This year is the 100th anniversary of the birth of America's most influential composer, John Cage. He was born and raised — and studied composition with Arnold Schoenberg — right here in L.A. The man was one of the great visionary composers of the last century, but the conventional wisdom is that his ideas are more important than his music. Untrue; he's one of the most frequently recorded composers born last century, and more musicians program his music today than ever before.
Cage predicted that electronic music would become commonplace, elevated percussion instruments to equal status with strings, brass, and winds, and discovered new ways to play acoustic instruments. He wrote the first piece requiring a turntable performer, and treated things such as radios, water, and plants as musical instruments. He remixed Satie, Mozart and other composers years before electronic producers.
For his centennial, Cage is getting props all over, with programs at New York's Juilliard School, Berlin, Cologne, Chicago, and Washington, D.C.. You'd think L.A. would be doing something grand for him, but there isn't a big Cage festival here. However, there are almost two dozen smaller concerts here to attend, so here's our guide to a year-long Cage crawl.
John Cage Centenary Festival @ REDCAT
Those kooky CalArts kids got the party started last week with a performance of the complete Song Books. They'll be taking their Cage love to REDCAT. If you can't make both shows, go tonight — you'll hear some rarely performed large ensemble works by Cage.
Southwest Chamber Music: Cage 2012
March 3-4, 24
The biggest L.A. celebration will be hosted by Southwest Chamber Music. Simply titled Cage 2012, we've already hipped readers to the March 3rd and 4th concerts featuring violinist Shalini Vijayan performing in tandem with melting ice sculptures. After that show, we'd recommend the Colburn School concert featuring two works from the 1970s reflecting Cage's preoccupation with Henry David Thoreau.
Green Umbrella at the LA Phil
Two of Cage's most notorious innovations — the prepared piano and the use of chance in composing — came together in his Concerto for Prepared Piano. The Concerto calls for a hardware store full of screws and bolts in the piano, the most elaborate preparations Cage ever devised, and in the final movement, Cage used the I Ching to select musical materials. Piano goddess Gloria Cheng will be the soloist with the LA Philharmonic New Music Group, conducted by John Adams.
Susan Svrcek, a member of Team Piano Spheres, will perform six of Cage's early piano works at the Colburn School, none of which call for preparing the piano, although the Suite was the first classical composition ever scored for toy piano. Folks who think of Cage as the Boogey Man of 20th century music will be surprised to hear how disarmingly charming his piano music could be in the 1940s.
Cage's birthday is Sept. 5, and CalArts, Jacaranda, Beyond Baroque, and Wild Up are planning Cage concerts around that time, although they're still working out the details. But even if you can't attend any concerts at all, John Cage wrote a piece that anyone can perform at their own convenience. It's 4'33″, and all you have to do is focus and listen to your environment. No other composer in the history of classical or popular music gave the world a composition so easy, and yet, so challenging, to perform.