Laughing John Cage
It’s not news that John Cage’s thinking about the process and aesthetics of composition was influenced in important ways by ideas and values from Eastern religions. Nor was that in itself new – Cage was one of several important American musicians, writers and visual artist (Lou Harrison, Allan Ginsberg, Robert Rauschenberg) who, in the mid-twentieth century, found new ways of thinking about their art in the philosophies and stories of belief systems from India to Indonesia, and in that they were joining a tradition that included Debussy, Whistler and Ives (via Transcendentalism).
Where others found kinship in sympathetic values or the revelation of a precise statement of concepts that had so far been inchoate urges in their mind, Cage was no different. He had experienced an early epiphany reading Luigi Russolo’s “The Art of Noises,” discovering the seriousness and simpilicty of Russolo’s conviction that noise – or sound – not pitch was the fundamental material of music. This was an affirmation of Cage’s own interest and strength as a composer, which was in rhythm, placing and structuring musical events in time. He was upfront that he had no feeling for harmony, which until the 1920s had been the fundamental means of structuring musical compositions. He was drawn to Arnold Schoenberg because of the older musician’s 12-tone system, which seemed to promise a release from harmony. It was ultimately a poor match between student and teacher. Schoenberg, despite the newness of his method, was dedicated to preserving the forms and structures of classical music, especially as exemplified by his beloved Brahms, and so was intensely interested in pitch. Cage realized that he was interested in sound, all sound and all sounds.
But, how to make music like that? The immediate answer was to compose for percussion instruments, most of which (since anything that can be struck is a percussion instrument) have no set pitch. If Cage had done nothing beyond this, he would still be one of the most important composers, one who developed percussion music as a genre. To our good fortune, he didn’t stop there, and an interesting question about his music was why he continued to seek a way to work with pitched instruments that would satisfy his aesthetic and personal values. Percussion and electronic instruments from radios and phonographs to magnetic tape and oscillators would all produce sounds free from the context of harmony, all of which could be organized in time.
This is where it’s important to do something that, in practice, is usually difficult, which is to consider Cage as a person rather than as an historical figure, that is, to not consider his work so much as his experience of living. That’s what biography is for, and that’s why biography can be so difficult – beyond telling interesting stories – to do well. Cage’s story is that along with being a composer he was a musician, decent enough at percussion and especially the piano, who had to earn money so he could pay for the basic necessities of life. He accompanied dance classes, his hands pressed the keys and he kept time and provided structure. The line from that to the large amount of piano music he wrote is a straight and short one. We don’t have to know how he felt about playing the piano to see the evidence of its importance in his work. So, with the keyboard as his instrument, he created the practice of preparing the innards with small objects, in order to turn pitch into sound. It’s a small step from there to thinking of, and accepting, pitch as the same as any other sound, and working with it freely.
A short step, but a vast conceptual chasm. Cage found the means to cross it through the works of the East, especially “The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna” and through lectures by D.T. Suzuki – who popularized Zen for the Beats – which he was passionate about. Their complementary world views helped him connect his personal value that all sounds were equal to the realization that he could find the means to maintain that value while making music for the range of traditional instruments. The means to combine concept and process was another ur-text of Eastern wisdom, the work that is Cage’s Rosetta Stone, the “I Ching.”
It became an answer for him, and it also pushed his thinking into a specific direction. One of the most well-known aspects of his mature work is his use of chance procedures to determine the elements of his pieces, but what lies underneath that is exactly how the chance procedure works. Using the “I Ching” does not start with throwing coins and determining the configuration of a hexagram, it starts by asking a question. This is a key to Cage, who turned away from the personal expression he found through the history of Western classical music up to his time, something he thought of as both a series of answers and totalitarian fashion of dictating instructions from one’s ego to the listener, and towards questioning everything, including everything he did, all his previous assumptions about how and why to do it, and ultimately to try and remove himself as much as possible from the compositional process. Cage is one of the unique figures in human history, a composer of exceptional skill and craft, an uncommonly rigorous philosopher, an artist of discipline. He was also unique in that he turned his values into technique, the idea of spiritual practice into musical composition.
There is a paradox at the core of his work, one that makes him an imperfect exemplar of the application of Zen principles. While he developed ever more rigorous means to remove his ego from the compositional process – and his means required exhausting amounts of disciplined time and energy to execute, so much so that in the relative scheme of the creative arts, he is one of the more heroic figures – he continued to imagine and create ever-more pieces (reasons, in a sense) through which to convey his egoless process to audiences. The creative artist is not a monk, there is an inherent pyschological/spiritual/social drive to present an aspect of oneself to the public, especially so in music, which is fundamentally a social activity. The ego must be strong and must thrive. Beyond the considerable aesthetic and intellectual beauty of his body of work, Cage’s music is philosophically beautiful. He didn’t cheat, especially because he would know it was a cheat better than anyone. As he told the poet Joan Retallack:
People frequently ask me if I’m faithful to the answers [from the I Ching], or if I change them because I want to. When I find myself at that point, in the position of someoe who would change something – at that point I don’t change it. It’s for that reason that I have said that instead of self-expression, I’m involved in self-alteration.
He had the brilliance to create systems of self-alteration, and the discipline to follow them through. Art has a necessary moral and ethical component, in that a creative work has its own values and one key critical measure of it is how well it adheres to those values. In this, Cage is the greatest of all ethical and moral artists. In the best Cage performances – and like any other composer there are proper and improper ways to play his music – this comes through with a powerful psychological and emotional effect.
At a great recital of some of his solo piano pieces performed by Taka Kigawa, I was struck by how the music seemed to be confronting me morally and ethically, offering an example that left me unsettled by an involuntary self-laceration over my own moral and ethical failings, and also comforted to know that it is possible to be the way one wishes oneself to be. This is the Cage of later masterpieces like the Etudes Australes, from which Kigawa played numbers I, II and IV from the first book, but also earlier, more conventional works like the Suite for Toy Piano and the quiet romance of “In a Landscape.” Kigawa, so different from the vastly overrated Margaret Leng Tan, seemed to discover and reveal the philosophical heart of Cage that the composer perhaps did not know was in him during his youth. Because in some ways it wasn’t.
The advantage that art has over artists is that it easily represents their idealized states, the pure expression of that which they value the most. Listen to Miles Davis playing “I Thought About You,” and you would think he was the most tender-hearted, warm person in the world. Listen to The Freeman Etudes and you would think Cage was the most disinterested person. But he wasn’t, he lived in his body and mind and soul. He tended toward the self-indulgent in his personal relationships for quite a long time, causing confusion and pain in others. His compositional breakthrough, his way to aesthetic freedom was also an easy way to rationalize the destruction of his marriage to Xenia Kashevaroff and taking up with Merce Cunningham (yet seemingly without the willingness to acknowledge his homosexuality). The music and marriage formed a bit of a crisis, though the depths are hard to judge. Kay Larson, in her new book “Where The Heart Beats, John Cage, Zen Buddhism and the Inner Life of Artists,” sees them not only as directly related but also powerful enough to drive Cage to the edge of madness. How you feel about that idea, which makes Cage like the young Werther, will most likely determine how you would feel about her book.
Larson is a long-time art critic, as of 1994 a convert to Zen Buddhism, and on its face her topic is both interesting and rewarding. The book is neither. What it really is is a work of propaganda for Zen Buddhism. Cage is a tough subject for biographers because he wrote so well and clearly about himself and his work, but he’s also deceptively easy because of the vast record of his music and life, which include not just a seemingly endless series of interviews but appearances on television (including game shows). It’s easy to find things about him, much harder to add something new and make sense of everything. His most recent biographer, Kenneth Silverman, did an admirable job of that in his book “Begin Again,” which wove together the essential details of his life, without judgement, with an understanding of the means and meaning of his work. Larson faces a similar problem and walks herself directly into a trap, which is that though Cage learned important things from Zen, he himself was not a practicing, nor even a believing, Buddhist. But Larson is, and tries to force the issue, spending a lot of time like this:
As Cage began to drift away from the Indians, he could have picked up Ala Watt’s “The Spirit of Zen” (1936) … he could have also found “A Buddhist Bible” … in June 1949 Cage could have peered into Suzki’s “Introduction to Zen Buddhism …”
He could also have read Thoreau and Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake,” books which would have an enduring influence on his thinking and that would produce material for many important pieces … and he actually did.
Larson comes to Cage via art and artists, and Cage had a remarkable set of friends and colleagues in his life, including Rauschenberg, Nam Jun Paik and Yoko Ono. Rauschenberg himself fell under the sway of Zen for a time, as she points out, and she also draws the net further to capture Kerouac and Ginsburg, seemingly to develop the context that Cage lived in a zeitgeist that was heavily permeated with Eastern thought. Perhaps he was, but her shallow name-dropping and schematic layout come nowhere close to proving that point. She also suffers from a lack of understanding of music in general and Cage’s in particular. Her best writing and thinking (though her ideas are arguable) comes when she expresses her thoughts about visual arts, but when she turns to music, any sense of confidence and knowledge leaves the page, and we are left with fragmented opinions from second-hand sources like Anthony Tommasini and James Pritchett. We know what her eyes see but we have almost no idea what her ears hear, except when she reveals her breathless, fraught interpretations of early piano pieces like Four Walls.
Cage inadvertently did his admirers a disservice with “4’33.” That piece, vitally important, is a combination of experiment and manifesto, it’s important as an idea and, after the first performance, inconsequential as an event. It only had to happen once. Larson has clearly gone to see many performances, and is enthralled by each, but misses the point. Cage is offering a lesson about how to think and hear, and going to ‘see’ a ‘performance’ is not only meaningless, but replaces the composer and his ideas with the false image of a guru. It is idolatry, and seems incompatible with Zen values and practice. It also makes it hard for here to hear so much of Cage’s work. There is one inconsequential mention of Pauline Oliveros and nothing at all about the composer’s surrender and happy return to harmony in extraordinary late works like Apartment House 1776. Also missing in any examination of the star chart pieces, the Songbooks, the Europeras, so much important and wonderful music. Instead, there is gossipy, repetitive details of his personal life, all pressed into pushing Cage towards a crisis that only Zen could resolve. If there was such a crisis, Zen did help resolve it, but so did so many other elements, especially musical ones. Cage may have had no feeling for harmony, but he loved the works of Webern, a master of atonal harmony and structure, and had an important relationship to Boulez, who himself was working hard at creating systems to determine every aspect of a musical pieces, though without chance operations.
Along with a dull, flaccid structure the writing is wan. Larson uses the passive voice in a way that seems to seek to develop a feeling or portentousness but instead leaves most every line and paragraph dissipated. There is a lot of psycho-sexual analysis that seems inappropriate to the theme. There is tendentious speculation, like imaging Cage reading Suzuki’s “First Series” and asking “how could he not instantly turn the page?” There is truly nothing at all on the inner life of artists, and there are sentences like this: “The heart-issues that Cage had never resolved were now beating like the undead on the locked doors of his awareness.”
Perhaps the true measure and quality of greatness in Cage is that his life and work ignore such thinking, letting it pass like the breeze. The best art doesn’t offer answers, it asks probing, fascinating questions. It is antithetical to this value to think that one thing is the answer to all things in Cage, when his achievement lies on a spectrum that, in maturity, begins with tossing coins and continues to question after question after question, leaving us to explore what answers might lie inside ourselves.