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January 11, 2004: When ideas are worth more than the results...

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John Cage



If you find yourself in London January 16-18 you can go see John Cage Uncaged at the Barbican.  Or not.


Cage is profiled in the Daily Telegraph (UK) - The music that's all around us  - given this upcoming festival celebrating the guy's work.


Of course I had considered leaving the rest of this page blank, given that the most famous Cage work is 4' 33", a work in three movements for "any instrument or combination of instruments" that is, in fact, four minutes 33 seconds of silence. 

But I'm not Lawrence Sterne and this is not Tristram Shandy.


I am referring to Laurence Sterne's Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.  The nine volumes appeared between 1759 and 1767 and they're all in the Houghton-Mifflin edition edited by Ian Watt.


The author's preface appears in volume three, chapters are jumbled and missing, a dedication is hawked to the highest bidder, and at one point the reader is offered a blank page with the invitation to draw his or her own version of the sexually frustrated Widow Wadman: "as like your mistress as you can - as unlike your wife as conscience will let you."


Well, Sterne anticipates Cage.


But back to Cage.  The Telegraph notes he's a local boy, who Schoenberg said had no ear for music...


Born in Los Angeles in 1912, the young John soon picked up on his father's sense of mission, doorstep-selling pamphlets on contemporary music to Santa Monica housewives at $2.50 a time.  He seems to have been no less gifted in self-salesmanship, managing without obvious qualification to get himself taken on as a student of the modernist architect Erno Goldfinger in Paris in 1930, and then, back home in 1935, as a composition student of Schoenberg.


Neither of his teachers found him worth their time.  The architecture studies terminated swiftly. And when Schoenberg said he had no ear for music, Cage had to admit that it was "physically true, because I don't hear the relationships of tonality and harmony.  Schoenberg said, 'As a composer you will always come to a wall and you won't be able to get through.' I said, 'Then I'll beat my head against that wall.'  And I quite literally began hitting things and developed a music of percussion that involved noises."


Indeed he has - a piece where the performer was required to feed vegetables into an electric blender and drink the juice, or his 1952 take on Handel's Water Music that involved a pianist whistling under water ("unlike Handel," said Cage, "it really splashes").  Of course it does.


Is he just unmusical?  The Telegraph points out:


Then, as now, his critics argued that this point of view exposed him as inherently unmusical.  Indeed, I remember noticing as I looked around his apartment that there was no obvious sign of occupation by a composer: no piano ("I gave it away 20 years ago," he said), no stereo system ("I don't listen to records"), no radio, no clue to his musical interests except what he explained as "the attention that has been given to each thing as though it had a sound.  I have no confusion of objects - everything is very clear, like the attention to detail in music."


Okay then.  It sounds like happy horseshit to me, but I'm not rich and famous.  He is.


Has he then simply he made a virtue of his failings?


Unable to handle conventional disciplines such as harmony and counterpoint, he explored other, more basic qualities of music such as rhythm and duration.  It was an exploration that drew him into the world of contemporary dance where in 1938 he met the man who became his lifelong partner and co-resident at West 18th Street, the choreographer Merce Cunningham.  And that in turn led to a sequence of classic dance collaborations that featured Cage's innovation - the "prepared piano", a piano with nails and other objects jammed into the strings to make them sound like something between a gamelan band and a saloon-bar honky-tonk.


But that wears thin after a time.  And in the fifties Cage concentrated on music ruled by chance procedures with elements so randomly determined that no two performances could ever be the same.   In these pieces, the sequence of events is fixed by tossing a coin or by reference to the ancient Chinese I Ching.  No kidding.  Really.  As he says, "Every being is the Buddha - just as for the anarchist every being is the ruler.  My music liberates because I give people the chance to change their minds.  I don't want to police them."


Yes, well, as the Telegraph puts it:


A lot of Cage works on that level: having grasped the point upfront, you wonder if you need to hang around to hear the piece.  There's a broad consensus these days that the ideas are worth more than the results: that he was a theoretician rather than a real composer with enduring output.


So back in 1935, a few blocks from where I'm sitting now, Arnold Schoenberg was teaching John Cage composition.  It didn't take.  On the UCLA campus just a few miles from here you can attend concerts at the Arnold Schoenberg Hall, but not of John Cage stuff. 


What's to hear?