Monica M. Tinyo ’13 on “John Cage & Public Life” (Dec. 7-8)


John Cage at Wesleyan, 1988

John Cage turns one hundred this year, and Wesleyan is celebrating his life and work via John Cage & Public Life, which focuses on Cage’s understanding of music as a social process, and includes a lecture this afternoon by Richard Kostelanetz, the noted literary artist and author of the first biography of John Cage; performances of Cage’s work tonight and Saturday; and the “John Cage Writes” exhibition in Olin Memorial Library, which focuses on the five books by Cage that were published by Wesleyan University Press. CFA Arts Administration Intern Monica M. Tinyo ’13 spoke with some of the people involved in the celebration.

Cage was as profound as he was prolific, never following the normal course of action or thought. Critics explain that Cage was “not a composer but an inventor of genius”  (Cage’s mentor and prolific composer, Arnold Schoenberg). He was “a master of several arts, a slave to none” (Richard Kostelanetz, The New York Times Book Review). “No American has caused more disturbances or astonishments than John Cage” (Calvin Tomkins, The New Yorker).

Rather than try to summarize Cage’s artistic and personal character, here’s a statement from the man himself:

“I once asked Aragon, the historian, how history was written. He said, ‘You have to invent it.’ When I wish as now to tell of critical incidents, persons, and events that have influenced my life and work, the true answer is all of the incidents were critical, all of the people influenced me, everything that happened and that is still happening influences me” (Autobiography, 1990).

Neely Bruce, John Spencer Camp Professor of Music and American Studies at Wesleyan, and a composer and close friend of Cage, explains that, “other composers I have known personally have had a great impact on me. But the influence of my friends and mentors is not so pervasive as the influence of Cage.”

The events this weekend focus on the composer’s understanding of music as a social process and are part of Music & Public Life, a year-long campus and community-wide exploration. Ronald Kuivila, University Professor of Music at Wesleyan, explains:

“This cycle of performances began at the Shasha Seminar with a performance of Lecture on the Weather (1975). The introduction of that piece shares his understanding of the social import of his work. He comments, ‘We have lost confidence in one another. We could regain it tomorrow by simply changing our minds.’ He concludes with ‘More than anything else we need communion with everyone’. Thoreau said: ‘The best communion men have is in silence.’ Of course ‘silence’ for Cage means a silencing of the ego that can occur by giving oneself over to sound.  In his thinking, that devotion of attention is the most fundamental musical act.”

Etcetera, HPSCHD, and Song Books provide a wonderful cross-section of the varied nature of the ‘communions’ Cage composed.  Etcetera is a reconfiguration of the social authority of the orchestra. The piece creates an orchestra power, effaced in favor of obligation and commitment, where the need for organization is recognized but not allowed to be a virtue in itself.”

HPSCHD was co-composed with Lejaren Hiller, one of the great pioneers of computer music (as well as one of Neely Bruce’s principal teachers).  The piece consists of a super-abundance of musical material. It was composed as an embrace of this ‘wastefulness’ by creating a situation of such profusion that every participant’s experience would be unique.”

Etcetera and HPSCHD are ‘utopian’ in their presentation of an alternative social order and can be regarded as almost a kind of ‘sacred music.’ Song Books, in contrast, is as often profane as sacred.  Songs are sung, food is cooked, games are played—hawks cry, fire burns—Cage himself described the piece as almost a bordello that you would be afraid to call art.”

Presented in conjunction with the John Cage & Public Life events this weekend, Special Collections & Archives at Olin Memorial Library has organized an exhibition, John Cage Writes, which includes selections from Cage’s papers related to the five books he wrote that were published by Wesleyan University Press and examples of artists’ books influenced by Cage’s work.

Wesleyan University Press had a long and fruitful relationship with Cage. Neely Bruce recalls that Jose de la Torre Bueno, the senior editor of Wesleyan University Press, worked very closely with Cage as editor of Silence and all of the other wonderful Wesleyan University Press books by Cage. Cage went so far as to say, “I wrote the words but Bill Bueno made the books.”

Suzanna Tamminen, Director of Wesleyan University Press, explains:

“Wesleyan University Press was interested in Cage even before he arrived here. When Cage wrote to the press proposing a book that would be printed, in part, on transparent sheets, the director sent a memo to the editor asking whether or not one could take this proposal seriously. The editor sagely responded, ‘This is John Cage, and I think we should take everything he proposes quite seriously.’ I think this encapsulates the open-mindedness that, even then, distinguished Wesleyan University Press from other presses and stood out to Cage in the first place.”

Please join us this weekend in celebrating John Cage, whose influence echoes across the campus and the globe. After this weekend, continue to be inspired by Cage through the free John Cage Prepared Piano smartphone app [created by musician Jack Freudenheim ’79, working in conjunction with Larson Associates and the John Cage Trust], downloadable here.

Richard Kostelanetz Lecture: John Cage’s Greatest Hits!

Friday, December 7 at 4:30pm
CFA Hall

Etcetera & HPSCHD
Friday, December 7 at 8pm
A progressive concert beginning in Crowell Concert Hall and continuing in Fayerweather Beckham Hall
$4 Wesleyan students, $5 all others

Song Books by John Cage

Saturday, December 8 at 8pm
Crowell Concert Hall

John Cage Writes
Now through Sunday, March 10, 2013
Olin Library, 252 Church Street, Middletown
Click here for library hours