The late composer John Cage (1912-1992) is one of those artists whose legacy is almost impossible to overstate. There was a world before Cage came along, and that world remains long after he’s gone, but those worlds are very different, and Cage’s seminal sound-craft is a decisive factor. He didn’t just change the music business; he changed music itself, in the process recalibrating the way humans make music, how we listen to music and how we think about music at the most basic and fundamental levels, from orchestrations and collaborations with other artists to manipulations of instruments and recording techniques. As a composer, I see him really as the heir to Arnold Schoenberg, but that could be debated.
A new DVD from Accentus Music, John Cage: Journeys In Sound, was released last October in celebration of Cage’s 100th birthday. It takes a look at the world he left behind, demonstrating in several different ways how the man’s influence persists even now, 20 years after his death. Cage is one of the very few modern composers to have a serious presence in the larger pop-culture, known even to people who’ve never heard his music—and there is a lot to be heard. This release results from the collective efforts of two critically-acclaimed documentary filmmakers, Allan Miller and Paul Smaczny, who together led a production crew numbering some three dozen different people and companies. Miller, a two-time Oscar winner, was a longtime friend and colleague of Cage’s, and he comes armed with archival footage dating back to the 1960s, which he and Smaczny augmented with material drawn from a wide variety of sources around the world. The result is not so much a unified whole, but a series of sketches that all revolve around a central theme: “John Cage”.
The film begins as an old-school 1950s TV set opens up from its place in a sunlit field; the footage shows a young Cage employing various household items to create sounds for an audience whose nervous laughter gives away their general confusion—a common reaction. It then cuts to an older Cage, making meticulous edits to a film project he was constructing out of his famous “Chance Operations”. A scene in Times Square captures a cross-section of people talking about Cage on the street; the point seems to be that, while Cage may be obscure, he is hardly as obscure as one might expect, at least in that setting. The sights and sounds of the city, among other locales, acts as
22 different artists are featured in the film, besides Cage himself. Most of these people would be virtually unknown to the casual observer, with some few notable, indeed crucial exceptions. Topping that list are John Lennon and Yoko Ono, who actually appears in two different incarnations, in her youth alongside Lennon and Cage (bearded, Bob Ross-like), then later in life, after she’d long since become a sort of godmother to the New York avant-garde performance-art circles in which she and Cage both operated for years. Now, it’s not like John Cage needs John Lennon, or anyone else, to lend credibility to his work (which was often controversial to the point of being divisive, like an Albert Ayler or a Lou Reed, circa Metal Machine Music), but his very presence in the film, like some kind of omniscient, omnipresent ghost, elevates the whole affair beyond the quotidian; Lennon, as always, flirts with the sublime.
Journeys In Sound is a documentary about a musician, and not an actual music video, although we are treated to interpretations of Cage’s work in multiple contexts and configurations. Those who may find that there’s not enough actual music on the DVD to suit their tastes will be assuaged somewhat by the bonus material, which begins with a performance of Cage’s infamous exercise in ambient noise, “4’33”, conducted by the great David Tudor. The Schlagquatett Koln applies their percussive skills to Cage’s “Second Construction”, while pianist Steffen Schleiermacher performs a piece from Cage’s “Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano”, followed by his “Water Music”; the latter two pieces really touch on those aspects of Cage’s artistry that has resonated the most contemporaneously. The set is rounded out by interviews with Cage, his longtime companion Merce Cunningham—a former dancer for Martha Graham who later emerged as arguably the leading choreographer of modern dance—and artist Robert Rauschenberg, all of whom were giants in their respected fields but who together pioneered a whole new concept of multidisciplinary art. The DVD booklet also includes a five-page interview with Miller, which helps put the film in context.
John Cage: Journeys In Sound will not add too much to the knowledge-base of serious Cage fans, but it offers a very nice introduction to a man whose work often defies explanation, in part because so many skilled musicians themselves made the effort to put Cage’s influence in their own words. If Cage himself were alive, or could be sent a copy of the DVD in whatever dimension he presently occupies, he would probably enjoy it very much. Of course, if one can construct a documentary whose very subject could watch it and learn something, that is the mark of success—a mark that Messrs. Miller and Smaczny have certainly earned.