In 2012 the world celebrated the centennial of John Cage, a composer and writer whose profound influence on music still reverberates in unexpected ways. As the composer Toru Takemitsu wrote in 1992: “John Cage shook the foundations of Western music, and, with almost naïve clarity, he evoked silence as the mother of sound. Through John Cage sound gained its freedom. As we listen to his music we recall that gentle, indescribable smile.”
The importance and innovative nature of Cage's many works for percussion inspired me to compose John Cage Smiled for an ensemble of nine performers playing a wide array of percussion instruments. Along with an emphasis on timbral variety, the work reflects Cage's interest in Zen Buddhism with sections that focus on the nature of time and silence, such as the lengthy opening meditative bell that facilitates the transition to a new mode of listening. As the work develops, contemplative sections contrast with layers of highly rhythmic passages reminiscent of those found in Cage's early percussion music such as the three Constructions.
Although Cage had little interest in teaching young composers, I learned much from his unique personality and nonjudgmental approach to creativity. Etched into my memory is Cage's inimitable laugh, heard often during our time wandering through the fields and forests of Michigan; passionate about mushrooms, he came in pursuit of the prized morel, a highly elusive (but delectable) fungus. Whenever we found one he would express pure delight, and yes, smile.
John Cage Smiled
for 9 percussionists