Composer John Cage was recently reading his computer-generated lecture at Harvard University when a young woman wearing a leather jacket and a saucy smile strode onto the stage and drank the glass of water that had been placed at the speaker's side.
Cage ignored her.Some in the audience of about 400 people decided it was part of the act. It wasn't. Later, the mysterious interloper, Tami Lum, a student at Simon's Rock College who made the 21/2-hour trip from Great Barrington for this moment, said she was thirsty and didn't think Cage would mind.
The audacious John Cage has that effect on people.
At 76 years old, Cage ranks among the most controversial composers of the 20th century and the anarchist king of the avant-garde. This school year, Harvard University is honoring him with the post of Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry. His syllabus consists of a series of six lectures and six corresponding seminars.
The Norton chair honors contributors to poetry, broadly defined, and since 1926 has provided its occupants with the salary and rank of full professor for one academic year. Cage's predecessors in the Norton pantheon include Leonard Bernstein, Igor Stravinsky, Frank Stella, Lionel Trilling and Thornton Wilder.
Harvard isn't alone in celebrating Cage. There will be other Cage concerts around Boston, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Boston Musica Viva have commissioned works by Cage to be performed this year.
Last year he was elected to the 50-member American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Such are the crowning honors of a long career spent rattling people out of the ruts of convention.
Best known for his experiments with random or chance music, the multifaceted Los Angeles-born artist and only child of an inventor was introduced to music at age 8 when his aunt began teaching him the piano.
By 18 he was composing music and went on to study with another musical revolutionary, Arnold Schoenberg. In 1949 he won the first of many such accolades when the National Academy of Arts and Letters honored him with an award for extending the boundaries of music.
A theatrical event he organized in 1952, during which various artists simultaneously performed independently, is considered the model for the unstructured happenings of the 1960s. Cage has produced works in Europe and Japan, written for films and is the author of 12 books. He also has published collections of his etchings and drawings. A series of 52 Cage watercolors is scheduled for an exhibition next year in Washington.
"In what he does there is no ranking. He's the one," said Pia Gilbert, a composer who teaches aesthetics at the Julliard School in New York.
"He really has been the pioneer, and has been consistent with what he has pursued, with an amazing youthful approach, always discovering, always continuing."
While she prefers more control in her own compositions, Gilbert has been touched by the artist she has known for three decades. "He has influenced everyone who has been around him," she said. "He has influenced me in freeing my thinking. . . . What he does is liberate people."
At the start of one of his recent Norton lectures at Harvard, Cage explained his lecture and himself with a four-page exposition. The document had a run-on title of 16 words not separated by spaces and starting with "Method" and ending with "Performance." In the written explanation, he said his purpose in life, discovered nearly 40 years ago, was "the exploration of nonintention."
Furthermore, he added, "I did not know immediately what I was doing, nor, after all these years, have I found much out."
The raw clay of the lectures are 487 quotations from such assorted sources as British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, naturalist and writer Henry David Thoreau, the writer James Joyce, the Wall Street Journal and the Christian Science Monitor.
He concludes, elliptically, "All six lectures have been planned in detail but I don't know what they'll be. I'll find that out by writing them."
Sitting through one hour and 40 minutes of the exercise required a certain devotion.
The slender professor, dressed in blue workshirt, dungarees and black leather running shoes, sat immobile as he intoned his piece. For 71 pages he leaned into a microphone across a long, low table and out of his mouth, in a reedy, soothing voice, poured a string of words and phrases at random.
Cage has been up to this sort of thing for a long time.
In 1951, in "Imaginary Landscape," Cage wrote a piece for 12 radios and 24 musicians. During the work, each radio is tuned to a different station, making the outcome unpredictable and each performance unique.
"You have to just let it wash over you," Liz Lee advised as she was leaving after one hour. The 20-year-old biology major came over from nearby Massachusetts Institute of Technology to hear and experience Cage. "It's kind of interesting. The point I get out of it is all words have their own connotations."
Less enthralled was her companion, Ray Parker, 24, a jazz musician in this academic enclave across the Charles River from Boston. "I see this as more of an experiment. I'm not really a big fan of this kind of stuff. Art without form is nothing."
Back inside the auditorium, Cage was still intoning:
"The State Department said its anti-Pakistan policy would have peace in sharing in Burma. . ."
"Mistakenly a camera"
Around the room in the darkening light of sunset some faces intently watched Cage. Heads bobbed in agreement. Others stretched out in helpless sleep that testified to the lecture's soporific effects.
Cage enunciated every word and placed emphasis on certain lines.
"My composing not to supply old laws. . . ."
The lecture ended with tumultuous applause and a shy, happy grin from Cage, who crept away out back.
Gertrude Freedman was ecstatic. The 78-year-old anti-nuclear activist considered the lecture right up her political alley: "He mentioned every single trouble spot and the nonsensical things our government is doing all over the world. He purposely didn't make sense."
"It breaks down my usual way of interpreting the world," said Peter Warren, a jazz musician.
Cage's unconventional lecture, he said, "opens you up to a lot of possibilities. This is what I'm trying to do with my music. What he's trying to convey is there's an underlying meaning underneath the random processes."