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Photograph: Andrew Nawrocki

John Cage Festival

The John Cage Festival covers the eccentric composer’s oeuvre, from chance operations to noise-making plants.


So you really want to understand John Cage, but the strangeness of his music just seems…strange? (In the name of art, he “played” plants and presented four minutes and 33 seconds of silence.) Then use this festival—produced by Nomi Epstein, curator of Chicago’s a·pe·ri·od·ic concert series—as your introduction to Cage’s avant-garde works. The weekend’s performances are organized around motifs in the composer’s oeuvre. “When you present music by Cage over a long span of his creative output, you’re bound to express these areas,” Epstein says. Those who love Cage’s strangeness (we do!) might just find them illuminating, too.

3 Chance operations
Cage might be best known for using chance to govern his music. “He wanted to rid himself from the composer’s ego,” says Epstein. Cage used the Chinese numerology book the I Ching to decide how to make complex choices, and he even occasionally rolled dice. Taking a page from the composer, we rolled a die to choose how to number these concepts.

6 Improvisation
“When we think of Cage, we think of him being crazy and radical,” Epstein says. “But he was not a proponent of improv—he didn’t want taste to be expressed.” In the mid-1970s, Cage became more open to it, and created the semi-improvisational Child of a Tree (Curtiss Hall, 410 S Michigan Ave; Sun 15 at 4pm). In the piece, Cage instructs the performer to make music by strumming plant material.

2 Percussion music
“There were only a dozen or so percussion ensembles before Cage,” says Epstein, whose percussionist father played Cage’s music when she was growing up. The festival presents an early piece, Quartet (Curtiss Hall, 410 S Michigan Ave; Sun 15 at 4pm), played by members of the Percussion Art Ensemble and the Improvisation Unit. In it, Cage dictated the use of “unspecified instruments,” which could include anything from timpani to pans clanging together.

1 Choral music
In his music for voices, Cage often eschewed traditional notation (think notes on a staff). For Aria, presented in the festival by Quince Contemporary Vocal Ensemble (Chicago History Museum, 1601 N Clark St; Sat 14 at 1:30pm), Cage created sheet music with curved colored lines meant to give the singer pitch and style cues. Each hue corresponds to a style of the singer’s choosing. For example, red could be Kristin Chenoweth–like and green could sound folksy. “He approached notation from a different perspective,” Epstein says.

5 Collaboration
Cage collaborated with a host of choreographers, artists and even other composers. Often, this allowed him to bring in a chance element—as with the score of “Double Music” (Curtiss Hall, 410 S Michigan Ave; Sun 15 at 4pm), cowritten sight unseen by Lou Harrison. Cage notably repeatedly partnered with choreographer Merce Cunningham. Their Variations V (Collaboraction, 1579 N Milwaukee Ave, room 300; Sat 14 at 7, 9pm) receives a contemporary update by sound artist Julia Miller and others, including Enid Smith, a dancer who worked under Cunningham before his death in 2009.

4 Number Pieces
Epstein’s favorite works come from Cage’s Number Pieces, a body of compositions titled by a two-number system. For example, the sixth quartet in the series is called Four 6 (Curtiss Hall, 410 S Michigan Ave; Sun 15 at 4pm), presented in the fest by Chance Operations Collective of Kalamazoo. Cage toiled on these from 1987 until his death in 1992.

The John Cage Festival kicks off April 13.

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