John Cage's `happenings' play to receptive few at L.A. Festival

The first Los Angeles Festival has not been particularly kind to native son John Cage. Measuring by attendance and critical enthusiasm, modern music's iconoclastic composer of ``purposeful purposelessness'' - rhythm, tempo, dynamics, etc., determined by chance - proved again that his ideas may be more compelling philosophically than audibly.

For 35 years Cage has experimented with removing all intention, preconception, expectation, and prejudice from his compositions.

The result has always been controversial, eliciting a gamut of cries from ``radical genius'' to ``anti-artist.''

Celebrating his 75th birthday with six recent performances here, the Zen philosopher's music played to halls often less than half full. With his characteristic impunity, Cage said at a press conference: ``I have nothing to say, and am saying it, and that is poetry.''

The Cage celebration started Sept. 5 (his birthday) with a free, outdoor concert in which 30 bands and dance troupes performed simultaneously in a freewheeling ``Musicircus.''

``The price was right,'' wrote Martin Bernheimer, longtime music critic of the Los Angeles Times. He lambasted the chaos, which he saw as unrelated bits of music canceling out one another.

His conclusion: ``Who cares?''

Another critic found that a separate performance of Cage etudes - highlighted by percussionist Michael Pugliese striking piano strings with a mallet - ``irritated with uneventfulness''; this critic noted that it required ``patience to remain on the premises.''

The six concerts ended Saturday night with a sound collage ``happening,'' like those that made Cage famous in the 1960s.

For three hours, performers read poetry, sloshed water around in conch shells, and played pianos (both real and toy) with their elbows.

Some of the other ``90 live or recorded performances'' consisted of performers tapping Jell-O molds, rolling objects back and forth in long tubes, and crumpling or tearing paper in front of microphones. All at the same time, of course. The audience was free to roam the theater and discover the sound from different vantage points.

It was all Cage's way of expanding the listener's awareness of sound, or so he professes.

``Our intention is to affirm this life, not to bring order out of chaos or to suggest improvements in creation, but simply to wake up to the very life we're living,'' Cage has said.

``I think that being able to understand something, to be able to know what is happening, is on the side of law and order and organization rather than on the side of poetry and chaos and anarchy.''

At ``Instant Retrospective,'' the final concert, containing parts of the five other Cage concerts, the sparse audience of about 200 responded as others have for more than 30 years - with laughter, delight, confusion, irritation.

Many left well before the 180 minutes of nonstop cacophony ended. Cage himself sat demurely at center stage, reading inaudibly or chanting intermittently into a microphone.

In describing the final Cage ``happening,'' Frans van Rossum, dean of music at California Institute of the Arts, wrote: ``In his art, the author erases himself. Behind the seemingly chaotic, purposeless processes of Cage's music there is tight structure. The structure is erased, too, yet everything is planned.

``Chances are piled upon chances, not unlike the sounds we hear in daily life. The open-ended space and time that we experience every day are carefully preserved in each of his works. Isn't his art a relief?''

Yet even people who are Cage-lovers today weren't always so. In a festival tribute catalog, colleague Joan La Barbara recalls once asking Cage, ``Why, with all the chaos in the world, do you insist on making more?''

Miss La Barbara had just witnessed one of his iconoclastic ``musicircuses'' and found it ``distressing, disorienting, unnerving.''

His reply: ``Perhaps when you go back out into the world, it won't seem as chaotic anymore.''

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