John Cage: Journeys in Sound is a new documentary by Allan Miller and Paul Smaczny produced by Accentus Music in co-production with WDR (West German Radio) released last month in both DVD and Blu-ray formats. It provides an informative cross-section of Cage’s different approaches to composition (or some might prefer to say “working with sounds”) beginning with his performance of “Water Walk” as a guest on the television program I’ve Got a Secret and progressing through a few minutes with his second composition for organ, intended to be the longest piece of music ever written. There is also a generous amount of talk coming from Cage, those who worked closely with him, and a few (such as Steffen Schleiermacher) from a later generation who have made serious efforts to perform his music.
My personal feeling is that I would have preferred not quite so many of those words. The best way to approach Cage’s work is to experience it, preferably in an actually performance setting in which one also experiences the space itself and the entirety of the audience occupying that space. The video package includes a bonus track of a performance by Schleiermacher of “Water Music” in its entirety that comes closest to approximating this.
In the documentary Schleiermacher walks the viewer through the score, which is basically a timetable of events; and this is followed by excerpts from his performance. However, the entire performance was filmed in such a way that one spends as much time observing the audience as one does following Schleiermacher through his execution of the prescribed events. This emphasizes the extent to which Cage would create a “social situation” in which the creation of sound was a necessary component but not a sufficient one. On the bonus track one observes audience reactions including mild amusement, intense concentration, and even one member who has succumbed to slumber.
The bonus tracks also include David Tudor performing 4’33” (and then trying very hard not to be impatient with an interviewer), the Schlagquartett Köln performing “Second Construction,” and Schleiermacher performing the first sonata from Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano. To be fair, those unfamiliar with these works will probably find the documentary valuable in setting expectations. Much of the rejection Cage experienced came from those frustrated because he had thwarted what they had expected of a concert experiences; and, over the decades, we have become much more generous in those expectations. Perhaps the most important take-away from the documentary is the appreciation that, even when he used chance operations, Cage was meticulously deliberate in his approach to composition, rather than just allowing things to happen. Indeed, had the documentary devoted a bit more time to elucidating what his methods were and how they evolved over his lifetime, the performances on the bonus tracks would have been even more informative to the viewer.