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AU Hosts Events for John Cage Festival

By Steven Dawson

Photo of Ross Karre performing by Vanessa Robertson.

Photo of Ross Karre performing by Vanessa Robertson.

Imagine that you are attending the symphony. You purchase your ticket and sit in your seat, eagerly anticipating the wonderful music you are about to hear. The musicians prepare, and the conductor gives the downbeat. But the musicians just sit there…and sit there…for four and a half minutes of complete silence.

This is Cage’s famous “4’33””, and it is quintessentially what he was about. The piece is designed with a lack of music to allow the audience members to listen to the sounds around them, to hear the music in everyday things. “He says all we have to do is just open our ears, and there’s music everywhere,” says Nancy Snider, director of AU’s music program. “It is in the street, in our homes, and in our offices. It is there to be discovered.”

John Cage (1912-1992) was an American composer, poet, and artist who was a pioneer in music theory and electronic music. He is also known for his work with making music using non-traditional items, like conch shells and cacti. His major claim to fame was his exploration of chance in modern music. “When I hear what we call music, it seems to me that someone is talking,” Cage has said. “But when I hear traffic, I don't have the feeling that anyone is talking. I have the feeling that sound is acting. And I love the activity of sound.”

Professor William Brent notes the influence that Cage has had on modern music. “I’ve always been interested in percussion in general and Cage’s use of noises and sounds from everyday instruments. He is a major driving force behind percussion theory and practice,” says Brent.

Cage’s 100th birthday will be celebrated next fall during the John Cage Centennial Festival Washington, D.C., which will be held September 4–10, 2012. The festival, organized by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Roger Reynolds, flautist Karen Reynolds, and composer and music pioneer Steve Antosca, will feature performances of Cage’s music and literary works and exhibitions of his visual works in select venues all over the city, including at American University.

To awaken people’s appetites for the centennial festival, American University hosted a concert on October 23, which featured percussion by nationally renowned New York percussionist Ross Karre and custom audio software designed and operated by Professor William Brent. Karre played unique percussion in combination with everyday items, like a cymbal dipped into a fish tank full of water, while Brent manipulated and amplified the resulting sounds through eight strategically placed loudspeakers. “Melody? It may be best to just forget about that word,” chuckles Brent. “It’s more of a sequence of ‘sound phenomena’ that the performers set into motion.”

The preview concert was a sampling of the progressive nature of Cage’s work. The often misunderstood artist constantly pushed the boundaries of the conventional standards of music. “He saw the future before it happened,” says Snider. “Cage took us to a place that we are just now beginning to recognize and embrace.”
Reynolds, Antosca, Snider, and Brent all felt that the American University Museum was a perfect site for performing John Cage’s work. “We all liked the concept of putting the event in the gallery because it is a unique acoustic space and Cage’s work connects with visual art,” says Brent.

The concert was held almost a full year in advance of the festival because of the lead time that performers need to prepare Cage’s works. Brent and the others involved wanted to give the custom built software and acoustically unpredictable venue a test run before the big event next year. “The scores are open to new interpretations with new technologies, and that’s all a part of Cage’s plan,” says Brent. “But you have to build the software yourself, because there is no market for that kind of thing. You can’t just go online and download it.”

The use of the American University Museum as well as the other venues in next year’s festival celebrates Cage’s work in other art forms. For instance, he often collaborated with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company to pair the visual aesthetic with his music. "He wasn’t just a composer,” Snider explains. “He wasn’t just a musician either. He was what one of his biographers calls a ‘poly-artist.’” 

Snider and the rest of the Department of Performing Arts plan to hold another preview event the week before the festival begins. This event will introduce AU students and the community to John Cage and his work and it will introduce the artists and community to the Department of Performing Arts. “It is conceived as an interdisciplinary theatre piece that will explore the totality of John Cage’s creative work and serve as an introduction to this artist’s amazing eclecticism, as well as his enormous contributions to the direction of music and aesthetics in all areas of the arts,” says Snider.

American University is the only academic institution in the area chosen as a venue for the festival, which also includes events at the Phillips Collection, the National Gallery of Art, Arena Stage, and the French Embassy. “AU just made sense because it has a gallery with high-caliber work and because there are people here to support it,” says Brent.

Ross Karre will return for next year’s festival along with other top performers to celebrate the works and influence of John Cage. Many of the performers will be people who knew Cage, worked with him, or had some link with him. “These are the experts; the top of the top are involved in this festival,” says Snider. “For AU to be partnering and hosting these great musicians is really a marvelous thing.”