Thinking outside the Cage: A tribute

Artists pay homage to avant-garde composer


Cage 100

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When: Various events Nov. 8 to Jan. 12

Where: Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, Open Space, Alix Goolden Hall, Phillip T. Young Recital Hall

Tickets: Free to $20

Composer John Cage explained his philosophy of music to a live studio audience during filming of the television program I've Got a Secret.

The 1960 audience had laughed along as he revealed the instruments he would use: a water pitcher, a rubber duck, ice cubes, five radios, a vase of roses and a grand piano, to name a few. The host asked if he considered it to be music.

"Perfectly seriously, I consider music the production of sound. Since in the piece you will hear I produce sound, I would call it music," he told the host.

They continued to laugh as he walked from prop to prop, weaving together a haunting piece and - in Cage fashion - their laughter became part of it.

While there's a level of playfulness in much of what Cage does, his ability to recognize beauty in the mundane and create beyond the confines of conventional composition has earned him recognition among the most important artists of the century.

And as events are held around the world this year to celebrate the late composer's centenary, Victoria arts institutions are joining in.

In keeping with Cage's own multi-disciplinary work, they cross forms to include an art show and installation, a talk and discussion, as well as several concerts - with contributions from the Victoria Symphony, the Emily Carr String Quartet, the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, Open Space and the University of Victoria.

"Cage is one of the very few people, if not only person, I can think of as being [appropriate] to do this with," said festival organizer Christopher Butterfield. "Because he lived as much in the musical world ... as in the visual arts."

While they weren't close acquaintances, Butterfield met Cage several times and described him as a very warm person, who was encouraging to younger composers like Butterfield.

Once in the 1980s, he and a friend had hoped to greet Cage following a big concert in Toronto, but didn't get the chance.

They walked up the stairs to a friend's party in an apartment in the "cheap part of town," and Cage was the first person they saw.

"He'd rather be downtown with slightly sketchy people than uptown," said Butterfield.

"That's the kind of guy he was. I think he very much liked to be with people who were doing things - younger people."

Cage had a few other links to Victoria. British composer Gavin Bryars, who lives in Metchosin during the summer and was part of the experimental music community in England, worked closely with him for a period in the United States.

And Victoria's Gordon Mumma worked with Cage for years in the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, a seminal modern dance company headed by Cage's long-time partner.

Mumma has loaned many of his own archival materials to the exhibit at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria and will present a video of his experience in Merce Cunningham's group.

Despite Cage's widespread influence, many people still don't know much about him. It's something Butterfield was counting on.

"People have heard his name, but they might not be terribly clear what he actually did," he said. "So I was depending a little bit on curiosity as much as anything else."

Butterfield hopes to highlight a few characteristics of Cage's work: from his move to indeterminacy, using chance as a method of composition, to the emphasis on percussive noise as music and the creation of a "prepared piano," which created new sounds with bolts and rubber stashed next to piano strings.

But it's also an opportunity for Victoria audiences to learn about the many other facets of Cage's artistry. Beyond avant-garde musical composition, he was an accomplished artist in other ways, contributing to the Merce Cunningham Dance Company as well as creating visual arts on his own.

Locally, events range from a discussion highlighting Cage's anarchist slant to a performance of his famously silent piece 4'33", by the Victoria Symphony.

If the worldwide events are any indication, Cage's view of the world and art has inspired similar out-of-the-box thinking across the globe.

At Bard College in New York, Cage fans will gather in pajamas, eat macrobiotic meals and settle in for a 12-hour overnight event.

It will be set to Cage's 1974 recorded performance of Empty Words, a "marathon text drawn from the Journals of Henry David Thoreau." In a move to "demilitarize" language, each of four parts omits sentences, phrases, words and finally syllables - leaving only letters and sounds at the end.

Grade 8 students in Auckland, New Zealand, have created rock drawings, according to the chance operations Cage used in his "Ryoanji" drawings.

That means using a grid and 15 rocks with positions determined by the technique.

They also created Mesozoic poems using the string JOHNCAGE.

A sample, posted by the John Cage Trust:

Juicy junk fOod makes you tHirsty eveN though you Could eAt differently but, Go out and Enjoy mushrooms!

(Judit Mathews & Lean-dra Augustin)

And mobile phone users around the world can down-load an app to simulate one of Cage's prepared pianos - the sound samples have officially been approved by the trust.

Even in their different forms - from written word to art - they seem to fit with Cage's theory of music.

"Basically anything has the potential to be musical and anything can be used by a composer, but I think his idea is really that you shouldn't just think of music as something that you wait for someone to deliver to you," said Butterfield.

"As long as you have ears and can hear, you're able to hear all the extraordinary things in the world."


Art and artifacts: Devoted Play

When: Opening Nov. 8, 7 p.m. Runs through Jan. 5.

Where: Art Gallery of Greater Victoria

Tickets: Free opening, then gallery admission $13/$11

More: An exhibition of visual material by/around/concerning John Cage. Guest curated by Christopher Butterfield, opening co-hosted by the Victoria Symphony.

Sound installation: Essay

When: Nov. 8 through Jan. 12.

Where: Open Space

Tickets: Free admission

More: An "anarchic soundscape of spoken words and empty space," created by John Cage for 36 loudspeakers, which draws from the text of Thoreau's On the Duty of Civil Disobedience.

Performance: UVic Percussion Ensemble When: Nov. 16, 12: 30 p.m.

Where: Phillip T. Young Recital Hall, UVic

Tickets: Free Admission

More: Concert of three works. Cage composed First Construction in Metal in 1939 for instruments including Japanese and Balinese gongs, Chinese and Turkish cymbals, automobile brake drums, anvils and a water gong. He introduced the technique of composing using fixed "rhythm structures." Linda Catlin Smith composed Blue Sky in 2006 for song-bells surrounded in pitched metals. Cage composed Third Construction in 1941 for four percussionists.

Performance: UVic Sonic Lab

When: Nov. 16, 5 to 7 p.m., 8 to 10 p.m.

Where: Phillip T. Young Recital Hall

Tickets: Admission by donation

More: Performance of 1967's Musicircus, an invitation to a number of musicians to perform anything in any way, simultaneously, from 5 to 7 p.m. Followed by Etcetera (1973) Ryoanji (1983-5) and Concert for Piano and Orchestra (1957).

Performance: Victoria Symphony

When: Nov. 17, 8 p.m.

Where: Alix Goolden Hall

Tickets: $20/$10

More: Conducted by Tania Miller, with Tzenka Dianova on piano and Rick Sacks on percussion. Program includes the première of Sacks' Water Music, as well as Charles Ives' Tone Roads No. 1 and 3 and The Unanswered Question.

The symphony will also perform Cage's The Seasons, Concerto for Prepared Piano and his famously silent 4'33", arranged for orchestra.

Performance: Emily Carr String Quartet

When: Nov. 18, 7: 30 p.m.

Where: Art Gallery of Greater Victoria

Tickets: $20/$10

More: Performances of John Cage's String Quartet in Four Parts (1950), Linda Catlin Smith's Gondola - String Quartet No. 4 (2007), Christopher Reiche's The length of this piece is not arbitrary and Painting a Portrait of Glass (2009), Charles Ives' String Quartet No. 1 From the Salvation Army (1897-1900)

Discussion: Cage and Anarchism

When: Nov. 19, 7 p.m.

Where: Open Space

Tickets: Free admission

More: A discussion of Cage's relationship with anarchism with UVic art historian Allan Antliff and Andrew Culver, Cage's assistant in the 1980s.

Composers' talk: Gordon Mumma

When: Nov. 22, 7: 30 p.m.

Where: Art Gallery of Greater Victoria

Tickets: $13/11

More: Gordon Mumma was associated with Cage and Merce Cunningham Dance Company as composer and performer in the 1960s and 70s. He will show a film of his time with the company.

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