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Centennial Of Maverick American Composer John Cage - Visionary Genius or Charlatan ?

  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 . 


Posted: Sep 05 2012, 06:29 PM by the horn | with no comments
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