Kanye West, Meet John Cage

Kanye: Tune in, turn on, drop out ... bear.
Kanye: Tune in, turn on, drop out ... bear.

Avant-garde composer John Cage and pop superstar Kanye West may be two of most polarizing figures in contemporary American music. It amazes me how many people - particularly musicians - hate John Cage ("Parlour games" is how one music professor we know describes Cage's music). And Kanye West? For awhile the criticism leveled at West was almost frightening in its relentlessness. Cage is referred to as a "clown" and West as "that kid" and yet each man has done groundbreaking work in their respective creative fields. As artists, they have more in common than either one of them might imagine.

Sound like a stretch? With 2011 marking the 100th anniversary of Cage's birth and last month bringing the release of West's opus My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, we give you five points to consider:

1. To hell with the critics. "Screams from the haters / Got a nice ring to it..." Kanye West A value judgment, once it's made, exists only within the mind of the one who made it. Cage and West have endured and enjoyed equal amounts of criticism and praise while aspiring (although not without struggle) to remain above it all. Bored by Cage playing an amplified cactus with a feather? That's you choosing to be bored. You think West can't sing his way out of a wet paper bag? Here's 808s and Heartbreak, an album with the singing all done with Auto Tune. Who said singing was on West's agenda in the first place?

2. Bring The Noise Like your music to be in tune and in a specific key? You want it tonal? Well, what about bitonal? Or (my favorite) tritonal? What about "noise"?

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In both Cage and West's music, SOUND creates an experience where the ear follows multiple layers of notes and noise not to a resolution, but to an aural representation of the world as we truly hear it. In music school, they call it "superimposition." Cage called it "musicircus." The RZA might say it's "dope."

Check out 0:00 to 0:45 of West's video for "Runaway." The sound of those watery piano notes and the hurried footsteps of the ballet dancers getting into position...the track hasn't even dropped but it could be the beginning of Cage's 0'00".

Speaking of that piece, check this out...

 

3. "In a situation provided with maximum amplification, perform a disciplined action." This is Cage's single instruction for his piece 0'00". Now check out West's performance of his new track Power on SNL.

Did he follow the instructions? To a T. It's the theater of music.

4. Dada is alive and well. Dadaism and its spirit of irreverence and confrontation is alive and well in much of Cage and West's work (consider West's highjacking of Taylor Swift's acceptance speech at the VMAs). The famous Life Magazine photo of Cage in formal evening wear conducting a 1943 performance on auto-brake drums, Chinese bowls and tin cans at the Museum of Modern Art and West's "dropout bear" mascot are just two examples of bold yet humorous images revealing a flair for the visual and theatrical mindfuck.

5. Too cool for school. West titled his breakout album The College Dropout. Cage described university education being "...modeled on the idea of a prison, so you get used to the idea of prison already while you're being educated..." They both share a healthy suspicion of academia and are derided as "fools," even "dumb."

Love them or loathe them, audacity in the arts should be encouraged and applauded. John Cage, Kanye West - we salute you.

Next week: Marcel Duchamp, meet DJ Screw.

Also: Help put a brand new recording of John Cage's 4'33" to number one on Radio 1's chart this Christmas by visiting Cage Against The Machine. It's no joke. And the money from your purchase goes to a variety of charities.


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