1 of 2
Photo by Ross Welser; Copyright: John Cage Trust
John Cage preparing a piano (c. 1964)
2 of 2
Photographer: Unknown; Copyright—John Cage Trust
John Cage 2
John Cage composing 'Atlas Eclipticalis' (1962)
"Absence," said writer James Joyce, "is the highest form of presence." The compositions of the extraordinary John Cage, who did more for music than anyone else in the 20th century, resonates with absences, none more so than his infamous '4’33”' (1952), which is completely silent.
There’s nothing irreverent about Cage, though, as this sophisticated show at MACBA reveals. As much as his investigations were playful, Cage’s dogged pursuit of the meaning of music was deadly serious and painstakingly academic. In the words of its curator Julia Robinson, Cage’s was a "systematic undoing" of the accepted norms of music, derived from a dissatisfaction with it as a communication tool.
In the Forties, Cage raised household materials to the level of instruments, limitlessly expanding the concept of percussion. By wedging bolts, screws and spearhead pencil rubbers between the strings of a grand piano, he created hard-edged sounds that intercepted the melody. This jarred lyricism visibly and audibly reflected the times, portraying the equal sense of duty and dread with which America was dragged into World War Two.
In New York in the Fifties and Sixties, Cage mingled with hugely innovative artists of all disciplines: dancer Merce Cunningham, geometry-inspired painter Piet Mondrian, surrealist writer Andre Breton, composer Morton Feldman. He became fascinated by theatre, particularly Antonin Artaud’s radical approaches to staging and audience interaction. It led Cage to invent the Happening, a multidisciplinary performance piece. Meanwhile, he continued to delve into music theory, seeking a new objectivity that would sever the link between composer and composition. He did this by introducing elements of chance that reduced the composer’s control over the material.
Although Cage essentially individualised music, when placed in the context of other artistic disciplines, as this show does, it is Cage’s compositions that bind everything together. Robert Rauschenberg’s 'Music Box' (1953), in which stones were supposed to rattle against rusty nails, is visibly sonorous; Ellsworth Kelly’s white canvases seem poignant and purposeful enveloped in Cage’s soundtrack. The show ends abruptly, in 1969 (Cage died in 1992), but it doesn’t matter; one of the final pieces, a wild and spacey light show with flits of Mozart bouncing off the walls, is awesome.
On a par with artist Marcel Duchamp and dramatist Samuel Beckett, Cage’s influence on the world of composition is paramount. He demystified music, ejecting it from its social niche. He made it visible: something to interact with dance, theatre and visual art. Most importantly, he unearthed music’s subtext, so that it became not just a vehicle for beauty but also for truth.