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New World Symphony celebrates a century of John Cage with a 3-day festival

As a passionate young singer, Joan La Barbara attended a 1972 Berlin Philharmonic performance of experimental composer John Cage’s music that disturbed her deeply. Musicians argued politics with the audience instead of playing their instruments. There was an orchestra in the lobby, a cacophony of noise, milling crowds and apparent confusion.

“I really didn’t know what to make of it,” La Barbara says. “So I walked up to Cage and said, ‘With all the chaos in the world, why do you want to make more?’ ”

The circle of admirers surrounding him gasped, and La Barbara walked off thinking she’d offended the famous composer. Instead, she felt a tap on her shoulder and turned to see Cage beaming. “Perhaps now when you go out into the world,” he told her, “it won’t seem so chaotic anymore.”

Exploring how one of the most influential and controversial artists of the 20th century found music in the world’s chaos is the goal of the New World Symphony’s Making the Right Choices: A John Cage Centennial Celebration next weekend at the New World Center in Miami Beach.

Conceived by the symphony’s artistic director, Michael Tilson Thomas, the three-night festival is among the more ambitious and creative of the many events commemorating the 100th anniversary of Cage’s 1912 birth. There will be projections on a giant helium balloon and the curved “sails” of the main concert hall, musicians playing simultaneously in multiple rooms and new stagings of rarely done dances by Merce Cunningham, Cage’s longtime creative and personal partner.

Guest artists include La Barbara (who became a frequent Cage collaborator), soprano Jessye Norman and contemporary singer Meredith Monk. Works range from meticulous recreations of early solo pieces for prepared piano to a dramatic re-imagining of Renga, one of Cage’s most ambitious and complex orchestral works.

With all its multimedia bells and whistles, the festival is “Cirque du Soleil for the intellectual set,” NWS president Howard Herring says.

Tilson Thomas, a passionate, longtime advocate for Cage and contemporary music, hopes it will draw audiences into a musical world that is as rich and rewarding as it is complex and misunderstood.

“I think people have taken the freedom in [Cage’s] music to do whatever they want,” Tilson Thomas said. “But that’s not at all his intention. He’s trying to create a situation, an opportunity for music to come into existence.”

Opportunities to hear Cage’s music remain rare. Two decades after his 1992 death, many people still find his work baffling and disturbing, not “really” music. And yet he is widely regarded as one of the pivotal artists of the 20th century, a man whose ideas about the definition and role of art and performance, about creativity, about our awareness of and relationship to the world, were key drivers in the cultural shift to post-modernism.

Cage used chance, most famously with the I-Ching, to structure his pieces, freeing them from emotions and biases and seeking to tap into larger life forces. By juxtaposing multiple musical elements, or, in his half-century collaboration with Cunningham, independently created dance, music and décor, he opened up the use of collage and foreshadowed the way we process simultaneous stimuli in our Internet-linked lives. DJs, hip-hop producers and electronic music mavens owe him a debt for his pioneering use of electronic sounds and sampling. The way he structured his compositions to embody ideas and raise questions has become the primary ethos of the conceptually driven contemporary art world.

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.”

Tilson Thomas also sets this festival apart by making Cunningham’s dances as a significant element. Cage and Cunningham (a single name in some circles) were intimately linked, personally and artistically, from 1938, when Cage was an accompanist at a Seattle arts college Cunningham attended, until the composer’s death. The charismatic Cage is usually credited with the concepts behind their work, but their creative symbiosis makes it difficult to separate one from the other. They created countless works together, and Cunningham’s dances brought the ideas to vivid, physical life.

The dances have been staged by Patricia Lent, a former member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company who licenses and teaches his pieces for the Merce Cunningham Trust. New World School of the Arts students will perform Sixteen Dances, a lost piece from the 1940s reinvented for this show. Two former Cunningham dancers, Andrea Weber and Brandon Collwes, will perform a radically re-imagined version of Second Hand, which Cunningham made to Cage’s 1969 composition Cheap Imitation, itself a rearrangement of a Satie piece. Rashaun Mitchell, a choreographer and former Cunningham dancer, restaged its third section for Weber and Collwes, who move around the orchestra and interact with archival video of the Cunningham troupe in the original choreography.

Cage and Cunningham would have enjoyed the reinvention, Lent says.

“Something Merce said many times is he’d rather say yes than no,” she says. “At first Rashaun’s idea really threw me. But now I feel like it’s a really intriguing way to present this work.”

The combination is even more inventive in Renga, in which NWS musicians will join New World School dancers in Field Dances, a Cunningham work that hasn’t been performed since the early 1960s. The choreography lets the dancers choose from a menu of movements, many as simple as walking or skipping. How it will all work she doesn’t know.

“It’s an experiment,” Lent says. “I think it’ll be a bit of a circus, and that’s part of the idea.”

Cage, so fascinated with the world’s chaos, would probably have liked that idea. Whether audiences are comfortable with this kind of sensory circus is another question.

“The truth is the world still doesn’t really know who John Cage is,” Kuhn says.

And yet the changes Cage helped propel have made people much more willing to — as Cunningham said — “just look and listen.”

“I find more people who are really curious,” says La Barbara. “The world is out there to explore. If you come to a concert, you want to be surprised, to hear something new.”

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