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.