Experimenting with music . . . and peace

Finding similarities between the experimental music of
John Cage and the work of Mennonite Central Committee

April 12, 2012 | Young Voices
Aaron Epp | Special to Young Voices

Are there similarities between the work of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) and the musical approach of experimental American composer John Cage?

Scott Bergen thinks so. Last month, the Canadian Mennonite University (CMU) music student and a group of friends presented “Experimentations in Music, Explorations in Peace,” a concert at Sam’s Place, Winnipeg, featuring Cage’s compositions. Before the concert, Bergen gave a 40-minute talk in which he drew parallels between Cage’s work and MCC.

“In music, in relationship, in global development, Cage and MCC say it’s a matter of releasing control of ourselves and cultivating a spirit of care,” said Bergen, 24. “Cage and MCC invite us to listen to that which is around us . . . to co-exist with those around us, to be shaped by what is already there, as opposed to shaping it with our own agendas.”

Lauded as one of the most influential composers of the 20th century, Cage was born in 1912 and died just over 20 years ago. He is perhaps best known for the 1952 composition, “ 4’33”, ” which is performed in the absence of deliberate sound; musicians simply sit on stage for four minutes and 33 seconds, and the piece consists of whatever sounds the listeners hear in that time, be it a person coughing or someone shifting a chair.

“While other composers intended to create a certain effect, or paint a certain picture, or push a certain idea, or inspire people to do a certain thing, Cage tried to create music of non-intention,” Bergen said. “He was much more interested in letting sounds be themselves, leaving room for the unintended [and] not imposing [his] own will on what was being [played].”

Bergen added that MCC’s approach to international development is similar, in that the organization aims not to force action, but rather it is interested in fostering dialogue. “[MCC is] not interested in saying, ‘You need a school over here in Haiti, so we’re going to build you one, and this is what it’s going to look like,’ ” he said. “Very rarely have I seen them work in that manner. It’s more about them entering into these . . . long-term relationships with communities that want MCC’s presence, [with MCC] saying, ‘We don’t know what’s going to come of this, [but] we’ll engage with you.’ ”

Bergen cited the example of MCC’s response to the 2002 earthquake in Iran. MCC approached the Iranian Red Crescent, a Muslim aid organization similar to MCC, and offered to partner with it in relief work. The Red Crescent declined the invitation, but the offer intrigued it, eventually leading to dialogue between Mennonite and Muslim scholars debating theology.

“Not debating in terms of trying to convince or convert,” Bergen said, “but simply as a means of discussion leading to understanding of the other. What’s fascinating for me is that MCC operates primarily out of North America, a place where the governments in power [in] Canada and the U.S. have declared Iran to be our enemy to various extents. Yet MCC forges ahead and forms these relationships, and offers aid where many other organizations [do] not.”

MCC views its mission to exist beyond the government structures and national lines that North Americans typically live their lives by, Bergen added. That MCC is not bound by those lines is similar to the way Cage’s music is not bound by typical musical tradition.

After his talk, Bergen and his friend Becky Reesor led a group of musicians in a performance of various works by Cage. Songs performed included “ 4’33” ” as well as “Three Dances,” a piece which makes use of a piano that has had its sound altered by placing objects between or on the strings, or on the hammers or dampers.

“I was very pleased with how it went,” said Reesor, 23, an accomplished pianist who graduated last year from CMU with a bachelor of music degree. “You never know how on-board the audience is going to be [and] pretty much nothing went as planned,” she said. “But in the end, people said they were very interested, and they were able to experience the music and find it interesting and enjoy it.”

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