John Cage at 100: SCM Pays Tribute to 20th Century Icon Who Changed the Face of Music – Part 2


John Cage has never been met with easy acceptance. His teacher at UCLA and USC, Arnold Schoenberg (himself a 20th Century musical revolutionary), was at once intrigued and puzzled by Cage’s music.

“Of course he’s not a composer,” he is reputed to have said of his student. “But he is an inventor – of genius.” Others were more pointed in their criticism. “Good people of Woodstock: let’s run these people out of town!” exclaimed an angry listener at the world premiere of one of the 20th Century’s most notorious works, Cage’s 4’33”.

Jeff von der Schmidt, SCM’s artistic director, spoke about Cage’s significance, his growing relevance, and the challenges he poses to the listener.

“[Cage] was absolutely considered by many to be a charlatan in his lifetime,” explained von der Schmidt. “But he’s been exonerated of that in the last 20 years. You really have to understand Zen Buddhism to learn where [Cage’s] heart was. His was a quiet voice, not a loud one. I don’t think it’s a voice concerned with marketing or financial success. It’s a voice that reminds one that the only straight lines are those designed by man.”

Cage’s influence runs deep in northern Los Angeles area. “[Cage] was no stranger to Los Angeles. … He grew up in Eagle Rock. He spoke at the Encounters Series at the Pacific Asia Museum. He was the first person to perform on the stage of the Norton Simon Museum. If I were mayor, I’d rename Grand Avenue ‘Cage Avenue’ – that’s how important he is. It’s something that [as local residents] we should be proud of. That’s why we announced Cage 2012 to celebrate his work.”

Speaking about Cage’s 4’33”, von der Schmidt spoke about Cage’s motivation to expand the aural possibilities of both composer and listener. “It’s all about the music around us. Even the traffic sounds that we’re hearing below would have been music for him. It changes. The dynamics fluctuate all the time. The sound – the music – we’d be hearing here if it were 2 a.m. would be very different from what we’re hearing right now. Cage understood that. The music is all around us, he’s telling us.”

Despite his groundbreaking style, Cage saw himself as part of a greater tradition. “He still saw himself as a serious European musician. Just think that when he would still play recitals, he would arrive dressed in a coat and tails. Looking over SCM’s summer schedule where the complete Mozart String Quintets have been scheduled, von der Schmidt mused whether Cage’s Los Angeles and Mozart’s Vienna are so far apart after all.

“I have to tell you,” leaned in von der Schmidt. “Two composers always sell tickets: Mozart and Cage. There is an innocence to both of them that doesn’t inhibit profundity. I think the audience has got it right.”