New York

John Cage

Columbia University

A sixtieth-birthday retrospective concert of the works of John Cage was given by the Performers’ Committee for Twentieth-Century Music at Columbia University on March 7th. Cage’s music has always been pertinent to art, partly because it is the output of an esthetician as much as of a musician, and partly because, like Rauschenberg’s painting, it relates to both Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, that is to visual styles. Cage’s concept of chance, for instance, operates half out of a Zen-like openness to the accidents of execution and half like a quasi-Dadaistic embrace of preexisting actuality, however banal.

Since by now the Pop frame of mind is historical, the performance of one of Cage’s legendary pieces was particularly interesting: Imaginary Landscape No. 4, 1951, in which the “Morningside Radio Ensemble” shifted radio stations and varied amplification in accordance with the composer’s score. One felt a curious quality of archaeological reconstruction, less because the idea of the randomness and utter actuality of the live radios is no longer engaging than because real radio programming itself has changed completely in the past 20 years, especially with regard to the relative densities of different types of sound. It is amazing how much more talk there is than music now.

In all, 11 works were on the program, ranging in time from 1933 to 1960. First Construction (in metal), for Percussion Sextet with Assistant, 1939, was pleasant, but just before half time we heard Suite for Toy Piano, 1948, which was destroyed by the pretentiously makeshift dancing of a troupe of girls affecting a prepubescent cavort. The second half found two excellent pieces performed with verve, 59 1/2” for a String Player, 1953, executed thrillingly on the viola by John Graham—it was like a one-minute compression of all the most exciting moments in something by Bartók—and Aria, 1958, sung with monumental wit by the soprano Norma Marder.

Cage himself presided over all this with the vitality of a hippie farmer, full beard and denim and all. Ten years ago my enthusiasm for his art was of a totally different kind—more theoretical. That has changed a great deal, I noticed, as the contexts of him, me, and the music have. I had concentrated on the aleatoric feature. Now what seems most inevitable in Cage’s art is his almost desperate (ab)use of traditional musical instruments, not the least of them the human voice. There is a poignancy in his resort to conventional instruments for their most concrete possibilities which goes beyond iconoclasm into a somehow humbly despotic attempt to extend tradition and its glory. Like Duchamp, Cage destroyed the furniture, not because he hated art but because it seemed the only way to keep the furnace going. Happy Birthday.

Joseph Masheck