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Celebrating John Cage

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Will Gompertz | 08:54 UK time, Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Have you noticed how everybody wants to be different but nobody wants be odd? Call a friend unique and they'll like you all the more, tell them that they're odd and you'll be deleted from their life. The truth is most people don't want to be different - they want to be the same, but better.

John Cage

I like odd people. Quirky types, eccentrics, twitching academics, people who are not in sync with the rest of the world but not against it either, people who are just doing their thing. People like the late musician John Cage (1912-1992).

Cage was a Category A odd-ball. When everybody turned left, his instinct was to veer right, not for effect or attention or to elevate himself, just because turning right would have felt like the thing to do. He was a great and influential musician who made music from life, not to accompany it. He was the man behind 4'33'' - a timeframe in which to listen, a piece of infinitely varying incidental music that the anit-X Factorers tried to manipulate to number one spot in the UK charts last Christmas under the banner of Cage Against the Machine.

I don't think John Cage would have approved. The implicit point being made by the Cowell-knocking PR campaign was anything is better than a Simon Cowell promoted number one: even silence. But 4'33'' is not a piece of post-modernist irony, it is not about silence, it's about the music of real life. Cage once said that, "the sound experience I prefer to all others is the experience of silence". It is only when all is quiet that your aural senses can at last have a bit of "me time".

When Cage was taken away with that exhilarating feeling of freedom we all get on high days and holidays, when the iPod gets cranked up a notch or two, and a favourite piece of music transports us to somewhere sublime, he would not bother with manufactured music, but simply turn up his ears and listen harder to the noises around him.

He was less interested in formal music, which he likened to talking, "I don't need sound to talk to me", but liked the "activity of sound". Sound that doesn't mean anything other than it is proof of a life-force. So, someone dropping a pan, or a busy motorway or a random act of noisemaking by a horse bolting though a city was music to Cage's ears.

On Saturday a new exhibition opens at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea, Sussex, called, John Cage: Every Day is a Good Day. It will be the first of many such exhibitions over the next 12 months, marking the centenary of the modernist master's birth. The show will include a reprisal of his whimsical 1948 piece, Suite for Toy Piano by Margaret Leng Tan who you can see on YouTube playing Eleanor Rigby on the instrument. She knew Cage and worked with him before he died. Her point - and his point - is that the toy piano has the potential to be a real instrument, that anything has the potential to be musical, especially silence.

John Cage was odd. Fabulously so.



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