To many artists, he was one of the most inspiring figures of the 20th century. To some musicians, he is underrated: branded, unfairly, more important as a thinker than a composer. And to a large segment of the public, he’s a charlatan: a man who convinced some people that sitting onstage in silence for four minutes and 33 seconds could be construed as performing a work of music.
John Cage — composer, philosopher, visual artist, mushroom enthusiast — would have been 100 years old on Wednesday. This week Washington, usually somewhat conservative in its musical tastes, is challenging its own image with an eight-day celebration, opening Tuesday and spread throughout some of the city’s flagship arts institutions, that may be the largest Cage centennial in the country.
The festival honors Cage the polymath, touching on every aspect of his creativity: theater pieces, visual arts, dance, as well as music. Certainly it will include plenty of Cage’s music: more than 60 Cage works, many of them performed by heavy-hitting musicians who worked closely with him (Irvine Arditti, Margaret Leng Tan). But a look at the participating venues says a lot about Cage’s legacy — and about Washington. The National Gallery of Art, the Phillips Collection, the Corcoran, and the Hirshhorn are hosting shows, concerts, lectures. But the Kennedy Center, Washington’s leading performing arts institution, is not involved. Nor is the Washington Performing Arts Society.