John Cage, at 69, now finds himself embraced by the New Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians as the person who "has had a greater impact on world music than any other American composer of the 20th century."
How can they say that about the man who is the guru of the avant-garde? He's not their sort and he doesn't want to be.
Esthetic outrage is his game. Cage gave us "4' 33" " when he thought we needed it. That's the piano work that directs the pianist simply to sit down at the grand, fold his hands in his lap and do nothing for four minutes and 33 seconds. Then he's to rise and bow to the applause of the audience. An international hit.
For better or for worse, Cage is the shock trooper alleged to be responsible for inventing the "happening"; who helped to start electronic music and pioneered compositions of chance.
This is a man, as they say, with a record.
So what is John Cage doing in the meeting hall of Hartford's Christ Church Cathedral on a Thursday afternoon, behind a door with a note on it reading, "Quiet please. Rehearsal in progress"?
Well, he's flat on the floor, asleep, under a blanket, with his head resting on a mat.
He's storing up on sleep for the great event the next night, the American premiere of one of his most outrageous works ever, "Empty Words," a 10-hour monologue (plus breaks) that consists of displaced phrases, words, syllables, letters and sounds drawn by chance operations from the "Journals" of Henry David Thoreau. It's being performed as part of a Cage festival put on by an enterprising Hartford arts group called Real Art Ways.
The important thing is that the Thoreau material is never allowed to slip into anything so conventional as a single clear or coherent thought over the entire time span. And as "Empty Words" advances, the materials -- or "chanting," as Cage calls such read ings -- sink deeper and deeper into the verbal swamp of unintelligibility, sounding something like a groaning earth god, or perhaps a recording of a heartbeat amplified 100 times.
It may be tough on the audience -- both those in the room and those listening on National Public Radio -- but it's also grueling on Cage as he reads. When he wakes up, he recalls, "Why, several years ago, when we did it for the first time, in Bonn, I almost fell asleep myself during the last section.
"I think I had originally intended," he says, "to make the length to be more . . . well . . . reasonable, and somehow I ended up making this long thing."
Cage's literal explanation of the work doesn't much help prepare you: "It's 11 1/2 hours and in four parts. Each part consists of 4,000 events. I forget how I decided on that figure, but it can't go on forever, you know."
As to its conscious incoherence, Cage explains that he wants "to make it possible for the public to enjoy nonsense." There is a pause, he looks intense, and then he amends the statement: "Seriously."
Bring Your Own Pillow
The performance, if that's the word, begins at 9:40 on Friday and, like Frank Sinatra in the next block, Cage has a full house. There are 170 hardy enthusiasts who are there to stay all night and into the morning with John Cage as he recites his four segments of 2 1/2 hours each of "nonsense." The opening line is "Not at evening . . ." and the last line is unintelligible. Someone says the whole last section is based on Thoreau's punctuation, rather than his text.
The only accompaniment is an occasional benign roar from Maryanne Amacher's electronic synthesizer, and even she gets tired during the second segment and takes a rest.
Also there are some dim slide projections of drawings from the "Journals."
Cage is seated in a hulking carved Victorian dining chair behind a large table-desk with a little desk lamp on it. In this kind of light, "Empty Words" becomes almost by necessity an auditory experience.
The suggestion in the press release that listeners should bring their own sleeping bags, mats, pillows and blankets is well taken, and most people spread them over the floor of the Christ Church Cathedral hall, making it look like a refugee camp.
It is certainly not the kind of work that one chooses to sit through, particularly on Christ Church's metal folding chairs. Quite simply, it is the sort of work you lie down through.
Those who try to follow the text are wasting their time. That telling sentence that could pull it all together and give it meaning just isn't going to come. As one astute man observes during one of the breaks, "These people might as well get it out of their heads that they are supposed to concentrate on this thing. If it's art at all, it's art to meditate by." Amen.
The Marathon Monologue
At first the Christ Church Cathedral audience gives Cage utterly rapt attention. It is the kind of silence you get at a funeral. It gradually begins to register that this show, which costs $10 a ticket, is never going to pick up. The work starts at 9:40 and it is 10:18 when a tweedy-looking couple, apparently convinced that "Empty Words" is not their cup of tea, rise with their sleeping bags, their blankets and their wicker basket and make the first of what will be many exits.
Since there is little else to do, it is fun to keep a log of events as Cage drones on:
10:48. A spell of coughing breaks out in the far corner.
10:55. Little slips are passed out, reading "Car 674PWR. Move car now. It is blocking a drive." The culprit is finally contacted.
11. A young woman goes out the door and asks where the bathroom is. She is the first of many to ask.
11:15. People are getting restive. A woman twists around in her sleeping bag and grabs my foot by mistake. (All of us have taken off our shoes.)
12. The first break, thank heaven. A lady beside me says, "You know, I don't know whether I can take this. You see, my friend put her car in a garage that doesn't open until 7 a.m."
1:10. Two inexplicable laughs come from a man on the other side of the room.
1:26. The first snore.
1:40. A group in the back of the room starts muffled giggles. No one asks them to stop.
3:20. I figure out the strange hand gestures the little man behind me has been making for hours. He's talking to himself in sign language! He seems utterly absorbed in his own strange kind of meditation. He laughs when something he says to himself seems funny. He growls and looks angry when he says something that upsets him. He has spoken to no one else all evening. No one bothers him.
3:58. The crowd is down to half its original size, and there is snoring from all directions.
7:10. The windows and curtains are opened, and the bright sun and cool breeze stream in. It is a great relief after being cooped up in the stale air and the dark all night. (Cage got this idea from a trip to a night-long Buddhist service some years ago in a Zen monastery, where "the high point seemed to me to be the opening of the doors to the world outside at dawn.")
7:40. For some reason the sardonic themes of the Shostakovich 1st Piano Concerto, which I heard with the National Symphony earlier in the week, have gotten into my head, and I can't shake them.
8:10. The man talking to himself in sign language starts growling to himself rather loudly. Heads turn. He lowers his head and stops growling.
9:10. The piece is over. The audience applauds Cage. And Cage applauds the audience. It is the first time that Cage and the audience have directly addressed each other in the whole 11 1/2 hours. Cage is beaming. You want to say he looks like a pixie, but he's too big to be a pixie.
For some, the high point of the entire event was the macrobiotic food that Cage had served in the basement during each break. Cage came running along after one serving and said, "Isn't it wonderful? I hope you like this stuff." He had arranged for a macrobiotic restaurant in nearby Middletown to cater the event. There were delicious millet pastries stuffed with ground soy beans and topped with shredded carrot. There was squash cooked in sesame sauce. There was a broccoli mixture, and cider to go with it all.
Asked how the listener is to perceive "Empty Words," Cage, who is normally the most forthright of men, responds not very informatively: "Well, I love the remark of Marcel Duchamp his late friend and associate who said the observer, in this case the listener, completes the work of art. Of course, in the case of music "Empty Words" is music? he would have had to say the performer and the listener."
Well, fine. But just exactly how does the listener go about "completing" "Empty Words"? About the only irreverent element in it that is clear to the uninitiated is the tongue-in-cheek title.
The closest equivalent to this kind of sound that is known in contemporary music, Cage points out, is the "Sprechstimme" (speech song) that his teacher and mentor, Arnold Scho nberg, used in his song cycle, "Pierrot Lunaire," in 1912. (It was Scho nberg who once said of Cage that he was "not a composer, but an inventor -- of genius.")
The resemblance, though, really isn't very close, because "Pierrot" is of the greatest harmonic complexity (it's one of the landmarks of atonal music) and Cage has no harmony at all in "Empty Words." He hates harmony, and early in his career gave it up in favor of "noise." Cage is careful how he uses that word "noise."
Suffice to say that "Empty Words" is an extreme example of Cage's compositional technique by chance operations. He puts together his works on large charts, on which he plots the various aspects -- such as sounds, durations, dynamics, tempi and even the silences (he regards the silences as the most important aspect). Every single notation is determined by chance operations based on the "I Ching," the Chinese book of changes, which he adopted long before it was to become an essential document of the counterculture.
This kind of esthetic philosophy has been far more common in the visual arts, where chance was an important tenet in the thought of Duchamp and two of Cage's younger artist friends, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, among others.
But the difference between them and Cage is succinctly explained in Calvin Tomkins' fine book, "The Bride and the Bachelors." "Generally speaking, the painters saw chance as a means of getting past their conscious control, so that their subconscious might express itself more directly on canvas. This has never been Cage's idea. He was as anxious to rule out the subconscious, with all its desires and tastes, as he was the conscious mind."
It might be assumed that anyone who devotes a career to the perpetration of shock must be a revolutionary: abrasive, single-minded and stern. John Cage is none of the above. He is gentle, courteous, almost sweet. Offstage, he speaks in lilting tones not unlike those you would use in telling a story to a child. During his frequent smiles his sapphire-blue eyes glow.
There are many parts to Cage, each utilizing a common trait: his keen intellect.
It shows up just as much in his chess games with Duchamp's widow, Teeny, as in "Empty Words." Her husband and Cage played together for years and Cage could never beat him. "While he was alive I played quite badly because I was more interested in him than in chess," Cage said. "He would give me a knight now and then and he still would win. And I think that he'd be quite pleased if he could watch my game now. Teeny and I played during all but two hours of a 19-hour trip to Japan in July."
Then there is his infatuation with the mushroom. He is a world authority and was a founder of the New York Mycological Society. And during some of the years he lived in the country in Rockland County he supplied The Four Seasons restaurant with its mushrooms.
Now that he is back in New York, Cage is "a rather devoted indoor gardener . . . I have over 150 plants now."
During an interview he gives you his recipe for cooking mushrooms without using butter (it's done in sesame oil) and makes an argument for sleeping on the floor. He gets down there to show the right position (lie on your left side and keep the legs half bent in a jackknife). He also furnishes his own method to give up cigarettes: "I divided myself into two people, one who knew that I'd stopped and the other one who didn't know. And every time the one who didn't know picked up a cigarette, the one who did laughed. So I spent the day laughing because it turned out that more or less everything in my life was a signal to pick up a cigarette." Scho nberg, by the way, "thought that music more or less required smoking."
Like Father, Like Son
Cage's iconoclasm makes a little more sense when you consider he is a Californian by birth. His colleague Aaron Copland has seen that as important: "They try anything in California -- and Cage is like that. He is really interested in the experimental attitude, not in creating great eternal masterpieces, but in amusing himself on the highest level with new notions concerning music."
Even more to the point is the fact that his father, John Milton Cage, of whom he speaks with particular fondness, was a well-known inventor and electrical engineer. In 1912 the elder Cage established a world's record for staying under water in a submarine of his own design -- for 13 hours, with 13 people on board, on Friday the 13th. But it didn't bring him much; the military was uninterested because it had a gasoline engine that sent bubbles to the surface.
"Dad said he got his best ideas when he was sound asleep . . . but because of being cheated later in life by large corporations he became very cagey, shall we say, and he refused to tell other people what his ideas were. I encouraged him to tell because he was rich enough in ideas to give them away, but he refused to do it, so he ended not the wealthy inventor that he always imagined that he would become. He was rather poor, but he was a very happy man."
The younger Cage first emerged in the spotlight in 1938 with one of his most enduring creations, the prepared piano. A grand piano is turned into a percussion instrument of a wide variety of timbres by inserting various tools between the strings. Cage became the musical director of the Merce Cunningham dance company in 1943, an arrangement that continues to this day. The experiments with music of chance began about 30 years ago, as did the electronic music. Cage is in wide demand on campuses and at music centers as a lecturer, and he has written books on everything from Zen to mushrooms.
Like his father, Cage is full of his own ideas, particularly about other people's music. He doesn't often go to concerts unless there is a new work by a younger composer or something by him is being done. "I am now writing for orchestra more than I did. And then I have to go to rehearsals, and more often than not the music that is rehearsed is longer than mine, is something that I really don't want to hear.
"However, I found out from that what it was that I disliked about harmony," he says. "I've always disliked harmony. And the thing that I dislike is the punctuation -- the cadences and the half cadences -- and I now even prefer writing with punctuation omitted."
That, he says, is how he came to dislike the symphonies of Haydn. Haydn's contemporary, Mozart, is another story for Cage. Cage groups Mozart with Satie as his favorite composers. But he complains that many interpreters "have a way of playing Mozart so that it's frivolous. And it's not interesting for me to hear . . . And I know that in the case of Satie it's very rare for me to hear a performance that I enjoy. And yet I love his music -- as much as I do mushrooms."
And ask not what Cage thinks of Stravinsky, but what Stravinsky thought of Cage's music.
Cage recalls Stravinsky asking how he was to experience sound in Cage's music when there was no meter "and I said, 'Well, when there's a loud sound you might jump.' I think he was amused."
Cage is shown the Grove's Encyclopedia article saying that he is the most influential American composer, and he is asked if that kind of embrace by the establishment makes him queasy. It clearly does.
"I have to pay it no attention," Cage says. "I can't worry with it because my attention is on the work I haven't yet done. And if I think about my past work but also what people think of it, it throws me off base. I have to concentrate on the possibility of discovering something new that I have not known before. In order to do what I do I am necessarily like a horse with blinders on."