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i haven’t been the biggest fan of john cage since i was in high school, when the boy i was dating performed 4’33” at our senior solo recital and i was so embarassed to have been dating the kid who stood on stage in silence for almost five minutes that i thereby rejected all avant-garde composers.

 

 

high school biases notwithstanding, it turns out john cage is, in fact, a worthwhile figure to acquaint oneself with. i love this reaction he had to opinions of 4’33”:

 

They missed the point. There’s no such thing as silence. What they thought was silence, because they didn’t know how to listen, was full of accidental sounds. You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began patterning the roof, and during the third the people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.

 

this recording posted exerpts from john cage’s indeterminacy this morning. read them!

 

One of Mies Van der Rohe’s pupils, a girl, came to him and said, “I have difficulty studying with you because you don’t leave any room for self-expression.” He asked her whether she had a pen with her. She did. He said, “Sign your name.” She did. He said, “That’s what I call self-expression.”

 

When Colin McPhee found out that I was interested in mushrooms, he said, “If you find the morel next spring, call me up, even if you only find one. I’ll drop everything, come out, and cook it.” Spring came. I found two morels. I called Colin McPhee. He said, “You don’t expect me, do you, to come all that way for two little mushrooms?”

 

Five years later, when Schoenberg asked me whether I would devote my life to music, I said, “Of course.” After I had been studying with him for two years, Schoenberg said, “In order to write music, you must have a feeling for harmony.” I explained to him that I had no feeling for harmony. He then said that I would always encounter an obstacle, that it would be as though I came to a wall through which I could not pass. I said, “In that case I will devote my life to beating my head against that wall.”

 

when i was a freshman in college i took a course on the history of modern dance taught by a woman who had danced with merce cunningham, john cage’s lovah and creative collaborator. i wish i could remember my professor’s name — louise, maybe — but far more vivid in my memory is her adamant refusal to wear a bra, ever, and her sorta icky smell. anyway, she was old and fairly crazy, often telling us to “float like seaweed” and leading us through the hallways with ribbons and sheets of chiffon. one day, we were all sitting in the room waiting for her to arrive, talking and being pretty loud probably, when she appeared in the doorway. she walked to the front of the room, silent all the while, and watched us calmly until we quieted down. then she walked back to the door, turned the lights off, and left. after what felt like forever — the darkness had been punctured by occasional nervous laughter but no one had dared to speak — she reentered the room, turned the lights back on, and, with no further explanation, told us that today we would be learning about john cage.

 

 

the dark classroom was a vehicle, just like the silence of 4’33”, to hear and notice background noise. that was john cage’s music: giggling, squirming, breathing were just as momentous as chord progressions and intricately placed harmonies. very very zen.

 

in the end, how can you not love someone who, in addition to being one of the most influential creative figures of the 20th century, was also an amateur mushroom collector?

 

 

[ stefanie ]

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