Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?
-William Butler Yeats
I love John's mind, but I don't like what it thinks.
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:
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.”
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.