John Cage at 100
As BBC Radio 3 celebrates the centenary of American composer John Cage's birth, Tom Service looks back on a life and music that was a defining part of the 20th century and asks how we should understand the work of a man who trod a unique path through composition, visual art, social theory and philosophy.
Cage was always controversial: he stuck things in pianos that until his invention of the ‘prepared piano’ really didn’t belong there, and his Sonatas and Interludes composed in the 1940s are now part of the modern pianistic canon. In his so-called silent piece, 4’33’’, when pianist David Tudor sat down at the piano on the stage at Woodstock in 1952 and made not a sound, he enshrined a philosophy and an approach to the world as much as a piece of music. Just as iconoclastically, Cage composed by tossing coins, using the Chinese Book of Changes, the I Ching, as his most important compositional tool for the last four decades of his life. He was more than a composer though, and his involvement in Zen Buddhism, his thoughts on social change and anarchy, his prolific writing and even his wild mushroom picking, all form part of his extraordinary output.
What it all amounts to, some say, is the most wide-ranging and seismically important body of work in the entire 20th century. But for others, Cage is still a charlatan, a musical Holy Fool at best, a cynical joker at worst. His teacher, Arnold Schoenberg called him not a composer, but ‘an inventor - of genius’. Others have been less kind: musicians confronted with his scores for the first time treated him, and his pieces, with derision; some people think that it’s Cage’s ideas on musical and social philosophy that titillate and stimulate, while his music, they say, won’t last the test of time.
Joining Tom in the studio to review and reassess John Cage, as composer or perhaps inventor, are biographers Mark Swed and David Nicholls. They’ll hear from a chorus of expert witnesses, those who knew and worked with Cage at different points during his lifetime: composers John Adams and Howard Skempton, David Behrman and Christian Wolff, his assistant through the last decade of his life Andrew Culver and poetry scholar and critic Marjorie Perloff. Weaving his way through the programme, from the BBC archives, is the distinctive and beguiling voice of John Cage himself.