Music of Changes – John Cage

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Music of Changes – John Cage

Some artists never meet the “main stream” during their creative development. They even do not come close to the example of the time and environment where they work. The aesthetics like to analyze these artists because they seem as a chance to define the art or music of that time. Of course, this is a first look impression, but not true. To put a declaration and definition to such an artist is wrong: he will not confirm their already made statement and will destroy the results of the proud scholars. Then, what to do?
John Cage, the most gossiped, most criticized, but sometimes most respected composer, one of the most contriver figures of the music of this century, died in 1992. The musicologists (those who had the interest, curiosity and strength to follow him in his dynamic artistic life) have waited for couple of years and now are preparing to open the “Cage” file safely. Now, when there is not any danger to have him change his (temporary) course again, always in new and unexplored directions. It seems to me that they will fail again. Perhaps it is better not to comment or evaluate, but only to let his music and words, the things which are hidden inside them or inside us, to find their proper place.

Who is John Cage?

He is born in California in 1912. As a child he studied piano, working on the standard repertoire. He wanted to become a concert pianist. He left the college and went to Paris with thought of becoming a writer. He was delighted to see the works of the modern art, architecture and music. It is in Paris, where his first attempt to compose took place. After his return to Los Angeles had couple of very strange jobs: one of them was to organize modern art lectures for rich Beverly Hills housewives (passionate conquerors of the modern aesthetics). He started to attend private lessons in harmony and composition. In 1935 he started to study with (celebrated) Arnold Schoenberg, “the father” of new music. Running away from the Nazi Germany Regime, Schoenberg had to leave his Berlin and the place of professor in the Music Academy. He immigrated to the States and taught at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA). Although Cage admired his teacher, he didn’t follow him in his creative work. Schoenberg had influence more in inspiration than in help with his knowledge and experience. Seeing how Schoenberg was devoted to music was crucial for the Cage’s decision to devote his own life to art. He only didn’t know what exactly to do… Some things from the twelve-tone technique can be found in the music of Cage until the 1938. Then he bravely entered the areas of experiments and originality, never to return to things the great teacher taught him.

The music of John Cage

In his early works Cage had need to determination of the compositional methods. The wish to put the construction on the most important element of musical composition is expected: the most frequent synonym for composition is “organization”. However, one could see from his statements of that time that the constructivism is only a temporary phase towards new and unpredictable directions and miracles.
For the composition of Quartet (1935) for percussion ensemble he says: “I had no idea what it would sound like, not even what instruments would be used to play it. I persuaded three other people to practice the music with me, and we used whatever was at hand: we tapped on tables, books, chairs, and so forth. When we tired of these sounds we invaded the kitchen and used pots and pans. Several visits to junkyards yielded more instruments: brake-drums from automobiles, different lengths of pipes, steel rings, and hardwood blocks. After experimenting for several weeks, the final scoring was finished…
One more quotation: “… the constructivism in my music had nothing to do the desire for self-expression, but simply had to do with the organization of materials. I recognized that expression of two kinds, that arising from the personality of the composer and that arising from the nature and context of the materials, was inevitable, but I felt its emanation was stronger and more sensible when not consciously striven for, but simply allowed to arise naturally”.
Cage knew of the existence of undefined nature of art, which exists in every piece of work, whether it is planned and consciously constructed or not. Because of this, he entered a new phase. A new characteristic occurred: common for his life, his art, his music. They all were always life of changes, art of changes, and music of changes.

Structure or emotion?

Reading the books of the art historian and critic Ananda Kumaraswami, Cage imposed himself to another influence. He went more and more far from constructivism and started with experiments with the sensitivity in music. In the book “Dance of Shiva” Kumaraswami presents the “rasa” theory and the “permanent emotions”. This theory can be found in the Sanskrit poetry and drama. For Cage, the presentation of eight “permanent emotions” was very interesting: erotic, heroic, odious, anger, joy, sadness, despair and wondrous. Each of these emotions leads to the ninth one: tranquility. Cage tried to express these feelings in the cycle Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano. Talking about them, a critic said the following: “… The elements of the structure in these pieces are the balance between the movement and the non-movement, the sound and the silence…” In his book “Transformation of the Nature in Art” Kumaraswami writes: “The art is religion, the religion is art, and they are not similar but the same…” Cage liked this statement and followed also the words Sarabhai: “To sober and quiet the mind thus rendering it susceptible to divine influences”. Cage founded the faith of our culture not in the quiet internal spirit of the people, but in their hope and intention towards completion. Strange, but in the field of music, Cage found this tendency in the music of the most “insensitive” composers in the music history: Erik Satie.

Static expression?

Perhaps, a composer, as much disclaimed as Cage himself, Erik Satie (1866-1925) is a center of as many controversial stories. He is an artist of “boredom”. Strict in his anti-romantic attitude in life and art, but living in a period of artificial pathetic and false art, Satie accepts the reality: he turns the false into art and “art” of that time into false. Reading books of Huxley and Kumaraswami, Cage reached some issues, which connect him to this French “deserter” of the art circles. In his article “The East in the West” Cage quotes Satie as a “western” example of the eastern ideal of “static expression”. Really, the music of Satie is very static, from aspect of post-Liszt and Chopin period and their pieces full of excitements and poetry. In his lecture “Defense of Satie”( 1948) Cage says that “… There can be no right making of music that does not structure itself from the very roots of sound and silence…”

True music?

Cage stated (or supposed) that music is consisted of four elements: structure, form, method and material. The structure is dividing music into parts. The form is the continuity of sounds. Method is the means of making that continuity. The material is the sounds which appear in the piece. Analyzing further Cage finds that “the form comes from the heart and therefore, it can not be a base for universal discipline” (what would the teachers at the conservatories add to that?). The method and the material, of course, are left to the individuality, sometimes to choice, sometimes to chance. The structure, on the contrary, is dangerous to improvise with, because everything not based on similarity to already imposed regulations we regard as awful. The struggle of law and the need for freedom should result with unification in one. With this Cage criticize the flame of the romantic sound with flavorful and colorful chords. He sees it as a decadent thing, with aim to make the music more impressive, loud, big and to make it more easily comprehended by the large audience (one may regard these attributes as positive and not decadent?).

“Lecture on Nothing”

A lecture titled “Lecture on Nothing” was given in the Artists’ Club in New York City in 1950. You guess who gave the lecture, of course. This club was known also as “8th Street Club”. It was formed by couple of painters from New York. The lectures were given mostly by visual artists. John Cage was regular visitor there. He also gave three lectures: “Indian Painting on Sand” or “The picture which is valid for only a Day”, “Lecture on Nothing” and “Lecture on Something”. What has Cage talked about on his “Lecture on Nothing”? Nothing? No, his intention was to “permit the listener to experience what he had to say rather than just hear ABOUT”. Really ambitious! It seems that the lecture was to be experienced like music. We are taught, on the contrary, to experience music like language. What was his intention (I was not there in 1950)? To instruct the audience how the speech should be listened to? Or perhaps how the music should be listened to? In any case, the lecture has not been a declaration but demonstration of ideas. The essence of the lecture seems to be in the idea of discipline in the rhythmic structure. Cage used different means to present the unification of the rhythmic structure and the content. He compared the rhythmic structure with “an empty glass, in which any moment, something will be poured”. The structure is presented in the glass and the content in what will be poured in. The lecture itself is an example for this: “I can say anything. It makes very little difference what I say or even how I say it”. Or: “As we go along, (who knows?) an idea may occur in this talk. I have no idea whether one will or not. If one does, let it. Regard it as something seen momentarily, as thought from a window while travelling. At the end of the lecture: “More and more I have the feeling that we are getting nowhere. Slowly, as the talk goes on, we are getting nowhere and that is a pleasure. It is not irritating to think one would like to be somewhere else. It is only irritating to think one would like to be somewhere else. Originally we were nowhere, and now again, we are having the pleasure of being slowly nowhere. If anybody is sleepy, let him go to sleep… The structure is a discipline which, accepted, in return accepts whatever, even those rare moments of ecstasy, which, as sugar loaves train horses, train us to make what we make.” How do I read this? The silence is the structure (rhythmical, of course) and the sounds “rare moments”. The form becomes an “instant-form” in which every moment is absolute, alive, and important. But what am I doing? I didn’t follow Cage’s instructions to accept this lecture not listening ABOUT but experiencing the things told. I’ll try next time. Now I do not have time. Time?


We reached the well known composition: 4’33’’. This “silent” piece is written in 1952. The performer doesn’t play a single sound. It is consisted of three parts: 30’’, 2’33’’ and 1’40’’. It confirms the connection of Cage’s aesthetics with duration of silence and sound. Duration of the parts is made by chance, without proportions. The writer, I presume, didn’t want to say anything, but what did he want to do? A scandal in the artistic circles of New York City? Or he continued on the subject: “Nothing”? The idea of the structure of the silence occupied Cage and that is the reason for this (absurd) piece. Really, there was an audience in a concert hall listening to (or experiencing) the structure of silence. Four minutes and thirty three seconds nothing was happening. No sound reached the ears of people in the audience. Being aware of the absurdity of a composition which consists only of silence, even with a “rhythmic structure” in it, Cage reminded the audience of the possibility of the existence of the sound ONLY as a moment in the silence leaving them without it.

AuthorPande Šahov
2018-08-21T17:24:05+00:00 April 1st, 1998|Categories: Reviews, Blesok no. 02, Sound|0 Comments