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American Composers: John Cage
The Savant of Avant

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 16, 1998; Page G1


    John Cage John Cage (1912-92).
(Courtesy of Albion Records)
Only a handful of his works will survive; moreover, he wrote virtually nothing of intrinsic musical merit in his last 40 years. Still, John Cage (1912-1992) was one of the most significant and influential of all American composers, and it is impossible to imagine musical life in the late 20th century without him. For good and for ill, Cage broke the barriers.

"Everything we do is music," Cage once said. "Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating. The sound of a truck at 50 miles an hour. Static between the stations. Rain. We want to capture and control these sounds, to use them, not as sound effects but as musical instruments."

His most famous composition – "4'33" " (1952) – required no instruments whatsoever. The performer was simply instructed to sit silently onstage for the duration of the piece – 4 minutes 33 seconds – while the audience listened to whatever sounds were taking place around it. (Seventeen years later, when John Lennon included two minutes of silence on one of his experimental records, one critic called the Cage work "a much better piece.")

Cage was also the inventor of the "prepared piano" – a standard-issue piano that was completely transfigured, with the help of nuts, bolts, screws, erasers, rubber bands and other material placed between its strings. The idea sounds like a Dada stunt ("C'mon kids, let's see how much junk we can fit into a piano!") but the resulting instrument was surprisingly exciting and effective, sounding rather like a percussion orchestra.

By the end of his life, Cage had come to seem the living embodiment of the avant-garde. And as was so often the case with avant-garde composers, Cage found his initial following outside the music world – among choreographers, visual artists, aestheticians, philosophers and young intellectuals. Many people in the formal music community considered him a joke, particularly when he first came to fame. Later on, however, he developed a strong following among young composers – virtually none of whom wrote music that sounded anything like his own.

And that, of course, was exactly the point. "Cage gave us permission to be ourselves," Philip Glass said in 1992. "He created the idea of a personal music, outside the traditional rules. With his own life, with his own work, he created an epic – no, make that an epoch. He was a tremendously liberating force."

What was it about California in the first half of the 20th century? Cage was only one of a number of maverick figures, all obsessed with pure sound, who came from the Los Angeles basin during that time period. (Some others include Harry Partch, with his homemade instruments and esoteric tunings; Spike Jones, of the ferociously subversive and innovative big-band recordings; and Brian Wilson, the abstracted, introverted genius who created the Beach Boys.)

Cage was born in Los Angeles on Sept. 5, 1912; appropriately, he was the son of an inventor. He studied the piano as a young man and attended Los Angeles High School, where he distinguished himself in Latin and oratory, and he was one of 13 students honored by the faculty for their "scholarship, leadership and character." He attended Pomona College in Claremont for two years, and then studied art, architecture and music during a term in Europe, following that with composition studies in New York with Arnold Weiss and Henry Cowell.

After returning to California, he attended UCLA, where he worked with Arnold Schoenberg, who informed his unconventional student that he was not really a composer so much as "an inventor of genius." In 1938, Cage joined Bonnie Bird's dance troupe in Seattle, where he served as accompanist and composer. There he met the dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham, his closest personal and professional associate, who would live with him for much of his life.

Cage presented the first full evening of his music at New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1943. "About 40 kinds of instruments were employed, ranging from thundersheets and a 'string piano' to cowbells, flower pots and even an audio-frequency generator," the New York Times reported. "But practically all the 'music' produced by the various combinations of them had an inescapable resemblance to the meaningless sounds made by children amusing themselves by banging on tin pans and other resonant kitchen utensils."

In fact, Cage's early music was and remains delightful – brash, witty, energetic and filled with ideas and intelligence. Sometimes it is also ethereally beautiful; "In a Landscape" for solo piano seems a sort of smart, pristine New Age music, written 40 years before that generally lamentable genre began to ooze from speakers everywhere.

By the late 1940s, Cage had completed an early masterpiece, the hour-long Sonatas & Interludes for Prepared Piano. This is strange and engrossing noisemaking, not to be forgotten; had the composer wanted to be pretentious, he might have titled this "The Well-Prepared Piano," for it is a unified suite of 16 "sonatas" (none of them more than a few minutes long) and four interludes that explore the ad-hoc instrument from many different vantage points.

The Sonatas & Interludes were written at a time when Cage was just becoming interested in Zen philosophy. Within five years, his music changed radically. He began to incorporate chance elements into his work. In one piece, pitches, durations and timbres were determined not by any conscious decision on the part of the composer, but rather by making use of charts derived from the I Ching and then throwing three coins. Another piece, "Imaginary Landscape No. 4," was written for 12 radios and two performers, one person manipulating the frequency knobs while the other played with the volume controls. Although the notation was precise, the resulting sounds varied wildly from performance to performance, depending on what was on the air at any given time.

In the first part of his creative life, Cage had learned that noise could be music – that we were not limited to voice and traditional instruments alone to create a musical composition. This was unquestionably an important realization. Unfortunately, he took this line of thinking a little further and decided that all noise was music, which is a different proposition altogether. He argued repeatedly that any sound was just as good as another; many of Cage's late works were so "indeterminate" as to be virtually random.

And so the quality of Cage's work declined sharply. How could it have been otherwise? At the risk of belaboring the obvious, no valuable work of art is ever random, unless the artist is very, very lucky. (Think of all those fabled monkeys jumping on their typewriters that will, statisticians assure us, ultimately produce "War and Peace.") Composition is the art of choosing and arranging pitches, rhythms and sounds into a musical unity – it's as simple as that. If a composer abdicates this responsibility, it must be made up for by other people, whether the performers or credulous audiences.

But the damage was done, and suddenly Cage was a Deep Thinker. And so one of our most playful and original composers relinquished his craft and became an oracle – a benign, grinning presence, a sort of musical Andy Warhol, always good for the cosmic giggle, the elliptical quote.

It became a truism to suggest that Cage's ideas were stronger than his works. And sometimes his ideas were in fact important. In "4'33"," for example, he was suggesting that a work of music could be anything at all, even nothing; he was paying homage to silence, which is much taken for granted within the musical hierarchy; he was offering an oblique comment on the sort of highly organized music that was then fashionable in Europe; and, finally, he was indulging his own puckish sense of humor. But what actually happened in the sounding music? Well nothing, really – nothing at all.

I observed the latter part of Cage's career with a bemused mixture of skepticism and wonder. In one performance, he sat on the side of the stage reading aloud in a dispassionate voice while dancers stretched their muscles and scenery was arranged and rearranged around him. Another time, he fed vegetables into an amplified food processor and put a microphone on his stomach to catch the sound of his own gastric juices. One piano piece, "Etudes Australes" (1974-75), was little more than the musical translation of a tracing of astronomical charts onto scored music paper – interesting idea, but a lousy piece, as it would have had to be.

In person, Cage was a gentle, soft-spoken man who dressed unusually informally, even by the studiedly sloppy standards of downtown Manhattan; I cannot envision him in anything but his old plaid flannel shirts and jeans, with a large, happy and childlike smile on his face. And yet, in the early 1970s, he became infatuated with the brutal philosophies of Mao Zedong – this despite his own sweet nature and professed anarchism. Moreover, he continued to argue that every sound was as good as another – that all value judgments were wrong – yet he was an expert mycologist and knew full well that one form of mushroom would make a dinner while another might just make a corpse.

Perhaps Cage might have answered with Walt Whitman's words: "Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself." And, as one of his strongest and most persuasive defenders, the composer and critic Kyle Gann, has pointed out in his new book "American Music in the Twentieth Century," "despite Cage's rejection of self-expression in his music, he opened up a new, freer attitude toward self-expression for composers who came after him. A cheerful lecturer who could deflect anger and incomprehension with humor and calm, Cage became a father figure to younger generations."

Even composers who actively dislike much of Cage's music have found it difficult to escape his influence. One example is Steve Reich, who has made no secret of his impatience with Cage's later work, but might not have been moved to create his own early conceptual pieces for tape recorder, such as "It's Gonna Rain" (1965), without the example of Cage's own music for tape like "Williams Mix" (1952) and the later "Fontana Mix" (1958). Other examples abound. And think of all the digital sampling of everyday sounds in contemporary popular music, much of it created by people who may never have heard of Cage.

Once Schoenberg was instructing the young Cage in counterpoint, a fundamental skill for any composer. Cage offered many solutions to the problem his teacher posed, but Schoenberg kept asking for yet another answer. "Finally I said – not at all sure of myself – that there weren't any more solutions," Cage told me in 1985. "He told me I was correct. Then he asked what the principle underlying all the solutions was. I couldn't answer. This happened in 1935 and it would be at least 15 more years before I could answer his question. Now I would answer that the principle underlying all of our solutions is the question we ask."

Even if we reject some of his answers, our musical life is much the richer for Cage's questions.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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