If you had any concerns that Allan Miller and Paul Smaczny are the right directors to tackle the job of crafting a documentary to dissect and explain the music of composer John Cage, then you need look no further than their choice for the opening sequence of John Cage: Journeys in Sound. It features Cage himself, framed in a black-and-white television tube, appearing on a 1950s TV program. The host seems amused to have Cage there, and by all his warnings, clearly expects disaster and derision. Cage welcomes it, unflappably beginning his on-air performance by pulling a firecracker popper. He will play with toys, whistles, water, and electronics, all for the pleasure of making noise for the home audience.
It's a brave act on Cage's part. He's not afraid that he'll be made fun of. If he was, he wouldn't do what he does. Neither are the filmmakers afraid that the audience won't come to them on the same terms. What we see there could easily be polarizing, separating those who can get into Cage's approach to music from those who can't. His avant-garde, ambient compositions are the very thing that so many people don't get about modern art. It seems haphazard, chaotic, and a total put-on if taken at face value. It's a racket, both in terms of sound and the alternate meaning, of being a con game. "My kid could do that!"
Except, of course, your kid can't. Not in this way, not with this precision, and certainly not with the same passion and intent. That is what John Cage: Journeys in Sound attempts to break down and understand: Cage's intent. Why did he approach music in such a perplexing way, and what can we draw from it? What was the composer saying about life and how we interact with it? What is he expressing about the possibility of sound? And then it gives you the opportunity to hear it and judge for yourself.
Using archival footage, including performances and interviews, and matching it with current admirers talking about and even performing some of Cage's famous work, Miller and Smaczny take apart some of the more well-known pieces from Cage's oeuvre and show us how the pieces were put together. We see the author's unconventional sheet music, as well as the devices he constructed to get his specific, desired sounds. Featured pieces include "Water Music" and "Sonata I," as well as other showcases for his approach to percussion and rhythm and also his appreciation of drones. John Cage: Journeys in Sound avoids Cage's life for the most part, eschewing the standard mapping of the creative genome using childhood anecdotes and the like. The closest we get is old footage of the late musician on a mushroom hunt, talking about his passion for finding the beauty and variety in these natural occurrences. No fine point needs to be put on it. It's exactly how he went about gathering sound, finding the incongruous and the dissonant, and putting them together to make something whole and pleasurable.
John Cage: Journeys in Sound is a great introduction to Cage's work, or even a solid reminder of what the more educated might already know (much of it was new to me). If you're at all interested in modern music, particularly the kind that goes off the beaten path, you should find Cage's accomplishments intriguing and even enjoyable. Even though the filmmakers don't spend any time talking about who Cage influenced (even if John Lennon and Yoko Ono do pop in briefly), you'll probably hear the seeds of other things you knew, ranging from the current work of Scott Walker, the indie experimentation of Sonic Youth, and the roots of various genres of electronic music. John Cage: Journeys in Sound is a real eye opener.
The widescreen, HD image looks fantastic. Resolution on new footage is sharp, with no signs of ghosting, tracers, or jaggedness. Older footage is nicely upgraded and integrated so that the whole documentary runs smooth.
The packaging indicates that the disc is region 0, which would explain the international bend to the presentation. The interior booklet is printed in multiple languages, and German, Japanese, and English are all spoken in the film--and there are subtitle tracks for all three, as well as French. It should be noted that you need to turn on any subtitles for any of those languages, none come on automatically. I selected "English," naturally, and so any time another language was spoken, I got a translation.
Audio options are either a multi-channel DTS HD Master Audio Track or PCM Stereo option. The HD track sounds excellent, with very important attention paid to how the music fills the room. It's one thing to explain John Cage to me, but this would have been a failure had I not been able to hear the pieces so well. Kudos!
In addition to a handsome booklet containing liner notes about Cage, the Blu-Ray also has 42 minutes of extras, including extended performances of well-known Cage compositions:
* "4'33"" - performed solo by David Tudor, who is also interviewed about the infamous selection of, basically, timed silence, which is partially based on the I Ching. Tudor was the original person to play the selection in 1952 and has some history with it.
* "Second Construction" - group perf. Schlagquartett Köln
* "Sonata I" and "Water Music" - solo perf. Steffen Schleiermacher
All but the Tudor piece are excerpted in the film itself.
There is also nearly 7 minutes of interview footage with Cage and collaborators Merce Cunningham and Robert Rauschenberg, which is illuminating for showing how the three worked together.
Highly Recommended. This lean documentary is exactly what it needs to be a presentation of the man and the music, stripped down to the essential, sidestepping the sentimental for the practical. John Cage: Journeys in Sound artfully arranges interviews and performances to clue viewers in to why Cage was such a unique composer, not to mention demonstrating how and why we should enjoy his music through the compositions themselves. For Cage fans and more general music fans alike.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.