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Chamber Music Plus

Show explores composer John Cage’s life and silences

Cage turned classical music upside down with 1952 post-modernist 4'33''

Avant garde composer John Cage redefined the way modern audiences experience music with his 1952 post-modernist composition, 4'33''.

Some would argue that Cage’s most famous work was not music at all, since it consists essentially of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence by the performer.

In retrospect, 4’33” realigned how we listen to music today, opening our ears to a broader experience of sound. It also redefined the relationship between audience, performer and composer by turning the listener back upon his or her own thoughts with no inferences or clues from external music.

Chamber Plus Southwest this weekend celebrates the centennial of Cage’s birth with “John Cage @ the Cabaret,” an original work by Harry Clark that focuses on Cages’s life and the impact of 4’33”.

Chamber Music Plus shows are a hybrid of spoken sections about a composer’s life by an actor, interspersed with musical performances of his or her works.

Actor Bob Clendenin will star as the composer in the one-man showThe show is being performed in the Cabaret Theatre at the Temple of Music and Arts on Friday and Saturday evening and two shows on Sunday.

“The focus is on 4’33” as a seminal piece, both in music and in his life,” Clark said. “It happens to come right at the middle of his life and you can talk about Cage’s life pre-4’33” and post-4’33” It not only defined him up to that point, but from there on, he could also free himself from a lot of things he had done and move on in a completely different direction. Because he delves into so many things, it was a way to limit. Otherwise it could become a five-volume thing."

In addition to reintroducing audiences to the sound of silence, Cage’s compositional techniques also included aleatory or chance techniques that insured that no two performances would ever be the same.

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Clark met Cage briefly in the 1970’s at Wesleyan University, which published many of Cage’s important music theories and where he occasionally lectured. Clark remembers a concert of Cage’s quartet attended by the composer. The performance was interrupted by loud hail on the concert hall’s glass walls. Rather than be disturbed by nature’s intrusion on the hall’s architectural flaw, Cage simply got a quiet smile and enjoyed the juxtaposition, according to Clark.

“I came rather late to understanding his importance,” Clark said. “It’s a little embarrassing – I should have known more about him earlier on, but when you’re in the conservatory, you’re a little too focussed. As my blinders came off a little bit, as I was exposed to pop music and music beyond the three B’s (classical music’s triumvirate of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms), I realized that Cage had a huge influence on people with natural sound and sound in nature. Then I began to read about him and found him a fascinating kind of guy.”

Cage had studied under Arnold Schoenberg after the Austrian composer emigrated to California before World War II. At the same time, Cage was influenced by Oriental culture in California, particularly Zen Buddhism. The combination of Eastern musical tradition and Oriental philosophy led to Cage’s unique approach to music and sound.

“His openness to experience and to pure sound is one of the most interesting aspects that he explored and that has influenced the generations after him,” Clark said. Because of who he was and his work, Clark said that this show consists “mostly of very small kaleidoscopic vignettes, very few larger pieces. I’m trying to give the audience many voices of him but not necessarily in a linear way. There’s a lot of fun in it, too. Cage was fun-loving and a bit of a prankster.”

“I’m hoping that someone who knows something about Cage will have more understanding about how he got there and someone who knows nothing about Cage will want to find out more,” Clark said.

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Composer John Cage

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If you go

  • What: “John Cage @ The Cabaret” presented by Chamber Music Plus
  • When: Through Jan. 6, Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Sunday at 1 and 5 p.m. (The 1 p.m. show is sold out)
  • Where: Cabaret Theatre at the Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Ave.
  • Tickets: $40, available by the door at or online at www.chambermusicplus.org