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John Cage Still Leaves Everything To Chance


Scene: A Santa Monica radio station. John Cage, guru of musical modernists and self-styled composer/author/artist, sits at a microphone opposite his host.

He opens a black briefcase and extracts a thick pile of sheets--this in response to the host's bidding Cage to "make a music circus . . . do whatever thing it is that defines John Cage."

The guest, utterly compliant, open and trusting, seems more like a gentle child than a 74-year-old oracle. He smiles at an ad-hoc crew assembled to man turntables and assist him. He glances at a stack of records--58 in all--but doesn't ask what they are. And then he softly announces:

"Each of you will have 10 records and 10 minutes to play them. Choose any amount of time for each, including silence if you like, but sample them all within 10 minutes."

Next, he turns to the sheets of paper, which are computer printouts of I Ching tables--an 11th-Century system of binary mathematics with a text that divines natural events and human existence through its symbols and hexagrams.

Going through the sheets, Cage calls out numbers and the three-member crew finds the records that correspond to them.

Finally, the audio alert, the countdown and the happening: On cue, fragments of Thelonious Monk and Mahler intermingle wondrously with James Brown and Satie and aborigines and Vivaldi and nuevo tango. The world reduces to an aural splotch. Everyone who was and is comes together in simultaneous sonic citizenship.

What could be more John Cage? What better illustrates the quiet anarchist's credo of chance operations?

The whole thing is very much to Cage's liking.

"Not just the sound of it," he explains later, having moved on to a downtown theater where his music is being rehearsed by a CalArts ensemble.

"But the vision as well. We look through glass walls into the adjacent studios, where other people see us and vice versa. We catch our own reflection in them and they catch theirs. There is an interrelationship. And that becomes the essence. Music is a model of society."

Cage, ever the impish enigma when it comes to his music, looks the part. Slight and agile (not unlike his long-time collaborator Merce Cunningham), he walks with a light bounce, and his ruddy face radiates kindness that is wholly ingenuous and disarming. His uniform consists of soft, faded denim trousers and jacket and black Nikes. Part flower-child (he tends to 200 plants at his Manhattan home, a converted department store on Sixth Avenue) and part social-revolutionary, he lives by a Zen Existentialist code: "Want nothing and accept everything."

Yet, over the course of last weekend's visit in which the CalArts Contemporary Music Festival celebrated his coming 75th birthday as part of the New Music Los Angeles 1987 Festival, Cage hardly promotes a reclusive image.

In a few days, he has managed to oversee an exhibition of his lithographs, give one of his famous readings to benefit the work of 93-year-old musicologist Nicolas Slonimsky, take a van tour around his native city and hunt for wild, fleshy mushrooms--as any communing naturalist who reads and re-reads Thoreau might do.

He does all these things with elan, thoroughly enjoying the instant camaraderie of fans and assorted kindred souls. While some of his peers strive and sweat at their accomplishments, Cage seems to glide into them.

Even back when the world either laughed at his deconstructionist efforts in music or booed him off the stage, he kept his equanimity, his almost saintly demeanor. For the Bicentennial in 1976, the Los Angeles Philharmonic had commissioned (with Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, New York and Philadelphia) a work from Cage. After all, as the spiritual descendant of Charles Ives and the musical e.e. cummings of America, he was a likely composer to represent this country's creative individualism.

But the conservative audience thought otherwise. So did some of the players, who openly showed their contempt while doing his compositional bidding.

The piece, "Renga With Apartment House 1776," reveled in Cagean serendipity; four ensembles within the orchestra picked and chose at random from 64 parts what they felt like playing--while four vocalists representing Protestants, Sephardim, American Indians and Negro slaves sang their own uncomposed songs.

What the audience perceived as chaos or cacophony it duplicated in jeers and whistles and shouted invectives throughout the half-hour performance. Many exited within a few minutes. But at the end there were also bravos. In New York hundreds fled the hall.

How could someone as benign and selfless as Cage have provoked this behavior?

"I liked the cheers better than the jeers," he recalls, pushing a hand through his long, loose, steel-gray hair.

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