A Quick Look at the New Cage Cunningham Fellowship for Musical Iconoclasts

There's an old adage in the art world that many a true visionary is never truly appreciated in his or her lifetime. Then there are minor caveats to this adage. Take the public's appreciation of avant-garde composer John Cage.

In 1988, Cage, whose music had been percolating in the underground for decades, attended the International Contemporary Music Festival in Leningrad. It was the first time his music would be presented to an "official audience." Indeed, he was being appreciated in his lifetime. The catch? He was 75 years old.

Better late than never? Sure. But would even earlier be better?

No doubt that logic appealed to the Baryshnikov Arts Center, which recently announced that it raised $1 million to establish a the Cage Cunningham Fellowship in honor of Mr. Cage and the American dance and choreographer Merce Cunningham. The fellowship hopes to support artists who continue the namesake's commitment to innovation and risk-taking.

This announcement may jog the memories of loyal readers of IP's music vertical. Earlier this year, the Merce Cunningham Trust gave $250,000 to establish the fellowship. It also planned to rename its largest rehearsal space the John Cage and Merce Cunningham Studio. (At the time the Cunningham Trust also gave $375,000 to the NYC-based Foundation for Contemporary Arts to establish a biennial Merce Cunningham Award.)

And now, less than a year later, the Baryshnikov Arts Center has $1 million in hand and its first Cage Cunningham fellow—the Russian pianist Alexei LubimovLubimov plans to use the $50,000 award to commission new pieces from five composers. Three are Russian—Anton Batagov, Pavel Karmanov and Sergei Zagny—and two, Bryce Dessner and Julia Wolfe, are American.

The fellowship aims to spotlight iconoclastic, risk-taking artists, and they found their man in Lubimov. Most notably, Lubimov gave the Soviet premieres of many western compositions in the 60s, including pieces by Charles Ives, Arnold Schönberg, and, of course, John Cage, despite the persistent threats of imprisonment by the dour and stone-faced communist authorities.

Since the fellowship acknowledges musical innovators who have flown under the commercial radar and didn't have two dimes—or in the case of Lubimov, rubles—to rub together for most of their careers, we feel like we'd be remiss if we didn't let Cunningham have the last word. When it became known that he had been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, someone asked Cunningham what he was going to do with all that money.

His reply was one word: Eat.