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New Biography Of American Composer John Cage- An American Eccentric

  John Cage (1912-1992) was one of the most influential and controversial composers of the 20th century. As a new biography by Kenneth Silverman shows, he was also a fascinating man who led a fascinating life.

 Silverman, professor emeritus of English at New York University,traces the life of a man who was not only an important composer ,but as Wikipedia describes him , "a philosopher, poet, music theorist, artist, printmaker and  collector of mushrooms"  Cage was never a composer in the Beethovenian sense , writing in such established forms as the symphony, concerto , sonata etc , but an inveterate experimenter who departed radically from the tradittions of western classical music .

  Instead , he used used techniques of improvisation ,chance ,  electronic music , standard instruments used in unusual was such as putting nuts,bolts, and other objects inside pianos to alter their sound , and non-standard notation among other things . Many critics ,experts and listeners dismissed him as a mere charlatan , replacing musical substance with arbitrary gimmicks , but he stubbornly continued to go his own way .

  Perhaps his most famous (or notorious ) work is 4' and 33'' ,in which a pianist is directed to sit at the piano and play absolutely nothing for four minutes and 33 seconds . The ambient noises in the concert hall or wherever the piece is "played" are the work itself !   Other works reflect his fascination with Asian philopophy and aesthetics and his use of the Chinese I Ching as a means of writing a new kind of music .

  Cage was always a very tendy composer !  He was born in California in 1912 ,the son of an inventor , which no doubt explains his fascination with musical experimentation , studied with composers such as Henry Cowell (1897 -1965 , a keen experimenter himself , and the very different Austrian expatriate Arnold Schoneberg in Los Angeles, inventor of the 12 tone system of composition . Schoenberg  called him "more of an inventor of genius than a composer ".

  He was also involved in modern dance , and the famous dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham (1919-2006) was his life partner ,even though he had previously married the daughter of a Russian orthodox priest from Alaska, Xenia Kashevarov ,with whom he also collaborated on artistic endeavors. 

  Cage for the most part rejected the aesthetic principles of 19th century European art music ,and declared that "Beethoven was wrong ", implying that HIS musical aesthetics were the one and only way ,even though this is rather like faulting Goya for not painting like Picasso .  He befriended many prominent composers, artists and trendy aestheticians ,such as Pierre Boulez ,Virgil Thomson , Morton Feldman and others , and traveled widely in Europe ,where he became something of a cultural hero to the musical and artistic avant-garde .

  Cage studied Hindu philosophy and Zen Buddhism ,and became an amateur mycologist ,or expert on mushrooms, which he collected avidly on trips to the countryside wherever he went ,and was expert enough to distinguish poisonous from edible ones . 

  But he sometimes fell afoul of the classical music establishment . When Leonard Bernstein  programmed a work of his Atlas Ecliptpticalis ,which involves improviasatory techniques at a New York Philharmonic concert in the 1960s as its then music director , the members of the orchestra hated the work and the unconventional methods required to perform it ,and deliberately sabotaged the performance , infuriating the composer !

  Cage continued to experiment with chance elements ,unorthodox notation and oriental influence in western music until his death in 1992 , and remains as controversial to this day as he was during his life .  Silverman's biography is an absorbing read ,and it made this listener curious to invesitigate his music further ,even though his previous encounters with such unorthodox music had not made him an admirer .  It may very well make you curious about this strange man also.

 

 

Posted: Dec 02 2010, 09:19 AM by the horn | with no comments
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