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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