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John Cage’s Gift to Us

Merce Cunningham and John Cage, 1963
Jack Mitchell/Getty Images
Merce Cunningham and John Cage, 1963

There are certain creative figures whose mature works are almost tangential to their enduring artistic influence. Marcel Duchamp falls into this group, as does Andy Warhol. And so, certainly, does John Cage (1912–1992). He opened doors—floodgates, really—and dissolved definitions; if most of his own compositions now seem less interesting than the ramifications of his ideas, there can be little doubt that his oceanic spirit changed the topography.

It is fitting, perhaps, that the son of a Los Angeles inventor should have attracted initial public attention with his own homemade instrument—the “prepared piano,” a standard-issue piano transfigured with the help of nut bolts, screws, erasers, rubber bands, and other material placed between its strings. Described so dryly, the idea calls to mind some sort of Dada stunt (“C’mon kids, let’s see what we can squeeze into this piano!”), but the resulting sound was specific, exotic, and euphonious, a percussion orchestra in a box.

A 1943 concert at the Museum of Modern Art made Cage famous—and controversial. “About forty kinds of instruments were employed, ranging from thunder sheets and a ‘string piano’ to cowbells, flower pots and even an audio-frequency generator,” Noel Straus reported in The New York Times. “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.”

Other listeners were there to cheer, of course, and the resulting debate, once launched, would continue for almost half a century. Today, the very early Cage pieces (mostly for percussion, piano, or prepared piano as well as an almost medieval-sounding string quartet) seem fanciful and engaging. But they are his only pieces that are still played with any regularity in the concert hall because, after the early 1950s, Cage became drawn to exploring new concepts of music, rather than the traditional compositional disciplines of arranging specific pitches, rhythms, and sounds into an exact and convincing artistic statement.

And so he changed course and continued to change for the rest of his life. Imaginary Landscape No. 4 (1951) was written for twelve radios and two performers, one manipulating the frequency knobs while the other played with the volume controls. Although the notation was precise, the resulting sounds necessarily varied from performance to performance, as most of their substance came from what was on the air at any given time.

Atlas Eclipticalis (1961) was a compilation of eighty-six instrumental parts that were created by tracing astronomical charts onto scored music paper, to be played in whole or part by any ensemble, chamber or orchestra. HPSCHD (1969; created with Lejaran Hiller) included parts for seven amplified harpsichords, mostly playing a tangle of Mozart, and fifty-two computer-generated tapes.

Stimulating as these compositions may be to consider, they are generally less rewarding to listen to. With other modernists, such as Elliott Carter or Pierre Boulez, one has the sense that their works have to be exactly as complicated as they are. No such stricture applies to the large Cage pieces, which struggle against all but the most general fixity. Nor do they have the distilled, luminous, ethereal beauty that we find in pared-down conceptual music such as Pierre Henry’s Variations pour une Porte et un Soupir (1963) or Alvin Lucier’s I Am Sitting in a Room (1969).1

Still, even composers who actively disliked much of Cage’s music found it difficult to escape his influence. One example is Steve Reich, who made no secret of his impatience with Cage’s later work, but who might never have been moved to create his early electronic loop pieces, such as It’s Gonna Rain (1965) and Come Out (1966), without the example of Cage’s own music for tape recorder such as Williams Mix (1952). He also had an influence on the more venturesome pop music (“Revolution 9” on the Beatles’ White Album is pure Cage), and there are prefigurations of digital sampling long before it was named.

The Selected Letters of John Cage, a wide-ranging selection of correspondence edited by Laura Kuhn, may stand both as Cage’s best biography to date and an unfailingly engaging introduction to his thinking. It demystifies Cage the far-removed guru and restores to us an eternally curious human being with a sharp, original mind and a gift for language that is apparent from the first letter in the book, written from abroad in his teens. (“All of Naples is dirty and happy. People working sing. People sleeping in the sun in December.”)

From the beginning he was an idiosyncratic and iconoclastic critic, the sort of person with whom you don’t mind sharp disagreement because the opinions are so bright, joyful, and original. He wrote:

After hearing the Tschaikowsky [Sixth Symphony] once, which I believe everyone who has entered a symphony hall has, I see no necessity for hearing it again, since, by virtue of sequence upon sequence and repetition upon repetition, one is forced hearing it once to hear it scores of times.

An early encounter with Stravinsky’s Les Cinq Doigts, a determinedly simple work for piano that prefigures some of Cage’s own keyboard music:

There are no “ideas” in it. It is, you know it, pagan, physical. It is seeing life close and loving it so. There are no whirring magical mystifications. It is all clear and precisely a dance. It is not “frozen architecture.”

An early encounter with Satie, whose music would move him always:

Socrate is an incredibly beautiful work. There is no expression in the music or in the words, and the result is that it is overpoweringly expressive. The melody is simply an atmosphere which floats. The accompaniment is a continuous juxtaposition of square simplicities. But the combination is of such grace!

He responded equally enthusiastically to the young Boulez: “His music is marvelous, a spirit like fire-works, every event a discovery.”

Cage, who later spoke so dismissively of the ego and all of its manifestations, is revealed here as the profoundly ambitious young man that he was. He is determined to introduce his music to Charles Chaplin, Henry Ford, and Leopold Stokowski. He writes pleading letters to foundations and forms alliances with other young composers and artists. He meets the composer Morton Feldman as they are both rushing out of Carnegie Hall, wanting to avoid anything that would pollute the aural residue of Anton Webern’s Symphony.

He brags guilelessly, promoting the fact that he will be featured in “Talk of the Town” in the next issue of The New Yorker. “I have had several talks with [Andrzej] Panufnik, and find him very sensitive and charming,” he writes from Paris. “I looked at his scores and explained mine to him (he said he would not sleep that night).” Virgil Thomson proposes Cage for a Guggenheim, calling him “the most original composer in America, if not in the world.”2

And when he meets the young dancer Merce Cunningham, he falls in love. “I was overjoyed that the audience was so spontaneous every time you left the stage,” he wrote after Cunningham appeared with the Martha Graham Dance Company. “And I was amazed that the reviews didn’t headline your work. But they didn’t. Nobody recognizes Nijinsky when they see him.”

Cunningham was seven years younger than Cage and not nearly so sophisticated. “Please don’t let intellectual art discussions intimidate you,” Cage told him in 1943. “They are only talking about art or loving it or God knows what, but you are it. You’re a visitation and any one who has a chance to be near you is damned fortunate.” While both men would be involved with other people over the years, they worked together from the 1940s onward, and they were living together at 101 West 18th Street in Manhattan when Cage died.

Cage was his own best spokesman, and The Selected Letters contains a long series of clarifications. In 1963, after Leonard Bernstein agreed to put music by Cage, Feldman, and Earle Brown on a New York Philharmonic program, Cage thanked him for the inclusion. “We all admire your courage in doing this at the present time, for actual hostility toward our work is still felt by many people.” But he added a request and it is revealing.

I ask you to reconsider your plan to conduct the orchestra in an improvisation. Improvisation is not related to what the three of us are doing in our works. It gives free play to the exercise of taste and memory, and it is exactly this that we, in differing ways, are not doing in our music.

So what was he doing in his music? He gave a thoughtful, albeit somewhat irritated, explanation to the musicologist Paul Henry Lang, who had replaced Thomson as chief critic for the New York Herald Tribune. “I have never gratuitously done anything for shock, though what I have found necessary to do I have carried out, occasionally and only after struggles of conscience, even if it involved actions apparently outside the ‘boundaries of art,’” he wrote on May 22, 1956.

For “art” and “music,” when anthropocentric (involved in self-expression), seem trivial and lacking in urgency to me. We live in a world where there are things as well as people. Trees, stones, water, everything is expressive. I see this situation in which I impermanently live as a complex interpenetration of centers moving out in all directions without impasse. This is in accord with contemporary awarenesses of the operations of nature. I attempt to let sounds be themselves in a space of time.

There are those, and you are no doubt one of them, who find this activity on my part pointless. I do not object to being engaged in a purposeless activity. Like Debussy on a spring day I would prefer walking in the country’s fields and woods to going to a concert. Nevertheless, I do go to town now and then, and I do pass through Times Square, with which for many years I was unable to make my peace. With the help, however, of some American paintings, Bob Rauschenberg’s particularly, I can pass through Times Square without disgust.

And, similarly, having written radio music has enabled me to accept, not only the sounds I there encounter, but the television, radio and Muzak ones, which nearly constantly and everywhere offer themselves. Formerly, for me, they were a source of irritation. Now, they are just as lively as ever, but I have changed. I am more and more realizing, that is to say, that I have ears and can hear. My work is intended as a demonstration of this; you might call it an affirmation of life.

“Machines are here to stay, or for the time being,” the letter concluded. “They can tend toward our stupefaction or our enlivenment. To me, the choice seems obvious and, once taken, cries out for action.”

The book is lovingly and for the most part admirably edited. Kuhn, an arts administrator and professor at Bard College, worked with the composer closely in his last years and is now the director and cofounder of the John Cage Trust. I often wished for more context about people and events; if it is impossible to find out whether the patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge ever responded to Cage’s request for funding, surely we could have had a capsule biography of Daniel Wolf, who founded The Village Voice? And who was the “stupid L.A. Times critic” that Cage complained about after something in the publication displeased him? Might we have had a sampling?

Despite his beatific grin, which seemed perpetual, Cage had a prickly side, and he was curiously responsive to authoritarian thought. “We do not yet know what human nature is,” he wrote in 1973. “It appears to have changed just recently in China due to Mao Tse-tung’s teachings.” He is upset by disagreement and takes it out on transgressors such as the composers Alvin Lucier and Michael Nyman and the critic Paul Griffiths.

When a correspondent compared Cage’s work unfavorably to Bruckner’s, he received a withering reply:

If your letter means that you need to enjoy my music for some mysterious reason, then I suggest that you discipline yourself, beginning with the following exercise: listen, without permitting yourself to be distracted, to at least two hours of Bruckner twice a day, three times on every seventh day, etc., until you discover that it is not sublime at all, but very boring.

(Boring? Compared to Atlas Eclipticalis? I think not.)

But he finds the perfect opening for any letter to a working artist when he writes to Jasper Johns: “Hope your work is going more toward your being pleased with it.” And he remained interested in what might be coming next, attending loft concerts in downtown Manhattan almost until his death. At the age of seventy-seven, he told a friend that he was “just beginning to write music in the way that I want it to be heard.”

Cage once told me of a lesson he learned from Arnold Schoenberg, who taught him counterpoint while he was still living in Los Angeles. Cage offered many solutions to a technical 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 recalled. “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 fifteen 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.”

If I rarely listen to John Cage, I listen through him constantly. I teach a graduate course in writing about music at the University of Southern California. At some point, late in the semester, after the traditional exercises are finished, I ask my students to walk out into the sunshine, to find music of any kind (if they call it music, I’ll accept it as music), to write a couple of paragraphs about what they’ve heard, then to come back to the classroom and read their work aloud. The subjects may vary from the sounds of a guitarist playing under a tree to the tintinnabulation of the practice rooms to the sounds of fountains, birds, and the cars and buses turning from Hoover Street onto Jefferson Boulevard. After listening to the world for half an hour with music in mind and pouring the experience into a narrative, the students are eager to read, talk, dispute, defend, and wonder about the very nature of creation. Such a question is Cage’s gift to us and it is a very real one.

  1. 1

    Cage’s most famous declaration of independence—4’33” (1952)—required no instruments whatsoever. The performer was simply instructed to sit silently on stage for the duration of the piece—four minutes and thirty-three seconds—while the audience listened to whatever sounds were taking place around it. I classify this as a philosophical tract and recommend the book No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage’s 4’33” (Yale University Press, 2010) by the American composer and critic Kyle Gann to those who want an in-depth meditation on the subject. 

  2. 2

    Ned Rorem tells a story about the time Thomson took his mother to one of Cage’s concerts for prepared piano. Asked her opinion, the laconic Mrs. Thomson replied: “Nice, but I never would have thought of it myself.”