Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The Convivial Cage

John Cage's musical enthusiasms were broad and he enjoyed sharing his discoveries. Not only his closest colleagues -- Wolff and Feldman, for example -- got his praise, but also composers in ever-wider circles, crossing genres, borders, and generations. He was -- unlike many of his colleagues -- a faithful concert goer and in his last years, if he was in town, he'd be somewhere almost every night. When he was away at Festivals and Conferences, he tried to make a point of being (his words) "one hundred percent" in attendance. I imagine that he saw himself as a member of the community (a member, not a citizen, for the community represented no state), and his interest in that community was more than duty. From La Monte Young or Pauline Oliveros or Alvin Lucier, to the composers in the Once group or the Tone Roads group, the extended family of musicians around the Cunningham company, he was curious, receptive, and supportive. (Milton Babbitt tells about meeting Cage for lunch to discuss the Composition for Four Instruments; Cage was enthusiastic that Babbitt had not avoided triads and other configurations suggesting tonal music. Of course they were talking at cross-purposes, but the point is that they were talking!) He was sometimes critical, of Virgil Thomson (I believe that the Cage half of the Hoover/Cage monograph has some extraordiarily incisive and clear analytic writing on music, and it has been unjustly ignored (but nevermind, I guarantee that there will eventually be at least one dissertation written about Cage as a music theorist)) or Glen Branca, and sometimes puzzled, for example by Richard K. Winslow. From the composers in my own generation, I recall his enthusiasm for music by Gordon Monahan and Mitchell Clark. In later years he singled out Philip Glass, putting him in Cage's alphabetized theatre of ghosts, and Stephen Albert, for the Symphony: RiverRun, product of a shared enthusiasm for Finnegan Wake. Cage used the word "convivial" to describe Glass's music, but that word really fits well to Cage's own works, and particularly those of his last years. Not only was he an active member of his community, but he was trying to compose in a way in which the balance, between sounds and silences, and among the sounds between loud and soft, was itself convivial: a sustainable ecology of sounds, shared on the basis of non-compulsion, mutual respect, and considerable faith in the prospect that when one is open and inventive, good things can happen with even the most modest of means. Damn it, I miss the man.

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