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John Cage, freed: Visionary composer deeply impacted pop, rock

composer John Cage

composer John Cage

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Updated: August 30, 2012 5:08PM

2012 is the centenary for two seminal figures in American music: folksinger Woody Guthrie and composer John Cage, both born in 1912.

They had a few things in common, believe it or not. Both were bold pioneers of their respective genres. Both dabbled in Eastern mysticism (well, Guthrie dabbled, Cage dove in). Both fell in love with dancers the second time around (Guthrie married Marjorie Greenblatt from the Martha Stewart company, Cage partnered with Merce Cunningham).

They probably never met, but Guthrie is on record as being deeply affected by some of Cage’s groundbreaking, boundary-busting classical music. On July 10, 1947 — the day Marjorie gave birth to his son Arlo — Guthrie wrote a fan letter to the Disc Co. of America. He’d been listening to Maro Ajemian’s recording of the “prepared piano” solos (in which piano strings are augmented with screws, cards and more) from Cage’s “Amores,” and Guthrie declared that “this sort of piano music was really a keen fresh breeze … a welcome thing in the way of a healthy change from the old ways.”

Even more than being successful musicians, both Guthrie and Cage strived (and sometimes starved) in the service of that goal — to freshen the stale ways of each particular niche in which they found themselves. They succeeded. Each is now revered as an iconoclast.

As a result, the other and primary commonality between Guthrie and Cage is their different but deep, deep influences on modern pop and rock music. Guthrie’s influence is better cataloged and freely bantered about — anyone who’s heard, say, Springsteen open his mouth during the last eight months can attest to that — but Cage’s imprint is, well cagier.

Like Guthrie, Cage’s legacy is often appreciated more for his ideals than his actual compositions.

“His theory, which was the strongest, utilitarian, American theory of music, was addressing the purity and the [at the time] European expectation of purity in music. He said there is none,” John Cale says.

Before joining the deeply influential rock band the Velvet Underground with Lou Reed in the late ’60s, Cale was a classically trained viola player who conducted the debut of Cage’s “Concert for Piano and Orchestra.”

“He said if you go to a concert intending to concentrate cleanly on what you hear, you can focus all you want but you’re going to hear traffic, people coughing, rustling. So forget about purity,” Cale tells the Sun-Times. “What he was really talking about is sound design, such as in theater or filmmaking. You can’t ever hear the music just purely; you’re going to hear it in context. That’s where he brought the concert hall out into the street.”

That basic idea found its truest expression in Cage’s simplest but possibly most profound composition: “4’33”.” Titled for its duration, the 1952 piece calls for any kind and any number of musicians to sit quietly, not playing anything, for precisely four minutes and 33 seconds. The idea is that the inevitable sounds of the performance space — a humming air system, a footfall, a sneeze or two, the general cacophony of an allegedly silent room — create the “music.” As Cage described of the piece’s controversial 1952 premiere, “You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third the people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.”

Cage was quite serious about that piece — as well as his “prepared piano” compositions, his looped experiments with audio equipment, even when he’d drink a carton of milk on stage with a microphone at his throat. But his daring and his derring-do came with a wink.

“John was a really mischievous guy. I liked his sense of humor,” Cale says. “It was such a relief for me. I was clinging to the Dadaists and Fluxus, and they were fun, but then the [German composer Karl] Stockhausen school was so intense and serious. … I read John’s Zen koans and his work with silence, and it was a relief. I liked the playful nature of his ideas. I mean, ‘4’33”’ — you know, they broadcast it on BBC [in 2004].” He chuckles. “One of the guys told me, ‘At the Beeb, they don’t allow silence on the broadcast waves. They have a system that if something goes off and there’s dead air, it automatically puts in an old political speech or music. So when they did ‘4’33”,’ they had to shut that system off.”

“4’33”” has even been recorded, including versions by Andrew W.K. and Frank Zappa, and appears on online in numerous versions, including a “dubstep remix.”

Museum of Contemporary Art curator Lynne Warren’s favorite version is a version by a self-professed death metal drummer, filmed and posted on YouTube. He sits behind a drum kits for only slightly more than a minute, later explaining that he played “a little faster than the original tempo.”

“A lot of the myth about Cage is that he gave you permission to do anything, and that’s absolutely not true,” Warren says. “He gave permission to go beyond one’s presuppositions, habits of mind, rote ways of doing things. He taught people to listen in certain ways, to get rid of one’s ego. It’s hard to pin down. It’s not like you can say this was the first pop musician to put on a costume and prance around doing glam rock. There’s no real linear explanation of his influence.”

Warren hopes to illuminate that slippery pedigree by opening up the MCA’s library for “MCA DNA: John Cage,” an exhibit opening Sept. 1 seeking to show the interdisciplinary nature of Cage’s music and its impact not only on future sound but on visual art, too. Listening stations will present his music, but visitors also will be able to see, and in some case handle, Cage scores and other work.

“People have asked, ‘Why are you showing Cage materials, like scores, as art?’” Warren said. “The answer is that he considered them works of art, and he made works of art himself — prints, drawings, some scores are base don painting he’d done. You absolutely cannot pigeonhole him, even into one art form.”

The MCA exhibit spotlights Cage’s recurring relationship with Chicago and the museum itself. Cage lived in Chicago briefly (1941-42), teaching at the Chicago School of Design and working as an accompanist at the University of Chicago. He returned throughout the years for performances and festivals.

Warren says one of the museum’s most requested image for reproduction is the city map Cage used to compose “A Dip in the Lake: Ten Quicksteps, Sixty-two Waltzes, and Fifty-six Marches for Chicago and Vicinity” (1978), a sound collage based on recordings made at 427 Chicago locations, determined by Cage’s favorite composing method: chance.

Another return to Illinois included Cage’s 1969 premiere of “HPSCHD” in an Urbana arena. The composition called for seven harpsichords, 52 tape machines, 59 amplifiers, 59 speakers, 64 slide projectors (using 6,400 slides), eight film projectors (showing 40 films), one 340-foot circular screen and 11 rectangular screens. A New York Times review reported, “Some of those present were supine, their eyes closed, grooving on the multiple stereophony.”

Thread that image through your memory of various multimedia art, rock and art-rock performances you’ve seen. Then the visuals of the Talking Heads and MTV, the sound experiments of Brian Eno and the Flaming Lips, the anything-goes-and-should spirit of concerts by Frank Zappa and Sonic Youth — it all has clear roots.

♦ “MCA DNA: John Cage” runs Sept. 1-March 3 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago Ave. (312-280-2660; John Cale performs separately as part of the Brilliant Corners of Popular Amusements festival Sept. 21 at the Riverfront Theater, 650 W. Chicago (

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