“John Cage”

As a piano student, I assumed that gaining experience was a good thing, that it meant I was becoming more skilled, that experience would open more musical doors for me. Then along came John Cage, on a shelf in my Dad’s music room. John Cage was unimpressed with accumulated experience, but was passionate about new experience. He believed what Eric Satie once said, eg, that experience is a form of paralysis. When I listened to his “prepared piano” pieces, I found them compelling, radical, jarring, and yet, I found myself asking the question “Why not?” Why not use pieces of rubber, plastic or metal to alter the sonic capabilities of an ordinary piano? Why not use fragments from everyday life, why not use computers and synthesizers, in order to create music which, technically speaking, is “sound in time?” And when I sat at Ravinia listening to a piece of his where the entire orchestra sat on stage, not making a sound, because “the piece” was actually just the combined sounds of the silent orchestra, the coughs and other sounds of the audience, the birds, the Metra trains going by. After a prescribed amount of time, the piece was over. The audience tepidly clapped, but I clapped loudly and stood up. Cage was challenging us to break barriers, which is what Beethoven did. It’s what Stravinsky did at the premiere of Right of Spring. This excited me! When I went through my first John Cage phase, my Dad came home from work one night, and I wasn’t sure…should I turn down the stereo? I started to, but he told me to keep it cranked. “You’re getting into the history of music. Not sure if you know I’ve got John Cage in two or three places in ‘the collection.’ Will pull out some other stuff of his you might like after dinner.” I grew up with a father who fueled my passion to learn about music history in all its twisted, lovely and puzzling glory, with no expectation of expectations.

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Gregg R. Baker

Humanist, social scientist, pianist, Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, Tenured/Commissioned U.S. Foreign Service Officer and knowledge seeker.