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John Cage

CAGED IN 2012

by Charlie Finch
 
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In addition to it being the Jackson Pollock Centennial and quarter-centennial observance of the Andy Warhol demise, it is also the centennial of John Cage's birth (his dates are Sept. 5, 1912-Aug. 12, 1992). This is what happens when we wander too far afield into a new millennium: anniversaries tend to pop up like fly-by-night Bowery gallery spaces.

So what are we to make of Cage? Ten years ago I attended the memorial for my friend, the great Life Magazine art critic David Bourdon, at the Quaker Meeting House and, almost "de rigueur," Cage's 4' 33" was "played." You get the irony, of course: Quakers are about silence. But no one blabbed more, in extensive interviews, about "silence" and "natural sound" than the aging Cage, filmed and taped in his famous West Village apartment, very much still available on YouTube.

If, while watching these vids, you try to take in the ambient noise behind him, good luck to you, trying to block out the composer's earthly pronouncements! Which leads us to the contradictions that are essential to Cage. He came out of a 1930s world in which 12-tone apostles still put a foot into the popular music world: William Schumann led a dance band, Milton Babbitt composed a Broadway score (which was never produced) and even Schoenberg himself told a dying George Gershwin that Gershwin was the better composer.

In the context of his experimental masters, Cage set out to do nothing less than occupy the popular concert hall and force a bourgeois audience to experience what he wryly portrayed as "naturalism" as somehow natural. In this, Cage succeeded beyond his wildest dreams, to the point at which, audiences who, say, attend "TimesTalks" stage presentations with Kate Winslet or Philip Glass, are steeped in self-consciousness, coming and going, thanks to Caged conditioning -- the very opposite of John's rhetoric!

So 100 years is not enough time to unlock the Cage, much less open the door. But, as John Cage often professed, there is no lock and there is no door.


CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).


 



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