Friday, October 05, 2012

Wanting to say a few things about John Cage: Cage at 100

[What follows is a revised/adapted transcript of a talk I gave at the University of Central Missouri, as a prequel to a presentation of an electroacoustic work of mine, written in honor of Cage's 100th birthday. In the anecdotes I share, the quotations are as accurately rendered as I can remember them, but it's been a long time.] So:

September 5th of this year was the 100th birthday of John Cage, whose contribution to music we will be pondering, discussing and arguing over for a long time to come. It seemed appropriate, if not necessary to reflect on his influence. In my own musical life, I have been immeasurably rewarded by listening to his music, reading his books and struggling with his ideas. Part of the presentation this evening includes a work of my own, written in gratitude for his work and in honor of his centennial.

The outlines of his life are well-known. He was born in Los Angeles the son of an inventor, graduating valedictorian of LA High School. After some study and travel, he settled on music as his life’s work, studying with Richard Buhlig, Henry Cowell, and Arnold Schoenberg. He began writing music for percussion ensembles in the 1930s. Working in Seattle at the Cornish School, he invented the prepared piano, and wrote many works for it, most notably the Sonatas and Interludes. In the 1940s he began to study eastern philosophy, which deeply affected his aesthetic direction. After receiving a copy of the I Ching (the Chinese oracle) he began composing using chance procedures, and abandoned traditional compositional methods. In 1952 he composed his most famous work, 4'33” a work of silence. Gradually, after years of impoverished circumstances, he became a celebrity, appearing on television and on college campuses across the country. He was the music director for the Merce Cunningham Dance Ensemble, and over the course of his almost 80 years, he wrote over 350 musical works, in all genres: orchestral, chamber, theatrical, opera, piano, and electronic. He also wrote books and painted, creating works such as this one:

My talk tonight will be somewhat informal, and anecdotal. I think this is actually entirely appropriate, perhaps essential, as Cage loved stories, and telling them. I’ll share a couple which are not well-known. I share these because I think they reveal more than more conventional lecturing would. And, they’re funny. Here’s the first:

My undergrad alma mater is Nazareth College of Rochester, a small liberal arts school founded by the Sisters of St Joseph. At the time of this story it was an all-girls’ school. John Cage visited the campus to perform on a couple of occasions, and my composition teacher Albion Gruber told me of one of the most notorious episodes. Cage performed with his ensemble, which at that time included Gordon Mumma, among others. Cage sat at a desk, tossing coins, and then scribbling instructions on paper and handing them to his musicians. Everything was highly amplified, even the desk itself. When Cage tossed the coins, they landed on a copper plate, also amplified. Albion told me that when the coins hit the plate, they made the most piercing sound he’d ever heard, it hurt. After a couple times, everyone in the audience would automatically cover their ears whenever he picked up those coins to throw them. This continued for about two hours. At the end, there were only about four people left in the audience, one of whom was a young student whose sensibilities were so offended she had to confront Cage. “You mean to s-s-say, you call that MUSIC?!?” she sputtered. Cage looked at her and smiled for a moment and then said, Well, you HEARD it, didn’t you?”

This, for me, sums up Cage’s philosophy: if it could be heard, it could be music. For many, this was a kind of blasphemy, a cop-out. For others, it was an inspiration, and a way forward.

Cage died in 1992 shortly before his 80th birthday, but the controversies that swirled in his wake have not subsided much. Depending on who you happen to be reading, he has prompted various people to categorize him as a “charlatan,” a “musical philosopher,” a “kook,” “dangerous radical,” or “minimalist.” No doubt those who lob such terms have their reasons, but I wish to focus on a description which for many seems almost impossibly difficult to apply to Cage: “composer.” That Cage has had a huge impact on music and influenced many composers is generally assumed, but a problem arises in discerning which aspect of Cage’s musical work is primary. Which John Cage are we describing?

For many, it is the composer who shunned the traditional musical values of “inspiration” and “beauty” and instead made chaotic works through chance procedures. Like this trombone part for his Concert for Piano and Orchestra:

Is it the composer of delicate works of beauty, such as the String Quartet in Four Parts?

Is it the audaciously brilliant inventor of the prepared piano, and the hours of repertoire that he wrote for the instrument?
[Update: For another piece of prepared piano repertoire, here's my high school school band mate Charles Peltz conducting the Callithumpian Consort at New England Conservatory, in a fine reading of Cage's Concerto for Prepared Piano and Orchestra. I'd be highly remiss not to link to it. Charles and I have had highly divergent musical lives, but Cage has been an important point of intersection.]

The composer of deeply personal musical depictions of searing pain such as Four Walls or A Valentine Out of Season?

Is it the composer of his “silent work” 4’33”?

Is it the organizer of overwhelming immersive environmental works such as HPSCHD, Roaratorio or MusiCircus?

Is it the writer of books such as Silence, which multimedia composer Robert Ashley described as “arguably, the most intelligent and influential book on music theory in the second half of the twentieth century?”

Cage’s detractors seem to focus on whatever piece offends them the most, and allow that to embody his entire career, overlooking or else ignoring any other of Cage’s music that might balance the picture. After Cage composed 4’33” and devoted the remainder of his career to using chance procedures, many in the music world wrote him off as a ridiculous figure. He lost a number of valued friendships. But I think the score examples shown all point to a composer who valued listening above all else, and disciplined himself to find new sounds in every new work. And the incredible care that Cage put into his scores argues persuasively for his dedication to his art.

Here’s another story, told to me by the computer music pioneer, Charles Dodge. He’d had Cage come talk to his students at Brooklyn College, and was driving him back to Manhattan, this was sometime in the late 1970s or early '80s, I think. By this time, Cage had stopped tossing coins to generate chance material and was using random numbers generated by computers. Dodge explained that a random number generator is dependent on the amount of memory available, and back then computers didn’t have much. So after a point, the “random” numbers will repeat themselves, but only after tens of thousands of numbers. Cage had used these random number lists for quite a while and then, as he explained to Dodge, “You know Charles, I was horrified to discover that those numbers were REPEATING themselves!” Dodge said that he asked Cage how he felt about that. “Well, at first I was worried that I’d invalidated all the music that I’d composed, but then I realized that I hadn’t used the repetition INTENTIONALLY.” Dodge said, “And who else but John would have ever noticed the repetition?”

I find Cage’s work to be highly influential, but not in the sense that composers tried to sound like him. He has few imitators. Rather, they took his concepts, his attention to LISTENING, and his open and joyous attitude and then applied them to their own pursuits. Robert Ashley observed, “We were influenced by Cage as a composer who took his work "on the road," when nobody else would play it, and who submitted to countless interviews, in a good natured and humorous style, about his compositional technique. We were influenced by Cage as a courageous person and as a spokesperson for contemporary music." I would add that for myself, one of Cage’s greatest assets was his capacity to risk appearing foolish or ridiculous. This might be the most important lessons that he had to offer anyone.

When Cage appears on the 1960 TV show I've Got a Secret, and is about to present his piece Water Walk, the host Dave Garroway, says, "Inevitably Mr. Cage, these are nice people, but some of them are going to laugh. Is that all right?" Cage simply beams and says, "Of course— I consider laughter preferable to tears."

As do I.