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John Cage, Clown or a Prophet?

A pianist comes on stage in concert tuxedo, bows, and sits at the concert grand piano. He sits there for exactly 4 min and 33 seconds without making a sound or moving a muscle. What are you supposed to do as a member of the audience?  You paid for your tickets; you made a great effort to leave your comfy TV couch at home and made it all the way to the concert hall endangering your life in busy traffic. Is it art or what? The modern painting at the museum; it is a square and when you are looking at it you feel that you are an idiot and you have been conned.  What has happened to the world! Did everyone go crazy? Why all this so-called …ART is in a most prestigious museum and a lot of this weird modern cacophonic unpleasant music  (if any in this case) draws this much attention?  Well my dear friends and art lovers! In early 20th century art spilled out of what was considered being an ART before then. The subject changed bringing new ways to express it. You might rightfully ask, okay, so Leonardo Da Vinci is not good enough for us any more, how about Beethoven? What in a hell is THE SUBJECT now?

Malevich Artwork Musical Bridges Around the WorldCongratulations to all of us who had privilege to live in a 20th century! As humanity we entered the world of civilization with its new ways of communication, everything went beyond its traditional frames and music and the arts rushed to catch up with it. Different cultures got introduced to each other though television, airplanes, computers, and the Internet. The world became a lot smaller. If someone is sneezing in Japan, we suffer from the virus. The twentieth century was the beginning of globalization. The world learned about horrible atrocities of wars. Humanity got a lot of information about everything. The borders around everything became invisible. In the past, let’s say until the beginning of the 20th century, art portrayed the subject, beautiful most of the time, perhaps a still life, or beautiful faces of religious symbolism.  Objects of the artists were easily recognizable and identifiable. Now, the idea itself, ANY idea has become the subject of the art in both music and visual arts. Square by Malevich revolutionized the art world. The art bridged with other media, philosophy, science, mechanics-anything that curious human mind could wrap around.

I heard about John Cage but never really studied him. In our Soviet system he was consider to be a clown simply because Objective Materialism does not recognize anything outside the box of conventional language or form. If you call it music-play a harmonious piece, if it is an art, show us realistic faces or realistic landscape at least. John Cage’s philosophy, very much rooted in Buddhism did not fly there and he was banned from our curriculum. Classical music is well structured, just like a masterfully designed building. The world around us is scarily unpredictable and chaotic. John Cage was searching for new ways to relate to the world by creating new forms and often a new musical language. He looked at the world through sound and recorded it as he heard it. Some of his compositions are paintings or sometimes cityscapes or sometimes exotic eastern landscapes. Using sounds as his color pallet he painted vivid landscapes nostalgically pulling us in. When I smell Lily-of-the-Valley, I get transported back in time to my childhood. When I hear some of John Cage’s music it transports me to the streets of New York with its busy traffic or exotic gardens of Thailand.

His music is not expressive-it is a picture of a real world poeticized by the fact that he is noticing it. For most of us the sound of cars on busy streets of a big city is white noise. For him it is a work of art. He is present in the moment, recording what is happening around him, creating a calm state in the mind of the observer. His music is like a movie of life, like a documentary through sounds. His music is poetry of the world around us as we go through life. He does not need a lot of sound. His expression often is as modest as one musical line on a silent background. He appreciates silence by itself as a cradle of everything. He draws one truthful melodic line that vividly curves its way through the blank canvas of silence. Life is chaos, it is not as organized as some of us would like to be, including me-a notorious control freak. His music is not hard to understand, he paints pictures of a place or a mood or invites your thought to take center stage. You become the co-writer. Classical music instruments did not do it for him and he had to create his own colors through tempering some instruments or using cactus, or sticks or anything, just name it.

In a 1957 lecture, Experimental Music, he described music as “a purposeless play” which is “an affirmation of life – not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we’re living”. “Clown” and “Prophet” are just other labels we created and in reality these two do not conflict with each other at all. Life is a lot more tolerable when you do not take it too seriously. Black and white labels do not do justice to our complicated unpredictable and very beautiful world bundled with countless shadows of possibilities visible to some of us. The creative forces of humanity – artists and scientists have their hands full on a never-ending journey of discovery of our world, inside out filled with infinite possibilities. By presenting a music piece of 4 min and 33 seconds of total silence, John Cage gives you the chance of a lifetime to exercise your creative muscle and paint that blank canvas with your thought! Come on! This is a great honor!  You’ve become a coauthor! The quality of the artwork is in your hands! ENJOY!

September 5, 2012 is Cage’s 100th birthday.

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