John Cage



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.

For more, excellent and comprehensive Cage links here, Cage at UbuWeb here, here and here.

UPDATED:  Here’s my own iTunes list of 4’33” tracks . . .

I Meant To Do That

I’ve lately been rereading The Man in The High Castle, which, of course, has me thinking of John Cage. The I Ching is an important feature of the novel, and Dick used it as well in his own work in writing the book, just as, contemporaneously, Cage was using the oracle to determine his pieces of music.

Like Wagner, Cage is someone that a composer must deal with, for good or ill. There’s enough of an extra-musical cult around him – as there is around Dick – to make it difficult to engage with his ideas and their results. I myself have been a bit cultish about him in the past, but maturity, independence and clear thinking have got me to the point of realizing what it is I think and feel about his work. And what I feel is . . . mixed. Philosophically, as someone presenting a new and critical way of thinking about art, he’s indispensable, and Silence should be on the bookshelves of anyone who cares at all about music or art. Musically, he’s also indispensable, but his music fails at its own intended purpose just as often as it succeeds. The prepared piano music is still vital and I think still leaves a largely unexplored legacy of what simple music coupled with complex instrumentation can produce. The Williams Mix is both nostalgic and provocative – it reminds us that there’s still a lot of analog music to be made. And I find the Europeras charming, with a great love for and understanding of dramatic music.

But the chance music fails, musically and philosophically. While Cage is correct in pointing out that human perception can define an experience as music/art, no matter what the intention of that experience, the converse is not true – a human being cannot remove intention from the intent of making music/art. The decision to make a piece of music by entirely random means has actually already removed the truly random part from the process – the first decision has determined all subsequent actions. The result is instructions which remove all the most powerful tools of composition from the work, especially the productive tension between composer and performer. The two are collaborating, directly or indirectly, on ideas of expression and meaning, and often an interpreter finds meanings that the creator did not know where there. At the very least, the interpreter discovering what a work means to them and expressing that is an integral part of a great performance. By seeking to undermine all that, Cage undermines his very production.

Dick used the I Ching to determine plot development in his novel, but I cannot see it as anything other than a tool to further his storytelling. He intended to tell a story, developed the basic idea, and then wrote it. Composers and writers have to make decisions, and if the oracle helped Dick, so much the better. The book has a story, it’s not a sequence of random events. The storytelling, the ideas, are developed purposefully, beyond the details of plot. Since storytelling itself is a fundamental and profound artistic decision, creating a completely random process is bound to fail. Even Brion Gysin wrote what he intended before cutting it into pieces in the attempt to find a random order.

So Cage, yes and no. Dick, that’s a yes. I’ve always enjoyed him personally, and America certainly needs a master of paranoia. This novel is especially interesting to read in these times where we are supposed to be afraid that masked men dangling from monkey-bars are poised to take over the country, or that there is a crypto-Muslim Antichrist running for president. That’s propaganda masquerading as paranoia, the noise of it drowning out what we really should be paranoid about, that the government is spying on every American with fervid impunity. Dick matters, although some get carried away and think that he wrote history.