John Cage on the radio

The Komodo Dragon Show has been on the air on UMFM for over 10 years— same name, same host: the venerable Paul Von Wichert. Von Wichert is a U of M faculty of music graduate and a leather-bound library of knowledge when it comes to all types of music. Just don’t ask him about top 40 hits.

“I’m totally out of it when it comes to pop music,” he said. “I didn’t even know about Christina Aguilera until the other day when she flubbed the [American] national anthem at the Super Bowl.” Rather, Von Wichert grew up without a television, listening to the radio — particularly the CBC — where serious concert music planted seeds in his brain.

Radio is that sort of unassuming medium. Often on in the background while listeners drive or scrub the dishes, it can humbly expose its audience to new and strange things.

The Komodo Dragon Show takes this idea of the radio as both entertainment and education seriously. Every week, Von Wichert takes a composer, a style or an idea and focuses on only that for three or four hours.

“Recently, I got feedback from a listener who complained [ . . . ] about the same style or musician over a whole show,” says Von Wichert. “He complained that the pieces that I was playing were too long, and they were all the same sound. The listener said it sounded like random strumming and he couldn’t stand it for three hours.”

This was in response to a particular Iranian artist — the show plays a significant amount of non-Western music — and Von Wichert was somewhat sympathetic.
“I told him he should smoke a joint at eight and then it would all become clear.”
On Feb. 23, The Komodo Dragon Show will be devoted to major 20th century composer John Cage, playing the world radio premiere of three pieces entitled “Two3,” “108” and “110” over four hours.

“I have the hope that once you get it into your ears it will no longer be this impenetrable mystery but it will be quite accessible. But the listeners will have to do some of work. [. . . ] In ideal world, book off your Wednesday morning from seven to 11, get yourself a comfy chair, maybe brew yourself a cup of tea, sit back and try to get your mind into John Cage’s sound world.”

Being an advocate for seemingly difficult music has its challenges. Von Wichert believes contemporary classical music, comprising much of his programming, is for everyone. But in practical terms, its audience tends to be a small minority within the minority of classical music fans.

“There is still a lot of myth out there that it is highbrow, difficult, inaccessible, boring and snobbish — it’s the snob factor.” While it might seem impenetrable, a little “out there,” Von Wichert insists with just a few listens, it opens itself up. While Ke$ha’s bleating might have the chance to worm its way underneath your skull with repeated plays, contemporary classical pieces often don’t get that chance. While Cage’s songs will only be premiered once, there are four hours to get used to his style.

Cage’s style is daring; in the pieces played on Feb. 23, there is up to four minutes of silence between movements. “That’s four minutes of dead air,” Von Wichert says. “Usually what happens when there’s dead air is that people call the station and say, ‘Your transmitter is off.’ No, it’s part of the piece. Basically Cage’s music is very philosophical.”

Rob Haskins, in his essay “The Extraordinary Commonplace: Cage’s Music for Shō, Violin, Conch Shells,” explains something of this philosophy: “Cage’s music depends on a slow unfolding and a leisurely approach to time in order to make its full impact.  That slow unfolding introduces a graininess or raggedness to the beauty of the sounds.”

Which again brings us to the idea of radio as educator, giving people opportunities in their homes to visit new and unfamiliar places.

“[The radio’s] a totally informal thing,” Von Wichert explains. “You’re not in the classroom, you’re going about your daily life and you might hear something that moves you or shocks you or burrows itself into your subconscious and something you’re going to follow up on in the future. So basically, radio for me — and I try and do this on my show — is introducing people to a world of ideas. It’s not just about the music.”

Exactly like it did for a young Von Wichert. “A long, long time ago when I was young, we were driving in the car and we were tuned, of course, to the CBC and there was a documentary about East Indian music. It was my very first exposure. My mom said, ‘Turn that off, it’s giving me a headache.’ And from that day I was hooked.”

The Komodo Dragon Show airs the world radio premiere of John Cage’s “Two3,” “108” and “110” at 7-11 a.m. on Feb. 23, on UMFM 101.5.

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