John Cage Defended Against His Admirers
There is a recording on YouTube of James Joyce reading Anna Livia Plurabelle, an exquisite little prose-poem from his infamously adiaphane novel Finnegans Wake. Joyce, who had a beautiful tenor, sculpted melody out of language in a way that ought to make composers envious; it’s fitting, then, that one of the great interpretations of the Wake, Joyce’s most musical work, came from the mind of John Cage.
Roaratorio, an Irish circus on Finnegans Wake, which Cage wrote in 1979, uses recordings taken from all of the locations namechecked in the novel. Underneath these mostly Irish sounds is a ground bass of Cage reading, in his singsong voice echoing Joyce, a mesostic poem which repeatedly spells j-a-m-e-s-j-o-y-c-e. These two-thousand or so aural elements were mixed together to form an hour long piece that is as circular, discontinuous, nonhierarchical, and cacophonous as the Wake itself. Roaratorio is an instance of genius recognizing genius; it is a piece composed by a deep, rich thinker with a talent for constructing meaningful organizing principles, despite his popular image as a crusader for chance.
This same composer, at the premiere of his Rozart Mix in 1965, ate a sandwich with several contact mics placed around his face so that his chewing noises reverberated throughout the hall, and then followed that up by having six performers choose from eighty-eight tapes, which they randomly played at earsplitting amplitudes. Drinks were served when all but a dozen audience members had excused themselves, and the performance was concluded only when the hall was empty some two hours later.
What do we do with an artist who is as singularly brilliant and maddening as John Cage? The tug-of-war between Cageans and anti-Cageans has created two alternate unrealities: one in which Cage the Radical exposed the futility of all music that came before him, and one in which Cage the Charlatan hoodwinked an entire generation of artists into an aimless stupor. It’s physically painful to sift through the mountain of nonsense written by these camps, neither of which dwell on Cage the Composer, preferring to focus instead on his happenings, avant-garde artistry, politics, and so on.
But he was a composer, and he must have had predecessors. Who were they, and what can they tell us about the artist he became? Moreover, is there a middle ground to be had in these Cage fights?
Very roughly speaking, 20th century music fractured into three schools: mainstream, serialist, and chaotic. The mainstream school (early-middle period Igor Stravinsky, Aaron Copland, Benjamin Britten, George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, et al.) expanded on, but ultimately saw no need to reject, 19th century tonality. The serialist school (Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, Anton Webern, Milton Babbitt, late period Stravinsky, et al.) accepted conventional notions about musical expression but rejected 19th century tonality, using instead the twelve-tone system advocated by Schoenberg. The chaotic school (Claude Debussy, Charles Ives, Henry Cowell, Edgard Varèse, et al.) rejected both 19th century tonality as well as conventional notions about musical expression.
Debussy, who was a major bridge between 19th century chromaticism and 20th century atonality, seems an odd entry into the chaotic club. But he used silence extensively and expressively throughout his music — listen to Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune or Pelléas et Mélisande — and Cage even points to him as a predecessor in his essay, History of Experimental Music in the United States, citing Debussy’s declaration that “any sounds in any succession are henceforth free to be used in a musical continuity.” This radical notion freed music from, as Pierre Boulez put it, “rigid structure, frozen rhetoric, and rigid aesthetics,” laying a foundation for 20th century composers, especially of the chaotic school.
Ives, in Three Quarter-Tone Pieces, used two pianos tuned a quarter-tone apart; Cowell, in The Tides of Manaunaun, used tone clusters that have more to do with noise than with atonality; Varèse, in Ionisation, used pitchless percussions like sirens and anvils. From this angle, works like Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano and 4’33’’ take their place as logical evolutions in an established tradition of rejecting tones and embracing noise as the language of music. You see, even radicals have ancestors.
Western music had long been under the tyranny of tones; harmony and tonal relationships were seen as the most important, if not the only, aspect of music. In this tradition, Cage lacked natural ability: as his teacher Arnold Schoenberg said to him, and as he freely admitted, he had no ear for harmony. The young Cage, perhaps out of necessity, found inventive ways around this shortcoming. Throughout the 1930s and 40s Cage set up increasingly complicated systems that placed rhythmic structures at the center of his music. He betrays his modernist roots in these early works by prodigiously exploiting one of the movement’s great principles: artificial constraints can paradoxically lead to greater freedom by forcing one to avoid the clichés of conventional style. I don’t think he ever fully gave that idea up.
These constraints don’t have to be abstract, like serialism — they can also be physical, like the prepared piano, which is probably Cage’s most famous invention. This, like his early style, was partly created out of necessity. In 1938 he received a commission to write music for Bacchanale, a dance by Syvilla Fort. He was obsessed with percussion ensembles at the time, but the hall only had room for a grand piano. Cage’s brilliant idea was to “prepare” the piano by placing bolts, screws, and other miscellaneous objects in between the strings of the piano, transforming the pitched grand into a large and varied percussion ensemble under the control of a single musician. Here, again, is the principle of modernism: what seems on its face like a physical constraint actually gave Cage a lot more freedom to innovate.
Over the next ten years Cage added materials and techniques to the crude idea he had in 1938, and by 1948 he finished writing his Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano, which functions as an encyclopedic work for the instrument. As Henry Cowell said, “These mutes produce a variety of timbres whose pitch and tone quality suggest the sound of gamelan or the jalatarange, with some delicate buzzes, clacks, hums, and sometimes an unaltered tone as well.” Virgil Thomson said that Cage became “free to develop the rhythmic element of composition, which is the weakest element in the Schoenbergian style, to a point of sophistication unmatched in the technique of any other living composer.” Cage was a pianist first — that was always his classification in the musicians’ union — so he may have felt liberated by the possibilities of having a percussion ensemble literally at his fingertips.
With the Sonatas and Interludes Cage seemed to say that “all sounds are permissible…”, and with 4’33’’ he made the radical, yet ultimately logical, addition: “…including no sound at all.” So much has been written about 4’33’’ — the so-called silent piece — that I don’t feel the need to add that much to the conversation here, but I do want to make one observation. Though it functions interestingly as both an introduction and a logical conclusion to the rest of his work, Cage would go on to regret that the piece was “needlessly conservative” because of its arbitrary duration and three movement structure. I have to disagree with him here. “Needlessly conservative” is a delightful turn of phrase, but I think the most impressive Cagean constructions are deceptively limited. Like with Roaratorio, his other great work, chance and chaos are given freedom only after the implementation of a meaningful constraint. Cage often spoke of his music as having a “purposeful purposelessness”, and I think the best of his works stay true to that idea.
The worst of his works — I’m thinking here of something like Aria №2 for Voice and Electronics — end up sounding something more like purposeless purposelessness. If a meaningful organizing principle exists, besides the creation of the most annoying kind of ASMR, I haven’t discerned it. This polarity is typical: John Cage’s music is difficult and often unpleasant, and that’s exactly the point. But it has always surprised me how many people can endure some of his bloodcurdling music with a straight face — just try listening to Aria №2 without violently destroying your property. They’ll even tell you afterwards, wearing a placid expression, that not only did it make them think about “why we call what we call ‘music’, music”, but that they actually enjoyed it as well. I always wonder when I’m talking to these boring messiahs: what would it take for them to stop listening to a John Cage piece?
This cultish aspect about Cage is undeniably creepy. It has nothing to do with him, and everything to do with our ape brains’ penchant for blindly following something or someone, especially if others seem not to “get” it. It’s telling when hardcore Cageans use the term “unenlightened” to refer to those who are skeptical of some of his activities. This kind of straight-facedness and seriousness of purpose was never part of Cage’s language — it’s an invention of that unique brand of sinister bore, the cultural critic. Not content with proselytizing his music, the irony deficient Cage cult co-opt his politics as well.
Cage was always interested in anarchy, not as an invitation to chaos, but as a rejection of hierarchies of any kind. He lived an egalitarian life, never accepting a job that would grant him power over others, and never composing a work requiring a conductor or lead instrumentalist, which he saw as totalitarian positions. On power, he said: “I think we should go over our language and remove all words having to do with power. There are a number of composers who are interested in music becoming more political. They say that our social situation boils down to who has power and who doesn’t. If that were so, I’d want to be one of those who were powerless.” The influence of critical theory and postmodernism is obvious here, not only in the language of power relations, but in its stunning inherent contradiction: unconscionable amounts of power and violence would be required to actually remove words about power from our language. This is the kind of dangerous nonsense that used to be rampant in the arts, but is now mainstream because of our inability to discern cultural criticism from real politics.
I don’t think Cage knew, or even cared in a real way, about the implications of his politics. The fact that he never changed his ultimately vague views — and never voted — is telling: he strikes me as an apolitical aesthete who translated his interesting philosophies on radical egalitarianism into jejune political theories. But why do people take him seriously when he’s extrapolating from something he knows a lot about — art — to something he knows nothing about — politics? Radical politics is a heady intoxicant, especially for the aesthetically inclined, and both his admirers and detractors turn him into a cult guru to suit their needs. Richard Kostelanetz, an anarcho-libertarian who wrote a mostly wonderful — if highly repetitive — book John Cage (ex)plain(ed), tells on himself: “In my sense of Cage, Zen and chance and everything else came afterwards; they are merely icing on this anarchist cake.”
These attitudes towards Cage’s ideas — musical and otherwise — are needlessly reductionist and wasteful. As a guiding spirit for the radical consciousness of his age, he expanded the aesthetic Overton window by staking out increasingly controversial positions, freeing artists who followed him to be comfortably avant-garde. But, as with any other composer, this does not necessarily mean that all of his compositions, or even most of them, are worthwhile listening.
Cage’s postmodern admirers would disagree, saying that there is no qualitative difference between music and noise of any kind, therefore all of Cage’s compositions are equally viable and pleasurable, both aesthetically and intellectually. But how can one fully appreciate how singular a work like Roaratorio is within the context of musical history if all sounds are equally viable? Is there a way to evaluate a postmodern composer, to judge music that is, by design, unjudgeable? The criterion of the meaningful constraint is one idea, and I’m certain there are others; if a straight line can be drawn from Debussy to Cage, there ought to be some overlap in the way we analyze and criticize their music.
It’s a beguiling problem with interesting aesthetic implications: is there an intellectually rigorous way to enjoy John Cage à la carte? The all-or-nothing claims made by his admirers leave many to take nothing, and those who take it all end up diluting his genius by moving it outside the realm of qualitative judgement. It’s a shame because the ripples made by Cage are impressively far-reaching; no conversation about art in the latter half of the 20th century is complete without him.
He championed the ultimate viability of all sounds, including no sound, as music. He mainstreamed aleatoric methods even to the Neo-Schoenbergian serialists who were anathema to him. He rejected in totality the traditions and the political correctness of the concert hall, which amounts to a parody of religion in which the composer is God, the performer is a priest, and the audience is a flocking congregation. He pioneered the use of electronic media in music, both as the medium to convey the message and as the message itself. He turned down real publications to write an early prototype of a blog in the 1980s. He foresaw a world in which automation would create an abundance of wealth and a scarcity of employment, requiring something like a Universal Basic Income to smooth our transition into a society that values play over work. And the list goes on.
But genius is by definition distorted, often over-optimizing for one or two factors which, in an ordinary mind, would seem like insanity. We need people like John Cage to move the world forward, but we can’t accept or reject their ideas wholesale. The people who think Cage was a winking charlatan and the people who think that all criticism of him comes from philistines are talking past each other, making it harder to think clearly about the questions and paradoxes posed by his life and art. Let’s reclaim him. John Cage is too interesting and contradictory to be relegated to the status of cult guru; there is much more truth and beauty to be had from studying him, lucidly, as a composer and an intellectual.
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