Saturday, October 13, 2012

Full Cage

There has been so much material about John Cage online of late that it is difficult to sort through it all. Let me just point to two very smart items, this, by conductor and percussionist Steven Schick, and this, by composer and critic Matthew Guerrieri. I'm singling these two out because they both focus on Cage's work in perhaps its most critical moment.  There is a tendency — due more to later Newmusicland politics than to the music itself in its own era — to disassociate Cage's project from the larger avant-garde musical project of the time, in particular accentuating the differences and distances from both the post-Schoenbergian American 12-toners and the European serialists.  Recovering those connections does not mean ignoring the differences (indeed, those differences — Cage and Eastern thought*, Babbitt and positivism, Boulez and French literature, Nono and romantic Marxism, Stockhausen and Hesse's Magister Ludi... — are the spice rack in the compositional kitchen) but helps place Cage's work in its own legitimate post-Schoenbergian context and helps to reestablish some of the sophistication, in terms of both complexity and plain musicality, of Cage's achievement that often gets lost in an emphasis on dimensions of Cage's work which are frequently misread as naive.  In a series of key works, in particular the landmarks Concert for Prepared Piano and Chamber Orchestra and Music of Changes, Cage built upon his experience with rhythmic structures (used initially in works for percussion and the prepared piano) and modes of organizing and moving through collections of materials which clearly stem from Schoenbergian techniques, with an attitude towards gamuts of materials that equally clearly reflect the influence of his other principle teacher, Henry Cowell.  Cage's charts correspond directly to the row boxes or arrays of say, Milton Babbitt, and though very different in the character of the single elements, reflect as careful as compositional mind (being puzzled together under tight restrictions) and, often to my ears, through their exuberance and eccentricity, a more vivid musical imagination.  

* With Cage, the Hindu and Zen strains were rather recent additions to an already rich array of spices, including his Aunt Phoebe Harvey's rhythmic patterns, Cowell, Satie, literature including Stein or Joyce or Cummings, visual artists from Tobey and Graves to Duchamp, and of course, much experience in composing and performing music for dance.


Lisa Hirsch said...

I appreciate the perhaps Cagean omission of "composer and critic Matthew Guerrieri." :)

Daniel Wolf said...

Thanks, Lisa. Not Cagean wit, just Wolfian haste. Now corrected.