Silencing the avant garde

Silencing the avant garde

A display of John Cage’s conceptual drawings shows the musician’s unorthodox approach to composition.

Published: February 13, 2013 (Issue # 1746)


John Cage ‘preparing’ a piano by placing an object between the strings.

“I can’t understand why people are frightened by new ideas. I’m frightened by the old ones.”

This famous quote by the U.S. composer John Cage, renowned for his unorthodox use of musical instruments in search of a new sound, is the motto of a bold new exhibition that has opened at the Engineer’s House of the Peter and Paul Fortress. The project, conceived by the northwest branch of the State Center for Contemporary Art and the History of St. Petersburg Museum together with the Pro Arte Institute, marks the centennial of the birth of the eccentric composer.

Titled “Silent Presence,” the exhibition celebrates the composer’s philosophy through a dynamic display that will run in the exhibition halls of the Peter and Paul Fortress until March 31.

Cage was a daring innovator who had the courage to go against the grain, and who was very much ahead of his time. The art of the composer is broader than any definition or genre. Furthermore, any definition that one could try to give Cage, the man who rejected the concept of music and sounds serving purposes of creativity, would only serve to constrict him. The intentions of Cage, his artistic ambitions, were on the contrary an attempt to push boundaries rather than to be forced into any definitions.

The exhibition revolves around Cage’s most famous composition, the three-part conceptual piece “4’33” that consists entirely of silence, and was hence nicknamed “the silent piece.”

The first performance of the notorious work, which was written in 1952, created a scandal as many members of the audience, when confronted with the sound of silence, felt they were being fooled.

“It is a piece that has become a sort of icon in post-war culture, like Warhol’s soup cans: A punch line for jokes and cartoons; the springboard for a thousand analyses and arguments; evidence of the extremity of a destructive avant-garde that appeared in the 1950s and 60s,” says U.K. scholar James Pritchett, one of the leading experts on Cage’s art.

What was the idea behind the historic work?

“Originally we had in mind what you might call an imaginary beauty, a process of basic emptiness with just a few things arising in it,” Cage wrote about the piece in his essay “Where Are We Going? And What Are We Doing?”

“And then when we actually set to work, a kind of avalanche came about which corresponded not at all with that beauty which had seemed to appear to us as an objective. Where do we go then? Well what we do is go straight on; that way lies, no doubt, a revelation. I had no idea this was going to happen. I did have an idea something else would happen. Ideas are one thing and what happens another.”

Cage’s drawings comprise a substantial proportion of the display, including the “Seven Day Diary” and “Stones” series, as well as selected pages from the “Mushroom Book.” The exhibition presents the scores of some of the composer’s iconic works, such as Fontana Mix, Music for Carillon and Ryoanji, alongside audio recordings of these pieces.

Also featured in the exhibition are groundbreaking drawings by Marcel Duchamp for his artwork “The Large Glass” that is also known as “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even.” Duchamp created the artwork between 1915 and 1923. Instead of a canvas, the artist used two panes of glass, and added lead foil, dust and fuse wire to oil as the main materials.

It was for Duchamp that Cage composed the enigmatic and mysterious five-minute piece for the prepared piano in 1947, which gained international fame. The piano was prepared with bits of rubber, pieces of feather and one small bolt precisely placed to emphasize string harmonies that make the piano sound like an obscure village ensemble.

The piece was intended for the movie “Dreams That Money Can Buy” that Duchamp made with the surrealist artist and film-theorist Hans Richter.

The exhibition also pays tribute to Cage’s “Lecture on the Weather,” a multimedia stage work composed in collaboration with Maryanne Amacher and Luis Frangella. The composition was commissioned by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 1975 to mark America’s bicentennial.

Inspired by the politically charged essays of Henry David Thoreau, “Lecture on the Weather” uses weather soundscape as its focal point, fusing in the elements of music, documentary, speech and lighting.

In addition to the Cage memorabilia — photographs, drawings and notes — the exhibition incorporates documentaries about the composer. A special section documents Cage’s visit to St. Petersburg in 1988.

“If we begin to count the doors that John Cage opened for us and the new sound ways that he discovered, we won’t be able to stop for a rather long time,” said St. Petersburg music historian Olga Manulkina.

“The prepared piano, the use of sound and silence as equal music-making elements, the creation of graphic notation as a system of representing music through the use of visual symbols, the art of happening. In short, Cage’s ideas live on and win.”

“Silent Presence” runs through March 31 at the Engineer’s House at the Peter and Paul Fortress. Tel. 233 0040.

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