Quiet Cage: What did it all mean?

Composer John Cage in 1989. Some didn't share his desire to communicate.
Composer John Cage in 1989. Some didn't share his desire to communicate.
Posted: September 17, 2012

Just like the old days: a university campus auditorium, a small, appreciative audience, and cutting-edge music you applauded for fear of looking stupid for not doing so.

It was Orchestra 2001's first of three John Cage Centennial Happenings and raised some fundamental questions: When was the ceaselessly avant-garde Cage joking? Or serious? What kind of seriousness is right for performers?

Much of the music on Saturday's concert at the International House felt wan, but with precedent: For all of his reputation for embracing any kind of sound as music, authoritative Cage recordings are often quite soft-spoken. In Sonatas I-IV (1946-48), played by Charles Abramovic, the piano was "prepared" with objects inserted into the body of the instrument's strings that dampened the sound. In the 1958 Solo for Sliding Trombone, Robert Gale had a number of mutes, some of them almost dwarfing his instrument. And then, of course, there's Cage's most famous work, 4'33," written in 1952 in three silent movements.

Well, the world has grown noisier since Cage's 1992 death. Listeners needed to be nearer to the performers. I would've gotten much more out of the piano works had I been sitting a few feet away.

Some cues could be taken from the concert's intermission feature: A 1960 kinescope from the quiz show I've Got a Secret had Cage (invited, no doubt, for his novelty appeal) performing Water Walk for radios, household appliances, and piano. In performance, there was nothing casual or arbitrary about Cage's concentrated, purposeful, tightly choreographed manner. He registered an intense desire to communicate.

Not everybody had that on Saturday. Because many Cage works have only loosely determined perameters, performers have to bring more of themselves to his pieces. Not everyone is used to that. I've always thought of 4'33" as a contemplative work encompassing peripheral sound that you might not notice under other circumstances (such as the nearby church bells heard on Saturday). But in the communicative, good-sport spirit of the televised Cage, Orchestra 2001 director James Freeman (always a genial host, here more than usual) announced he was doing a new version: He would silently conduct the piece (with the other musicians sitting mute), and did so in a third of the usual time. Enjoyable, but superficial and disappointing.

Generally, I wanted more of a sense of thought behind the performances, of what the pieces were trying to say and how it could best be said, as opposed to sticking close to Cage's fairly simple directions. The liveliest performance, Cage's 1970 Song Books for electronics and "theater," had dancer Megan Bridge striking iconic poses and delivering attractive flourishes. But I had no sense of the piece's value. Maybe that question shouldn't be asked, but without meaning, music is boring.


Contact David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com. Orchestra 2001 will perform John Cage concerts at 8 p.m. Friday at the Barnes Foundation and 3 p.m. Sunday at Lang Concert Hall, Swarthmore College.

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