So, you’re sitting there and a pianist in a tux walks out to the instrument, appears thoughtful, formal, perhaps even “inspired.” The pianist then proceeds to look fixedly at the instrument without playing a note for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. You have just attended a performance of John Cage’s notorious “4”33’”! This is what most people think of when the name Cage comes up.
Why am I writing about this now? Because a dear friend of mine, a virtuoso pianist, capable of dispatching Liszt’s “Tarentelle” with ease and musicality, who now enjoys a meaningful, productive career as an organist and church music director, put a quote by Cage on his Facebook wall recently. He then proceeded to mock its grammar, and Cage’s oeuvre as a whole, assuming that “everyone” would agree with him and say something to further the general ridicule.
Open hearts, open ears, open mind. I think that’s the proper order for a musician. I was taken aback by the “typical” vitriol directed at Cage (1912-1992), whose music itself, often based on chance procedures or ambient sounds, rather than traditional “composition,” may not even be as important as his philosophical contribution.
His lectures were very stimulating, often involving many of the same procedures found in his music. He used to say he wanted the listener to “experience what I had to say rather than just hear about it.” How sensible. And passionate.
Cage was one of the first experimental composers to bring to the forefront the importance of SILENCE, the environment into which he project our music, that preceded it, occurs frequently within it, and follows it. This silence, as one quickly learns, is not “dead,” but filled with all manner of sound, some more pleasing than others. If judgment is withheld, and it is simply experienced, one may learn a great deal, not only about the world around us, but about ourselves, our impatience, our concentration, even our likes and dislikes may be confirmed and strengthened.
One of his iconic lectures was first given in 1949, the “Lecture on Nothing.” One of its phrases, repeated many times, was “If anyone is sleepy, let him go to sleep.” There were frustrated and enraged audience members. Unperturbed, Cage then proceeded, during the question and answer session, to read any one of six prepared answers, regardless of what was asked. All this is a reflection of Zen principles. Many of you may know about the “koan,” a riddle posed by the master to his disciples, which appears paradoxical or impossible if you use your logical reasoning faculty. The Zen way is one of surrender, going “beyond” what we may be too attached to daily.
Cage actually “freed Zen” from responsibility for his works, in typically puckish fashion. His decades-long personal and professional partnership with dancer/choreographer Merce Cunningham (1919-2009) brought him his widest audiences. He was also a passionate mycologist. Do you know what that is? An expert in mushrooms, usually of the wild variety. I would not want to eat any mushroom “I” found in the woods, but Cage could with confidence.
Among Cage’s teachers were Henry Cowell (see “Cowell-bunga!” earlier in the blog) and Arnold Schoenberg. Cage was no sloppy haphazard intellect. He and Boulez actually “hobnobbed” and held each other in esteem, despite the differences in their procedure.
“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 fifty miles per 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 . . .” “If this word ‘music’ is sacred and reserved for eighteenth- and nineteenth-century instruments, we can substitute a more meaningful term: organization of sound.”
I might not want a diet of 100% Cage, I love Ravel and Bach too much. But we all might benefit from opening our hearts, ears, and minds.
© 2011 by Frank Daykin, for Innovative Music Programs