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In Germany, John Cage rings out

Critic's Notebook: The composer's revolutionary music is playing across the country in honor of his 100th birthday, with 'Europeras 1&2' in Bochum the grand piece.

September 03, 2012|By Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times Music Critic
  • Robert Wilson's new piece at the Ruhrtriennale is based on John Cage's "Lecture on Nothing."
Robert Wilson's new piece at the Ruhrtriennale is based on John Cage's… (Wonge Bergmann )

BOCHUM, Germany — Of all the worldwide celebrants for the 100th anniversary of John Cage's birth on Wednesday, the Germans seem to be the most adamant. Berliners are even complaining of already being "Caged-out," there having been so much of the revolutionary American composer's music in the capital this year. And lots more is on the way with this month's Berlin Festival.

That's nothing new. Unlike in the United States, where most of our big arts institutions shy away from the slightest challenge, the Germans like nothing better than an artist with big ideas or bold ideas; they first began taking Cage's radical approach to sound and silence seriously — very seriously — more than a half-century ago. The most extensive Cage festival ever was a monthlong series of daily concerts mounted 20 years ago in Frankfurt to celebrate the composer's 80th birthday (although Cage had died a few days before, having just finished new pieces for the event).

Five years earlier, Frankfurt Opera premiered Cage's largest-scaled work, his "Europeras 1&2," in 1987. Arguably the greatest American comic opera, it has never been produced by an American opera company. Now Germany is the first country to stage it twice, this time with a spectacular, if petrified, new production here. It is the centerpiece of the Ruhrtriennale, the government-funded international arts festival in northwestern Germany, which also commissioned a revelatory new theater piece by Robert Wilson based on Cage's "Lecture on Nothing."

John Cage's L.A. story | Timeline | Music | Inspiration | Events

As a prelude to last Wednesday night's Bochum performance of "Europeras 1&2" (the fourth of six sold-out performances), I made a whirlwind tour of other provincial Germany cities, and it seemed that everywhere I turned, I ran into the birthday boy.

Darmstadt, my first stop, is a small town outside of Frankfurt that calls itself a city of science and culture. In 1958, Cage appeared at Darmstadt's new music courses, where the international avant-garde famously congregated every summer to further the cause of total control over all elements of music. German music was never the same once Cage offered a formalized freedom as an alternative. His presence, in fact, created a huge rift in Western art music.

This summer in Darmstadt, it's John Cage. The central railway station now has a Cage quote — "If you celebrate it, it's art. If you don't, it isn't" — in giant red letters across the full length of the facade. The refreshment stand has been renamed Cage & Cola. A Cage Stage has been constructed in the park across the street.

At Mathildehöhe, Darmstadt's art nouveau artists' colony, the current large exhibition, "A House Full of Music," looks at how a dozen different "Cagean strategies" influenced music and art in the 20th century. Cage used to like to say, "Here comes everybody," and that is taken to heart. The strategies (such as "destroy," "be silent") are broadly enough chosen that they make room for just about anybody, allowing the likes of the Beatles, Bill Viola, Luciano Berio, Samuel Beckett and William Burroughs to fascinatingly play off one another in the displays.

John Cage's L.A. story | Timeline | Music | Inspiration | Events

Underneath the exhibition space is a musty, century-old waterworks. The German composer Heiner Goebbels' tribute to Cage is to invite visitors into the depths for a gorgeously spooky sound and light installation in tribute to Cage. There was a row of rubber boots for waders, but the guard discouraged that the afternoon I entered the depths. Goebbels also happens to be the new head of the Ruhrtriennale as well as the director of the "Europeras" production.

More Cage exhibitions are on in Stuttgart and Hamburg, and Cage hangs over the atmosphere of the international art show, documenta 13, in Kassel. One tie-in between "A House Full of Music" and documenta is that the extraordinary environmental sound artist Janet Cardiff is a star of both. In Dortmund, a 10-minute train ride from Bochum — both bustling small towns in a part of the northwest that was once known as Germany's rust belt — there is a large, muted exhibition, "Sounds Like Silence," that looks at ways artists over the years have responded to Cage's acceptance of silence.

"Europeras 1&2," though, is the big deal. In it, Cage made every aspect of opera unpredictable and discrete. The singers (this production used 10) choose their own arias from popular operas in the public domain, but Cage used chance operations, such as tossing coins and consulting the Chinese book of oracles, the "I Ching," to determine when they will sing, where on stage they will sing and what they will wear (based on what's on hand in the company's wardrobe).

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