Today would have been John Cage’s ninety-eighth birthday, and it is sad he is no longer with us. It’s also sad that the substance of his work and ideas is overshadowed by the myth and legend of the man. We could use more of the substance, especially to spread it like a balm on those who govern us, to perhaps help them stop thinking of the usual, short-term, zero-sum game tactics, and especially to ignore the advice of the ignorant.
Cage wrote music and so he is known as a composer. He wrote a lot of music, a lot of which isn’t very good, some of which is decent and a small amount of which is great. He also made prints, wrote poetry and books, and was a mycologist. Schoenberg called him an inventor, which is true enough, but he was mainly a philosopher of the applied kind, in the legacy of Emerson. He’s perhaps more of a 19th century figure, but one who needed Ives to precede him to make his work possible.
I think Cage had a greater influence outside classical music than inside. On the cutting edge of jazz and rock, musicians and fans have used Cage as a way to expand their thinking about and making of music, of listening, of possibilities, which was his fundamental idea. Can is I think impossible without Cage, and the popularity of composers like Morton Feldman, Varèse, Stockhausen, Ligeti and Xenakis with the jazz/rock public, the whole nexus of new and contemporary composition and progressive/avant jazz and rock is one of Cage’s great legacies, via Brian Eno. The Bang on a Can All-Stars transcribe Music for Airports , and rock audiences dig it and burrow into history . . .
His books are essential reading for anyone who really loves what is possible with music. The Sonatas and Interludes are worth knowing; the music is surprisingly conventional, although the rhythmic drive is terrific, but that’s the point; take conventional music and screw around with one aspect, the instrument in this case, and you have something new. Dare to try. There’s a vast recorded output of that piece and much of Cage, and your mileage will vary. Personally, I’m fond of the Europeras , they are relaxed, good natured and, for someone who has heard a lot of music, full of serendipity. That kind of surprise is refreshing in a world of overdetermined mash-ups. There’s a recording by the S.E.M. Ensemble of Atlas Eclipticalis , which is fabulous, and there’s a brand new collection of older pieces/recordings which I’m excited to have, it includes the hard to find “Williams Mix” and “The City Wears A Slouch Hat,” a radio drama Cage made with Kenneth Patchen. Start with these, and you’ll go far.
And here’s a piece you can perform yourself, at home, in more than one way. And that’s why the world needs Cage.
UPDATED: Here’s my own iTunes list of 4’33” tracks . . .