martin bandyke: John Cage 101, with U-M Professor Mark Clague
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of John Cage, the influential avant-garde composer whose most famous/infamous piece of music is 4’33”, where a performer is instructed not to play their instrument for a period of—you guessed it—four minutes and thirty-three seconds.
Challenging conventional notions of what music is and isn’t, employing silence, noise and elements of chance, plus tilting towards Zen Buddhism in its philosophy, Cage’s music, life and attitude can be profound or confounding, depending on your worldview.
Keith Richards, John Lennon, Frank Zappa and John Cage were among my musical idols when I was in my late teens and early twenties, a fearsome foursome who each challenged the status quo in their own way. I can’t honestly say I listen to Cage’s music very much these days, but his inquisitive approach to making and hearing music is something I do still try to emulate after all these years.
An associate professor of musicology and director of research at the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance, Mark Clague is participating in an ongoing tribute during Cage’s centenary anniversary year. Sharing my enthusiasm for Cage’s life and work, the Ann Arbor native will perform Cage’s “Lecture on Nothing” Monday night (Oct. 22) at 8 p.m. at the Walgreen Drama Center’s Stamps Auditorium, located on U-M’s North Campus.
Mark Clague:It sounds like you and I had very similar experiences. I came to John Cage’s music when I was in college. I had always heard about 4’33”, but it was usually represented in disparaging terms. It was a violation of the right and proper approach to making music with a capital M.
I did my own performances of 4’33” as a bassoonist, and it’s profound when you actually live through it. When you actually go through the real-time experience of sitting there for four minutes and thirty three seconds, you get to experience art in an open way. His music challenges me to expand my own definition of art, to experience his stuff in a way that’s open and embracing of possibility, rather than feeling that I’m the judge. He’s saying that if this art doesn’t speak to you, what can you change to be able to hear it and understand it.
I study American music and teach everything from punk to the latest Michael Daugherty composition, and I love it all. Cage is one of the thinkers and musicians who challenged me to give all forms of music a shot, to find ways I can connect rather than to dismiss something as improper.
Q: I’m a drummer, so one of the ways I first got into Cage’s music was by going to the main branch of the Detroit Public Library and listening to records of his early percussion music. I was intrigued and challenged and didn’t understand everything I heard, but the percussion had a familiar hook that got me into his music. What do you recommend to someone who’d like to check out some of Cage’s music for the first time?
M.C.: That strategy of exploring the percussion works is even more readily available today through YouTube. There are a lot of great percussion ensembles, including So Percussion, who have versions of Cage’s “First or Third Construction in Metal” on YouTube. There you can see the players as well as hear them, and you can see the inventiveness and creativity of the performers. That’s true of all music, but Cage forces the performer to invest personally in the work in order to make it happen.
In terms of sheer beauty, one of my favorite pieces of Cage is “Apartment House 1776,” which is built on early American hymnody, church hymns. It starts off with tonal music like you would hear in church, but Cage uses chance operations to remove notes from the score, so what you hear is almost like a building that has decayed over the centuries but you can still see the form, the basic shape of it. It’s still concordant tonal music, but many of the guideposts that force the harmony from one thing to another have been removed. It sounds a little bit like Swiss cheese, but I recommend it in terms of a transcendent aesthetic experience, when you want an entry into Cage’s music and simply want to hear something sheerly beautiful. The other piece I love is the “Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano.” He basically creates a percussion ensemble out of a grand piano. It’s incredibly creative.
Q: So what is John Cage’s “Lecture on Nothing,” the work you’ll be performing as part of the School of Music’s ongoing tribute to the composer?
M.C.: It’s a spoken text, poetic text, but it’s laid out metrically in a loose four-beat pattern, so each line of poetry is one measure in 4/4 time. When this was composed in 1950 the early percussion pieces are in his mind and he’s creating mathematical structures and filling them in with sound, and he’s starting to explore the nature of silence.
His concept of silence is a period of attention as opposed to the absence of sound. So there’s a section where there is nothing on the page. As a performer you pause and listen for the period it would take to read those lines in that 4/4 time structure. It lasts a couple of minutes where nothing is being said. The poem sort of teases the audience through repetition, asking when does something move from being irritating to pleasurable.
Q: Cage for me has always meant freedom, plus challenging and changing your normal way of thinking.
M.C.: He is a kind of musical irritant, a Socratic composer; he just expands your ideas of what the possibility of music could be and gives you permission to try something. I think, arguably, Cage is the most influential American composer in history.
What’s surprising about that is that no one, with just a couple of exceptions in his musical circle, sounds like John Cage. His followers include people like Philip Glass, who doesn’t have any silence in his music. He loves Cage and feels that he was a huge inspiration. John Adams also traces his inspiration to Cage. The book “Silence,” which is where the “Lecture on Nothing” is printed, is read by everybody and has had a profound influence on the way people think about music. One of the great things about celebrating John Cage’s 100th birthday is that everybody’s giving his works life in performance. As ideas they’re powerful, but as experience they’re transformative.
For more info on Mark Clague’s performance of John Cage’s “Lecture on Nothing,” go to: www.music.umich.edu/performances_events/event_display.php?f=d&d=1350878400&i=7440#7440