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Articles & Interviews

These Symphony-commissioned feature articles offer insights into the music you'll hear in the concert hall. We hope you'll find them provocative and entertaining.

May 12, 2015

American maverick John Cage delights with unexpected

The San Francisco Symphony and the Grateful Dead. Beloved soprano Jessye Norman and a smoothie blender. The Spirit of '76 and an amplified cactus. And now, Academy Award-winning actor Tim Robbins giving a Lecture on Nothing

What do these mindboggling combinations of performers and elements have in common? They've all been brought together by the music of composer John Cage, as interpreted by SFS Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas.

But it's not just what happens onstage in any Cage performance that may surprise you. Take a look at the music itself — it's anything but notes set primly down on a page. Each work is a lush, theatrical event of extraordinary sights, sounds, and feelings, more dependent on the interpretation of the performers and audience than the will of a single composer.

"John Cage genuinely wanted to open up the beauteous experience of sound for everyone," says Michael Tilson Thomas. "Much of his work could be described as kits to be used in the creation of a performance that relies on the perceptions, imaginations, and choices of the musicians."

Those "kits" can consist of unusual written directions for the musicians ("Make a gift of apples or cranberries to a member of the audience."), maps and charts whose squiggly lines represent the journey of a particular instrument's sound, chance electronic manipulations such as flipping randomly though radio stations, and even games like chess, solitaire, and dominoes. Cage's compositions offer ingenious puzzles for musicians, allowing an unprecedented freedom of expression that continually draws stars to his work.

On May 16, Michael Tilson Thomas, the San Francisco Symphony, and actor Tim Robbins will assemble their own “kits” in a performance of two of Cage's seminal works — Renga and The Seasons — promising a one-of-a-kind experience of delightful juxtapositions. 


Written in tribute of the 1976 Bicentennial, the Renga score has no notes, but rather 361 line drawings by American Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau. Contours from the drawings become time and pitch for the performers who are placed around Davies Symphony Hall. By nature of the work’s interpretive guidelines, no single performance of this piece is ever the same. In addition to Renga we hear simultaneously, no less than ten other disparate works performed around the concert hall. Video projections and curious instrumentation add further innovative and textural elements to the enchanting work.

One of Renga’s most interesting layers will feature renowned actor Tim Robbins (The Shawshank Redemption, Mystic River) performing Cage’s classic 1949 Lecture on Nothing. The text is striking, brimming with lovely passages and sly humor that invites the audience to examine its perceptions of time, sound, silence, and meaning.

"Lecture on Nothing is one of those great works that manages to express deep philosophical ideas -- ones which we can all relate to -- with the playful wit and honesty of the best poetry. As an actor, it's a wonderful challenge because it's a piece that contains so many opportunities for interpretation and improvisation, despite looking like a score on the page. There's a profound rhythm to it that draws you in and allows your imagination and intellect a unique experience based in Cage's scintillating language and thought.”

This performance is also a personal tribute to Cage himself. Says Michael Tilson Thomas, “I sat with John at rehearsals and performances of this work in New York in 1976. I remarked to [him] that following his instructions, one day it might be played in his memory. He gave me his customary smile and laugh. When he died [in 1992] I began to think more and more about the possibility of doing just this.”

Also on the program is Cage’s Seasons, composed as a score to accompany a ballet choreographed in 1947 by Cage's great partner in life and art, Merce Cunningham. Last performed by the Symphony in 1986, it's modeled on traditional Indian conceptions of the seasons: quiescence (winter), creation (spring), preservation (summer) and destruction (fall).

Once again Cage brings eclectic elements together to form something sublime.

If you go:

Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas leads the San Francisco Symphony in John Cage’s The Seasons, and Renga featuring Academy Award-winner Tim Robbins with video by Clyde Scott  8 p.m. May 16, 2015 at Davies Symphony Hall. (415) 864-6000