Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - September 28, 2012

A century of Cage

Stanford pays a 100th-anniversary tribute to the influential avant-garde composer

by Rebecca Wallace

Thomas Schultz sits down at one of the two Steinways in his Stanford University office and plays a flutter of Schubert, melodic and refined. His fingers pause at just the right moments, keeping the listener poised.

"In older Western music, silence was meant to be very dramatic. It makes the musical tension greater," Schultz says. "In this kind of silence in Schubert, you're wondering what happens next."

What happens now is a mini-musical revolution for the nice old Steinway. This usually occurs when you go from playing a truly classical classic to Mr. John Cage.

Schultz starts to play the first of Cage's 1946 composition "Two Pieces for Piano," chords and chords and wandering notes and chords. In between are long pauses, deeply felt pauses, so long that the listener stops waiting for the next note and starts feeling that the pause is a thing, its own entity of ambient sound. The pianist breathes. The aged wood of the piano settles.

"In Cage," Schultz says, "you listen to the silence."

Cage, of course, is known for silence. Whether you're intimately familiar with his 20th-century musical explorations or you sometimes mix him up with the unrelated character of the same name on TV's "Ally McBeal," you've probably heard of his 1952 piece "4'33"," which consists of four minutes and 33 seconds of the performer not playing his instrument. Both musician and audience are meant to listen to the sounds of the surrounding environment, and nothing else.

Some have called it genius; others, ridiculous. In his 2007 book "The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century," New Yorker music critic Alex Ross called the piece "at once a head-spinning philosophical statement and a Zen-like ritual of contemplation."

Ross added, "It was a piece that anyone could have written, as skeptics never failed to point out, but, as Cage seldom failed to respond, no one else ever did."

Whether you think of him as avant-garde, genius or impenetrable, Cage (1912-1992) without question made his mark on both the mid-century New York sound scene and music as a whole. The Los Angeles native deconstructed classical music and put it back together again, with the help of unusual manufactured instruments such as his "prepared piano" (which had bolts and coins in with the strings). He at times used systems of chance to compose, and sometimes let the performer choose the next note. And he loved noise.

Overall, Allan Kozinn wrote in Cage's New York Times obituary, "He started a revolution by proposing that composers could jettison the musical language that had evolved over the last seven centuries, and in doing so he opened the door to Minimalism, performance art and virtually every other branch of the musical avant-garde."

This year, Cage would have turned 100. Spearheaded by Thomas Schultz, a Stanford senior lecturer in piano, the university's music department will pay a two-day tribute to the experimental icon next month.

On Oct. 11, Schultz will perform a solo concert of works by Cage including "Two Pieces for Piano," "Swinging" (1989) and "Dream" (1948). The program will also contain "Palais de Mari" (1986) by Cage contemporary Morton Feldman, the labor tribute "Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues" (1979) by Frederic Rzewski, and "Near and Dear" (2012) by Hyo-shin Na, Schultz's wife.

Schultz will also play two short pieces by Christian Wolff and Walter Zimmermann, two Cage colleagues who will also take part in a panel discussion on Cage at Stanford on Oct. 12. The panel has no set topic, merely aiming to paint a broad and interesting picture of Cage with the help of many people who knew him, Schultz said. Also on the panel are: Kathan Brown, director of Crown Point Press in San Francisco, where Cage worked with her on his visual art; and Laura Kuhn, who directs the John Cage Trust at Bard College in New York.

Following the panel, Schultz will perform a chamber concert with trombonist James Fulkerson, violinist Geoff Nuttall and the Wooden Fish Ensemble, with compositions by Cage, Wolff, Zimmerman and Anton Webern.

All events are free and held in Campbell Recital Hall in the Braun Music Center on campus.

Schultz's connection with Cage goes back many years. When he was in graduate school at the California Institute of the Arts in 1977, Cage did a residency there. Then, in 1992, Schultz gave a recital of Cage's music in San Francisco. The composer attended. After the performance, he gave the younger pianist some tips about playing his music, and recommended other composers for him to listen to, Schultz says. "He was a kind man, very generous and rather gentle in his suggestions."

Recalling this interaction while standing in his Stanford office, Schultz smiles. Once, Schultz and his wife went to visit Cage when he was living in San Francisco. "He was in the kitchen making a big salad," Schultz says, gesturing expansively with his pianist's hands. One gets the idea that even a bowl of lettuce could be made into art by Cage.

The composer was also part of Schultz's thesis topic while the young pianist was earning a musical-arts doctorate at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Part of the thesis focused on the "indeterminacy" in Cage's music: "the elements of the music that he was writing that were left open," as Schultz puts it.

As an example, Schultz picks up the music for the piece "Swinging" from a pile of papers on top of the piano. In one place is written "Any one of these six notes." The performer chooses, then plays the corresponding note two octaves above.

Is that freedom enjoyable for the performer? Schultz considers this. "With freedom comes obligation. You have to pick notes that will work."

Cage's scores themselves are works of art, with intricate clumps of black chords. In one place, a large "5" simply denotes five measures of silence. The composer also pursued visual art, regularly studying printmaking with Kathan Brown in San Francisco and painting surprisingly tranquil images in watercolor. Stanford's Cantor Arts Center is currently exhibiting some of Cage's early graphic works: "plexigrams" made from Plexiglas panels silkscreened with words and images.

The composer was also greatly influential in the modern-dance world, often collaborating with his life partner, the renowned choreographer Merce Cunningham. From time to time, they would both incorporate chance into their creations, using the I Ching, the Chinese way of divination, to determine the order of notes or steps.

The two men didn't often speak publicly about their connection, and Schultz remembers the moment at a 1989 panel discussion in Berkeley when an audience member brusquely asked the composer about their relationship. After a tense pause, Cage responded, "I do the cooking, and Merce does the dishes." He was a man, Schultz says, who certainly knew how to think on his feet.

After all these years of studying the music and the man, Schultz is clearly still fascinated by John Cage. If any performer knows how to approach those famous silences, one would imagine, he does.

So what does the pianist think about during the long rests, when he's on stage and the quiet is growing? In the back of his mind, of course, he's keeping time, as he always does. But the joy of Cage's silences is that they also let the musician's mind breathe, let it stop and listen for a measure, or five, to the surrounding environment.

"I'm trying to listen to it as if I'm an audience member," Schultz says. "That's the best you can do."

What: The Stanford music department presents "John Cage: 100 Years," a symposium and two concerts honoring the 100th anniversary of the influential experimental composer's birth.

Where: Campbell Recital Hall, Braun Music Center, Stanford University

When: Faculty pianist Thomas Schultz will perform a solo concert at 8 p.m. Oct. 11. The following day, composers Christian Wolff and Walter Zimmerman will take part in a panel discussion about Cage at 7 p.m. A chamber concert with Schultz, trombonist James Fulkerson, violinist Geoff Nuttall and the Wooden Fish Ensemble follows at 8 p.m.

Cost: Free

Info: Go to http://music.stanford.edu . In addition, eight of John Cage's "plexigrams" are on exhibit through Nov. 11 at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University. Admission is free. For details, go to http://museum.stanford.edu .

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