September 2012 - Posts
John Cage was born 100 years ago today . He was either one of the most important composers of the 20th century or a complete and utter charlatan depending on what you think of his music . Some consider him to be a visionary genius and bold innovator and others dismiss him as a trendy pseudo composer and pseudo intellectual poseur . He died twenty years ago just a month before his 80th birthday .
Cage was born in Los Angeles and was a maverick from the very beginning . He studied briefly at UCLA and USC with the great Arnold Schoenberg, whose compositional style, with its tightly controlled 12 tone techniques were diametrically opposed to the aesthetic views he came to develop , and the older composer described him as not so much as composer but "an inventor of genius." In fact, Cage's father was a rather eccentric professional inventor .
Cage sought to depart from everything classical music as we know it stands for ; pre-existing forms such as sonata , variation etc, conventional harmony , use of standard instruments, etc . He made pioneering use of aleatoric , or made up on the spur of the moment chance improvisation , and used the fampous I Ching of Chinese philosophy as a means to create chance music constructed by arbitrary means . Alea means dice in latin , and composition for Cage became something of a casting by dice affair .
Cage made the use the of silence as an integral part of his compositional techniques , and perhaps hjis most famous work ? is the so called 4 ' and 33' , or four minutes and 33 seconds of silence in front of a piano . The performer ? just sits there at the keyboard and does absolutely nothinhg for four minutes and 33 seconds . The ocmposition consists of whatever random sounds happen , coughing ,or whatever . Is this real music or just a clever gimmick ? Not every one agrees .
Like his music or not, Cage was very much taken seriously during his lifetime by many important composers ,critics and musicologists , and he became something of a cultural hero in Europe . He tended to be rather dismissive of pretty much the whole centuries long tradiition of western classical music, and even declared that "Beethoven was wrong ", in his approach to composition, that is . But how was Beethoven supposed to know that 200 years ago ? You might as well find fault with Goya because he did not paint like Salvador Dali .
Cage was also a devotee of Zen Buddhism and an amateur mycologist, or expert on mushrooms , and was able to distinguish posionous from non-poisonous mushrooms caught in the wild ! He developed a method of putting nuts ,bolts, and other metal objects inside pianos to make them sound, well, rather strange . This is called "prepared piano ".
Whether you consider him to be a real composer or not, Cage was certainly a colorful character ! Some of his works can be heard on youtube for free .
Careless me. I forgot to mention that as a prelude to the PBS Ring this month , there will be what looks like a fascinating documentary on the controversial production by Susan Froemke, a noted maker of documentaries , called "Wagner's Dream ". It will show how director Robert Lepage and an army of technicians and assistants prepared the ambitious and technologically sophisiticated production for performance , as well as how the singers and conductors adapted to its consiuderable demands and difficulties .
The production features a massive unit set of metal planks which constantly move around the huge Met stage along with computer-generated special effects of all kinds which would have been impossible with conventional stage technology . It has caused numerous difficulties for the singers and there have been some technical glitches during performances which were downright embarassing .
Many critics and commentators have reacted negatively to the production and even dismisse it as an artistic failure . Not having seen it yet, I will withhold judgment and you can decide for yourself , although this may be difficult if you don't have other Ring productions with which to compare it . There are quote a few of them on DVD now, including the Met's previous and traditional version , several from the Wagner shrine in Bayreuth and other European opera houses which tend to take great liberties with the story in terms of sets, costumes and staging, setting the action in the present day with the characters in modern dress etc. and have all manner of ridiculous arbitrary production gimmicks which fly in the face of Wagner's original intentions . Such productions have been endemic to Europe in our time, not only in Wagner, though less so in America .
If you've never experienced Richard Wagner's stupendous "Ring of the Nibelungen " cycle before , you will have your chance beginning next September 11 through 14 on PBS . This mind-boggling apocalyptic operatic epic is certainly a daunting experience for opera newbies, but there will be English subtitles and you can easily google the complete plot . Wikipedia is a good source for this . PBS is presenting the controversial recent Met production with computer-generated special effects by the renowned Canadian director Robert Lepage , and the conducting duties are shared by James Levine and recently appointed Met principal conductor Fabio Luisi, who had to step in because of Levine's protracted ailments , and many of today's leading Wagner singers will be in the cast, including Deborah Voigt, Bryn terfel, Stepahnie Blythe, Eric Owens , Waltraud Meier and Jonas Kauffmann in the very large cast .
Wagner's gargantuan epic cycle of four operas , or "music dramas" as he preferred to call them , is based on Germanic and norse mythology , complete with gods, goddesses, superheroes, giants, dwarfs, Valkyries on magic steeds , water nixies, a ferocious dragon, a magic sword, and a magic helmet which enables you to become a shape shifter , among other cool things. But the central object in the story is a fateful golden ring made from the magic gold of the river Rhine which gives its owner supreme power over everyone and everything. But there's one catch - there is a terrible curse attached to it which leads to the death and destruction of any one who possesses it .
Does this sound vaguely like Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" and the movie series ? Well, sort of , but not exactly . The end of the cycle, called "Twilight of the Gods," ends with the death of the superhero Siegfried and the destruction of the gods, who have been corrupted by the lust for power of their chief god, Wotan (Odin in Scandinavian mythology ) as Valhalla , their mighty abode in the skies burns and th eRhine overflows its banks, flooding the earth . It's an awesome, apocaplyptic ending .
Wagner's stupendous music far surpasses any of the film scores by hollywood composers , as skillfull and effective as they are . You wil also be able to experience this Ring through streaming at the Met's website metopera.org , and later on DVDs when it comes out . Wagner's Ring is like nothing you have ever experienced before ! The four parts of the Rng are "Das Rheingold " (The Rhinegold,) "Die Walkure".(The Valkyrie), "Siegfried" , and "Gotterdammerunf" (Twilight pof the gods). It's about 16 hours of music spread over four evenings , but an experience not to be missed !