Magazine – Contemporary Music

Textbook, Good-Bye! – The festival MaerzMusik 2012 celebrates John Cage

MaerzMusik / Christopher FelverTomomi Adachi recreates John Cage’s “Sixty-two Mesostics re Merce Cunningham” at the festival MaerzMusik 2012, photo by MaerzMusik / Kai BienertThe work and influence of the composer John Cage has been the subject of turbulent debate in the German music world. The Berlin festival MaerzMusik 2012 was therefore devoted, in this centennial year, to his art and its influence. An outlook.

The Berlin festival MaerzMusik (MarchMusic) has always particularly exerted itself on behalf of the American avant-garde. In its very first year of existence, 2002, it devoted a whole day to following Cage’s trail. Silence was interpreted in various ways, elaborations of his concept of an open work were on the program and, of course, performances of Cage’s music itself.

John Cage in the fifties, photo by MaerzMusik / John Cage TrustIt was already evident then not only that Cage had shaped the identity of the New Music on almost all levels, but also that his achievements continued to live in the works of a younger generation. Participants in the projects of that first MaerzMusik included the sound artist Jens Brand, the electronic musicians Werner Dafeldecker and Boris Hegenbart, and the composer hans w koch. Thus John Cage is a constant, still a decisive vanishing point and springboard for designing the program of a “Festival for Contemporary Music”.

“A charlatan!”

Yet the reception of Cage in Germany has been anything but smooth. Recall the uproar caused by his invitation to Darmstadt in 1959, where he split the audience and provoked vehement debates. The longtime director of the Summer School, Ernst Thomas, berated Cage publicly as a “charlatan”, and in the end it took three decades before the prestigious Darmstadt event could again bring itself to fetch Cage to its podium. Nevertheless, he also had his admirers and zealots in the 1950s.

The older John Cage, photo by MaerzMusik / Christopher FelverThe music theorist Heinz-Klaus Metzger stood up for Cage’s anarchic thought. And Dieter Schnebel was a young composer who took up Cage’s aesthetic stance and graphic scores, realized performance pieces and open works, and so made virulent in German musical life as well the questions broached by Cage. And then there were also composers such as Josef-Anton Riedl, Walter Zimmermann, Ernst-Albrecht Stiebler, Carola Bauckholt and Gerhard Stäbler, who time and again came out openly for Cage.

The aging of the New Music

Discussing John Cage's work at the MaerzMusik Symposium, photo by MaerzMusik / Kai BienertToday of course the situation is different. On the one hand, we may say that Cage has long since become historical. On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Cage’s birth this year, numerous of his works were performed at MaerzMusik 2012, and it must be said that to many adhered the patina of the past. The orchestral piece 103, in which the musicians render their sounds with great calm and freely within a certain timeframe, no longer shone in the light of the New, but only glowed rather dully. The audiotape piece Williams Mix, a pioneer work from the early 1950s for which Cage categorized sounds according to their origin and then intercut them, now seems like an archeological media artifact. It was Adorno who once spoke of “the aging of the New Music” and so formulated one of the central contradictions of the avant-garde. Not even Cage created timeless art.

Lasting effect

Lasting effects live on stage: the concert of the SWR Sinfonieorchester, directed by Lothar Zagrosek (left), with works of Morton Feldman and Wolfgang Rihm (right), photo by MaerzMusik / Kai BienertOn the other hand, it has to be said that there is hardly an area of contemporary music that has not felt Cage’s lasting influence. To Cage we owe the concept of live electronic music, the musicalization of everyday life, the instrumental extension of the prepared piano, the aesthetics of randomness, new forms of notation, the concept of an open work, and the changed perception of music, environing sounds and silence. We need not refer to Cage explicitly in order to make his influence felt; it cannot be escaped.

It is probably for this reason that only a few musicians have explicitly referred in his centennial year to the ubiquitous model. At MaerzMusik the Japanese musician Tomomi Adachi applied Cage’s text Sixty-two Mesostics re Merce Cunningham to his own vocal practice and complemented his program with a work by Hugo Ball so as to show a historical lineage – from Dada through Cage to his own pieces, which he calls “mainstream modern art”. Werner Dafeldecker and Valerio Tricolo in turn have taken up the scores of the historic audiotape piece Williams Mix and reconstructed it using their own contemporary sounds. Their Williams Mix Extended is a completely originary and new piece, which can be traced to Cage only in its concept. In addition, as part of the festival, prominent musicians ranging from Tomomi Adachi to Christian Wolff took part in a three-day symposium in which they discussed “John Cage and His Influence” from scholarly and musicological angles.

U.S.A. and Europe – the two avant-gardes

The american composer Robert Ashley, photo by MaerzMusik / Kai BienertOf course not only John Cage was performed and discussed at MaerzMusik 2012, but also the music of his contemporaries and comrades: Morton Feldman, Christian Wolff, the artists of the Sonic Arts Union such as Robert Ashley, David Behrman and Alvin Lucier. Simultaneously, the festival celebrated another notable birthday, that of Wolfgang Rihm, who turned 60 this year. The juxtaposition of the two anniversaries afforded an insight into the cultural differences between the continents and the self-images of the avant-garde in Europe and America.

Rihm stands for musical mastery and the grandeur of art with a bourgeois background. The American composers, on the other hand, frequently move on the margins of society; their works are much more radical, their questions more fundamental. We need only contrast Rihm’s smooth, languid Doppelgesang for clarinet, viola and orchestra with Morton Feldman’s claustrophobic, almost unreal and shimmering orchestra work Coptic Light to realize that here fundamentally different principles are at work.

Brain directed music, presented by Alvin Lucien, photo by MaerzMusik / Kai BienertAlvin Lucier’s experiments with brain waves (Music for Solo Performer) and Cage’s amplification of plucked cactus spines (Branches) have of course little to do with textbooks on composition and orchestration. To have liberated music from this is perhaps John Cage’s greatest achievement – also for composers of new music and its listeners in Germany.

Björn Gottstein
works as a freelance journalist about contemporary and electronic music. He lives in Berlin.

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
April 2012

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