had little sense of Cage’s music prior to this season of Cage, I can’t say that his work rose or fell in my estimation. However, compared to the 20th century composers I most like to hear — a panoply that stretches from Gustav Mahler to Alfred Schnittke, with stops along the way for Berg, Bartok, Webern, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Scelsi, Shostakovich, Piazzola, Kurtag and Stockhausen — Cage, while interesting and almost “necessary” to the contemporary history of music composition, sounds to me too abstract, too chance-determined, too determined to avoid emotional expression to satisfy my understanding of what the point of music is. At the same time I recognize that the minimalism, conceptuality, and effacement of the composer are precisely what Cage intends.

In “103,” for example, Cage lays down an undulating sound field, created mostly by string instruments — a rising and falling humming – punctuated by chance-determined short bursts of horns, strings and percussion, sustained for an hour and a half, accompanied by a black-and-white film in which light and shadow shapes emerge and dissolve. The sound effect is an always-on-the-edge tenuous feeling that one expects to “resolve” (into something), but never quite does. The result is “sort of interesting,” not unpleasant, not even boring (although some might find it so) and it’s pretty much what Cage was aiming at. The piece acquires some poignancy in that it occurs so late in Cage’s life, and you’re aware as a listener that this is what the almost 80-year-old composer was thinking about toward the end.

That’s not the only version of Cage there is. I found a hilarious Cage performance on YouTube, which preserves the segment of a 1960 popular TV show called “I’ve Got A Secret” on which the then 48-year-old composer appeared. The “secret” is that Cage is going to perform a piece of his music. The show’s host dispenses with the usual guest panel attempt to uncover the secret and moves directly to a little set-up interview with Cage. The composer is wearing a suit and narrow tie, his hair is close-cropped, and he maintains a faint but genial near-smile. When the host warns him that the audience may laugh at him, Cage coolly replies, “I prefer laughter to tears,” which elicits the intended audience chuckle of approval. Cage makes the host admit that the five radios in the piece can’t be used as intended because the show’s stagehand unions couldn’t agree on which one of them had the right to plug in the radios, and therefore Cage, instead of randomly turning the radios on and off, will simply bang on them and eventually knock them off the counter on which they’re sitting.

At which point the curtain rises, and Cages performs his “Water Walk,” a 6-or-7 minute Rube Goldberg-esque piece involving various sound-making things, including a Mixmaster for grinding icecubes, a pressure-cooker hissing away, a watercan for watering a vase of flowers that’s been placed in a bathtub, plus various whistles, pipes and other soundmakers, along with the aforementioned radios which get banged upon and knocked to the ground. Cage cheerfully moves quickly among the crowded stage-set of improvised instruments he’s created, and the thing is, it all works. It’s rhythmical, musical, funny, and there’s clearly an idea behind it which is successfully enacted in the performance. The audience of course loves it and is infused with the false notion that maybe all this weird modern music ain’t so bad, and the heretofore obscure except-to- the-avantgarde Maestro Cage has goodnaturedly appeared among the masses and their mass media “in living rooms across America,” as people were fond of saying back then.

In an odd way, Cage’s life is more interesting, and hectic, than his music, as is made clear by the most recent and readable biography of the composer, Kenneth Silverman’s Begin Again: A Biography of John Cage (2010). When Los Angeles-born Cage was one-year-old, shortly before World War I, his father, John Sr., became briefly famous by inventing the most advanced submarine to date. Cage’s inventor father, who dabbled in everything from cold remedies to night vision devices, may be a key to understanding the temperament of the son, whose approach to music displays a similar innovator’s curiosity.

Silverman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer who has written about such disparate figures as Cotton Mather and Harry Houdini, isn’t a musical specialist, so his book will likely leave music professionals unsatisfied by the technical account of Cage’s work. For the rest of us, this gossipy life of an avant-garde artist will suffice. Silverman is a bit sketchy on how a bright but conventional high school valedictorian is transformed seemingly overnight into a modernist artist. There’s a European grand tour, where the teenage Cage acquires a boyfriend. Once back in California, Cage becomes a student of exiled German-Jewish composer Arnold Schoenberg, and much of the rest is musical history. As some reporters are said to have “a nose for news,” Cage seems to have had a nose for the new and swam with ease in the more advanced cultural currents.

There was much slogging along the way, which ran from dishwasher-type odd jobs to a lot of plunking piano accompaniment for young dancers at their lessons. Eventually there was a music school job in Seattle, the invention of the “prepared” piano (the insertion of bits of material between the strings yielding a spooky sound), and meeting dancer Merce Cunningham in the 1940s. By mid-century, Cage had turned to the use of chance in composition. As composer John Adams, writing in the New York Times Book Review about Silverman’s biography notes, for Cage “the act of composing was always a matter of careful process and method rather than the romantic one of spontaneous inspiration and self-expression.” However methodical, it also involved the hocus-pocus of using the I Ching, an Asian book of divination to determine the course of the music. Not everyone was enthralled. As Lou Harrison, a fellow composer Cage had befriended, quipped, “I would rather chance a choice than choose a chance.”

Cage’s life story is a tale of knowing everyone and being everywhere, mostly at the right time. He plays chess with Marcel Duchamp; stages art “happenings” with poet Charles Olson at legendary Black Mountain College; is devoted to the theories of architect Buckminster Fuller; discusses the Zeitgeist with ‘60s thinker Norman O. Brown; is close to the Fluxus movement in art; gets macrobiotic diet advice from Yoko Ono; and even becomes a mushroom expert, livening up the proceedings of the New York Mycological Society (it’s something like Vladimir Nabokov and butterflies). Cage also became the pre-eminent member of a New York group of modern composers that included Morton Feldman and Christian Wulf (both of whom he taught for free, as Schoedberg once did with him) and was in contact with composers around the world, from Boulez to Stockhausen.

When not writing music, Cage was writing words. John Adams, who read Cage’s 1961 book, Silence, as a young composer, “found that what Cage had to say about the nature of noise, about how we listen (or don’t listen), and about how tradition and habit threaten to deaden our capacity for discovery, [was] the musical equivalent of the young Martin Luther’s nailing his theses to the door of the Wittenburg church.” In practice, the sounds and the silences included the notorious “4’33”,” a silent piano piece performed by his friend David Tudor, as well as elaborate combinations of sound and theatre Cage referred to as “musicircus.”

Cage’s initial and enduring musical influence was the French composer Erik Satie, echoes of whose work can be heard in Cage’s early and elegant piano compositions. Intellectually, he was stimulated by a wide range of thinkers and writers, from the 19th century American transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau to contemporaries like Fuller and Marshall McLuhan. The work of James Joyce, especially his Finnegans Wake, was a major touchstone for Cage, who composed a “Roaratorio” honouring the Irish writer. Oh yes, and don’t forget Carge’s large array of graphic work, some of which is on display at various gallery sites in Berlin. Simply composing music for and doing much of the organizational work to keep the Merce Cunningham dance company running might have been enough for one artist. Not Cage. He was a genuine polymath, with seemingly inexhaustible energy who was working away to his last breath, just weeks before his 80th birthday.

John Adams notes the difficulty of “finding critical balance” when it comes to Cage. “He has gone from being unfairly considered a fool and a charlatan to an equally unreasonable status as a sacred cow,” Adams observes. This season in Berlin, not only is spring in the air, but so is the music of John Cage.


Berlin, March 26, 2012


  • Stan Persky

    Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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