John Cage Unbound: A New Digital Archive Presented by The New York Public Library

John Cage enthu­si­asts have sure­ly rejoiced at the New York Pub­lic Library’s open­ing of John Cage Unbound: A Liv­ing Archive, which offers vis­i­tors a chance to expe­ri­ence how the unique­ly inno­v­a­tive com­poser’s life and work con­tin­ue to affect the per­for­mance of music today. But if you don’t hap­pen to live in New York, no need to book a trip; you can browse the archive online when­ev­er and from wher­ev­er you please. One won­ders what Cage, who died the year before the debut of the World Wide Web as we know it, would have made of all the artis­tic inven­tion, son­ic and oth­er­wise, that the inter­net has enabled. I like to think he’d gaze with great fas­ci­na­tion at this site’s con­tin­u­al­ly updat­ed col­lec­tion of not only vin­tage John Cage footage — him play­ing ampli­fied cac­ti and plant mate­ri­als with a feath­er with Take­hisa Kosu­gi, him speak­ing in 1978 — but recent mate­r­i­al as well, such as Paul Schuet­te’s inter­pre­ta­tion of the piece “Water Walk,” and The Anta Project per­form­ing Cage’s famous “4’33”,” the piece that involves no play­ing, at the U.S.-Mexico bor­der.

Bridg­ing the gap between the old and the new, the video above col­lects per­son­al impres­sions of John Cage from those who par­tic­i­pat­ed in his 1970 per­for­mance at Carlisle, Penn­syl­va­ni­a’s Dick­in­son Col­lege. “Intense, obser­vant, focused,” says the col­lege’s Pres­i­dent William Dur­den. “Not nec­es­sar­i­ly a per­son who took up space, but a per­son who real­ly… chis­eled space.” Think­ing about the nature of the con­cert, Joe Sobel, a musi­cian who built an instru­ment out of junked car horns espe­cial­ly for it, remem­bers that “if you approached it in a dour, seri­ous way, you weren’t going to be able to make any sense of it. In order to enjoy it, you had to be open and will­ing to get the joke.” He could say the same about every­thing John Cage ever did. Hear­ing these reflec­tions and then, lat­er in the video, see­ing a group of Dick­in­son stu­dents grap­ple with putting on Cage’s “Radio Music” — a piece played not with tra­di­tion­al instru­ments, but lit­er­al radios — even view­ers who aren’t yet John Cage enthu­si­asts may find them­selves intrigued. Spend­ing an evening at John Cage Unbound will get them up to speed on the com­poser’s endur­ing rel­e­vance; pair it with a read­ing of Cage’s famous book/manifesto Silence, and you’ll nev­er think about music in quite the same way again.

Relat­ed con­tent:

John Cage Per­forms Water Walk on “I’ve Got a Secret” (1960)

The Con­tro­ver­sial Sounds of Silence: John Cage’s 4’33″ Per­formed by the BBC Sym­pho­ny Orches­tra

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall

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