Beyond the sound of silence: a unique contribution to music

A series of events in Cork this weekend marks the centenary of innovative composer John Cage, Don O’Mahony reports

THROUGH his life’s work, John Cage strove to break down barriers and explore music in innovative ways. And yet, outside the realms of academia, this giant of 20th century music often seemed a remote, almost rarefied figure.

That changed in the most surprising manner when the worlds of avant-garde composition and TV talent shows nearly collided in the crucible of the pop charts.

In 2009, an internet campaign drove American protest rockers Rage Against The Machine’s Killing in the Name to the Christmas Number 1 position in the British charts, thus derailing the X Factor’s Joe McElderry. Another campaign was launched in 2010. Cleverly christened Cage Against The Machine, this was even more ambitious: launching the composer’s notoriously silent piece 4’33” at the top of the charts. Sadly, it lost out to Matt Cardle’s When We Collide. But had it made the grade, it would hardly have been honoured by radio, a medium that abhors silence.

This year marks the centenary of Cage’s birth and a series of events organised in Cork, featuring a seminar and two concerts, aim to celebrate the man and his legacy.

Cage studied with some of the giants of modern composition, but his real innovations came when he opened up to different philosophical ideas gleaned from Eastern philosophy and Zen Buddhism.

“There’s a mixture of a great many influences in his artwork,” says event organiser John Godfrey, who is a composer/performer and lecturer in music at University College Cork.

“I think the other thing that’s important to understand about Cage’s work is that it isn’t purely about music. Many people don’t realise, for example, that there are also theatre works and visual art works. Especially towards the end of his life he was doing a lot of work in that. And, in fact, with his artistic philosophy you can produce an art which is like a pan art. It’s not particularly about one thing; it’s about a lot of things.

“I think it’s important to point out that what Cage was doing was fundamentally and profoundly different to what everybody else was doing before him.”

Central to Cage’s work is 4’33”, which is not about silence but listening. The first performance in 1952 at Woodstock, New York, caused outrage.

Godfrey fondly recalls two performances of the piece he witnessed. The first was a celebration of the 50th anniversary of that first performance that was held at the Crawford Gallery in Cork. “Everyone in the audience were Cage aficionados,” notes Godfrey. “They knew what was going to happen or, more precisely, what exactly wasn’t going to happen.”

The next performance, during a concert of American pioneers hosted by the Symphony Orchestra, saw an altogether more charged atmosphere, incited largely by the droll commentary of a heckler.

“The audience didn’t know what to do,” recalls Godfrey. “There was a great deal of emotional tension in the air. There were little waves of giggles. There were sounds of sweet wrappers, people coughing, and of course the longer this went on the more intense the emotional atmosphere became. So you had this amazing soundscape in the hall coloured with this intense emotion.”

This weekend represents an opportunity to experience many of Cage’s later compositions as well as engage with a renowned panel of Cage collaborators and admirers, including Robert Black of Bang On A Can All-Stars, who had a piece written for him by Cage, and Mel Mercier, who collaborated with Cage on the Finnegans Wake-inspired Roaratorio.

This is preceded by a concert at the Lewis Glucksman Gallery in UCC featuring Godfrey’s Cork-based quintet Quiet Music Ensemble and the sound art and improvisation group The Quiet Club. The centrepiece event is a concert on Saturday titled Child Of Tree, which is supported by RTE Lyric FM in association with the Triskel Arts Centre.

* Child Of Tree: A Celebration Of John Cage. Triskel Arts Centre, Tobin St, Cork. Saturday, from 6pm. Walk in / walk out whenever you like! Tickets free from Triskel Arts Centre Box Office

Inlets: Quiet Music Ensemble and Quiet Club. Tomorrow. Glucksman Gallery, 1:10pm. Free.

Branches: Seminar. Department of Music, Sunday’s Well Road. Tomorrow. 3pm — 6pm Free.

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