Japan Society’s upcoming concert series: ‘John Cage’s Japan’

Japan Society’s John Cage’s Japan

In 2012, the world celebrated John Cage’s hundredth birthday. ‘World’ is a vague term that risks meaning North America and Europe when used with bravado from a Western musical perspective. But it is no exaggeration to say that John Cage held worldwide notoriety far beyond the New York City of post-World War II. Many know, for example, that while working closely with choreographer Merce Cunningham, the two performed together globally – including such spots as Iran in 1972.

As Cage’s fame grew musically, his pithy, sharp-witted remarks caught the attention of both established and young, impressionable composers across national borders. He is known for saying: ‘If you listen to Beethoven or Mozart, it’s always the same, but if you listen to traffic, it’s always different’. While this brings to mind the wholly unexpected sounds Cage would include in his compositional structures, the phrase also advocates that classical listeners should open their ears to ideas beyond traditional Western boundaries. Traffic sounds and myriad other daily noises certainly played their part in Cage’s music, but so did ideas and approaches to art and music beyond those that trace back to Beethoven or Mozart.

Which of these new listening ideas helped Cage garner the right to be called a composer of the global stage? This fall, the Japan Society is responding to the question in an uncharacteristic but exciting move for the organization – a series of five performances from September through December that focus on Cage and Japan. The programs will include Paul Lazar’s Cage Shuffle; John Cage’s Ryoanji; and Tomomi Adachi’s Noh-opera/Noh-tation: Decoding John Cage’s Unrealized Project and Cage Shock

Known for their courageous, discerning and consistently forward programming, Japan Society showcases enriching partnerships between artists who want to create something bold, through novel forms of cultural exchange and deep research into material that’s not often heard. Attention should be sparked by a project they determine is worth more than one night’s performance. It most certainly will not be ‘just another Cage series’.

It won’t surprise many to hear of Cage’s link to Japan. He is known for a focused interest in Japanese Zen teaching, which furthered his central ideas on indeterminacy, change and the attempt to remove stylistic, compositional voice from his work. (Ironically, in this endeavor Cage might have made himself the most celebrity-like of composers.)

Cage studied with Dr. Daisetz T. Suzuki at Columbia University in the 1950s, but he cannot be called an expert on Zen philosophy by any means. He did, however, rush into the eager shift of Western doors opening onto Eastern ideas. Many will argue that one of his most famous works, 4’33” – the iconic one where a pianist sits, not playing, and audience soaks in whatever sounds emit around them – came out of this turn.

Is there more, though? According to Yoko Shioya, Japan Society’s Artistic Director, there is. She audaciously stated, ‘Without Japan, there would be no John Cage’, and embarked upon a decade-long journey to realize a Japan-centric Cage series, an idea that came to her in 2012, Cage’s centenary year. Her boldness demanded discussion!

I had the singular opportunity to chat about the project with several artists and Ms. Shioya over a busy summer. Everyone was more than enthusiastic to meet, even while on family vacations crossing Poland or in their homes several times zones away – which quickly revealed how deeply invested they were in making this an outstanding, thought-provoking series.

Ms. Shioya immediately shared how she has researched deeply into Cage concerts only to find a glaring lack in coverage, concert-wise, about the relationship between the composer and Japan. She explained that this has not been done before, and there is a dearth of curatorial attention to the matter. Ms. Shioya spoke about Cage’s first trip to Japan in 1962 with pianist David Tudor as the jumping point. It was not just some concert series, she pointed out: it was a meeting of avant-garde minds, ready to work with each other and to change landscapes globally.

Yoko Ono and her then-husband, the late Toshi Ichiyanagi (an avant-garde composer), welcomed Cage and Tudor. Japan experienced Cage firsthand, but this was about collaborating as well as a tie to the first rumblings of the Fluxus art movement, of which Ono would be a key part. Ono performed Cage’s works, such as Aria, and Ichiyanagi and Cage toured together as composers. Exchanges occurred that would eventually lead Cage to conduct Ichiyanagi’s Sapporo back in Los Angeles. While some sources called this 1962 trip ‘Cage Shock’, an alternate framing would be the mutual meeting of creative explosions on either side of the Pacific.

Shioya aims to bring back the zeitgeist of that initial Japan tour through this series – the flurry of creativity and the avant-garde seeds that were planted. When it comes to Cage and Japan, it turns out we have not heard enough about the whole story. While one Japan Society concert, Cage Shock, will be a performance of many of the works done on that 1962 tour, other evenings offer different connections between Cage and Japan.

Ms. Shioya’s discussion led me to Tomomi Adachi – performer, composer and word artist. The two worked closely to curate the series. I got to speak to Mr. Adachi – with me logging in at night and Adachi in the morning hours in Japan’s culturally-rich city of Kanazawa. It was a blossoming conversation, and enlightening to hear how he both agrees and disagrees with Ms. Shioya’s bold statement.

I first asked Mr. Adachi about his new work, Noh-opera – a continuation of the Noh opera-inspired idea that Ichiyanagi in 1992 suggested be Cage’s next large-scale composition. Cage fleshed it out somewhat, but the right space and funding never came along. With this, Ms. Shioya immediately saw an opportunity (clearly her strong suit), and she called on Mr. Adachi to write the work for the Japan Society. He accepted, and became her main partner in realizing the whole program.

Gelsey Bell © Effy Grey

In speaking with me, Mr. Adachi was on the reticent side about the process of the work’s realization. (I can tell you it will incorporate AI-generated texts using kōan of Zen questions).  Nevertheless, he expressed eagerness to work with artists Wakako Matsuda, Gelsey Bell and the International Contemporary Ensemble as the time neared.

Mr. Adachi really wanted to tell me his own story about John Cage, and I fell under his mesmerizing ability to glide through a narrative. As a teenager in Japan in the 1980s, he had heard Cage through public broadcasting radio. He said, ‘Cage’s music really sounded totally different from any other music, and I was shocked. I was young. I was extremely stimulated. I needed to understand what it is . . . that experience decided for me what to do next. I think what I’m doing is far from his music. But his music was the starting point for me’.

Mr. Adachi explained that he was not only a musical teenager but a young man from Kanazawa, who daily experienced the Zen meditation workshops there. He embellished his story with captivating imagery: ‘It was all businessmen and me’. This background in Zen gives him a unique relationship to Cage and Japan – one of enamor and deep love but also critical viewing. In my opinion, it is a kind of relationship that one can only be freely expressed when it’s embedded in unwavering reverence.

Mr. Adachi explained that Cage really misunderstood Japanese Zen, and that there was still Orientalism and colonialism embedded in his approach. To him, Cage is very much a composer of Western music. However, what turns us back to Cage and Zen, as he put it so insightfully, is that ‘Cage misunderstood Zen in a creative way’. And that is interesting in itself. Ultimately, he remarked, it is Cage who stuck in his life, commenting: ‘I don’t do Zen meditation anymore, but I do listen to John Cage’.

Tomomi Adachi © Takayuki Imai

Mr. Adachi’s goal in this series is to respond to Cage as a Japanese man and composer. He explained that the real influences on Cage from Japan were the composers, the experiments, the performances and the relationships. In other words, Zen was not the thing. Adachi said with intoxicating determination, ‘I want to objectify what John Cage did. And this gives some interesting aspects on the stage. I don’t guarantee connection to Japan’. We could not help but smile at that admission. He will also be conducting the International Contemporary Ensemble in the closing night’s re-creation of Cage’s tour of Japan, Cage Shock.

The performance that will possibly provide a glimpse into Cage’s creative approach to Zen will be during Paul Lazar’s reading and dance work, Cage Shuffle, which opens the series on 28 September. This fifty-minute ‘happening’ was first premiered in 2017, but Mr. Lazar created a special version for the Japan Society. While he reads excerpts from Cage’s writing, Annie B. Parsons will perform the choreographed movements. But for this series, only texts with a connection to Japan or Zen are featured.

In speaking to Mr. Lazar, he expressed just as much interest in this iteration of Cage Shuffle as any other. He explained what kept his interest in recreating the Shuffle each time: ‘There is an uncannily perfect connection as if each choreographed movement were created to match the words. An uncanny discourse between movement and language’.

And this will likely happen too with the use of Japan-related texts. The choreography is set. Each story that Mr. Lazar reads is pumped into his iPod earbud which he then relays at a speed that will fill one minute exactly. As Ms. Parsons performs, she maintains the set choreography. It is a harrowing feat and one that will be exciting to watch unfold.

I asked Mr. Lazar what he thought about Yoko Shioya’s statement that without Japan there is no John Cage. His answer was inspired, and it is one to keep in mind through all the performances in the series. ‘Cage was not inevitably going to become John Cage. He could have been a minor composer. The thing that made him break through (along with his collaboration with Cunningham) was the fundamental ideas that he gained from Eastern philosophy. Maybe that idea was already in him? But it gave him a context’.

And that is exactly what we, as listeners, can hope to find in this series. New contexts, old contexts, crossover contexts, and even opposing contexts – as Mr. Adachi so well described. After speaking to everyone, including singer Gelsey Bell who will perform in Noh-opera, it is clear that John Cage is able to influence change even posthumously.

This relationship to Japan might have started in 1962, but it is still going. As Ms. Bell brilliantly explained, the series about Japanese influence on Cage stands out because these are Japanese artists coming to New York to reflect back to Cage going to Japan. And just as it occurred across Japan in 1962 with Yoko Ono, David Tudor and Toshi Ichiyanagi, New York artists and Japanese artists will play each other’s works in mirrored partnership. Thanks to Yoko Shioya’s vision and decade of determination, it is certainly no chance occurrence.

Daniele Sahr

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