One of his most famous works, 4’33,” is named for the amount of time a performer sits silently at a piano. To many, it is quintessential Cage: aggravating, unmusical, nonsensical. Yet his intent is profound: to get people to listen to the sounds around them, become aware of sound in a different way and question how they define music. (The festival includes video-wall projections of various 4’33” performances.)
“He wasn’t so interested in music as a tool for self-expression but in how music can represent the world around us,” says composer Gustavo Matamoros, founder and director of Miami’s SubTropics Music Festival, where Cage was the focus in 1991. “That totally changed how people talked about music. Every piece Cage wrote is a deeply thought-out idea about the role of sound and music and what it means.”
The NWS festival aims to render those ideas as richly as possible. Tilson Thomas describes Cage’s music with words like beautiful, haunting, sensual, elegant and magical — language not usually used for a composer seen as rigorously conceptual and detached. But he believes that, particularly in his earlier music, Cage often chose sounds to fit “a kind of elegant, exotic, gestural, vaguely mournful sensibility.” And that his “natural, wondrous sense of sound” and fascination with everything from cacophonous city streets to chirping birds meant Cage was acutely sensitive to the consequences of his choices.
La Barbara says Cage was utterly meticulous about how his music was performed. (On one tour stop, a technician was sent to record burning pinecones to reproduce a missing track.)
“All the musicians who mistakenly think you can do anything with Cage just don’t understand,” she says. “They haven’t done the work or gone through the process. If you do, it becomes as rich as any romantic music held up as a model of what is beautiful and perfect.”
Tilson Thomas is taking full advantage of the New World Center’s multiple performance spaces, multimedia capabilities and flexible staging to bring Cage’s music to life in new ways.
And in some works, he is expanding on Cage’s original concepts — most drastically with the festival closer, Renga, composed to celebrate the Bicentennial in 1976. Inspired by Cage’s comment that the piece could also be done in memory of a head of state or a great artist, Tilson Thomas has recast it as a tribute to Cage himself. Instead of sounds from early American folk music and religious traditions, the musicians will play various Cage compositions. Audio of vintage commercials, dance music and political announcements will represent the soundtrack of his life, with videos of Cage on yet another track, enveloping the audience in a collage of his life.
The goal is to “build up the same kind of world of sound in Renga that he was driving at, but the sources will be different,” Tilson Thomas says. “It will never be the same way twice, and yet you will recognize it as the same piece.”
Laura Kuhn, director of the John Cage Trust, welcomes that creative approach.
“Cage was always interested in things he hadn’t done, in new technology,” she says. “Michael is taking every work and … making it fresh and accessible and more in keeping with the way we look at and understand the music now. It’s exciting to see someone being so adventurous.”