Cage's Legacy in Detroit: Techno, Free Jazz, Punk - Detroit Opera

Cage’s Legacy in Detroit: Techno, Free Jazz, Punk


Where does beauty begin and where does it end?
Where it ends is where the artist begins.[1]

“John Cage 1992,” Steven Speliotis, courtesy College for Creative Studies' Center Galleries.

“John Cage 1992,” Steven Speliotis, courtesy College for Creative Studies' Center Galleries.

Cage’s alternative sonic philosophies persist in Detroit. Over the past decade, Detroit musicians and visual artists have embraced the joyful anarchy of Cage’s work, applying indeterminacy, silence, and “noise” in genres ranging from techno to free jazz.  In 2012, on the 100th birthday of John Cage, University of Michigan music professor Michael Gurevich and mycology professor Tim James led a group of students on a morel hunt through Bird Hills Nature Area in Ann Arbor, framing the sounds of the mushroom hunt as a musical event. In 2014, College for Creative Studies professor Leith Campbell was one of the Detroit Knight Arts Challenge winners—her proposal revolved around a monolithic light and sound installation which utilizes solar power to perform the score of Cage’s As Slow As Possible (see below).

Solar ASLSP by Leith Campbell, 2014

Solar ASLSP by Leith Campbell, 2014

ADULT., a Detroit techno punk duo formed by Nicola Kuperus and Adam Lee Miller in 1998, is heavily influenced by Cage. “To us Cage represents someone who pushed boundaries, [messed] with formula, and opened the work up for chance. For our recreation of his monumental piece 4'33", we left it up to the hums of the amps in the studio to do the work or not to do the work.”[2] In their video (see below), the ambience of the concert hall is substituted by the atmosphere of ADULT.’s recording studio. Rustling audience members and stifled coughs are replaced by the hum of an amplifier, the circulation of the magnetic tape machine, and the occasional spring reverb crash. Through this iteration of Cage’s “silent” work, we can get a sonic glimpse into the sound-world of a Detroit techno studio.

In 2017, Detroit techno artists Rebecca Goldberg and Detroit Bureau of Sound (Zac Bru) curated the John Cage Rave at Red Bull House of Arts Detroit.

Rebecca Goldberg. Photo: Chromatic Club.
Detroit Bureau of Sound. Photo: Paul Lee.

Rebecca Goldberg. Photo: Chromatic Club.

Detroit Bureau of Sound. Photo: Paul Lee.

In the performance, the DJs used directions from the I-Ching­ to make determinations about their mix, including track length, shifting source materials, and the visceral sonic dialogue between the performer and audience. This mix was further expanded through the inclusion of three percussionists from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, blending the worlds of electronic dance and contemporary art music.

A few years later, our friends at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra took the bold step of performing Cage’s infamous “4’33”’ as part of their 2019’s American Panorama: A DSO Winter Festival. Rooted in Zen Buddhism, this composition, devoid of conventional instrumentation, invites listeners to embrace ambient sounds unfolding over a duration of 273 seconds. In the performance, DSO Music Director Leonard Slatkin (now Music Director Laureate) played the opening two chords of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, “Eroica,” followed by a timed lecture on the role of silence within music. Bringing Cage’s philosophy—that critical listening to “silence” reveals the sonic utterances that are often ignored—back into the concert hall, opens up audience perspectives on the value of “music,” “sound,” and “noise.”

In 2020, during the pandemic, Detroit percussionist Mike List recorded a series of multi-tracked vibraphone interpretations of Cage’s “Apartment House:” “Harmony No. 16, Detroit,” “Harmony No. 1, Crookfield,” and Harmony No. 3, Funeral Anthem” among other Cage works. In his composition “Apartment House 1776,” crafted for the United States Bicentennial in 1976, John Cage intricately wove together music from 18th-century America, employing a technique that could be likened to musical deconstruction. For List, “We are left with the essence of these pieces where you can tell where it is from but not any details. Almost like the ghost of the song.”

Apartment House 1776: Harmony No. 1, Crookfield - John Cage

Apartment House 1776: Harmony No. 3, Funeral Anthem - John Cage

Apartment House 1776: Harmony No. 16, Detroit - John Cage


Indeterminacy and Europeras 3 & 4 in Detroit

“Cage prophesized techno,” says Detroit Bureau of Sound’s  Zac Brunell. “He wrote that one day musicians would use electronic instruments to make music similar to an orchestra, but by themselves. Cage’s optimistic, even “prophetic” thoughts on electronics were part of a 1937 lecture titled “The Future of Music: Credo.” As Cage told his audience, “I believe that the use of noise to make music will continue and increase until we reach a music produced through the use of electrical instruments.”

Cage remains an important artistic force in Detroit—sometimes in surprising places! This March, Detroit Opera presents John Cage’s Europeras 3 & 4 at the Gem Theatre. Yuval Sharon, Detroit Opera’s Gary L. Wasserman Artistic Director, helms an incredible team and cast, including bass-baritone Davóne Tines and mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, in a rare full-scale production of these Cage operas. Composed in 1990, Europeras 3 & 4 retain Cage’s hallmarks: chance procedures are used to select excerpts from arias, Liszt’s Opera Fantasies, and fragments of 10 and 12-inch 78 RPM records, which are then recombined into a fresh, new work of art. “I am not interested in the names of movements but rather in seeing and making things not seen before,” Cage said.[3] This indeterminacy included the scenery, costumes, and lighting of each opera will be selected via the same procedures that create the musical event.

By producing Europeras 3 & 4 at the Gem Theatre, located just across Madison Street from the site of Cage and Cunningham’s historic 1974 Detroit performances at Music Hall, we hope to reignite connections between John Cage and Detroit. Please join us on March 8, 9, 10 as we bring Cage into the present; it will be a once-in-a-lifetime happening!

- Austin Richey, Ph.D, Digital Media Manager and Storyteller at Detroit Opera


[1] John Cage, Silence, 1961, 108.
[2] Robin Murray, “ADULT. Focus On John Cage’s Legacy With New 4’33” Short Film,” Clash Music
[3] Jade Dellinger, personal correspondence with John Cage, c. 1980.