DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

“Birdcage: 73’20.958” for a Composer (2012)

Weirdly interesting and mostly for John Cage fanatics.

Published on December 11, 2012

“Birdcage: 73’20.958” for a Composer (2012)

Film collage by Hans G. Helms, 1972
Studio: Wergo MV 0806 5 [Distr. by Naxos]
Video: 4:3 color
Audio: English/German
Length: 73 minutes
Rating: ****

There really is no way to describe the music, art and philosophy of American original John Cage. In fact, if you are not at all familiar with his life and work, then attempting to give a “crash course” in the context of this documentary will not suffice at all. Interestingly, I do think that even complete novices to the world of John Cage will find this film fascinating and may prompt the viewer to go find out more. Kudos to German film maker Hans Helms for making this the case.

“My name is John. What’s your name?” So begins this film as the composer goes to an aviary and communicates with a mynah bird (I believe) who mimics by repeating the question. This is but one glimpse into the mindset of the man who, as a then iconoclast, actually creates his own iconic sounds and processes of writing music that was frequently environmental; including using the sounds of birds and whales and so forth.  In fact, the central element in this documentary is the creation of the composer’s Birdcage (from 1972, the year at the Donaueschingen Music Festival where the work and this film premiered).

The fascination to be had watching this is in “looking in” on the creation and the ideas behind Cage’s work; not necessarily the music, itself. (… although I studied Cage’s music substantially in the 1970s and find many of his works to be intriguing – even pretty – to listen to). The scores themselves are nearly works of art in the pre-computer era and Cage’s own unique calligraphy and the concepts are fascinating.

This film also – unintentionally – offers a fascinating look back at the world of the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s where Cage and his colleagues are clearly immersed in what was a new fusion of the arts including music, dance, poetry and the occasional “collision” of artistic hybridization with new views of philosophical and political organization. (Cage is said to have been fascinated with the Chinese Cultural Revolution and the ideologies of Mao – some would say naively – and in a purely artistic way) From a historical and cultural “snapshot” it is also great fun to look at the film footage in which technology is so “primitive”, the clothing and hair is so endemic of the period and mostly everyone smokes while working; including Cage.

Along the way, we also get to see some of the other members of Cage’s circle in the “radical” New York music scene, of the time: Grete Sultan, Philip Corner, and Frederic Rzewski among others. This film also reinforces a perception I had while the composer was alive. I had occasion to correspond with him by letter while I was an undergraduate and even spoke to him by telephone once. While I never did fully understand his philosophies or his approach to composition (did anyone?) I did find him to be a soft-spoken and very approachable figure. There is a wonderful moment in the film where Cage tries to place a call to John Lennon & Yoko Ono which concludes, “Please tell them John Cage called.”  (It gets even better when the famous couple is shown with the composer in his apartment so he can show them and discuss his new score!) If that doesn’t summarize what this time and place was like, I don’t know what does.

As a documentary film, Helms’s work is well done and really does have a ‘furtive glance’ quality to the footage. The video is expectedly “low-def” as is the audio which gives the work a kind of charm. I strongly endorse this film to those fascinated by John Cage but also to anyone who may want a completely uninformed glimpse at a true American original in a time and place and ideology that will always be utterly unique.

—Daniel Coombs




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