DC at Night

DC at Night

Friday, October 12, 2012

In the Steps of John Cage

For a composer, especially one as innovative and avant garde as John Cage, the release of a new piece of music for performance produces a dilemma. While the composer is grateful for the public to hear his work, he is concerned about compositional fidelity.

In October of 1963, Cage wrote a letter to famed conductor and composer of the score for the musical West Side Story Leonard Bernstein, pleading with Bernstein to reconsider his plan to have the New York Philharmonic employ free-form musical improvisation in a unique work he had created.

"Since as far as I know you are not dedicated in your own work to improvisation, I can only imagine that your plan is to comment on our work," Cage wrote. "Our music is still little understood and your audience, for the most part, will be hearing it for the first time."

"It would be best if they could do so without being prejudiced," Cage added.

The letter to Bernstein was just one of dozens of typed letters, carefully hand-written notes, and actual music scores included in the exhibition John Cage's Steps: A Composition for A Painting, Selected Watercolors, and Ephemera now on display at the Katzen Art Center Museum at American University.

As the title implies, the central part of the exhibition is visual art, in particular 5 enormous watercolor works resulting from Cage's Steps project. Based on Cage's ideas, dancers under the direction of  noted dance instructor and long-time Cage collaborator Merce Cunningham, used their black paint covered feet to create the works on huge sheets of rag paper.

A film at the exhibition details the process of Cunningham directing his dance troupe's varied movements. At different points, Cunningham orders his dancers to stay on the balls and toes of their feet, move faster, move slower, dash corner to corner, or stay closer to the edge.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
If you want to see the Cage exhibition, the last in a 2-month series of displays in the D.C.area in honor of Cage's 100th anniversary, you will have to hurry. The exhibition closes on Oct. 21.

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