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The Quiet Legacy of John Cage

Thursday, September 09, 2010 - 10:01 AM

While he was still with us, the late composer John Cage was a symbol of the adventure, the freedom, and the openness to new ideas that characterized contemporary music.  At least, that’s how some of us saw him.  Others saw him as a symbol of everything wrong with the modern arts – paintings that looked like scribbles, music that sounded like noise, all manner of avant-garde “happenings” that had little to do with Serious Art. 

Cage was well aware of his dual roles, and relished them.  Cage would talk to anybody, and his speech was a triumph of content over form: his speaking voice was soft and gentle, but the things he said were often quite provocative. 

“Everything you do is music,” he once famously pronounced, “and everywhere is the best seat.”  His most famous, or infamous, expression of that was his piece 4’33” for piano, where the pianist sits at the keyboard, turns a page occasionally (the piece is in 3 movements), and after 4:33, gets up and takes a bow.  It’s usually referred to as a “silent” piece – but it’s not.  That’s the whole point – the “piece” consists of whatever the sounds are that you hear in those four-and-a-half minutes. 

Architect/composer Christopher Janney has made a career out of putting Cage’s dictum into practice.  You need to pass through the Herald Square subway station?  Fine, that is – or at least can be – music.  So Janney installed “Reach: New York” there in 1996: it’s a series of lights that trigger musical notes when you break the light beam, say, by moving an arm past it.  With his new sound installation, Everywhere Is The Best Seat, an amphitheater becomes a musical instrument, one that you play when you go to find your seat.  The point is, YOU make the music; it becomes a participatory art.  It’s as if Cage said, everything you do is music, and Janney added, yeah, but it might as well sound good.

“Everything you do is music, and everywhere is the best seat.”  It’s a great philosophical statement.  Very Zen.  My wife, who’s a writer, keeps on the wall by the computer one of Cage’s more practical sayings:  “Begin anywhere.”  Which of course is good advice if everywhere really is the best seat. 

What do you think of the idea of the audience as music performer?  Leave a comment. 


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