What kind of music can a carrot make? How about the tines of cactus? Or what do four minutes and 33 seconds of silence sound like?
On Saturday, more than 50 Austin musicians will come together for a five-hour concert in celebration of the centennial of John Cage, the revolutionary composer whose musical experiments shape-shifted the artistic landscape.
Artistic leaders of four organizations — Austin Chamber Music Center, Texas Choral Consort, New Music Co-op and Line Upon Line percussion ensemble — have collaborated to present "Happy 100th Birthday Mr. Cage," crafting five one-hour concerts. Audience members are welcome to stay for one or all.
In his six decades of artistic output, Cage, who died in 1992, experimented with using musical instruments in non-standard ways and using non-standard objects (vegetables, for example, or radios or glasses of water) to make music. Cage employed chance and indeterminacy to decide how a piece should unfold. He also made some of the first forays into using electronic sounds. And his "4′33″" — with a score that instructs the musician not to play for the entire duration of the piece — insisted that the audience consider ambient sound as music.
That so many musicians today feel compelled to celebrate Cage's legacy says as much about the composer's influence as it does about Austin's burgeoning alt classical scene and the audience it has built for more progressive musical fare.
Case in point: For the past two seasons, the Austin Critics' Table has awarded its Best Chamber Music Performance commendation to alt classical concerts. And in February at the Blanton Museum of Art, a presentation of Cage's open-ended "Musicircus" — also involving dozens of musicians — attracted hundreds to the free-wheeling concert.
"Cage is a door," explains pianist Michelle Schumann, artistic director of Austin Chamber Music Center. "He truly changed the way we approach music. And an audience today wants to be engaged and involved with a performance, not just passively watch. Cage allows for that."
Twelve years ago, Schumann began presenting annual Cage birthday concerts, steadily building a local audience for the composer's beyond-adventuresome oeuvre.
This year, with Cage centenary events happening worldwide, the Austin celebration is appropriately Texas-sized.
Brent Baldwin will lead the Texas Choral Consort in some of Cage's rarely heard choral music. Line Upon Line will tackle the composer's scores for strange percussive objects such as "amplified plant" (like a cactus and a carrot). And Schumann will perform Cage works for the prepared piano in which objects are inserted between or on the strings or the hammers in order to alter sound. The effect of the alterations is at once ethereal and charming.
Travis Weller of the New Music Co-op has been busy re-creating Cage's seminal scores for indeterminate music — scores that consist not of notes or staves, but transparent sheets and pages of lines, points and circles. "Something Cage created in the 1960s still manages to somehow seem like it is from the future," says Weller of the complicated charts.
From the future, yes, and also the present.
"There's so much in pop music today — bands like Sonic Youth, Radiohead or Sigur Rós — that's evolved directly from Cage, but people aren't aware of it," says Baldwin. "When people think of Cage as just experimental music, they think it's all squawk and screeches. But it's not. So much of it is really, really beautiful."