Last Saturday my daughter took my granddaughter and her little friend to a performance of modern dance set to the innovative music of John Cage. Cage (1912-1992) is the man who brought us the famous 1952 composition “4'33"” (pronounced “4 minutes, 33 seconds”), which is performed thus: The orchestra member or members show up on stage and take their seats with their instruments, and sit in silence for 4 minutes and 33 seconds. (There are three movements to the piece, if you can figure that out.)
I would be very ticked off if I had gotten dressed in my best Saturday-go-to-theater outfit, fought traffic, and paid good money to sit in the nosebleed section and listen to nothing for 4 minutes and 33 seconds. (I know, I know, it’s supposed to make us focus on the sounds that are always around us when we think there is nothing happening—the random coughing of the audience, the police sirens outside the building, our own breathing.)
And I would roll over in my grave if I were good ol’ Ludwig Van, and Cage’s sounds and my “Ninth Symphony” were both called “music.”
Cage produced another piece called “Sonatas and Interludes,” which was influenced by his introduction to Indian philosophy and the teaching of a Ceylonese philosopher named Ananda K. Coomaroswamy, who was in turn influenced by the “rasa” tradition passed down in a 2,000-year-old work on dramatic theory called the “Natya Shastra,” according to which every rasa or emotion is attached to a particular deity.
I’m not saying that the deities are necessarily messing with our heads and having a good laugh. But the man sitting next to my daughter with his own squirming child was getting angry and made some comment about the emperor having no clothes. And when my daughter offered to exit early, my granddaughter, being too young to stifle improper theater manners, bolted up in her chair and bellowed a triumphant “Yes!” that was heard throughout the concert hall.
We may like to show our open-mindedness by patronizing the avant-garde effluvium of people who have declared their independence from God’s rational and beautiful universe. But at the end of the day, our troubled ambiguity will spill out in the unguarded exclamation of a child.