This is happening: UI re-creating Cage’s Musicircus

John Cage

John Cage

Unconventional composer John Cage moved to the University of Illinois in 1967 to become an associate of the Center for Advanced Studies and visiting professor of music. In New York in the 1950s, Cage and his collaborators created “Happenings,” which became commonly used to describe loosely defined events that encouraged spontaneous interactions between the audience and performers.

During his two years in Champaign-Urbana he initiated “Happenings” including the 1967 Musicircus, which was staged in a livestock-judging pavilion.

His “Happening” collaborators included William Wegman, who later became world famous for his series of photographs of his dogs, and Kenneth Gaburo, who later became the director the Electronic Music Studios at the University of Iowa.

Cage’s concept for Musicircus, reflected the facility’s standard use: the performers were placed on raised platforms to mimic the livestock judges, who typically sat in the stands above the central arena, while the audience took on the role of livestock roaming around the floor.

This season, to celebrate the birth centennial of Cage—one of the most important and influential American artists of the 20th century—organizations and venues throughout the world are reimagining Musicircus, including the UI, where from 4 to 5 p.m., Sunday, Feb. 12, the entire second floor of the Old Capitol Town Center will be filled with more than 400 simultaneous performers.

UI Center for New Music (CNM) Director David Gompper describes the event as “a real ‘flash mob,’ where anything goes. It will be loud, soft, cacophonous, unexpected (at a micro-level). Dancers will use the escalators on either end, and projections will be set up. Theatre people will read stories, and I hope to engage Writers’ Workshop students as well.”

Musicircus will be just one part of a day-long CNM John Cage Celebration. Other free events will be:

  • A performance of “Sonatas and interludes” by pianist Patricia von Blumröder at 12:30 p.m. in Room 2780 of University Capitol Centre.
  • A panel discussion at 1:45 p.m. in Room 2780.
  • “Lecture on Nothing,” narrated by University of Michigan musicologist Mark Clague, at 3 p.m. in Room 2780.
  • A concert by the CNM Ensemble featuring Cage compositions from the 1930s to the 1970s at 7:30 p.m. in the Riverside Recital Hall.

UI School of Music faculty member Nathan Platte notes, “It’s hard to wrap one’s mind around the life and work of John Cage. Hailed as a maverick and provocateur who radically reimagined the musical experience, he also was an astonishingly approachable and charming individual—a good listener.

“The John Cage Celebration will illuminate a broad a swath of his creative trajectory: from the whimsically profound ‘Lecture on Nothing’ to the beguiling textures of ‘Forever and Sunsmell,’ from the meditative Sonatas and Interludes to the multi-tasking Musicircus.”

Von Blumröder, a UI alumna based in Frankfurt, Germany, has performed in concerts, radio broadcasts, and television appearances in Europe and America, often expressing her keen interest in the new music of the 20th and 21st centuries. Her performances of Cage’s Sonatas Interludes have won critical acclaim.

The panel discussion will feature von Blumröder, Clague, Platte, UI emeritus faculty member Lowell Cross, and Laura Kuhn, director of the John Cage Trust.

The evening concert by the CNM Ensemble will include “First Construction in Metal” (1939) for six percussionists, “Speech” (1955) for five radios and newsreader; “44 Harmonies from Apartment House 1776″ (1976) for string quartet; “Forever and Sunsmell” (1942) for soprano and two percussionists; Six Short Inventions (1934) for flute, clarinet, trumpet, violin, two violas, and cello; and Concerto for Prepared Piano and Ensemble (1950-51).

Cage is best known to the general public for a single piece from 1952, “4’33″,” in which no notes are played at all for the stipulated duration, to refocus the concept of a concert from playing music to listening to the sounds of the environment in which the performance occurs. The piece was controversial and identified Cage as a iconoclastic prankster, but he was a “serious” and multi-faceted artist—composer, author, philosopher, music theorist, visual artist, and an important collaborator in the development of modern dance. His work drew on influences including the “found art” of Marcel Duchamap and eastern philosophies, especially Zen.

As a composer Cage was a pioneer in the use of non-standard or altered instruments and electroacoustic sounds, and an advocate for indeterminacy and chance, which has been labeled “aleatoric” music, from the Latin word for dice. Among his important early collaborators were choreographer Merce Cunningham and visual artist Robert Rauschenberg. At Black Mountain College they created performances that investigated the combination of chance movement and visual and sound elements.

Cage’s classes at the New School in New York were a source of the Fluxus international network of artists—including Christo, Yoko Ono, Terry Riley, and Nam June Paik—a playful extension of Dadaism that is documented in the Alternative Traditions in Contemporary Art collection at the UI.

Later he used chance combinations drawn from the practices of the I Ching to determine compositions and recombinations of recorded material, and in his later life he turned increasingly to literature, including processes for transformating texts into music.

He explained, “My work became an exploration of non‑intention.” And he once described his music as “a purposeless play” that is “an affirmation of life—not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we’re living.”


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