The title of John Cage's latest book is a reference to his name. "I am for the birds, not for the cages in which people sometimes place them," he says. That name, with its rich psychological overtones, brackets the contents of the book. It appears, in the preface by his interviewer, as part of an elaborate English-Chinese pun on the Tao experience, which is like "entering a cage of birds without making them sing" or (using different meanings for the same Chinese sounds) "to return to the place where names are superfluous." In an afterword by Cage, the reference is more obvious. Asked once to put his philosophy in a nutshell, he recalls, he put it like this: "Get out of whatever cage you find yourself in."
To the average reader, this may be merely another way to try to describe the Tao (or Zen) experience. But what must it be to a man whose name means something like a prison, a man who has spent most of his 69 years trying (like a true Eastern mystic) to escape from the cage of himself -- his own will, his personality, his background and training, his place in a coherent cultural tradition, and the received structures of his chosen art?
John Cage has become trendy in recent years -- along with Andy Warhol and the late Marcel Duchamp, who often have done the same kind of things with visual materials that he has done with sound. This may bother him, or make him feel almost apologetic. "I am convinced," he says, "that I owe my relative fame to my age . . . I have had the good luck to have lived up until the present." This does not mean that he is better "understood" than before (his work is not meant to be understood), but that he has become a prominent part of the musical landscape -- perhaps, as is now being said, the most influential composer in the history of American music. He has also achieved a certain popularity among those who have not heard his music. This can happen, because at least one of his compositions, 4' 33", is not meant to be heard. It was performed at Wolf Trap last summer by a pop music group that simply sat in silence for a few minutes, occasionally turning the pages of their music more or less in unison. And it was very well received -- perhaps because (with the sound system acting up that night) it was one of the few pieces that came across as intended. Not that the composer's intentions are very closely related to what happens in a Cage composition.
In historical terms, what John Cage has done (in a composing career that now approaches the half-century mark) was to revolt very thoroughly against the traumatic influence of his teacher, Arnold Schoenberg. Some other Schoenberg disciples accepted the straitjacket of serial organization, followed it more rigorously than Schoenberg himself, and extended its power from pitch relations into other elements of music such as rhythm until they were producing music that sounded like clockwork. Ultimately, most of their efforts ended in blind alleys.
Cage went in a precisely opposite direction, smashing rigid structures and restrictions wherever he found them, stripping music of all its conventions and radically reexamining everything that goes into it. The result has been a redefinition (at least for some minds) of what is meant by "music." Music, for those who accept the Cage hypothesis, can be any kind of sound; perhaps even the absence of sound, if it were possible for sound to be absent. At one point in these 10 interviews recorded in 1970, he talks about going into a completely soundproof place to escape from all music and finding himself trapped (caged?) with the sound of his own blood running through his veins. Elsewhere, he describes his experience of Eastern-style enlightenment in terms of its effect on his music. His early works "could have been considered expressive," he says. "It sometimes seemed to me that I managed to 'say' something in them. When I discovered India, what I was saying started to change. And when I discovered China and Japan, I changed the very fact of saying anything: I said nothing anymore. Silence: since everything already communicates, why wish to communicate?"
The problem is to find silence, to strip away form and content, and above all the personality that imperialistically imposes such things on the raw matter of music.
This same quest of silence -- of meaninglessness -- has also found its way into Cage's writings, with the result that "For the Birds" will impress many dogged Cage readers as the most lucid and usefully organized of the books that bear his name. Responsibility for this rests not with Cage but with his interviewer, a musician and philosopher who cannot escape the traditional French love of clarity. The resulting book is a compromise, and those who feel that Cage has become as boring as he is important will welcome it.
The subject matter ranges widely: a bit of autobiography, some analysis of Cage's works, a discussion of people and ideas he finds important, reminiscences of old friends and reflections on life, art and society. There is a charming anecdote about the time Cage went into analysis: "All the psychoanalyst was able to tell me was that thanks to him I was going to be able to produce more music, tons of music! I never went back." Obviously, Freud did not point the way to silence. There is Cage's opinion (dating from 1972) that "Maoism is our greatest reason for optimism," which seems to crystallize his benignly anarchistic sentiments. There is an eloquent statement on how "we, as a human species, have endangered nature," ending with his statement that "Music, as I conceive it, is ecological. You could go further and say that it IS ecology."
Above all, there are more keys to the riddle of John Cage than have ever before been assembled between two covers. Understanding may be irrelevant in Cage's opinion, but some of us will relish it.