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Monday, December 3, 2012

John Cage at BAM

by Cory Bracken

BAM's Joseph V. Melillo and John Cage, 1980 (Photo: Robert Boyd)

John Cage was a musical and cultural powerhouse, having forever changed our perception of art through creations that urged us to reflect on what we think music is, and what we think it can be. A California native, Cage moved to New York in 1942 where he lived and worked for much of his life. His arrival reunited him with modern-dance luminary Merce Cunningham, whom he met in 1938 at the Cornish School in Seattle. Much of Cage’s creative output was a result of collaborations with Cunningham, his life partner and a choreographer whose appearances at BAM were legendary, so it is no surprise that Cage graced the BAM stage several times in his career. To celebrate his centennial and acknowledge his ever-present pioneering spirit in Brooklyn’s creative community, here is a look back at Cage’s rich history with BAM.

The first engagement with John Cage at BAM was in 1952 with Cunningham and dancer/choreographer Jean Erdman, who commissioned several Cage compositions for dance in the 1940s that have become some of his most enduring works. The evening included compositions by Erik Satie (a heroic figure for Cage) and fellow American experimental music comrades Alan Hovhaness and Lou Harrison.

The following year, Cage returned to BAM with Jean Erdman for a program featuring two composers of monumental influence in his life: Arnold Schoenberg and Morton Feldman. Progenitor of the twelve-tone technique and the nucleus of the Second Viennese School, Schoenberg was Cage's teacher in California some 20 years earlier in 1933. In one of Cage's most notable exchanges, included in his 1967 collection of lectures and writings, Silence, he stated to Schoenberg that he had no feeling for harmony: "He then said that I would always encounter an obstacle, that it would be as though I came to a wall through which I could not pass. I said, 'In that case I will devote my life to beating my head against that wall.'" Later, Schoenberg declared: "Of course he's not a composer, but he's an inventor—of genius."

Morton Feldman, a relentlessly brilliant composer known for his exceptionally quiet and lengthy music, met Cage only three years prior at Carnegie Hall following a performance of Anton Webern's pointillist masterpiece Symphony Op. 21. The two became close friends and associates, marching to the forefront of what is now known as the New York School of composers from the 1950's, a group that included Christian Wolff, Earle Brown, and virtuoso pianist/composer David Tudor.

Cage returned for a third consecutive year in January of 1954, this time with Merce Cunningham and Carolyn Brown. This marked one of the earliest performances of the legendary Merce Cunningham Dance Company that formulated at Black Mountain College the previous summer in 1953. This event featured two works of Pierre Boulez, a French exponent of the European avant-garde tradition and fiercely polemical musical thinker who shared a series of transatlantic correspondence with Cage in the early 1950's. The January 20 event also featured a magnetic tape collage by Pierre Shaeffer, innovator of the musique concrète movement in the mid-20th century.

A Merce Cunningham production from November 1957 featured an incredible assemblage of artistic personalities: the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, compositions by New York School composers Christian Wolff and Earle Brown, David Tudor on piano, costumes and decor by Robert Rauschenberg, and John Cage as a conductor and instrumentalist.

Cunningham and Cage at BAM, 1969 (Photo: Jack Mitchell)

Cunningham (center) and Cage (far right) performing at BAM, 1970. (Photo: James Klosty)

Excerpt of Roaratorio at BAM in 1986, featuring John Cage as a performer:

Excerpt of Rondo in Cunningham, Merce: Forward and Reverse, at BAM in 1997:

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