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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, January 11, 2013 - Volume 41 Issue 2
The sound of silence: A new documentary explores the life and work of John Cage
Arts & Entertainment
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The sound of silence: A new documentary explores the life and work of John Cage

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

JOHN CAGE: JOURNEYS IN SOUND
(Accentus Music)


Think you don't like John Cage's music? Never heard of him? Well that won't stop you from loving this documentary. And you'll end up liking the man, too! How do I know? I showed 10 minutes of it to a large group of friends at a party, and they all wanted to see more. It's called John Cage: Journeys in Sound (available on DVD and Blu-ray disc).

The film begins with Cage appearing on a 1960 TV game show in which the moderator asked if Cage minded if the audience laughed at some of the 'music' he was about to perform. Cage, who regarded all sounds to be music, replied in his soft-spoken voice, 'No, not at all. I consider laughter preferable to tears.' (Big laugh from the studio audience.) He wrote in an autobiographical statement, 'I was shocked at college to see 100 of my classmates in the library all reading copies of the same book. Instead of doing as they did, I went into the stacks and read the first book written by an author whose name began with Z. I received the highest grade in the class. That convinced me that the institution was not being run correctly. I left.' If that makes you laugh (as it does me), you're gonna love getting to know this very funny but dead-serious artist.

ALL-AROUND AWESOME
John Cage was tall, slender, nice-looking, and gentle in his speech and manner. Openly Gay and life-partnered with famous avant-garde dancer Merce Cunningham, Cage appeared a whacked-out put-on to some and a truly original genius to others. Google him (or visit www.johncage.org) to find photos, musical excerpts, and fascinating details of his life, philosophy, and playfulness. Better yet, watch this film by Allan Miller and Paul Smaczny. While the documentary itself is only 60 minutes long, the bonus material contains an additional 50 minutes of music and interviews that augment the picture of Cage and his impact on 20th-century culture.

Miller met Cage in 1962 and followed him with a video camera until the late 1980s (Cage died in 1992 at age 79). This is the second of two films Miller did about Cage, and it focuses on the legacy of the American avant-garde composer and his impact on the musical world of today.

Underlying all of his wit and charm, Cage was set on teaching anyone who would listen to hear beauty in all sound. Thus, his scores are full of unusual 'instruments' and unexpected sounds. Some of them are works of art themselves and do not look anything like ordinary pieces of music.

His interests led him to a study of nature, especially of mushrooms (about which he became a world authority). The beauty and random structure of the forest floor outside his upstate New York dwelling led him to change his mode of composition to one determined by chance. Choices were removed from the composer himself and determined instead by the I Ching. Surprisingly, there is still much personality and even fun to be found in some of Cage's works. And all of them -including 4'33', a 1952 piece in which a pianist sits at a piano without ever playing a note -invite the listener to open his/her ears to new sounds (including silences) as beautiful and worthy of focused attention. This work, perhaps Cage's most famous (infamous?), is included in the bonus section of this fascinating disc. Listen carefully, and you'll hear it playing in the background as I write.

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rmp62@columbia.edu.

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