Aside from all of this year’s centennial hoopla, John Cage is easily one of the most under-programmed of American composers. Perhaps this is because among other acknowledged masters such as Copland, Ives, Adams, Carter, and Glass, Cage’s music is the most unique, confrontational, and subversive. It’s a pity that American concertgoers might go a whole lifetime without encountering the works of John Cage; his experimental legacy (and influence on the New York School of which he was once a central figure) lives on, but that legacy is often times eclipsed by the frequently poppy brand of postminimalism that currently dominates the new music community. To paraphrase fellow NewMusicBox contributor Colin Holter, the glaring omission of John Cage from most programs and larger music institutions might represent the single biggest blind spot in presentations of contemporary music.
Riding in as part of the rescue efforts, just in time to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Cage’s birthday, is The John Cage Centennial Festival, which will present a retrospective of music, watercolors, dance, and theater at several venues throughout Washington, D.C. Festival directors Steve Antosca, Roger Reynolds, and Karen Reynolds have partnered with venues including the National Gallery of Art, La Maison Française, the Phillips Collection, the Freer Gallery, the Corcoran Gallery, and the Hirshhorn museum for a week of concerts, showings, and panel discussions from September 4-10 (including Cage’s September 5 birthday bash). All in all, the festival will be one of the largest new music events ever to take place in D.C., as well as one of the largest presentations of Cage’s work and thought to take place anywhere.
Festival Co-director Steve Antosca elaborates:
When we set out to organize a celebration of John Cage’s accomplishments we did not realize that we would receive such a broad and open reception from the Washington art community, from funders, and from Cage experts around the world. We believe the Festival in our nation’s capital has taken on an historic importance as a unique celebration of John Cage and his achievements. The John Cage Centennial Festival will present 7 concerts with over 50 works, as well as 10 tribute commissions.
Performers and ensembles committed to the festival include the National Gallery of Art new music ensemble, Irvine Arditti, Steven Schick and red fish blue fish, and Allen Otte and Percussion Group Cincinnati, overseen by festival counselors Brian Brandt (founder of Mode Records) and Laura Kuhn, executive director of the John Cage Trust.
Throughout the week of concerts, lectures, and showings, several workshop opportunities for young people are scheduled. American University will present a percussion workshop and masterclass with Steven Schick, while the Corcoran Gallery of Art will present a dance workshop focusing on important developments in Cage’s many collaborations with Merce Cunningham, curated by former Cunningham dancer Patricia Lent. And a watercolor workshop at the Washington Center (in partnership with the University of California) will offer participants the chance to try out painting techniques as they learn about the works of John Cage—a real representation of Cage’s diverse interests, with several in-depth “Illuminations” sessions delving deep into the particulars of how Cage worked through artistic challenges.
It’s going to be a full week, so interested parties would do well to check the Cage Festival’s website in advance for a full list of offerings—I’ve barely scratched the surface in this preview. Highlights include premieres of commissioned works by Robert Ashley, George Lewis, and Christian Wolf under Antosca and the National Gallery of Art New Music Ensemble; Irvine Arditti’s heroic American premiere of Cage’s complete Freeman Etudes with real-time sound spatialization; and Stephen Drury’s recital of Cage piano works featuring the premiere of a tribute commission composed by Phillip Glass.
Washington, D.C. isn’t noted for its plethora of new music-related events, so it’s all the more fitting that such an exhaustive exploration of one of American music’s most cherished figures will be taking place just where a healthy injection of funny-smart-weird Cageian goodness is most needed.