Across the globe, the life and work of the late American composer John Cage is being given some extra attention this year as we mark the centenary of the iconic artist. In collaboration with the University of Victoria’s School of Music, the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria and Open Space, the Victoria Symphony dedicates its November New Music Festival to a series of concerts, art exhibitions and special retrospectives celebrating the 100th anniversary of Cage’s birth.
John Cage’s significant contributions to music, modern dance, writing, critical thinking and visual arts could not possibly be summarized here. His influence, which continues to grow twenty years after his death, has been impressed upon countless artists, from composers Karlheinz Stockhausen and Phillip Glass to the more populist likes of Radiohead and veteran producer and musical innovator Brian Eno.
“Music in the twentieth century was changed profoundly by Cage’s life. If you’re a musician, or interested in music, you can try to ignore him, but sooner or later you have to deal with him,” says Cage 100 Festival curator and School of Music professor of composition and theory Christopher Butterfield.
Butterfield was recently interviewed for this extensive Globe and Mail article about Cage. “I think Cage’s whole point is that he wants people to be acutely aware of the kind of aural world or acoustic world around them and to be able to actually, I don’t know, rejoice in the sheer idea of consciousness or of being sensitive to the world, and you don’t need the kind of conventional constructs of music,” Butterfield told G&M arts reporter Marsha Lederman. “It’s much more about a much larger world of sound possibilities than simply the ones put together for people to learn on the piano or the violin or an orchestra or whatever.”
He also talks about not only the festival, but his own experiences meeting Cage in the local Times Colonist: “Once in the 1980s, [Butterfield] and a friend had hoped to greet Cage following a big concert in Toronto, but didn’t get the chance,” writes the TC’s Amy Smart. “They walked up the stairs to a friend’s party in an apartment in the ‘cheap part of town,’ and Cage was the first person they saw. ‘He’d rather be downtown with slightly sketchy people than uptown,’ said Butterfield.”
Drawing on the artist’s extensive body of work and diverse artistic practices, Victoria’s Cage 100 Festival brings together some of his most famous compositions as well as works too seldom heard or seen—including Cage’s graphic work and a 1987 sound installation, plus film, letters and paintings by people who were part of Cage’s social circle. Works by composers who share Cage’s sense of exploration and wonder will also be featured. “Cage was endlessly inventive, not just in music, but in other forms too,” explains Butterfield.
When crafting the program for the festival, Butterfield wanted to offer a broad yet intimate glimpse into Cage’s world, people he knew, and ideas he espoused. “We were lucky to rely on old friends of Cage’s, who volunteered some extraordinary material.” Devoted Play, which opens at the AGGV on November 8 (and runs to January 5), kicks off the entire festival by bringing together a collection of materials from some of his closest friends and influential figures—including Gordon Mumma, Jasper Johns, Marcel Duchamp, Mark Tobey, Morris Graves and Robert Rauschenberg. That same night, November 8, the sound installation Essay debuts at Open Space (and runs to January 12), featuring Cage himself reading from Henry David Thoreau’s essay “On Civil Disobedience.”
On Friday, November 16 at 12:30pm, the UVic Percussion Ensemble—under the direction of Bill Linwood—will perform works by Cage (1939’s First Construction in Metal and 1941’s Third Construction) and Linda Caitlin Smith (Blue Sky). Later that same day, UVic’s Sonic Lab hosts an evening of Cage’s music starting at 5pm with a School of Music-wide fanfare performance of 1967’s Musicircus, followed by a concert at 8pm (including 1957’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra, 1973’s Etcetera and 1983’s Ryoanji). All events take place in the Phillip T. Young Recital Hall and admission is by donation.
Additional Cage 100 Festival programming includes a concert with the Victoria Symphony on November 17 at the Alix Goolden Hall (including Cage’s 1947’s 4’33”, 1947’s The Seasons and 1950’s Concerto for Prepared Piano, plus works by others), and on November 18 at the AGGV with the Emily Carr String Quartet (1950’s String Quartet in Four Parts, plus works by others). Talks and discussions will take place at Open Space on November 19 (on Cage and anarchism, featuring History in Art professor Allan Antliff and Andrew Culver, Cage’s assistant in the 1980s) and the AGGV on November 22 (featuring Cage collaborator Gordon Mumma).
Finally, Cage 100 Fest curator Christopher Butterfield recently spoke with CFUV’s Phoenix Bain about the festival. Listen to that interview here.
—with files from Kristy Farkas