Based on the recent spurt of John Cage tribute articles and performances, you would think that he was one of the most beloved, inspirational and seminal composers of all time, that 4’33” was a crucial turning point in the history of music, that his greatly varied and fine works are eagerly anticipated staples of concert programs the world over. The real and more sad truth is, he had to die and then turn 100 for his works and writing to return this much into the public eye, and his compositions will likely lapse again into relative obscurity by the time the November elections roll around, or even before.
You might assume from my smug tone that this is yet another curmudgeonly dismissal of John Cage’s oeuvre as anti-music, as gimmick and trend, as concept without true content. Certainly this opinion of Cage is still common among many classical musicians today-whether or not they have actually heard or played any of his works-but I am inclined neither to overpraise nor censor him. Over the years I have programmed a few of his piano compositions here and there, and in college became excited enough about Silence to write an extremely long and quite terrible paper exalting its revolutionary brilliance. In fact I still believe this, and I think it is truly wonderful that so much attention is being paid him on this anniversary, even if it took ridiculously long to happen. Which leads so nicely into my favorite obsession: Why is so much music from the 20th century so very greatly admired in print and conversation, and then completely ignored or sidelined by today’s classical performers, educators, presenters and audiences, unless they live and work in Greenwich Village?
The obvious answer is too obvious, and therefore somewhat true but not true at all: the various languages of classical music modernism and post-modernism, taken as a whole, are too ugly, too hard to comprehend, too challenging to the limited attention span of the layperson, too uncompromising, too fatalistic or depressing, too…modern. But here’s the thing: a typical audience member in 1804 would have probably had much the same reaction to the Eroica Symphony, regardless of Beethoven’s undeniably consummate brilliance. So why do we still hear one hundred Eroica performances annually for every Sessions 2nd Symphony? One hundred Opus 109’s for every Hindemith sonata? I don’t think it is merely an issue of relative quality or accessibility. I think it has much more to do with a disappointing lack of curiosity, courage, willingness and openness on the part of too many professional musicians and arts presenters. There, I’ve said it. May the Internet spread it.
Before I go pointing my ten fingers at everyone else for the neglect of contemporary classical repertoire-although, what is a blog for if you can’t blame others for the world’s problems?-let me tell my own John Cage story. I am embarrassed to admit that the last work of his that I performed was Water Music, and that was some ten years ago. The piece involves a rather virtuosic sequence of sound events, some at the piano, some using difficult-to-master noise making devices such as a little plastic bird call toy that you dip into water and blow through. It also calls for a transistor radio, which even a decade ago was impossible to find, so I had to substitute a suitably retro portable dial-type unit from Radio Shack. At several points in the score, the dial is to be spun to various specified frequencies, and whatever comes up, be it static, talk, music or nothing at all, that is what you get. As you can imagine, the piece has its lighthearted moments, and drew the usual titters of knowing amusement from the audience. But right near the end, when I tuned the radio to its final notated frequency, the last few bars of Let it Be materialized faintly and then drifted eerily into the ether. It also happened to be the anniversary of John Lennon’s murder that day. You could have heard a pin drop, and it was like the whole world of music was suddenly sucked into a magical vortex. At that moment, I can guarantee you that no one in the audience was making a cursory or dismissive judgment upon the enduring quality of John Cage or “modern” music. Life met music met performer met audience, and that’s what it’s all about.
So, the bad news is…I’ve never programmed the piece again. I came upon the wrinkly, water-damaged score a while back, and ran my fingers over Cage’s crabbed notation wistfully. Isn’t this a big part of the problem? If I had added this piece to my regular repertoire, including it on almost every program, eventually people would become Water Music aficionados, more and more attuned to the subtleties of its language and effect, their understanding informed through the power of comparative experience, as if it were a familiar work of Chopin or Bach. Other pianists would no doubt also begin to play the piece with greater frequency in order to prove they could do it better and with much more depth of understanding than I. Critics would then jump in to delineate right from wrong: too much legato from Mr. X, a memory slip from Mr. Y, a definitive (but alas, too slow) version from Mrs. Z. Old timers would reminisce about the legendary Martin Perry performance when Lennon spoke from the dead. In short, it might eventually become a part of a new “standard” repertoire, expected and demanded by presenters and audiences alike. And this kind of buzz, excitement and energy is what is needed right now to combat the growing perception that classical music and the audiences it serves are dying off.
My shameful Water Music abandonment aside, I have since been trying to remedy this situation in my own modest way, but it obviously takes a village. The most important people in this process are educators, from beginning instrument teachers to those at the very top of academia. They must begin more to INSIST on attention to a full range of repertoire, encourage more curiosity and exploration in students, empowering them with all the tools they need to decipher and interpret more and more complex musical emanations. Otherwise music stiffens up and stops around 1885, and we will deserve the label of irrelevance that has more and more been slapped onto classical music. As I have already said, we musicians have an enormous role in this process as well; not only should we challenge the status quo by continually and stubbornly programming challenging works for our audiences to accustom to, we must also demonstrate our love and deep understanding of this fine music with tangibly gripping performances, all the time. When we collaborate, we should lobby more noisily for repertoire expansion instead of resigning ourselves to another Brahms quartet or Mozart concerto.
There is some reason to hope that arts presenters are beginning to see the value of adventurous programming as well. In this regard, “new” music seems to fare the best, due to what I like to call the “premiere” effect: people love to be able to say they were the first to hear, see or do something, to be perceived as cutting edge, whether the thing being done is good, bad or indifferent. In any case, if the finest of these works are not championed by musicians, presenters and educators, and performed regularly, we will never know what impact they could eventually have on the course of musical thought. As for the audience, I believe that if you build it, they will come. Contrary to common opinion, I don’t sense that classical music is anywhere near dead, just suffering from a nasty, hard-to-shake case of small-mindedness.
Maybe this is why John Cage is so important right now. He challenges us to imagine a world of sound as awesomely big as silence itself, as vastly inclusive as indeterminacy. We can only truly realize this exciting and yes, modern vision by celebrating all the music of all the many unsung composers of our recent era, not just in their birthday years, but every time we walk onstage and into the recording studio. Beethoven can take care of himself without our help.