In 1967 John Cage, working at the University of Illinois in Urbana with the engineer-composer Lejaren Hiller, began to plan, design, and move toward the final realization in sound (with visual admixtures) of a work lasting four and a half hours and involving a very large number of mechanical devices controlled by engineers, along with seven harpsichords played by hand. Nearly two years later this work, entitled HPSCHD (a six-letter version, suited to computer programming, of the word harpsichord) was produced on May 16, 1969 in the university’s Assembly Hall, seating 18,000 people.

By this time the work had come to include as sources of sound not only the keyboard instruments of its title (which Cage pronounces harpsichord) but also 52 tape machines, 59 power amplifiers, 59 loud-speakers, and 208 computer-generated tapes. The visual contributions to this performance employed 64 slide projectors showing 6,400 slides and 8 moving-picture projectors using 40 cinematographic films, probably silent in view of the general auditory complexities just mentioned.

Richard Kostelanetz, reviewing the event for The New York Times, reported further that “flashing on the outside under-walls of the huge double-saucer Assembly Hall…were an endless number of slides from 52 projectors” (a part of the 64?). Inside “in the middle of the circular sports arena were suspended several parallel sheets of semi-transparent material, each 100 by 400 feet; and from both sides were projected numerous films and slides whose collaged imagery passed through several sheets. Running around a circular ceiling was a continuous 340-foot screen, and from a hidden point inside were projected slides with imagery as various as outer-space scenes, pages of Mozart music, computer instructions, and nonrepresentational blotches. Beams of light were aimed across the undulated interior roof. In several upper locations mirrored balls were spinning, reflecting dots of light in all directions…. The audience,” he adds, “milled about the floor while hundreds took seats in the bleachers.”

The auditory continuity he describes as “an atonal and structural chaos…continually in flux.” However, “fading in and out through the mix were snatches of harpsichord music that sounded…like Mozart;…these came from the seven instrumentalists visible on platforms in the center of the Assembly Hall.” The sound appealed to him as in general “rather mellow, except for occasional blasts of ear-piercing feedback that became more frequent toward the end.”

Mr. Kostelanetz identifies the aesthetic species to which this work belongs as “that peculiarly contemporary art, the kinetic environment, or an artistically activated enclosed space.” Actually this “artistically activated” space is not very different from the Wagnerian gesamtkunstwerk, or music drama (also a mixed-media affair), except for a very modern emphasis on the mechanics of show business. Wagner took these for granted, preferring to use them less as glamor items than for underlining myths and morals. In both cases, I think, the production of ecstasy was the aim; and in both cases surely music (or sound, in any case) was the main merchandise. For Wagner’s music is what has survived best out of his whole splendid effort to create a new kind of tragedy. And as for the Cage-Hiller HPSCHD, it was already on sale as a musical recording, completely shorn of its visual incidents and compacted down to twenty-one minutes of playing-time, when the great mixed show of it all was put on in Urbana.

In 1937, thirty years before this work was started, Cage had proclaimed his credo regarding the future of music: “I believe that the use of noise to make music will continue and increase until we reach a music produced through the aid of electrical instruments which will make available for musical purposes any and all sounds that can be heard.” The composer, in these prophesied times, will not limit himself to instruments or concepts based on the overtone series but “will be faced with the entire field of sound.” And new methods for composing with this vast vocabulary, he also stated, were already beginning to be developed, methods which were free and forever to remain free, I quote, “from the concept of a fundamental tone.”

The idea of making compositions out of noise, that is to say of sounds not responsible to a common fundamental, had been in the air ever since the futurist painter Luigi Russolo in 1913 praised as sources for an “art of noises” “booms, thunderclaps, explosions, clashes, splashes, and roars.” Busoni too saw music as moving toward the machine. And Varèse was dreaming of electrical help by 1920 certainly. Also George Antheil, Leo Ornstein, and Darius Milhaud had very early composed passages for non-tonal percussion. Cage, however, when he began to compose in 1933, was virtually alone in following out the futurist noise principle as a career. Others had worked occasionally in that vein, but none other seemed really to believe in it as a destiny or to be able to perfect for its mastery devices for giving it style, structure, and variety. Cage’s own music over the last thirty years, though not entirely free of interrelated pitches, has nevertheless followed a straighter line in its evolution toward an art of collage based on nonmusical sounds than that of any other artist of his time. He seems to have known by instinct everything to avoid that might turn him aside from his goal and everything that could be of use toward achieving it. Precious little service, naturally, was to be expected out of music’s classical models.


The ultimate aim was to produce a homogenized chaos that would carry no program, no plot, no reminders of the history of beauty, and no personal statement. Nowadays, of course, we can recognize in such an ideal the whole effort of pop art. But I do not think that pop art’s obvious jokes and facile sentiments were a major motive. I think Cage wanted, had always wanted, to save music from itself by removing its narcotic qualities and its personalized pretentiousness, as well as all identifiable structure and rhetoric. In this regard his aim has been close to that of Erik Satie, whose music he adores. But its consistent pursuit presents a story so utterly American, even West Coast American, that this Frenchman from Normandy with a Scottish mother, though he might well have delighted in Cage’s salt-sprayed humor, would have lacked sympathy, I suspect, for his doctrinaire determination.

John Cage is a Californian born in Los Angeles in 1912, whose father had come there from Tennessee. A lanky redhead with white skin that freckles, a constant walker, a woodsman, and a tinkerer, he has all the tough qualities of the traditional mountaineer submissive to no authorities academic or federal. He had good lessons in piano playing and in composition, the latter from Arnold Schoenberg among others. Teaching during the late 1930s at the Cornish School in Seattle, he made friendships in the Northwest that stimulated his take-off as a composer toward East Asian art principles. The painter Morris Graves, the composer Lou Harrison, and the dancer Merce Cunningham all came into his life at this time; and so did the young Russian woman from Alaska whom he married.

He also conducted percussion concerts and composed percussion works. His Construction in Metals, of 1939, for bells, thundersheets, gongs, anvils, automobile-brake drums, and similar metallic objects, is organized rhythmically after the Indian tala, in which the whole has as many parts as each section has small parts; and in Cage these parts, large and small, are related to each other in lengths of time as square and square root. In 1938 he also began to “prepare” pianos by inserting coins, bits of rubber or wood, bolts, and other small objects between the strings at nodal points, producing a gamut of delicate twangs, pings, and thuds that constitutes for each piece its vocabulary.

At this time, and for the next decade, Cage’s music continued to be organized for phraseology and length after the square-and-square-root principle. Its melodic structure, if one may use this term for music so far removed from modes and scales, is expressive, in the Indian manner, of “permanent” emotions (heroic, erotic, and so forth) though in some cases he does not hesitate, as in Amores (1943), to describe things personally experienced, in this case a lovers’ triangle. But his melody remains aware of Schoenberg’s teaching about tetrachordal structure, and it also observes a serial integrity. Since music without a thoroughbass can seek no structure for harmony, and since Cage’s orientalizing proclivities inclined his expression toward “permanent” emotions, as opposed to those which by their progress and change might suggest a beginning, a middle, and an ending, he had available to him no structural device save what he could invent through rhythm.

Now rhythm, being the free, the spontaneous, the uncontrolled element in Schoenberg’s music and in that of his Viennese companion-pupils Berg and Webern, appealed strongly to Cage’s inventive mind as a domain offering a chance for innovation. The Schoenberg school had made few serious attempts to solve problems of structure; they had remained hung up, as we say, on their twelve-tone row, which by abolishing the consonance-dissonance antithesis had relieved them of an age-old problem in harmony. The fact that in doing so it had also abolished the scalar hierarchies, previously the source of all harmony-based form, led them to substitute for harmonic structure an interior cohesion achieved through canonic applications of the twelve-tone row, but not to any original efforts at all regarding organic form. Rhythm they never considered for this role, since rhythm, in the European tradition, had long before been judged a contributory element, not a basic one like melody or harmony. And besides, the Germanic practice, in which they had all grown up, had lost its rhythmic vitality after Beethoven’s death, and no longer distinguished with any rigor between rhythms of length and rhythms of stress, as Beethoven and his predecessors had done to so remarkable a result.


What the Schoenberg school actually used as a substitute for structure was the evocation of certain kinds of emotional drama familiar to them from the Romantic masters. This is why their music, though radical in its interval relations, is on the inside just good old Vienna. Even Italians like Luigi Dallapiccola and Frenchmen like Pierre Boulez, who took up the twelve-tone method after World War II, being not attached atavistically to Vienna, could not hold their works together without a libretto. Their best ones are operas, oratorios, cantatas. And their only substitute for organic structure was the sérialisme intégral actually achieved by Boulez in a few works, a complete organization into rows of all the variables—of tones, lengths, heights, timbres, loudnesses, and methods of instrumental attack. The result was so complex to compose, to play, and above all to follow that little effort was made to continue the practice.

The experiment had its effect on Cage, all the same, almost the only direct musical influence one can find since his early lessons with Cowell and Schoenberg and his percussion-orchestra experiments with Lou Harrison. For Cage, like everybody else, was deeply impressed by Pierre Boulez, both the music and the mentality of the man. Knowing well that twelve-tone music lacked both rhythm and structure, Cage had early aspired in his works for percussion groups and for prepared piano to supply both. Whether he had ever thought to serialize the rhythmic element I do not know; he may have considered his tala structure more effective. But he was impressed by the Boulez achievement in total control, and Boulez in return was not without respect for Cage’s forcefulness.

At this point—we are now in the late 1940s—Cage sailed off toward the conquest of Europe. But Europe by this time was in the hands of its own youth-centered power group. Boulez in France, Karlheinz Stockhausen in Germany, a henchman or so in Belgium and Italy, were beginning to be a tight little club. They ran a modernist festival at Donau-Eschingen and a concert series in Paris, dispensed patronage and commissions through the German radio, and influenced publishers. Cage, always pushing, assumed his right to parity in the European councils. He can be overbearing, I know, and maybe was. I do not know what confrontations occurred; but he came back chastened, retired to his backwoods modern cabin up-country from Nyack, became a searcher after mushrooms, found solace in Zen Buddhism.

By 1951 he had come up with another novelty, one that was to sweep through Europe, the Americas, and Japan without bringing him any personal credit. I refer to the aleatory method of composition, in which the variables so strictly controlled by Boulez through serial procedures were subjected, all of them, to games of chance. We may suppose, I think, that between a numerically integrated work of sound and one showing arrangements and orders that reflect only hazard, there is not of necessity much recognizable difference. A similar degree of complexity is bound to be present, provided the variable elements are sufficiently numerous and the game of chance used to control them is sufficiently complex to avoid the monotony of a “run.” If John Cage was not the first aleatory composer, he may still have been the first to hit upon the aleatory idea. It fits with his modest but perfectly real mathematical understanding, with his addiction to things oriental (in this case to the Chinese I-Ching Book of Changes, where he found the dice-game he still uses), with the Zen Buddhist principle that nothing really has to make sense (since opposites can be viewed as identical), and above all with his need at that particular time for a novelty.

According to Gilbert Chase in America’s Music, Cage first started using chance in connection with thematic invention for getting from one note to the next. Then at each small structural division chance was also used to determine whether the tempo should be changed. This was in a work for prepared piano called Music of Changes. But inevitably, with chance involved in the tempo changes, hence in the over-all timings, “it was not possible,” says Cage, “to know the total time-length until the final chance operation, the last toss of coins affecting the rate of tempo, had been made.” And since the work’s length could not be decided in advance, the square-and-square-root structural proportions could not be used. Therefore structure, for the first time in Cage’s experience of it, became as indeterminate an element in composition as texture; both shape and meaning disappeared; and composition became in Cage’s words “an activity characterized by process and essentially purposeless.” He has not fully explained, however, just how in choosing by chance his musical materials he arrives at the ones to be processed through the dice-game, though there is no question of his “inventing” these materials. He does not; he “finds” them through objective, impersonal procedures.

And so it came about that after Schoenberg had dissolved all harmonic tensions by assuming dissonance and consonance to be the same, and Boulez had through his sérialisme intégral removed seemingly all freedom, all elements of choice from composition beyond the original selection of materials themselves and their initial order of appearance, Cage had now made music completely free, or “indeterminate,” an achievement he was especially pleased with because it eliminated from any piece both the history of music and the personality of the composer. And such personal elements as were in danger of governing the choice of materials he has endeavored to obviate by treating imperfections in the paper and similar accidents as real notes. His subsequent elaborations of indeterminacy for working with electronic tape, though ingenious, are merely developments of the aleatory or impersonal principle. And thus we arrive with HPSCHD, the harpsichord piece of 1969, at an effect of total chaos, completely homogenized save for occasional shrieks of feedback.

Let me trace again the surprisingly straight line of Cage’s growth in artistry. His father, for whom he had deep respect, was an inventor; not a rich one, for he lacked business sense, but a fecund one. And his inventor’s view of novelty as all-important has been John’s view of music ever since I first knew him at thirty, in 1943. He prizes innovation above all other qualities—a weighting of the values which gives to all of his judgments an authoritarian, almost a commercial aspect, as of a one-way tunnel leading only to the gadget-fair.

He has, I know, felt warmly toward certain works and composers, including myself, and especially toward Satie; but he has never really accepted for his own all of music, as the greater masters living and dead have done. Stravinsky’s distrust of Wagner, almost anybody’s suspicion of Brahms, or Schoenberg’s utter impatience about Kurt Weill—aside from such minor irritations, generally composers have considered the history of music as leading up to them. But Cage has no such view. He thinks of himself, on the contrary, as music’s corrective, as a prophet denouncing the whole of Renaissance and post-Renaissance Europe, with its incorrigible respect for beauty and distinction, and dissolving all that in an ocean of electronic availabilities.

Electronic because those are what is around these days. He knows the sound of any loud-speaker, through which all this must come, to be essentially ugly (he has said so), and he probably knows that the presence of Mozart in HPSCHD gives to that work a neoclassical aspect definitely embarrassing. But the enormity of his transgression in both cases humanizes after all the overweening ambition. It is not the first time that an artist has fancied himself as destroying the past, and then found himself using it.

Actually Cage is less a destroyer than a typical California creator. Like many another West Coast artist—Gertrude Stein, for example—he selects his materials casually and then with great care arranges them into patterns of hidden symmetry. The difference between such artists and their European counterparts lies not in occult balances, which have been standard in Europe ever since Japan was revealed to them in the 1850s, but in the casual choice of materials. That Europe will have none of. From Bach and Mozart through Debussy and Stravinsky to Boulez and Berio and Xenakis, just as from Chaucer through Byron to Proust and Joyce, or from Giotto through Picasso, forms themselves, the words, the colors, the sounds, the scales, the melodies are ever precious, the psychic themes adventurous and terrible. Their treatment may be comical or tragic, sometimes both; but the matter must be noble no matter how ingenious the design.

Cage would say of all that, “just more post-Renaissance imitation of nature.” He believes, or pretends to believe, that the artist, instead of copying nature’s forms, should follow her ways of behavior. As to what these ways are, unless he believes them to be really without pattern, I cannot imagine. A man as well read as he must know that neither biological forms nor crystal shapes are matters of chance, also that animals and plants are as ruthless about seizing food and holding a place in the sun as any European artist ever was.

The truth is that Cage’s mind is narrow. Were it broader his remarks might carry less weight. And his music might not exist at all. For with him the original gift, the musical ear, is not a remarkable one. Neither did he ever quite master the classical elements, harmony and counterpoint—a failure that has lead him at times into faulty harmonic analysis. His skill at rhythmic analysis and rhythmic construction is very great, one of the finest I have known. And his literary facility is considerable.

One book, called Silence, contains most of the best among his writings on musical aesthetics. A Week from Monday is a joke-book, the clownings of a professional celebrity who has admired Gertrude Stein and played chess with Marcel Duchamp. Notations is a collection of reproduced musical manuscripts from 261 composers, some laid out in staves and measures, many in the mechanical-drawing style or the multitudinous chicken tracks that are the individual shorthands, no two alike, of today’s musical inventors. The aim of this vastly revealing book, with its gamut of personalities and handwritings, was to raise money through the publication and eventual direct sale of these gift manuscripts for the benefit of a foundation through which Cage aids musicians, dancers, and other artists congenial to his tastes. In Virgil Thomson: His Life and Music (the biographical part is by Kathleen O’Donnell Hoover) my works, every scrap of them up to 1959, have all been analyzed with care and described, as often as not, with love. There is some frankly expressed petulance too, and a sincere regret that my career has not followed an undeviating modernism. The catalogue of my music—complete, detailed, and accurate—is a bibliographic triumph. For Cage is at all times a precision worker.

He is also a major musical force and a leader among us. This leadership is not merely a matter of position and precept; it is also kept up by mammoth shows like HPSCHD and the one produced in 1966 at New York’s Sixty-Ninth Regiment Armory and entitled modestly Variation VII. Nobody else among the far-outs can lay hands on so much expense money or has the persistence to carry through such detailed projects in score-planning and in electronic manipulation. Nobody, perhaps, except Iannis Xenakis, who works by a mathematics of probabilities. All this assiduity at the service of music’s physical aggrandizement I find more admirable for pains taken than for its ability to hold my attention. Lasting for twenty-one minutes or four and more hours, the Cage works have some intrinsic interest and much charm, but after a few minutes very little urgency. They do not seem to have been designed for holding attention, and generally speaking they do not hold it. Constructed not for having a beginning, a middle, and an ending but for being all middle, all ambiance, all media-massage, they turn out easy to taste and quick to satisfy.

A lack of urgency has been characteristic of Cage’s music from the beginning. The instrumental sounds, whether altered or normal, are charming at the outset and agreeably varied from one piece to another, even in such delicate gradings of variety as from one piano preparation to another. But whenever I have played his recorded works for students I have found that no matter what their length they exhaust themselves in about two minutes, say four at most. By that time we have all got the sound of it and made some guess at the “permanent” emotion expressed. And there is no need for going on with it, since we know that it will not be going any deeper into an emotion already depicted as static. Nor will it be following nature’s way by developing an organic structure. For if the mind that created it, though powerful and sometimes original, is nevertheless a narrow one, the music itself, for all its jollity, liveliness, and good humor, is emotionally shallow.

It is at its best, I think, when accompanying Merce Cunningham’s dance spectacles. These could as well, I fancy, do without music at all, so delicious are they to watch. And Cage’s music for them is never an intrusion, but just right—cheerful, thin, up-to-the-minute in style. The last of his big machines I have listened to (I avoid those that employ amplification) is the Concert for Piano and Orchestra, of 1958. This, heard live, is all of precious materials, since its sounds come from classical instruments, themselves the product of evolution and of careful manufacture. And though the composer has tried hard to remove their dignity—playing trombones without their bells, putting one tuba’s bell inside another’s, sawing away at a viola placed across the knees for greater purchase—the fact remains that even treated rudely these instruments give a more elegant sound than electric buzzers and automobile-brake bands, or even than tom-toms and temple-blocks. As for the spectacle of David Tudor crawling around among the pedals of his pianoforte in order to knock on the sounding-board from below, that too was diverting to watch, though the knocking was not loud enough to be funny. All in all the visual show added so much to the whole that when, again for students, I played the recording of this piece (made in the hall itself at Cage’s twenty-fifth-anniversary concert), we were all disappointed, I think, at its puny and inconsequential sound.

In the long run nonclassical sound-sources, especially the synthetic ones, are as great a hazard to music as industrially processed foods can be to gastronomy (not to speak of nutrition). And Cage’s compositions, in the days when he used to play or conduct them live, were far more agreeable to the ear than the electronically generated ones which dominate his later production. Even those earlier ones conceived for direct audition are less likely nowadays to turn up in the concert hall than they are in the form of recordings. So that the whole of his repertory (saving the famous 4′ 33″ of silence) tends to be sicklied over with the monochrome of transmitted sound. And this is a misfortune for us all, since much of his work is inspired by the joy of cooking up a piece out of fresh sounds.

The trouble with loud-speakers is as follows. Their transmission of familiar music performed on familiar instruments can be highly resembling, even deceptively so, provided the acoustical size of the original combo is appropriate to that of the room in which it is being heard. This lifelikeness diminishes with large amplification or diminution, as with an opera or symphony cut down to bedroom size or a harpsichord solo piped into a theater. Now any resemblances to an original, as with photography, for example, depend for their vivacity on the receptor’s acquaintance with the original or with its kind. Faults of transmission can therefore be forgiven in return for the delights of recognition. But when the source is unfamiliar no comparison is at hand. How can we know what a sound electronically designed would resemble if we heard it pure? We cannot, of course, since it does not exist until transmitted. A flavor of the canned is built into it.

And what is this canned taste? In music it is a diminution of the parasitic noises that condition every instrument’s timbre, the scratching of resin on a fiddle string, the thump of a piano-key hitting bottom, the clatter of a flute’s finger-mechanism, a slight excess of breath-intake, the buzzing of a reed. I know that these things get picked up too, often in exaggerated form, so exaggerated in fact that they are on the whole better kept out of a recording. But the effort to do this does neutralize a bit the timbre of any instrument or voice. Just as oil painting done by artificial light tends to lose frankness of color and to wear a slight veil of mystery, so does any musical sound transmitted by loud-speaker lose some of its delight for the ear. And when that sound is one for which no compensatory acquaintance exists with any original, a whole range of musical creation (that of today’s far-outs, for instance) gets drowned in a sea of similarity.

Many of America’s far-outs (old masters Foss, Babbitt, and Luening among them) have endeavored to liven up the deadness of speaker-transmission by combining tape-music with that of a live orchestra. Even Varèse, in Deserts, tried it once. John Cage, so far, has seemingly abstained from this apologetic stance. For even in HPSCHD, with all that went on together in that monster auditorium, I judge there is little likelihood of the seven harpsichords’ not having also undergone amplification.

The gramophone, as a preserver of standard music, pop or classical, has ever been an instrument of culture. Because the record collectors complete their listening experiences through attendance at musical occasions. This was demonstrated in the early 1940s at Columbia University’s Institute of Social Research. Radio, it was also determined there, led culturally nowhere, since persons whose musical experience began with that medium rarely proceeded to make acquaintance with the real thing. Considering today’s immersion of everybody everywhere in transmitted sound, and especially of the young in high amplification, there seems little chance that any music not transmitted and amplified will long survive outside its present classical habitats—which is to say, opera houses, concert halls, conservatoires, studios, and certain low dives where jazz is played, maybe too in mountaineer heights far from Nashville, and a few churches. Unless, of course, the young, today so hooked on amplification, should suddenly say to rock itself, “Good-by.”

But for now the troubled waves are like a sea; and whether the youths and maidens gather 300,000 strong in fields near Woodstock, New York, merely to be together while rock artists, even amplified, cannot combat the distances, or whether they mill around inside an auditorium built for a mere 18,000 souls while a thoroughly prepared electronic happening (accompanied by visuals and swirling lights) is served up, along with allusions to Mozart, under the highest academic auspices and the authorship of two famous masters, for the life of me, I cannot see much difference, though Woodstock, by report, was far more fun.

Both, however, are thoroughly contemporary in feeling. And either or both may mean, like any children’s crusade, that we have come to the end of that line. Also that the Vietnam war, by ending, might change all sorts of things. Could it send John Cage back to making music, turn him aside from the messianic hope of giving birth to a new age? Destroying the past is a losing game; the past cannot be destroyed; it merely fades. And moving into a higher age by playing with mechanical toys is a child’s game. New ages in art come slowly, silently, unsuspected. And publicity can bring only death to a real messiah. My instinct is to believe that whatever may be valid for the future of music as an art (and as an art is the only way I can conceive it) must be taking place underground. Today’s prophetic ones, I truly believe, either lie hidden, or else stand around so innocently that none can see them. Otherwise someone would for certain betray them, and the price-controlling powers would shoot them down. I cannot see today’s mass-conscious celebrities as anything but a danger to art, whatever in their youthful years they may have left behind for us that is authentic and fine.

Music has its fashion industry and its novelty trade. And John Cage, as a composer, seems today’s leader in novelty-fashions, at least for America. From modest musical beginnings, through ambition, perseverance, and brains, he has built up a mastery over modern materials, their choice, their cutting and piecing, their sewing into garments of any length and for many occasions. And he has exploited that mastery, at first as a one-man shop, later as an enterprise employing many helpers, always as a business internationally reputable, and essentially a novelty business. None other on that level, or in America, is so sound. Rivalries, if any, will come from Europe, from that same post-Renaissance Europe he has so long despised and feared. Boulez, for the moment, is not a danger, being chiefly occupied with conducting. But Stock-hausen has novelty ideas. And Xenakis, with a higher mathematical training (for that is a requisite now in musical engineering) might well be about to take over the intellectual leadership.

European far-outs are a team and a cartel, as Cage learned more than twenty years ago. No American composer knows any such solidarity. The best substitutes we can mobilize are foundation support, ever capricious; a university position, where everybody is underpaid, oververbalized, and living in fear of the students; or a celebrity situation, in which one can have anything, but only so long as the distribution industry permits and the press finds one diverting. In the contrary eventuality death, with burial in an unmarked grave, comes quickly, for unlike Europe, we have no immortality machine.

Perhaps John Cage, with his inventor’s ingenuity, should try building us one. And I don’t mean the kind that destroys itself, such as the artist Jean Tinguely used to construct. Nor yet the kind that Cage has so often assembled of late years, designed to destroy, with luck, the history of music. I mean something that might relieve today’s composers from the awful chore of following “nature’s ways” and give them building-blocks again for constructing musical houses that might, by standing up alone, tempt us to walk in and out of them.

But Cage’s aim with music, like Samson’s in the pagan temple, has long been clearly destructive. Can he really pull the whole thing down around him? You never know. He might just! And in that way himself reach immortality. But his would be no standard immortality of structured works and humane thoughts. It would be more like a current event, “Sorcerer’s apprentice sets off H-bomb in Lincoln Center.”

It could happen, though. For Cage, like Samson, is a strong one; and he has helpers. They admire what he does and, what is far more dangerous, believe what he says. The young, moreover, seem to be yearning nowadays after a messiah. And a musical one might be the likeliest for them to follow. Indeed Cage’s rigid schedule of beliefs and prophecies, his monorail mind and his turbine-engined, irreversible locomotive of a career all make it easy for the young to view him as a motorized, an amplified pied piper calling out, “Get on board-a little children, there’s room for a million more.”

Copyright © 1970 by Virgil Thomson

This Issue

April 23, 1970