Picture this. It’s 1931 and you’re a Santa Monica housewife. A slender young man, going house to house, knocks on your door and invites you to attend his lectures on modern music and painting. He tells you that he charges $2.50 for a series of 10, and he gives these lectures in a large room above the garages in the auto court (motel-style dwelling) where he does gardening in exchange for his rent. Later he will deliver lectures in a more upscale environment, the Santa Monica Bay Woman’s Club.
According to a recording made as an experimental album of short stories and random sounds called “Indeterminacy” he says, “I will learn each week something about the subject that I will then lecture on.”
The young man is 19 years old, he’s a recent graduate of Los Angeles High School, where he was class valedictorian, but he’s on a search for what to do with his life.
After dropping out of a two-year stint at Pomona College, and traveling throughout Europe studying architecture, writing poetry and beginning to compose music, he returns to the U.S. and moves to Santa Monica, perhaps attracted to it because as a child he lived for awhile in Ocean Park.
The young man’s name is John Cage and he will turn out to be one of the most iconoclastic musical creators and thinkers of the 20th century.
You’re one lucky housewife. And Santa Monica can claim some bragging rights to its part in his legacy.
Although he came to be associated with New York’s avant-garde art scene and his long-time relationship with life partner, choreographer/dancer Merce Cunningham, John Cage’s public career was launched in November, 1932 at the Santa Monica Bay Woman’s Club, in a concert with singer Harry Hay performing four of Cage’s early compositions.
Cage would have turned 100 years old this week (he died in 1992), and his centennial anniversary has been celebrated with many events all across the globe.
Here in Santa Monica, the Cultural Affairs Division has joined forces with top-flight concert producers Jacaranda (“music at the edge”) to create a four-day, four-concert series, CAGE 100 Festival, including two free concerts at Miles Playhouse and Annenberg Community Beach House.
CAGE 100 begins tonight at 8 p.m. with “Cage & Friends,” at Jacaranda’s home base, the beautiful contemporary chapel at Santa Monica’s First Presbyterian Church. It’s a stunning setting for the piano and percussion works that are on the bill.
The friends are composers Lou Harrison, Henry Cowell (an early mentor to Cage), Conlon Nancarrow (who wrote for player piano) and James Tenney, and their music will be featured alongside Cage’s own “String Quartet in Four Parts,” and excerpts from “Some of the Harmony of Maine,” for organ with six assistants on organ stops. Admission is $25.
Jacaranda, true to its mission, is going to the edge with this festival. When in Europe, Cage met the “velvet gentleman,” composer Erik Satie, who was a lifelong source of inspiration to him.
Friday night, beginning at 7 p.m. at Miles Playhouse (at Christine Emerson Reed Park), a 24-hour piano marathon will unfold, featuring 32 pianists performing Satie’s “Vexations” — a single page of music repeated 840 times.
“This amazingly hypnotic experience will be created by 32 artists from some of the premiere performing arts organizations and finest academic institutions across Southern California,” says Jacaranda Music Director James Alan Hilt, who will also perform as final pianist on the “Vexations” lineup.
“Vexations” will be performed in 45-minute intervals and the audience is free to come and go during the marathon. Free admission to this historic event. Bring cushions!
Cage was as much an experimenter in sound and noise as he was a composer and performer. As a dance accompanist at UCLA, he had only a piano to rely on, but he wanted to further explore percussion, which had begun to capture his interest. So he created a “prepared piano,” in which he inserted objects between the strings of the piano to change not only its tuning, but its entire sound.
On Saturday night at 8 p.m., returning to the scene of his career launch at the Santa Monica Bay Woman’s Club, the first performance of Cage’s composition “The Ten Thousand Things” features prepared piano utilizing screws, washers, bits of plastic and pieces of rubber. These five solo works (1954-56) are known by the length of time each takes to be performed simultaneously by speaker John Schneider, double bassist Tom Peters, and Vicki Ray and Aron Kallay on prepared pianos.
Also performed on prepared piano is Cage’s “Perilous Night,” after which the audience has a chance to watch as Kallay prepares the piano for “The Ten Thousand Things.”
Opening the evening will be Eric Smigel, whose expertise is maverick American composers, amongst whom Cage stands tall. He’ll share Cage’s connections to Santa Monica and explain his significance in the history of contemporary music making. Tickets are $25.
And to conclude the series, another free concert takes place at Annenberg Community Beach House, beginning at 4:30 p.m. on Sunday. “Classic Cage” features Manhattan-based pianist Adam Tendler, who will end the festival with an hour-long performance from memory of the complete 20-piece “Sonatas & Interludes” (1948) for prepared piano. Tendler has performed this piece, which is also cited as a masterpiece, in 12 states.
For more information and to purchase tickets to Jacaranda music’s CAGE 100 Festival, go to jacarandamusic.org. You’ll also find information on Jacaranda’s 2012-13 season, featuring another centenary celebration of composer Benjamin Britten, including his chamber opera, “Curlew River.” For a full season schedule and tickets, visit jacarandamusic.org.
Sarah A. Spitz is a former freelance arts producer for NPR and former staff producer at public radio station KCRW-Santa Monica. She reviews theatre for LAOpeningNights.com.