Of all the great modern American composers, my theoretical favourite is, and always has been, John Cage. I say theoretical because while I have an affinity for Cage’s ideas, I do so enjoy listening to the likes of Reich, Riley, Glass, etc. much more. Cage was very into zen, which informed much of his approach to music and composition.

Art may be practiced in one way or another, so that it reinforces the ego in its likes and dislikes, or so that it opens that mind to the world outside, and outside inside. Since the forties and through the study with D.T. Suzuki of the philosophy of Zen Buddhism, I’ve thought of music as a means of changing the mind. I saw art not as something that consisted of a communication from the artist to an audience but rather as an activity of sounds in which the artist found a way to let the sounds be themselves. And, in being themselves, to open the minds of people who made them or listened to them to other possibilities than they had previously considered.

Which all seemed well and good theoretically. Listening to Cage was always an intellectual exercise for me and to be honest, I never experienced the perceptual changes he described in the quote above. That was, until I forced myself to attend a Cage tribute concert, celebrating the man’s 100th birthday, exactly 91 minutes in length.

An hour and a half of Cage’s work in all of its counterpointal, dischordant glory. I had worked very late that evening, my vision still occasionally blurring from staring into a screen. I was alone and had bought the single ticket, an impulsive decision, on my way home. My mind, exhausted, almost immediately rebelled against the sounds. I’m so tired, what was I thinking coming here? I don’t even like listening to Cage, etc. And then, in a fit of annoyance: This is just fucking noise! Thankfully, knowing the exact time of the concert gave me the mental security I needed to counter my discomfort.

And something very funny happened as I walked home through familiar streets. It was raining, and the sounds around me, suddenly all seemed to come alive: the patter of rain on different surfaces, the whooshing of tires over wet asphlat, the sound of my heels against the ground, snatches of conversations in different languages flowing around me. Hearing was not the only sense that was affected. I was arrested at how the city lights played off the movement of the water on all the concrete and pavement, how the drops of water on the lens of my glasses distorted the images. Everything mundane took on a fascinating quality and I walked home, as if high. High off an overdose of John Cage.

One may fly is one is willing to give up walking.

Happy 100th, Mr. Cage and thank you for blowing my mind.

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