All sounds can make music for radical and influential composer John Cage
Let us now celebrate John Cage - honorary grandpa of today's experimental music, and a revered guru to avant-garde artists in every field - one of the 20 th century's most influential composers.
Tributes to Cage are flourishing lately, in anticipation of his 70th birthday in September. A festival called New Music America, to be presented in Chicago this July, will be dedicated to him. An exhibition called ''John Cage: Scores and Prints'' has just completed a stay at the Whitney Museum of American Art here and will travel to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo. Further events will focus on Cage's contributions to music, graphics, and other fields.
Perhaps the most heroic tribute, however, took place at Symphony Space in Manhattan not long ago, where a marathon ''Wall-to-Wall'' concert presented 14 1 /2 hours of continuous music by Cage and friends, without a single break long enough to be called an intermission. Attending the entire event was a challenge, and also a joy - dispelling any doubts over the diversity, imagination, energy, and sheer friendliness of Cage's work. It was a day to win over the skeptical, and to give the receptive listener an unforgettable dose of Cagean magic.
Cage's most enduring legacy is probably his concept of ''indeterminacy'' and ''chance'' as integral parts of music. Using elaborate - and sometimes very amusing - methods, he has developed a creative style that bypasses the personality of the composer, and sometimes the performer as well.
Convinced that his own choices and decisions are likely to limit a work, rather than liberate it, Cage would rather rely on the flip of a coin or the whim of a computer. A devotee of the visual as well as the sonic arts, he seems happiest when his work spills freely into the domains of theater, drawing, and dance, appealing to the eye and mind as well as to the ear. And he has always insisted that all sounds should be treated with equal respect, from the reverberations of the concert hall to plain, everyday ''noise.''
Thus the pitches of ''Etudes Australes'' are based on tracings of star maps, while the ''Concert for Piano and Orchestra'' uses imperfections in the paper it is written on. Cage's instrumentation is equally unexpected. ''Child of Tree'' calls for ''amplified plant materials,'' while ''Inlets'' uses water-filled seashells. ''Living Room Music'' is scored for household furniture.
Not surprisingly, performers of Cage's music often face unusual tasks. The player of ''Music for Carillon No. 5'' studies the grain of a plywood board to determine what notes he should sound; the soloist of ''Water Music'' must be a master of numerous instruments including piano, radio, whistles, and deck of cards. The player of the composition entitled 4'33''m (''four minutes, 33 seconds'') - arguably Cage's most famous work - sits at the piano without touching the keys, while the audience enjoys the silence.
Inevitably, such works have been roundly and regularly attacked. Many musicians regard them as mere stunts, lacking musical or aesthetic interest. Some resent the very basis of Cage's philosophy, with its emphasis on chance composition and its eagerness to heighten rather than hide the accidents of performance. Even admirers of Cage's career sometimes suggest that his attitude is more important than his actual music, and that his freewheeling ideas will last longer than his individual pieces.
Cage keeps right on thriving, however, influencing whole generations of musical experimenters while refusing to tone down his cheerfully outrageous forays. It's important to note that his work is rooted in concepts few would quarrel with: the notion of strict discipline (despite his ''indeterminacy'' theory), and the love of sound for its own sake. True, his discipline is employed in unorthodox ways, and his enthusiasm for sound is uncommonly broad. Still, these are positive and affirmative values, and they inform every inch of Cage's best work - as well as his sunny personality, which has been an essential element in his life and career.
His influence has extended beyond the world of music to the fields of theater , dance, art, and literature. His own works are often theatrical in nature, with musicians honking horns and kicking drums, parading around the concert hall with blaring radios, or pounding tricky rhythms on TV sets and filing cabinets. As a permanent collaborator with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, he has played an important role in contemporary dance, too, sharing Cunningham's enthusiasm for ''different things happening at the same time.''
As the current Whitney Museum show proves, Cage's scores also make provocative art, with their extravagant graphics, unheard-of notations, and occasional bright colors. And he is an inventor, the ''prepared piano'' being his most notable credit - a modified piano with objects placed among the strings to alter their sound. Even the world of words has come into Cage's career, as he collects anecdotes, publishes lectures, and performs his own variations on earlier works by such admired authors as Thoreau and Joyce.
Though many attempts have been made, no record or tape can encompass the vitally theatrical quality that infuses most of his work. Moreover, every performance of a Cage piece is different, because of the crucial ''chance'' element. Recordings betray this spontaneity, by their very nature. Hence it's essential to hear Cage's compositions in their natural habitat, which is almost anywhere except on records - from the concert hall to the street corner.
Cage relishes the humor and theatricalism that flow from much of his work. When a Cage composition ends and he takes a bow, he grins and sparkles as if some wonderful joke had come off flawlessly well. An intense composer as well as a prolific philosopher, he approaches his work with a seriousness devoid of solemnity. Savoring every sound, he seems to find laughter the most delightful noise of all.