Artistic Director Steven Schick writes about our upcoming Cage Centennial Celebration at the end of this month:

John Cage was a great American composer and deserves to be celebrated for his enormous contributions to the music of the 20th century and beyond.

That’s obvious, right?

After all, thousands of concerts all over the world will have been devoted to celebrating this year’s Cage Centennial this year. (He was born on September 5, 1912.)  Yet in those thousands of events we have seen relatively little attention played to John Cage, composer. We have seen multiple essays and a new book describing Cage’s relationship to Zen Buddhism. We have seen exhibitions of his paintings, his poetry, his correspondence.  We have focused on Cage’s personal relationship with Merce Cunningham and his aesthetic rapport with Rauschenberg and Duchamp.  We have fêted his well-known interest in Thoreau, in Joyce and Satie. We have saluted the cross-cultural, and even countercultural impulses behind his devotion to chance procedures and the “I Ching.” A well-known composer, and good friend of mine, claims that Cage was a revolutionary theorist, “but not really a composer,” a view shared by Cage’s most famous teacher, Arnold Schoenberg, who while bemoaning Cage’s utter lack of sensitivity to harmony nevertheless proclaimed him to be, “an inventor of great genius.”

Judging from the welcome outpouring of affection and attention this year’s centennial celebrations have presented, Cage is apparently “all of the above.” But is he a real composer?

Our answer is, resoundingly, YES!  He was a great composer, and furthermore his music can stand alone as great music with or without the attractive aspects of his personal philosophy and artistic taste.

The celebration of John Cage by the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players may be small by comparison to some – see the ten day festival in Washington last month or week-long celebration in Cologne in May, among many others.  But by restricting ourselves to a presentation of his music we can ask a single important question: does the music of John Cage still engage us as “contemporary music,” that is to say music that exerts significant leverage on the welter of today’s aesthetic and cultural concerns, or is his oeuvre now to be filed on the increasingly dusty shelves of music history of the very recent past?

In search of an answer we invite you to two concerts and a panel discussion. The first concert on October 25 presents the three percussion “Constructions” co-mingled with the music of three young American composers, Samuel Carl Adams, Lei Liang, and Missy Mazzoli.  The second is a Musicircus consisting of several dozens of Cage pieces presented over the course of the afternoon of October 28.

With “Constructions” our hope is that Cage as the twenty-something composer of the late 1930’s and early ’40’s might speak across the decades to today’s young composers. Is the sense of delight and exploration, so present in the Cage works, a part of their music as well? Are the musical processes and professional travails much different now? Will they understand each other, the young New York transplant by way of California six decades ago and the young New Yorkers and Californians of today?  Again, I think the answer will be a resounding, yes, but let’s find out together.

We start with the percussion pieces because they are indeed points of departure, both to Cage’s notoriety as a composer but also to contemporary percussionists as the foundational works of a repertory.  Here we see not just the opening of cultural floodgates whereby a Burmese Gong is played next to a Mexican teponaxtl, next to some Chinese tom-toms, next to a set of Oxen Bells (what are Oxen Bells, anyway?)  By engaging the multiplicity of percussion sounds Cage took an important first step along his path towards indeterminacy. Think of all the possibilities implied in the simple indication of “medium gong.”  This could be a gong from one of many cultures and it could be played with a large variety of sticks. In short a “medium gong” could mean a huge spectrum of sonic possibilities.  So in his percussion music Cage could specify an action (hit the gong now) but not necessarily the sound it would produce. Controlling what music might act like rather than what it might sound can be bewildering to listeners. Someone who taps his foot through Third Construction might well wonder if the same composer was also responsible for the metrically directionless Freeman Etudes. Or perhaps a naturalist devotee of music for amplified cactus (believe me, there are such people) will find herself completely at sea in the mechanical world of the prepared piano.

But there is a single coherent mind at work in all of this music. Consistency is a product of what I think of as the “Cage theorem,” a behavioral model whereby strictly emplaced limitations in the realm of musical construction allow for rich unpredictability in sound and style. Nearly every Cage piece operates on this principal.  The theorem dictates that the more securely anchored the formal dimension, the greater the amount of chance-based freedom is possible.  Take First Construction (In Metal) for example: here we find a rigidly repeating cycle of 16 measure phrases, each subdivided regularly into a strict rhythmic template. The sounds that fill this template, however, are a volcanic admixture of clangorous metallic percussion.  According to this formula, Cage did not claim to know what sounds his ensemble of percussionists would make, just when and for how long they would make them.  In subsequent years, increasingly rigorous formal mechanisms led to increasingly free sonic results until at the very midpoint of his life we have 4”33”, his famous piece in which a performer(s) does not play at all, leaving to complete chance the sounds that will fill the four minutes and thirty-three seconds of musical time.  A long debunked mythology claimed that this was a piece of whimsy, a musical joke. In fact it is the ultimate focus on process over product.  It is a crystalline structure, filled with nothing.  Indeed to paraphrase Cage himself, he had nothing to say and he was saying it.

So is this music, much of which is more than fifty years old, still contemporary?  I can only say for myself that the Cagian universe still feels like home.  It still feels like today. Like Cage, I believe that sound constrained by form and informed by occasion bears meaning even if those sounds are ultimately unpredictable. I believe that composers, performers, and listeners enjoin an equally shared listening space in which each has responsibility and no one has a free ride. I concur with Satie’s phrase, often quoted by Cage: “L’artiste n’a pas le droit de disposer inutilement du temps de son auditeur.” I smile when I read Cage’s statement: “I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas; I’m frightened of the old ones.”

With these sentiments in mind we will start on Thursday with Cage’s early percussion music and continue on Sunday’s Musicircus with a kaleidoscopic array of his later music.  On Sunday we will hear Postcard from Heaven in a version for more than a dozen harps.  We’ll hear A House Full of Music for the members of the San Francisco Girls’ Chorus singing their favorite songs, and the Music for series for professional musicians playing their favorite sounds.  We’ll offer recorded birdsong, water gongs, readings from his influential book Silence, and a massed orchestra of radios.  You can take a “musical walk” by picking up a map and taking a Dip in the Lake, or just sit still and hear what you’ll hear in 4’33”. We’ll visit his landmark works: the virtuosic Etudes Boreales I-IV for cello and percussionist playing the inside of a piano, and the ground-breaking Concert for Piano.  We’ll also have special guests, including dancers brought to us by Anna Halprin, a long-time Cage collaborator.

In short you’ll hear the music of an American master:  John Cage, composer.  Happy birthday, Mr. Cage.

View the complete schedule of events.