Reflections on John Cage by Aaron Hayes

The first time we encounter John Cage, we think that he is somewhat interesting.   Teaching a music appreciation class to a small group of high school students, I performed 4'33" for them one day outside.  About 30 seconds into the first movement, one of them said, ‘oh, I get it.'  Still, I think there is some legitimacy for the school of gradual enlightenment. The second time we encounter John Cage, we think he is a dilettante.  

Sometimes it is hard to see the extent to which Cage's work participates in the modern Western musical tradition.  But the fact that he studied composition with many big names ("Schoenberg," e.g.) gives him an interesting credence.  In addition to the later compositions which stretch the concept of music to its breaking point, he does have a number of more understandably musical works, which are in their own way very successful pieces.  Percussionists have noted to me that it is Cage's earlier work for percussion, etc. ensembles which are most widely appreciated in their circles, while most of the world thinks of 4'33" as Cage's most famous piece.  In any case, neither his thoughts nor his compositions are the ramblings of one ignorant of music.  The issue of silence in Cage's music, for example, though rich with many non-Western ideas, still maintains its relation to occurrences in more strictly western academic music.  The notion of musique concrète has been a legitimate compositional technique since Varèse.  Indeterminacy, as Cage himself argued, has been around for much longer.  In fact, it was only within a very limited historical period in which all musical elements were completely determined by the composer's dictations as written in a score.  Calling the noise of everyday life a piece of music is merely an additive process using both the notions of sampling and indeterminacy.

The third time we encounter John Cage, we think he is more interesting than we had realized before.

A collection of 91 measures of rest in ¾ meter, where the quarter note equals 60 beats a minute turns out to be precisely four minutes and thirty-three seconds.  A fermata in music can also be dictated with a length of time as needed.  What is the significance of the indication of "tacet" which constitutes the instructions for this piece?  Tacere - to be silent; an excellent mode for listening.  Counting rests keeps the musician's attention in the music.  The trumpet parts for Beethoven's third piano concerto, second movement, indicate tacet-a sense of relief of being able to just take it all in.  Imagine the peace of having all three of the movements indicate tacet. One of the prerequisites for taking Cage seriously is taking Buddhism seriously.  Today, we make a vague connection between hippies and Eastern thought, and for many hippies themselves it was doubtfully any more than vague.  But despite such an association, or perhaps because folks in the 60's popularized it in the West, the philosophical ideas within of Buddhism, Taoism, and other ways of thought from Asia have come to be taken as very legitimate and productive notions with which to work.  But for musicians and composers, the concepts Cage was working with are very difficult to harmonize with traditional beliefs.  Brought up on the concept, however vague, of the genius, of self-expression through music, of pieces of music composed, owned, and appreciated by the subjectivities of individuals, to consider for a moment that there is no self that underlies all of it contradicts the very idea of music.  If I am not metaphysically more significant than the wind in the trees, how could my creations be qualitatively different?  To be sure, we all enjoy the wind in the trees.  People sell CDs of it.  But to say it is the same is to break down every possible barriers of what music is and is not.  A Zen koan is a pedagogical tool, in a sense, but it teaches us very little about Buddhism.  4'33" is a musical composition, and this tells us everything about what music is.  Cage continued to compose music, after he negated the concept - a kind of Bodhisattva. The fourth time we encounter john cage, we think he just copied Marcel Duchamp.

As with a lot of avant-garde art, the initial reaction to much of Cage's work is something along the lines of "well, I could do that!"  Or to be dramatic, one might attribute the ability to something even less intelligent than one's self.  "Well, my dog could do that!"  "Well, my infant could do that!"  When it comes to some works, this is simply not true.  When people mistake technical simplicity for facility, for example in Mondrian, they fail to realize what went into creating such clarity.  With Cage, however, we can write and perform work at a technically comparable level.  True, from 1960 on, we would be copying Cage.  But in contrast to the discourse in the plastic arts, Cage shares with Fluxus a feeling of welcome-that it would be good for us to listen to and ‘compose' some happenings, some chance occurrences, or some periods of silence. The fifth time we encounter john cage, we begin to appreciate his genius.  

We could say that people like Cage, Morton Feldman, and all those others were a product of their artistic era.  But we could also say that the 1950's and ‘60's - as we now understand the time period 40 years later, was a product of these people.  Creativity itself has been changed by what Cage did and wrote, and even though music seems to have continued though nothing has happened, it is as a child who plays in a field even though he has learned to climb the fence.