John Cage, With Stars

Twenty years ago, Petr Kotik planned a concert to celebrate the music of John Cage that became a memorial. The feature work was Atlas Eclipticalis, one of the series of wonderful works Cage made from star charts. The performance was enough to wake up a certain prominent critic to the possibilities and joys of not only the twentieth century avant-garde but to the particular, rare and extraordinary genius of Cage. Since then, Kotik and his Orchestra of the S.E.M. Ensemble has gone on to make three recordings of the work, the most recent a digital download available via Bandcamp, and these are not only the three finest recordings of Atlas but some of the very finest recordings of Cage’s music ever made.

This coming Monday, Kotik is reprising Atlas as the opening concert of his Beyond Cage festival, the ne plus ultra of Cage tribute events in this, the centennial of his birth. The festival includes music of Cage’s associates and younger composers who have grown up in a world that knows his work, but still struggles to incorporate his ideas and methods. It is literally packed with once-in-a-lifetime details, things that if you miss you will most likely never have the chance to experience again:

  • October 30 – a live realization of “Imaginary Landscape No. 1” via the original means of using sine wave test tone LPs on turntables, and the first United States performance of the staged Infinito nero, a brilliant chamber opera by Salvatore Sciarrino that is one of Kotik’s specialties.
  • November 2 – The entirety of Kotik’s mesmerizing, powerful Many Many Women, a musical setting of Gertrude Stein
  • November 5 – Morton Feldman: Major Orchestral Works, including Flute and Orchestra and Violin and Orchestra, which have never been heard in concert in the United States before, amazingly. Kotik is importing the Janacek Philharmonic Ostrava for this, and they have had many weeks of rehearsal already, so you can expect to hear Feldman in a way that you’ve never before known.

There are also panel discussions, intellectual explorations, chamber music concerts. And there are still tickets available for everything, at reasonable prices (festival passes start at $50 for eight concerts), including Atlas, this Monday, October 22. Kotik is performing it in conjunction with Winter Music, which is common, but this will be the first complete performance of the two together — the first. Ursula Oppens and Joe Kubera will be at pianos at each end of the stage, with eighty-six musicians between them. And if that doesn’t sell it to you, Cage is paired with one of Christian Marclay’s rare large-scale pieces, Shuffle. Like music itself, this will slip through your fingers before you even know it’s gone, don’t miss the chance to hear it pass by.

More reading: Cage at 100 in The Brooklyn Rail.


I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.