John Cage: Impossible Futures
Brisbane composer LAWRENCE ENGLISH marks the centenary of John Cage’s birth with an essay, an album and even a mesostic poem in the manner of Cage.
John Cage is a potent virus. By this I mean he is as infectious as he is subtle. Like a virus, an interest in Cage starts with some symptoms and before long changes the host in a lasting way, changing the very DNA and ideological viewpoint from which the person infected by Cage is coming.
The only example I can give is my own growing Cage infection. Interestingly, I can't recall exactly where it was I first heard about John Cage. There may have been the odd early teenage encounter, but nothing discretely memorable. The closest it comes is a recollection of a music teacher denouncing Cage somewhere along the way. This same music teacher failed me in music, actually, and was shocked to discover I had chosen to create a living in music during a chance post-school encounter. Whatever that first spore was, something at the time must have taken root inside me, as I am sure it has in so many other musicians of the past 70 years.
What I can say for sure is that I have had a folder on my desktop for the better part of a few years now with one of his quotes sitting in its caption: “If you celebrate it, it's art. If you don't, it isn't.” John Cage, 1966. That particular saying – along with a swag of other golden gems, like “Every something is an echo of nothing” and “I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry” – are also like viruses, in that they seem innocuous when you first come across them but gradually they chip away at your mental health, causing you to come down with a case of Cagian fever.
all Wonder Engaging us in Moments in tIme in Space in Silence mr John cage yOu are still breathing Hiding in us Nothings whisper
For those who don't know him, please allow me to introduce John Cage, who celebrates the centenary of his birth this year. Cage was a true renaissance man – a composer, painter, philosopher, mycologist and above all a lover of turning things on their heads. What makes John Cage such a central figure is he was restless in a century where restlessness could honestly result in substantive change and the reconfiguring of long-established traditions and ideas. Along with great mid-century thinkers like Marshall McLuhan and Buckminster Fuller, Cage’s contributions are still continuing to be felt – in some cases more acutely than ever.
Many people will recognise Cage for his most famous composition of 1952, 4’33’’. In this work, the performer (at the piano) remains intentionally silent and does not perform. Through the absence of action, the audience becomes aware of all the sound around them and, in doing so, are pushed to consider silence. It’s works like this, and his works concerning chance, that resonate far beyond the music itself (or the lack thereof).
Last year, when thinking about Cage’s upcoming centenary, I was trying to imagine a way in which I might publicly tip my hat to the old man. I’d heard of a lot of great projects – a collaborator and friend, Werner Dafeldecker, had decided to re-stage Cage’s classic octophonic work Williams Mix alongside Valerio Triciloi, whilst another friend was planning performances of works that have never been presented in Australia. These projects weren’t a fit for what Cage represented to me.
By chance (pun intended) I was reminded of Cage’s only excursion into film, One11, when Stephan Mathieu happened to post a reference to the film on his Facebook page. (Yes, even the great digital suburb that is Facebook can contribute to creative endeavours.) It was this chance encounter that lead to my creating For/Not For John Cage, my tribute of sorts to his methodologies and legacy.
The film One11, which was completed just one week before Cage died, is something of an understated affair. A terrifically Cagian examination of minimalism, in the form of a single light source filmed as it moves and flickers around a studio space. It sounds deceptively simple, a light moving, but somehow Cage managed to capture something so utterly pure in this piece that it perhaps is one of his most powerful works. It just exists in and of itself, and asks you to come to it – it’s down to the audience members what they draw from it. It’s an invitation to examine: do so, and be rewarded; don’t, and come away unmoved from your fixed position.
At a personal level, the greatest thing Cage has left behind is an invitation to unhinge yourself from tradition. As I am making sound works that were technologically impossible for much of the last century, and early in that century likely to be heard as the expressions of lunacy, I owe a debt of gratitude to Cage. With that charming smile of his, he turned quirk into quandary and then, again smiling all the while, into art.
As I look around now, I wonder where is the Cage of this age? In the 20th century we were spoilt with outspoken minds – William Burroughs, Susan Sontag, Neil Postman, Chris Marker and of course John Cage – all committed to undermining the establishment, for want of a better word. Today the legacy of these minds seems more vital and inspirational than ever. The question for us is how we live up to the possible futures they have imagined for our generation and, more importantly, how we imagine impossible futures for those who come after us.