Alibi V.24 No.5 • Jan 29-Feb 4, 2015 

Music History

Uncaging the Sun

A “check” from John Cage
A “check” from John Cage
The John Cage Trust
[click to enlarge]

With snow falling around town like it hasn’t in years—and the next damn good show more than a day away—I’m kicking it here at mi chante listening to Waiting for the Sun. I’ll follow that up with The Soft Parade. Both of these albums remind me of the weather we’re having. Both are by a band from El Lay where it's always sunny. They’re called The Doors.

It will probably be sunny and warm when you read this next week, but listen: Here is a story about music in our town, written on a snowy night. For a second there near the end of the former album, I lost myself. I imagined a young Jim Morrison watching snow fall from his ranch-style home up on Candelaria Boulevard. I was just a glint in my father’s eye then, but Morrison was already roaming the Earth and listening to stuff.

That got me thinking about the music I heard while shuffling hereabouts ’round this mortal coil. Back then, as now, there was plenty of rock and roll and jazz in this head of mine. So much so that I sometimes forgot about all the fab classical and art music experiences I’ve had here over the years. Here are a couple that served to open doors of sonic perception for me, others and our community.

This city once had a musical organization known as the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra. This legendary group existed from 1932 until 2011. NMSO was so formidable that it ultimately attracted some of the world’s greats. When the group was at its creative pinnacle in the mid ’80s, cellist Mstislav Rostropovich performed with them. I happened on the cellist’s dress rehearsal while working as a student stagehand.

John Cage seemed to be everywhere in the College of Fine Arts during his week-long tenure—eating lunch with undergraduates in the SUB, walking blithely around campus and lecturing in basement rehearsal halls.

Rostropovich sat on the edge of the stage, listening to the orchestra. He had a small dog with him he alternately bounced on his lap or placed under his chair while admonishing the little creature to listen well. Finally, the dog settled on a crumpled gig bag under the chair, and the Soviet cellist joined in with a lilting flourish, mesmerizing everyone in Popejoy Hall. Afterward I walked to the stage to shake his hand. His manager said the old man was pleasantly surprised because everyone else just wanted to meet the dog that day.

In 1988 the UNM Music Department hosted John Cage as part of its annual Composers’ Symposium. He came here to work, lecture and perform with the college music community during the university’s centennial celebrations. Cage seemed to be everywhere in the College of Fine Arts during his week-long tenure—eating lunch with undergraduates in the SUB, walking blithely around campus and lecturing in basement rehearsal halls. As a recent art school graduate working as a technician among artists and composers, I conversely kept a low profile while these history-making events unfolded all around me.

UNM composer and percussionist Christopher Shultis’ performance of Cage’s Child of Tree was particularly memorable, as were the intense Q&A sessions offered throughout the symposium. Among the enthralled, lofty academicians and postmodern geniuses, an 11-year-old Raven Chacon—then a student of Shultis’ collaborator Dawn Chambers and later one of Shultis’ students—sat watching and listening intently to the proceedings, taking it all in. I put the PA away after Cage’s talk, and I wondered what effect the avant-garde composer’s words and work might ultimately have on musicians in these parts. Then I went home and listened to Strange Days, and the springtime sun crashed though the windows.