Composer, visual artist, writer, philosopher, humorist, mushroom expert: the depth and breadth of John Cage’s engagement with art and ideas was dizzying. “Cage was all about simultaneity and multiplicity, those were words that he lived by,” says Laura Kuhn, Executive Director of the John Cage Trust. In this context, she says, presenting a concert of music by Cage in tandem with an exhibition of his art, at the Hayward Gallery, is something to be celebrated. “It feels like a perfect thing to do: it makes the whole thing lively, especially if people don’t know Cage was a visual artist, which not so long ago, people didn’t. They were shocked to find out that there was this huge body of work.” Anton Lukoszevieze, whose ensemble is named after Cage’s piece Apartment House 1776, agrees. “Cage’s compositional and artistic approaches go hand in hand; it is clear that he was a major figure in both contemporary music and art.”
Yet Cage was never a polymath in the traditional sense. Music, or perhaps more accurately, sound, was where he began and it was with him every step of way of his creative life (legend has it he promised Arnold Schoenberg, his teacher, to dedicate his life to music). As an assistant to Cage in his later years and a champion of his work since his death, Kuhn is well-placed to untangle the web of Cage’s prolific inspiration. And he was extremely prolific. “We started our [the trust’s] archives with what was in Cage’s apartment when he died,” she says. “That included all his music manuscripts, just shy of 28,000 pieces of paper. We brought together a team of musicologists and they worked to place Cage’s material at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.”
Such groundwork was important in establishing a foundation for Cage’s legacy, which Kuhn has seen mature over the past 20 years. “When Cage died, the greatest confluence of interest was in the people who knew him – there was some speculation at the time that once that generation left us, interest in his work would subside” she says. “That’s gone away now because we have a new generation for whom Cage is something completely different.” As we move towards Cage’s centennial year in 2012, the most striking example of that change has to be the 2010 internet campaign, ‘Cage against the machine’, to make 4’33” the Christmas No.1 single ahead of that year’s television talent show winner: a gimmicky distortion of Cage’s original intentions perhaps, but a demonstration of the iconic status of the work that opens this evening’s concert.
It is appropriate then, that this programme is bookended by 4’33” and its successor 0’00”, but as Anton Lukoszevieze explains, the evening also covers “most of his major compositional career. That’s some 45 years, from the ethereal, acquiescent beauty of the String Quartet in four parts to the sonic complexity of Music for eight.” For Kuhn, as well as emphasising the variety of ideas and themes in Cage’s music, this programme shows Cage as the innovator he was. For example: “Cage’s work with technology was astonishing. Today, we take it for granted that people sample music, but Cage was doing that with radios almost 70 years ago. He was using variable-speed turntables – being his own DJ – in Seattle in the thirties. Radio Music is astonishing because it’s so easy to perform and yet it is startling in its simplicity.”
Indeed, simplicity is a word that applies to much of Cage’s creativity: it was the originality of his ideas, not their complexity or sophistication, that made him unique. Perhaps Schoenberg was right when he described Cage not as a composer but as an inventor, and one of genius.
Tim Woodall © 2011
John Cage Night performed by Apartment House is at the Queen Elizabeth Hall at 7.30pm on Tuesday 13 September. Tickets from £9 – click here to book.
There is also a free guided tour of the exhibition for concert ticket holders at 6pm, and a free post-concert talk with Laura Kuhn and members of Apartment House.
The exhibition John Cage: Every Day is a Good Day is at the Hayward Gallery Project Space until Sunday 18 September. Open daily 10am – 6pm, admission free. Click here for details.
Filed under: Chamber music, Contemporary Classical, Get to know..., Queen Elizabeth Hall | Tagged: Apartment House, art exhibition, Classical, classical music, contemporary classical, Hayward Gallery, International Chamber Music Season, John Cage, Laura Kuhn, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre | 2 Comments »