Tribute to the Master of Silence on the Centennial of his Birth: A Review of the Kerouac School’s fourthirtythree: Caged!
Tell me about John Cage.
“Cage is about close reading or close listening—or listening differently,” says Jena Osman.
“Cage was deeply influenced by Zen Buddhism’s ‘whispered truths,’ especially ‘Make no impression,’” writes Rob Marks.
Cage was “not a composer but an inventor of genius,” his teacher, composer Arnold Schoenberg, asserts.
Known for works like “4’33,” in which performers are instructed not to play their instruments for the duration of four minutes and thirty-three seconds, John Cage challenged the assumptions of what it meant to be a performer, a listener, and a participant. From his book Silence to his “Lecture on Nothing,” Cage exploded the void, becoming the undisputed father of experimental music in the 20th century and, perhaps, the first Western postmodernist. As a young man, he traveled to Europe to soak in the culture of the 1920s, was influenced by experimental writers like Gertrude Stein, and found himself taken with “the multiplicity of simultaneous visual and audible events all going together in one’s experience and producing enjoyment…the beginning for me of theater and circus.” As an assistant to abstract filmmaker Oskar Fischinger, he learned that “everything in the world has its own spirit which can be released by setting it into vibration”—perhaps the best summation of the approach he took to artistic creation. From his lifelong romantic partnership and collaboration with influential modern dancer Merce Cunningham, to his creation of experimental poetry pieces, embrace of the ancient Chinese I Ching and the possibilities of chance, and multi-media “happenings” where audience members could walk in and out at will, John Cage “shifted the province of intention ‘from the responsibility to choose…to the responsibility to ask’” (Joan Retallack, qtd. in Marks).
Naropa University’s celebration of the centennial of Cage’s birth “fourthirtythree: Caged!” featured two days of performances and lectures that recalled our institutional preoccupation with lineage and legacy in honor of a man who may as well be one of our founders. One of Cage’s quotations might serve as a motto for Naropa, a university founded on contemplative education: “Art’s purpose is to sober and quiet the mind so that it is in accord with what happens.” This method of engagement—with art, the world, and the mind—aligns with a mode of artistic expression that emphasizes a more fluid approach to creation, one that does not adhere to rules and guidelines; instead, it embraces chance, improvisation, and unpredictability. From Naropa professor and former President Barbara Dilley recalling her days dancing with the Merce Cunningham Company, to recent alumni Kirstin Wagner, Kyle Pivarnik, and Kate Zipse performing a masked inversion of “4’33,” the “Caged!” performances were a fitting tribute to a postmodern Renaissance man by an artistic community still pushing the boundaries of his ideas.
Barbara Dilley and Robert Spellman opened the evening by paying homage to the archive of history through memories of Cage and a sparse, poignant performance that invoked Cage through sound and video. It was an honor to Cage’s legacy that Dilley started off the night recollecting her time with Cunningham and Cage. She recounted when Cage came to Naropa in 1974: “John’s performance is remembered as a catastrophe, or a good story, or a puzzlement, depending on who you are.” As Dilley recalled the performance, in which Cage sat at a table with his back to the audience, Spellman embodied this memory on stage. Cage’s face later appeared on the screen, intoning: “Most everyone accepts soft sounds, fewer people accept loud sounds.” He signed Dilley’s copy of his book Silence with phrases from the Dharma—“a prescient moment” for a woman who would go on to be the president of a Buddhist-inspired university. Spellman, associate professor in Naropa’s visual arts program, invoked Cage’s contemplative approach to art: “I find nature far more interesting than any of man’s controls of nature. Contemporary music…is music present with us, now, this now moment.” Mediation bells signaled the shift from one anecdote to the next and in doing so restored a balance between past and present. In this way, Dilley and Spellman demonstrated the necessity of remembrance: the importance of learning from those who came before.
But what is memory good for if not the next life, the next generation? We saw the 21st-century vision of Cage’s legacy with Naropa alumni Kyle Pivarnik, Kirstin Wagner, and Kate Zipse’s “4’33” Inverted,” a masked mashup of music from piano melodies to dubstep—a theatrical performance that echoed the multimedia “happenings” Cage helped pioneer in the 1960s. Cage’s “4’33” allows the “audience” to hear the sounds of the world around them and explore what “performance” truly means—when “nothing” is happening, the individual must decide what is happening and how to feel about it. Postmodernism in a nutshell.
In 2012, postmodernism still lives on through its reinvention, as evidenced by “4’33” Inverted.” Pivarnik and Wagner wore all black, with white masks that seemed to turn them into mannequins. They played air piano to a recording of Yann Tiersen’s elegant “La Valse D’Amelie,” until Zipse appeared in white clothing and a brightly smiling, garishly made-up mask. Cage’s disembodied voice played over a beat and Zipse mimed a sawing motion until the agitated figures in black crashed the keys and she disappeared. The performance continued with the traditionalists in black playing more air piano to Aphex Twin until the innovator in white returned, wearing headphones plugged into an invisible turntable, and, as a beat dropped over the piano music and Cage’s voice returned, danced openly and enthusiastically in the face of the staid musical convention embodied by the mannequin figures. Finally, the stage plunged into darkness and the abrasive, sonic devastation of Skrillex dubstep.
The multifaceted music of this performance embodied the experience of composing and listening to music that Cage tangled with: struggling with traditional harmony, he moved into innovation of percussion and noise. The piece ends with Cage’s voice intoning: “There is no inherent music.” As Pivarnik described it, they confronted the audience with “the challenge of sitting in the dark with a grating sound being blasted at [them]—a type of sensory overload,” which intentionally complemented “Cage’s idea of being able to sit in silence and deal with your inner self.” By invoking the struggles and experiments of Cage’s musical expression, the ways in which music is a key part of the life and popular culture of every generation, and the battle between the traditional and the avant-garde in 20th-century artistic life, this piece was one of the most entertaining and thought-provoking of the evening as it tapped the many veins of Cage’s legacy.
Paul Fowler’s performance, the third of the evening, continued with a tribute to Cage’s sonic experimentation. While playing a recording of Cage’s disembodied voice (as the previous performers of the evening had), Fowler engaged with the “prepared piano”—a method of weighing down a piano’s strings to alter its performance, a technique that Cage helped pioneer. With Cage’s voice overhead, Fowler channeled him by performing the past and creating the present, actively manipulating all possibilities of sound inherent in his instruments, his environment, and himself. Fowler also explored the infinite possibilities of the human voice, particularly in conjunction with a microphone, which allowed for further sonic distortion, singing, and percussion. Fowler’s performance brought to mind the great Laurie Anderson, who visited Naropa as a special guest during the 2012 Summer Writing Program, another fitting visitor in the centennial year of Cage’s birth. Fowler and Anderson pick up where Cage left off, bringing together the unique possibilities of a solo artist dabbling in multiple modes of performance that go beyond simply “playing an instrument”—an excellent example of the kind of experimentation undertaken by Naropa’s artists in every field.
Peter Jaeger’s reading was particularly fascinating to me as a fellow writer. Naropa is a perfect place to be if you want to learn about cutting-edge experimentation with language and the transgression of the conventional boundaries of “prose,” “poetry,” “fiction,” and all limiting categories that attempt to codify something as essentially unwieldy as linguistic expression. While Jaeger is a preeminent Cage scholar and delivered a separate lecture on Cage as part of Naropa’s celebrations, his reading was a thrilling tribute to Cage’s innovative style. In true Cage fashion, to describe it as any one “category” of writing would probably be inaccurate. It was prose, it was poetry, it was history, it was fragmentation—it was new. Jaeger read a litany of sentences that each followed the same essential construction of a person’s first name, then verb, then noun, which became either simply declarative or poetically elaborate. As this structure didn’t change throughout the entirety of the piece, the possibilities inherent in both standard repetition and open-ended experimentation evoked the same questions that the “4’33” Inverted” piece had asked earlier: what is the exact usefulness of tradition, and what can it offer us as we deconstruct it to create something “new”? As Jaeger read these sentences that began with an individual’s name, listeners were confronted with our own associations for each name—personal, political, celebrity—all engaging with some reaction that ranged from the mundane to the ultimately profound. Jaeger’s literary innovation echoes that of Cage’s as they both played within the constraints of the time to transcend into innovation.
Elyse Brownell, Asalott, and Melissa Mae Smith’s performance is described in the “Caged!” program as being “an excerpt from ‘Lecture on Nothing’ by John Cage,” which literally became a Lecture on Nothing as Brownell stood at the microphone and spoke silently—presumably reading that particular excerpt—while Smith, described in the program as a “hearing deaf poet and performer,” performed the “silent” words in sign language. I’m familiar with Brownell’s work as a fellow MFA student and always enjoyed her energetic, articulate poetry performances, so it was an interesting contrast to see her speaking at a microphone, her mouth moving but no sound coming out—very Cage-esque indeed, speaking a silent poem. With the addition of Smith, the question of spoken language, the limitations and possibilities of the senses, the boundaries between sound and silence, and the transmission of ideas and information were revealed as shifting, pliable, and fluid. What are we learning from a silent performance? Nothing—but of course, not nothing.
The final performance by Joanna Rotkin, “Indeterminacy and the Hypocrisy of Picnicking,” featuring music by John Cage, was another theatrically postmodern experience, a kind of absurdist satire on ownership as she vacuumed a large square of grass in the middle of the floor and announced that the grass was “hers,” an intriguing performance that also had the kids in the audience laughing as she entreated the crowd to get up and move to the back of the room—a body continually manipulating space. She endeavored to “show you the boundaries of this grass,” by crawling around on it in a party dress and heels, doing a variety of modern dance moves/improvisations while telling an anecdote, and ultimately wrapping herself up in the large squares of grass as they ripped apart from each other—all as Cage’s music played. Rotkin shrieked, “wake up, grass!” and panted like a dog; she apologized after wrapping herself up in the squares and extricated herself from them. As the title of her performance refers to indeterminacy, Cage’s favored principle of using chance and unpredictability in both creation and performance, Rotkin embraced the possibilities of an open space and a square of grass: facing implicit associations and assumptions, she forces us to confront the words that are chosen and the movements that arise.
This night of “Caged!” performances was one of the most intriguing instances I’ve seen since coming to Naropa of a uniquely experimental and innovative school engaging with the multifaceted legacy of a man who, while not technically one of our founders, essentially birthed us into existence by creating a cultural space for postmodern music, performance, and intellectual engagement. Without his experimentation in fields ranging from music and art to poetry and dance, what would Naropa be? As Cage said in 1957, “Until I die there will be sounds. And they will continue following my death. One need not fear about the future of music.” At Naropa, we do not fear for the future of music, or writing, or performance. Through history and the future, embodied by the present, the sounds will continue.