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John Cage was one of the 20th Century’s most important composers. His attitude towards music was profoundly avant-garde and his work changed the limits and definitions of what experimental music could be. These views developed over many decades, as they become more and more profound. His famous compositions like 4’33” are well known, yet readily understood. This paper aims to address not only his music, but the ideas behind his compositions, and his views on life.
4’33” and Composing with Noise
A lot of Cage’s ideas are exemplified in one of his most famous pieces: 4’33”. In this composition, the performer is instructed not to play a single note for 4 minutes and 33 seconds. The audience hears only the sounds of the surroundings and this is precisely what is intended of the piece. “4’33” is not a negation of music but an affirmation of its omnipresence.” Cage made no distinction between music and noise, ultimately believing that there was no such thing as noise. Music is everywhere. When he talked about music, he used the term ‘music’ to mean all sounds, including noise, and even silence. Cage, for example, talked about the ‘noise’ of traffic as music. He found this music to be much more interesting than Beethoven’s, or any other composer’s music, because traffic is different every time. It cannot be repeated. This is in contrast to the way in which music and composing are traditionally seen and heard, as fixed pieces that don’t change. As a composer, he believed that his role was to consider these sounds as the basis of his music. His intent was to compose with sounds as they were, rather than to shape them to his own will. As a composer he lived by the mantra of “Let Sounds be Sounds”. His compositions did not impose a specific order on sounds and noise, but rather took them as they were. His compositions aspired to find ways in which unexpected noises/sounds/music could emerge.
As an extension of his views on music, Cage also talked about how silence does not exist. Cage heard music everywhere and could not foresee an instance in which there was a lack of music. At every moment, he argued, we can hear something. At every moment, there is music. Cage became specially convinced of this after visiting an anechoic chamber, a chamber that is completely sound proof. Even in this chamber he found there was no absence of sounds. “Being able to hear, in a soundproof room, sounds from this blood circulation and from his nervous system, Cage proved to himself that silence could not be an absence of sounds.” It is this experience that most profoundly shaped his view on silence and it is this experience that made 4’33” conceptually possible. Without this overwhelming belief in music, 4’33” and its underlying ideas would have never come to fruition. In this composition, the lack of an intentional, pre-defined set of sounds performed by a series of musicians is not an impediment for the audience to hear music. 4’33” affirmed Cage’s strong belief in the omnipresence of music.
The Prepared Piano
An earlier example of Cage’s philosophy in relation to music and his role as a composer, was the creation and use of the prepared piano. In a prepared piano, objects are placed between or on top the instrument’s strings. In this way, the sounds created by the instrument are different from those normally expected. Since a great variety of objects can be placed inside the piano, the possibilities of music are almost limitless. More importantly, the performer opens himself or herself to the unexpected, thus making each instance of a piece unique in its own way.
The prepared piano came to be out of necessity. In the early 1940’s, Cage was working mostly on composing for percussion, since this was instrumentation that was closest to his conceptual interests. In 1942, Cage moved from Chicago to New York and he did not have the money to bring his percussion instruments with him. When he received a commission for a piece, he started trying to recreate the conditions of percussion in a piano. That’s when Cage started placing objects (mostly pieces of rubber and screws) into the strings of the piano. The instructions by which the piano was prepared would become an explicit part of his compositions. He would instruct the performer where these pieces were to be located, what pieces to use, and even, what specific Steinway pianos could be used (since different pianos resulted in different sounds). An example of this type of composition is Sonatas and Interludes, a set of 20 pieces inspired by his emerging interest in Indian philosophy. In Sonata V, the sounds of the piano are completely transformed. The keys that have been altered (not all keys are) now sound like individual instruments each with a sound that is completely different from the original sound of a piano. The result was music that sounded as if a complete ensemble was playing. The use of this instrument can be seen as a beginning to Cage’s later questioning of the role of control in his own compositions. At this point, Cage exerted a lot of control over the sounds emitted by the prepared piano giving detailed instructions about its preparation, yet there is an openness the unpredictability and lack of control of the sounds made by this instrument, at least in relation to the more common intent of making all notes in a piano sound as expected. There is still a great distance in these works from what would eventually become 4’33” and similar pieces, but their origins can be seen in the prepared piano and in the Sonatas and Interludes.
Intentions and Work as Question
Through many of his pieces (including 4’33”), there is an underlying desire in Cage to question the role of intention in a musical work. “Cage’s most important compositions of the past three decades have been conceived to deny his intentional desires as completely as possible.” It is this feature that what makes his work radically different from so many before him. Cage constantly tried to surrender as much intention as possible form his work. He used the term “purposeful purposelessness” as a way to describe what he saw as the ‘purpose’ of his art. He did have a purpose in the creation of his music and his art, but the purpose was based on the generation of questions rather than on providing answers. To a certain extent, his purpose might be interpreted as the purpose to find a purpose. This might seem a contradictory tautology, but through his work Cage intended to find something deeper than his intentions. He wanted to have a conversation with his work that would lead to a process of discovery. Art, to Cage, was not a way to communicate his ideas, but rather, a way in which these ideas could be communicated to him (and to his audience). “If, from the Renaissance on, art has been regarded as a means of communication, Cage instead defined art as self-alteration, a means to sober up the mind.”
For Cage, the lack of intention in his work (or his ‘purposeful purposefulness’) explains something much deeper about his views on art. The work of the artist (in Cage’s view) is a process of questioning, rather than of providing answers. It is because of this, that Cage utilized chance operations (to name one of his many processes). “Most people who believe that I’m interested in chance don’t realize that I use chance as discipline. They think I use it – I don’t know as a way of giving up making choices. But my choices constitute what questions to ask.” His use of chance operations were a way in which Cage could ask questions of nature and to have nature respond back. His interest was not in a lack of control for its own sake, but rather as an expression of a deep humility towards admitting an incomplete knowledge about nature, and the desire and curiosity to find out. “That there is an overriding harmony in everything he created accords with Cage’s belief in the essential, if unknowable, order in nature, as revealed by his chance operations.”
Through most of Cage’s work, we find a desire to create compositions in which the outcome is unpredictable and all performances are unique. For Cage, the lack of clear and direct intentions in his work was a way to ensure that the outcome of his work could become unpredictable. The result of his chance operations would be as much of a surprise to him as it would be to his audience. “For Cage, the outcome of a fully structured piece is predictable and therefore occludes the act of performing with memories of definitive readings.” In other words, there is no point in performing a piece if the outcome is already known. In Cage’s compositions, the performance is the moment in which that particular instance of a piece is created. Music then becomes and endeavor that, in and of itself, has no predictable outcome, but speaks to us at a much more deeper level. Music begins to mirror unpredictability of life itself. An example of this type of work is Imaginary Landscapes #4, a piece for 24 musicians in which the musicians split up in to 12 pairs, each pair holding on radio. For each radio, one performer controls the tuner while the other controls the volume. The tuning and volume are dictated by the score of the piece, yet the performers have no control about what is actually coming out of the radio. While certain variables of the piece are determined by the score, most of the piece is unpredictable. Since the music depends on what is being transmitted by the radio at that specific moment, the location (the city or region in which it is performed) and time of day are important factors on the final performance. Also, because of the nature of the radio, it is impossible to completely replicate an instance of the performance, even if it’s performed in the same place and at the same time.
The Role of the Audience, The Role of the Artist and Views on Art
One of Cage’s main preoccupations was the audience and its role in relation to the performer. In Cage’s work, as in 4’33”, the traditional role of the audience is deeply challenged. “The listener does not stand outside the experience in order to describe it, analyze and understand it, but co-creates and undergoes it.” The audience is not a passive entity who is privileged to witness the genius of the artist, but rather a group that performs with the performer, and composes with the composer. The composer, in Cages view, should not attempt to impose a particular meaning or understanding of a particular piece on the listener, but should instead require the listener to understand and appreciate the piece on their own terms. “The emptiness of 4’33” is filled by the listeners, whose focus must be open, free-flowing and capable of supplying his or her own meaning.” In this way, the listeners form an integral part of the piece they are experiencing. The composition is completed the moment the audience gets to experience it.
Through this new type of work and through this new relationship to the audience, Cage dramatically challenged our understanding of the role of the artist. While, typically, the artist assumes a role of informing its audience by delivering a particular message through their work, Cage had no intention of doing this. He once said , perhaps half-jokingly, “I don’t want to spend my life being pushed around by a bunch of artists”. Rather, he regarded his art as a process of discovery. Art is a praxis by which he could learn about nature. Through this exploration of nature, the artist and the audience share, not so much an experience of acquisition of knowledge, but of “sobering up the mind.” Communication from the artist to the audience was is secondary, if important at all. “If art has been regarded as a giver of truth through the ‘self-expressed individuality of the artist’ Cage saw it rather as an exploration of how nature itself functions as a means to open the mind and spirit to the beauty of life with a minimum of expression or interpretation.”
Connections with Eastern Understandings of Art and Spirituality
Throughout most of Cage’s work and his ideas on art, there is a very strong influence of Eastern philosophy, spirituality and the aesthetic ideas of Wabi-sabi. In the book, “Wabi-sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers” Leonard Koren provides a comparison between Wabi-sabi (An ancient Japanese philosophy of life and art) and Middle Modernism (the minimalist style in architecture and product design that surged after the Second World War). Koren contends that Wabi-sabi was very influenced by Zen Buddhism.”The initial inspiration for Wabi-sabi’s metaphysical, spiritual and moral principles come from ideas about simplicity, naturalness, and acceptance of reality found in Taoism and Chinese Zen Buddhism.” These ideas shared by both, Wabi-sabi and Zen Buddhism, are also very clear in Cage’s work. Koren explains that Wabi-sabi “believes in the fundamental uncontrollability of nature”, is “one-of-a-kind”, and implies “people adapting to nature”. On the other hand, Middle Modernism “believes in the control of nature”, is “mass-produced, and implies “people adapting to machines”.
In Cage’s piece, 4’33” almost all of these ideas related to Wabi-sabi are demonstrated. First of all, there is no control of what that final piece is. When the performer plays the piece, the outcome is totally dependent on nature and the environment. The performer does not seek control of what is happening and cannot control nature. Second, because each performance of the piece depends on the state of the environment at a particular time and place. Each instance of 4’33” is inherently different. Finally, since the performer just lets the sounds of the environment be, the performance is a collaboration between the performer and the audience to adapt to nature and adapt to the circumstances of the environment at one particular moment.
The similarities between Eastern aesthetics (using Koren’s description of Wabi-sabi) and Cage’s work are very clear, but Cage’s connection to Eastern thought goes much deeper than the formal aspects of his work. His whole conception of what music is and what it should do is founded on Eastern principles. More specifically, it is based on Gita Sarabhai’s (An Indian composer and contemporary to Cage) conception of music. “The view of art as a form of spiritual discipline reflected in Cage’s new formulation of the purpose of music, given to him by Sarabhai: ‘To sober and quiet the mind, thus rendering it susceptible to divine influences’.” Art then becomes a spiritual journey by which an individual is able to shorten the distance between himself/herself and nature. Music, for Cage, is an attempt to become one with nature.
Cage’s work and ideas changed the way we view music and the possibilities of music. His life and career show an exceptional development and constant questioning. While at first glance, Cage’s ideas seem related to music, they embody a much more profound meaning. Cage was involved, not only in the process of questioning how music is created, but questioning the role of the performer and the audience, the connection of art and life and, ultimately, view on life itself. For Cage, All these thing are interconnected.
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Clarkson, Austin. “The Intent of the Musical Moment.” In Writings through John Cage’s Music Poetry, and Art, edited by David W. Bernstein and Christopher Hatch, 62-112. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2001.
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Koren, Leonard. Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers. Berkely, California: Stone Bridge Press, 1994.
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