Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Anarchy of Silence

While recently in Spain over the holidays, I got the pleasure of viewing the immense John Cage retrospective at the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona. At the very least, Cage is the American composer responsible for defining the radical practice of ‘experimental’ musical composition that ultimately changed the course of modern music and art forever. By relentlessly questioning the conventions of music, Cage took a wrecking ball to every formal and structural cornerstone that had been set in place from centuries past, clearing the air for equally important thoughts such as chance, fragility and uncertainty. Aptly titled The Anarchy of Silence, the sweeping exhibition is the first to move through Cage’s 50 year career since his passing in 1992, roving decade by decade with thrilling ease.

The museum introduces the viewer to John Cage with his early percussion pieces of the 1930s and the idea that one must be equally open to arbitrary noise as to conventionally understood musical sounds. With several headphones strewn along on the walls, one could eavesdrop on the spectrum of ground-breaking sounds he created from highly unorthodox ‘instruments’ (rice bowls, bathtubs, etc). For myself, I couldn’t help but reflect on the ocean of musicians I adore who have since operated out of his bold rhythmic enterprising. Moving into the 1940s, Cage’s ‘prepared piano’ sat alone with its lid open, giving us spectators a chance to view the array of scandalous objects he inserted between the strings. By placing everything from screws to eraser heads inside, not only did Cage produce a whole new continuum of sounds for the piano but he also managed to emasculate a firm instrument of bourgeois culture at that time.

Through the 1950s, sometimes even before hostile audiences, Cage extended the idea of using chance in the process of writing musical scores as well as into the realm of performance. As expected, Cage’s landmark work, 4’33", was realized in this exhibition in several versions. This ‘silent’ composition, whose content is meant to be perceived as the sounds of the environment that the listener hears while it is 'performed' (rather than 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence) is presumably the most dynamic conceptual object to come out of the 20th century. Furthermore, many of Cage’s beautiful water and radio scores were also represented from this same period. In the 1960’s and beyond, John Cage became increasingly interested in media-based works that ruptured the ideas of authorship as well as attention. One the strongest pieces of the exhibition was his computer-generated slide, sound and film installation titled HPSCHD, which was presented in one of the final galleries of the show.

Lastly, the show explored Cage’s friendship and influence on several monumental artists including Marcel Duchamp, Robert Rauschenberg, Ellsworth Kelly, Yoko Ono, Andy Warhol and Nam June Paik. The museum displayed a number of stunning pieces from each of these visual pioneers and if you managed to look close enough, you could almost see Cage’s fingerprints quietly on them. Taken as a whole, MACBA did a tremendous job of clearly proving that without John Cage, the art and music of the last 80 years would have unfolded very differently…and certainly more drearily.

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