Sunday, December 5, 2010

Slouching Toward Lachenmann: John Cage, In Silence and in Sound

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?
-William Butler Yeats

I love John's mind, but I don't like what it thinks.
-Pierre Boulez

I remember once, in my college days, going with friends to a posh art gallery in Chicago.  Down the middle of the gallery floor were piles of dirt and stone.  We drifted past, reaching down to touch the piles.  We thought we’d come too early, that the show wasn’t yet up, and the gallery was still under construction.  I’d been to Chicago’s Art Institute many times, so I knew what art looked like, and this gallery had no art.

The gallery matron raced toward us, her gaze severe.  “Please,” she said with determined calm, “don’t touch the exhibit.”  Exhibit?  As we left, we wondered:  How much was the gallery charging for those piles?  And who would be fool enough to buy them?

I tell you this because, as I embark upon a journey into contemporary music, that’s the metaphor for the place from which I start.  I may not have bothered to go further, but for a challenge thrown down:  that fellow Lachenmann, with his peculiar collection of sounds.  The New York Times reviewers give him such obeisance, yet I’ve tried to listen and understand not a jot.  Why is this noisy desecration of instruments considered music?

I’ve been advised by composer John Metcalf, however, that I don’t need to start with him:

I’m only too happy to comply.  Instead, my exploration of contemporary music will start with John Cage. 

A college classmate of mine was Norman O. Brown’s daughter, and, out of that, she’d met John Cage.  She told me about Cage’s composition 4’33”, now famous, in which the performer sat down at a piano for four minutes and thirty-three seconds and played not a single note. 

Just like the piles of dirt and stones, it seemed ridiculous to me.  I decided then and there that Cage was a charlatan, and left it at that.  But more recently I fell upon this from Alex Ross, and it required me to think about Cage, and particularly 4’33”, anew:
The music was the sound of the surrounding space.  It was at once a head-spinning philosophical statement and a Zen-like ritual of contemplation.  It was a piece that anyone could have written, as skeptics never failed to point out, but, as Cage seldom failed to respond, no one did.
Cage’s venture into composing didn’t have a promising start: 
I certainly had no feeling for harmony, and Schoenberg thought that that would make it impossible for me to write music.  He said "You’ll come to a wall you won’t be able to get through."  So I said, "I’ll beat my head against that wall."
Cage also said, “I don’t have an ear for music, and I don’t hear music in my mind before I write it.  And I never have.  I can’t remember a melody.”

It’s hard to imagine wanting to be a composer without possessing what seem to be the most rudimentary elements of musical sense.  But there may have been something Cage possessed that no one else did.  Lou Harrison, a fellow composer, provides a clue.  Of avant-garde music, he said, “I regard the so-called avant-garde as a research and development section of a bigger enterprise, which is the whole world of music.”

Cage’s father was an inventor, and it was from this that Cage may have taken his compositional cue.  Cage’s father invented an early submarine.  An invention for which Cage is remembered is the “prepared piano.”  As described by Alex Ross:
The prepared piano, his most famous invention, never fails to surprise listeners expecting to be battered by some unholy racket; the preparation process, involving the insertion of bolts, screws, coins, pieces of wood and felt, and other objects between the strings, is conceptually violent, but the sounds themselves are innately sweet.
Cage experimented with everything—with time, with space, with sound—and with silence.  Anyone would have to appreciate his desire “to compose a piece of uninterrupted silence and sell it to the Muzak Co.”  The piece he envisioned, Silent Prayer,
was to be an attempt to break through the din of mid-century American culture, a way of establishing a foothold for silence in the offices, shopping centers, and elevators of America, and to present the beauty that comes out of stillness.
From silence, Cage ventured deep into the territory of chance, moving from “nonintentional” music “produced by chance,” but “fixed as a piece of music thereafter,” to “indeterminate” music, where “no two performances of the same piece will ever be exactly alike.”  He used pieces of magnetic tape and radios as instruments; he based compositions on consultation with the I Ching.   He proceeded from the belief that music was to be found everywhere:  from the sound of a goose whistle and a pressure cooker releasing steam to the traffic outside his apartment window.

I seem to want something more intentional from a composer:  affirmatively chosen melody, harmony, and rhythm are what I yearn to hear.  While Cage’s inventiveness is interesting to read about, it’s often hard to get my ears around the results.  I suppose, as Metcalf said of Lachenmann, I’ll need to work up to that. 

For now, I’m left to wonder whether, as Cage couldn’t hold a melody in his head or grasp harmony, did he make any music I’d want to hear?  The answer is he did:  the captivating rhythms in Sonata No. 5 for Prepared Piano, the eerily meditative String Quartet in Four Parts, and the evocative music for the Merce Cunningham ballet, The Seasons.

And there is also the appeal of Cage himself.  Here he is talking about his macrobiotic diet (as you listen, note the title—twenty-seven sounds manufactured in a kitchen—vintage Cage):

I ask you, who could fail to be charmed?

--For John Metcalf, who opened the door.

A campaign called "Cage Against the Machine" is going on in the UK to take Cage's 4'33" to the top of the charts for Christmas.  All proceeds will go to charity.  Here's a teaser from the story in the Guardian December 6:
Famous as it may be, winning the Christmas No 1 remains an uphill battle.  First of all, there is The X Factor to contend with. Ladbrokes is offering odds of just 8-1 that John Cage will take the top spot.  But the greater enemy, the movement that could split the anti-Cowell vote right down the middle, is a campaign that has gathered 600,000 supporters to Cage Against the Machine's 60,000.  Will the ridiculous 1963 single Surfin' Bird be the Cage conceptualists' undoing?
You can read the whole story here.

A wonderful article about John Cage by Alex Ross can be found in the October 4, 2010, edition of The New Yorker.  A New York Times review by John Adams of a new biography of Cage can be found here.  An excellent place to start for further exploration of Cage and his music can be found here.

David Greilsammer playing Sonata No. 5

The image at the beginning of the article can be found here

Sources for Quotations:

"The Rest is Noise:  Listening to the Twentieth Century," by Alex Ross.
"Talking Music," by William Duckworth (Cage-no ear for melody; Lou Harrison-non-intentional/indeterminate).
 "What Silence Taught John Cage," by James Pritchett (Muzak/Silent Prayer).
Cage's quotation about Schoenberg and harmony can be found in multiple sources.
Boulez's quotation can be found in "The Sounds of Silence," by Larry Solomon.


  1. He was wonderful, brings back memories of my London years when I saw/heard/listened.His work was of it's time and I'm amazed it has endured.

  2. From the start... of this blog I've learned to listen up whenever Sue Scheid lets on she's going to puzzle out a question or explore a subject, as with Anne Carson's poetry a while back, and more recently, her interviews with John Metcalf. Always insightful, this posting is no exception.. I'm just back from Marfa, visiting Donald Judd's homage to art and art making (and I'm tempted to say...) silence after reading this.... as the ring of silence hovers around the site specific sculptures of Judd, Dan Flavin, Roni Horn, Richard Long & co. Thank you for this investigation... more! more!

  3. I have to agree with Elaine, above, that if RA is going to explore something, I will go along for the ride!

    Thanks for another illuminating piece on modern music, featuring people and works with which I was not familiar. It did truly feel like "an exploration," a great way to introduce us to these artists.

    A nice little surprise for me at the end to see the name of one of my college professors, William Duckworth, although I never took a class with him, he was quite a presence on campus.

  4. I feel like an eager student of music and art whenever I read a new piece by Sue. What a
    lovely way to learn - the title of this post alone is worth a study!

  5. Dear Sue,
    I liked your essay very much, though I have to confess that I am in music (other as in literature) a bit conservative. Nevertheless I like to learn - and so I follow you and try. (Husband and son are much more into music and modern music - so I will show it to them too).
    I wish you a beautiful advent!

  6. Thank you all for writing.

    Von: So you saw/heard him live. Must have been interesting--would love to hear your recollections/impressions. Over here, and it seems in the UK, judging from the current "Cage Against the Machine" campaign, he seems to be having quite the resurgence. He certainly seems to have made everyone think quite differently about sound (and the lack thereof).

    Elaine: High praise indeed--I only hope I can live up to it. I will look forward to hearing more about Donald Judd et al in Marfa.

    WOS: Interesting about Duckworth as a big presence on your campus. I'd only heard of him vaguely before reading the book of interviews and have yet to listen to his music. Once you get started, there's just so much to explore.

    Carol-Ann: Well, I couldn't resist the "Slouching" part, although it is a bit peculiar . . . but then, so, at least for me, is Lachenmann . . .

    Britta: I'm curious to know which composers are your favorites. What I've found particularly interesting about exploring this world is, no matter what one's taste, contemporary music is so richly varied that there is something out there for everyone. It's not at all the single stream of discordant, hard-to-grasp complexity that I'd thought might be the case. The composer who started me down the trail, John Metcalf, is a case in point. He can't help but write lovely lyrical music, it seems to me.

  7. Thanks for posting this--what a wonderful piece. You have given me many new things to click on and listen to.

  8. Susan, I have a very stupid question, what was it that started you off wanting to explore new music? Before John Metcalf, that is.

    because it's there? Because that is who you are?

    I don't know if I could 'listen' to new music other than purely from intellectual curiosity. Like an exercise, say.

    Of course, there has to be experimental music, like their has to be experimental everything in art.

    What is it that sets the mind going?

  9. Heidi: Thanks for stopping by, and so glad you enjoyed this piece!

    Friko: Not a stupid question--thought-provoking, actually, and I'm not sure I can give an adequate reply.

    Metcalf really was the one who started me on this exploration. I find his music beautiful, not a purely intellectual exercise at all, but a welcome, lovely presence in my life. Also, on meeting him, he spoke about music with such clarity, passion, and charm—and without any condescension, despite my limited musical knowledge—that I went away inspired and eager to learn more.

    The other extremely useful aid to listening I happened on was the music critic Alex Ross. His book "The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century," is in large part a brilliantly told history of twentieth century music and the people who made it. He writes beautifully and is an excellent story-teller, so it made a gripping read, while at the same time it is an endlessly useful reference guide.

    All that said, I don't think I would keep on with this were I not continuing to find music I genuinely enjoy and want to revisit again and again. (Along with Metcalf, another composer I would name is the Australian Peter Sculthorpe.) It's not all difficult, discordant, math-driven stuff, as seemed true for an extended period (something Metcalf had to contend with in finding his own voice).

    Finally, as I wrote about in “Only Connect!”, the new crop of composers coming up seem to be going a thousand different fascinating and sometimes marvelous ways. When I see a group like contemporaneous, so creative and talented and passionate about making serious music, well, what's not to like? As their co-director Dylan Mattingly said, "Some of it you will hate. But there are some works which you will find indescribably beautiful, being produced all over the world, all the time." The list of works I find beautiful (Jesse Alexander Brown's Through the Motions, is one) is growing daily . . . though that doesn’t mean I will ever forsake Bach . . .

  10. I came across your blog from another and I'll add it to my Google Reader list. I can't say Cage has ever done anything for me.

  11. Tenon_Saw: Thank you for stopping by and for adding us to your Google Reader. You are certainly not alone in your reaction to John Cage. I'll be interested in your view of other composers discussed here at RA.

  12. This is a fascinating exchange of ideas, Thank you. For me John Cage's 4'33" functions on a number of levels. One of them is about concert hall etiquette. You get all of the body language but none of the (expected) sound. But more than that he reminds me that aesthetic experience is within us that the 'work' itself might better be experienced as simply artefact. It contains art but we provide the 'fact'. For a parallel experience in the visual arts it might be worth a look at the work of Sans Facon. I worked with them in creating a series of 'composed' sonic walks in the city of Cardiff a couple of years ago and their latest project is to provide a series of overlapping spotlights in cities at night. There is some wonderful photographic documentation of their project LIMELIGHT in cities in he UK and USA at

  13. John: It is a great honor for me that you chose to comment on this post. I commend to all the Limelight project you mention. So simple an idea, so rich the result. How interesting, too, to revisit the Cardiff project in light of Cage's 4'33". So much to learn, and so enjoyable to learn it. For anyone interested, the Cardiff project, Odd Sympathies, can be found here.


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