Sincerely, John Cage

Sincerely, John Cage

If there’s one event that can unite the American new music community, such as it is, in shared admiration, it must be this year’s Cage centennial. I spoke with my continuing-ed class yesterday about Cage, in particular his under-discussed prewar music, and it was difficult for me to convey the magnitude of Cage’s contribution to music and musical thought. One student asked, as listeners freshly exposed to Cage often do, whether Cage really expected us to take his propositions seriously; before I could answer, another student piped up that he had spent some time over the past week Googling Cage’s name in search of video and audio content. Making my heart glad, the second student avowed that, having listened to Cage talk about music, after hearing his voice, he was sure the composer wasn’t winding us up: You have only to listen to him discuss his work to know he had to be sincere.

That same student brought with him to class a concert program from 1967: As it turned out, he had witnessed a concert featuring pieces by Cage, David Tudor, Toshi Ichiyanagi, Alvin Lucier, and Lowell Cross at Hope College in Michigan more than forty years ago! The final piece was the famous 0’00”, which Cage performed by reading a book and smoking a cigarette under (as specified) heavy amplification. What a remarkable coincidence.

I’m not yet sure what Cage performances await me this year—many, I hope. However many it ends up being, I look forward to that very rare feeling that they bring: A special peanut butter cup of familiarity, comfort with the literature I owe to my UMBC education, and the unfamiliarities, the epiphanies, Cage’s music can bring about. There’s never been a better time to hear (or play!) some Cage; I hope America’s musical institutions, old and new, seize the opportunity to give the man’s work its due.

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7 thoughts on “Sincerely, John Cage

  1. Philipp Blume

    In addition to the Cage centennial, this is the 50th anniversary of 4’33”, and I’m looking forward to the 50th anniversary of MusiCircus in 2017! In the next couple of decades all of Cage’s most monumental accomplishments will see their semicentennial.

    But in 1912 he was just born (not much of an achievement). Maybe this year we should celebrate his mother?

  2. Joseph Holbrooke

    “…he was sure the composer wasn’t winding us up: You have only to listen to him discuss his work to know he had to be sincere.”

    This misses the more interesting possibility that Cage was seriously and sincerely winding us up.

    1. Colin Holter

      Well, listen, we could argue about this, but to my mind it’s more interesting to believe him. If he was seriously and sincerely winding us up, he was no more than a straight-faced, cynical, Jeff Koonsian huckster; I’d rather think of him as genuine. If indeed it’s so difficult to determine which of these two views has more factual validity, we might as well just pick the one that’s of more use to us, which for me (and, I imagine, for most people) is the view that he was for real.

      1. Joseph Holbrooke

        Why just one or the other? For me the fun dance musicians (ones you have heard of) do between sincerity and hickstersim is one of music’s most expressive characteristics. Cage seemed to me very conscious of that and able to exploit it for creative, professional, and just plain humorous goals. This is of course only one reason I think he was brilliant.


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