The Tin Whistle

counterculture history and conspiracy theory

The Importance of John Cage

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Some people wonder how I turned out the way I did growing up in a middle-sized town in Central Illinois. They don’t seem to realize Urbana, Illinois was a hotbed of counterculture activity during the 1960s. And I think I know a possible reason why.

After Jasper Grootveld launched the Provo movement and started creating “happenings” in Amsterdam, a handful of other artists in the world began pursuing similar concepts. There was Andy Warhol on the east coast, doing multimedia happenings with the Velvet Underground as his house band. There was Ken Kesey on the west coast doing acid-drenched multimedia happenings with his house band, the Grateful Dead. And then there was John Cage, artist in residence at the University of Illinois, who, for a few years, was organizing the biggest and best multimedia happenings in the world in my hometown of Urbana.

In order to understand the impact this undoubtedly had, consider the way energy fields work. For example, if a forest is attacked on its perimeter by a predator insect, hundreds of miles away, trees on the other side of that forest will almost instantly start producing chemicals to fight the insect invasion. Similarly, if a group experienced with meditation technique holds a meditation in a town square, violent crime can go down in that town for several days after the meditation. This has been proven by science. Similarly, the events (ceremonies) John Cage instigated in Urbana helped turn my hometown into a haven for counterculture thinking and creativity.

On March 19, 1965, “Concert for Piano and Orchestra,” was performed, the first John Cage production at the U of I. It was conducted by Charles Hamm, with Ellsworth Snyder on piano. (Snyder would go on to become the first person to write a PhD thesis on Cage five years later.)  At one point during the performance, Snyder crawled under the piano and began banging the bottom with a mallet. Some conservative members of the audience began screaming with rage. One even began throwing folding chairs onto the stage in an attempt to stop the performance. Suddenly, the violinist smashed her violin over her music stand, an act worthy of a Who performance. From there the concert turned into a complete melee, with the audience out of their seats and the performers improvising general chaos.

Despite intense opposition from some elements of the faculty, Cage would continue to stage performances at the University for several years, culminating in his grand finale, “HPSCHD,” which was held at the Assembly Hall, the largest indoor venue in Central Illinois. It involved 208 tapes running through 52 tape-players, 59 amplifiers and loudspeakers, 6,400 slides (5,000 from NASA), 64 slide projectors, 40 films, 8 motion-picture projectors, 11 100’x40′ silk screens, and a 340′ circular screen made by Calvin Sumsion. The show included a lot of black light and fluorescent astrological designs. It lasted about five hours and the audience was encouraged to participate in the show in every way possible. About 8,000 attended, many of whom stayed for the entire five hours.

If you go to Urbana, you won’t find much counterculture activity today. But thanks in large part to John Cage, this wasn’t the case between 1965 and 1969.

Written by Steven Hager

January 19, 2011 at 9:49 am

One Response

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  1. You have educated me. While I knew about Mr. Cage from music theory class, the fact that he was a local had completely escaped me. Thank you


    January 20, 2011 at 5:45 pm

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