Stephen Drury’s first encounter with John Cage came when he was growing up in Spokane, Wash. One of his music teachers would leave books out for students to peruse while they waited for lessons. One day, Drury noticed “Twentieth Century Music,” a then-recent book by critic Peter Yates. Flipping through it, he came across a description of Cage’s seminal “4’33.’’ ”
“That was the moment,” Drury said during a recent conversation. “Everything went downhill from there. Or took a sharp left turn,” he added with a laugh.
Drury, a pianist and faculty member at New England Conservatory, has gone on to become an authority on the performance of avant-garde music, both recent and historical. Few know more about the many species of contemporary and experimental music. This year being the centenary of Cage’s birth, Drury has spent much of it exploring his works — in recitals, group concerts, and workshops. A sort of culmination of his Cage year happens next Thursday, when Drury’s ensemble, the Callithumpian Consort, gives the last of three concerts at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum dedicated to Cage and composers closely associated with him.
Even a century after his birth, talking about John Cage is still a vexing affair. No other figure in 20th-century music was so unorthodox and yet so influential. Where other composers experimented with the basic elements of music, Cage — possessed of a spirit that was almost recklessly naive — turned many compositional decisions over to chance operations, or to the choice of the performer. Perhaps even more radical, he did away with the most basic musical distinction of all — between sounds that were music and sounds that were just noise. Radio static, passing cars, running water — it could all be music, if only you listened the right way.
This alarmed and annoyed people during Cage’s lifetime — he died in 1992 — and it continues to do so today. Yet he professed himself unbothered, even a bit perplexed, by the criticism. “I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas,” he famously said. “I’m frightened of the old ones.”
We tend to think of Cage as Western music’s great outlier. Yet, said Drury, performing so much of his work this year “has taught me to quit regarding him as this special case outside of musical experience, and really think of him in the body of Western music, at the very highest level.”
Working on Cage’s music, he continued, “fits in and synthesizes with the same kind of thing that’s most important and that I value most in every other composer of Western classical music that I value. Cage, if you take him seriously, really forces you to start from ground zero and look inward and shed what’s superfluous. And that’s what you gotta do when you play Mozart, too.”
He illustrates the point with “4’33” ” itself, in which a musician or musicians remain silent on the stage for three movements whose timings add up to exactly 4 minutes and 33 seconds. The point of the piece was to force an audience to listen in a new way, to focus on and be open to all the sounds around them, whether they were conventionally musical or not.
“On college campuses across the country, there’ve been any number of silly versions of ‘4’33”,’ where you can tell, the performer’s doing something, calling attention to himself,” Drury explained. “A real performance puts you on notice that you have to become transparent. What you want to do up there is disappear, and invite people in the audience to listen to everything and make their own communion with the music. And that’s what I would do playing Beethoven.”
Thursday’s concert focuses on “the political-social animal in Cage.” It presents excerpts from his “Song Books,” which puts into practice what Drury called Cage’s “anarchic politics.” There are eight singers and eight instrumentalists, he said, “doing vaguely theatrical things. [We’re] all independent during the space of the performance, only governed by the fact that we’re going to start together and stop together.” One of the texts in the piece is Thoreau’s dictum that “that government is best which governs not at all.” Drury is pairing the Cage piece with two 20th-century works that share similar sociopolitical concerns: American composer Christian Wolff’s “Changing the System” and the British composer Cornelius Cardew’s “The Great Learning (Paragraph 7).”
Drury was fortunate enough to have worked often with Cage during his lifetime. He played the “Etudes Australes” for the composer in the late 1970s and later brought him to New England Conservatory for a weeklong festival devoted to his music in 1991.
His favorite Cage story comes from a concert of the composer’s music that took place at the Museum of Fine Arts. The museum brought in a photographer, who shot a few pictures of Cage sitting at a piano. At one point, Cage began to move the piano’s music stand back and forth. Drury jumped up to help him, thinking he wanted it removed.
No no, said Cage. “I just wanted to see what it sounded like.”