(b. Los Angeles, California, USA Sept. 5, 1912; d. 1992)
One of the most influential 20th century composers, John Cage pioneered a body of music that he described as "the contemporary transition from keyboard-influenced music to the all-sound music of the future." From 1930 to 1950 Cage composed over 16 percussion scores and invented compositional procedures and theories conceived for percussion music. During the 1950s he developed new composing methods including chance elements and other efforts to divorce the composer from the compositional process. A percussionist himself, he performed as well as composed, exploring new sound resources (he invented the prepared piano). Known as much for his writings and lectures as his music, he was in constant demand as a speaker.
— by Frederick Fairchild
by David Revill
Beginning in the mid-1930s, John Cage was a pioneer whose pieces for percussion ensemble liberated the genre from its two most cliched roles - its supportive role in the orchestra of giving emphasis to the activity of other instruments, and its role in popular music as rhythmical backdrop - which, by the time Cage was writing, was already canonized in jazz. Pieces such as the "Quartet" (1935), "Trio" (1936), the three "Constructions" (1933-41), "Living Room Music" (1940), the second and third "Imaginary Landscapes" and "Credo in US" (all in 1942), and "Amores" (1943) were among the first of their kind in the west.
John Cage (1912-1992) studied composition with Arnold Schoenberg, who charged no fee on condition that Cage would devote his life to music. Cage "literally worshipped" Schoenberg, and had more in common with him than might appear, but was drawn to a very different kind of music. For Cage's kind of music, percussion was central.
Unfortunately, this was a time when percussion was so marginal that it wasn't even important enough to be the subject of drummer jokes. In the mid-1930s, when Cage first sought to establish a percussion band, he could not even interest trained percussionists; his early ensembles consisted of dancers and bookbinders.
What was it that made percussion central for Cage? Harmony and pitch were the central dimensions by which Schoenberg went about his musical business, and he understood his work in relation to an unambiguous, straight-line view of musical history. Right from the start, Cage wanted to be useful by doing something new. "I thought I could never compose socially important music," he wrote. "Only if I could invent something new, then would I be useful to society."
In writing for percussion, Cage could introduce ethnomusicological exotica; he could invent sound-sources, such as the water gong (where the pitch of a resonating gong is modified by lowering the instrument into the water), and use industrial ready-mades such as spring coils or brake drums.
The other element that made percussion central for Cage was that his interest was in noise; he saw percussion music as a way to liberate noise from its subordination to pitched sound. An incidental benefit of making a music of noises, Cage believed, was that it would have a "therapeutic value for city-dwellers."
"Many people leave my concerts thinking they have heard ‘noise'," he explained to a reporter in 1943, "but will then hear unsuspected beauty in their everyday life." Percussion music of the sort he wrote was quite different, he said, "to the music, say, of Beethoven. In the latter case we are temporarily protected or transported from the noises of everyday life. In the case of percussion music, we become triumphant over it and our ears become sensitive to its beauties."
If timbral innovation and noise were the cornerstones of Cage's percussion music, harmony, even if it had interested him, could no longer fulfill the function it had in the Western classical tradition as a structural means. Cage wanted such a means, because structure is what makes a piece comprehensible, and comprehensibility was something he had, at that point, no wish to give up.
Gradually, it dawned on Cage that while harmony was of no use to a music of noises, another musical dimension was: duration - time. In the late 1930s, he began to explore what he called "micro-macrocosmic rhythmic structure" in which the grouping of units of time was the same on the small and the large scale. After a first try in "Imaginary Landscape no. 1" (1939), rhythmic structure reaches textbook clarity in the "First Construction (in Metal)," premiered nine months later.
The structure is 4/3/2/3/4, a total of 16 units, each unit represented on the small scale by a measure of 4/4. In the first 16 measures of the piece, this structure is clearly articulated by changing combinations of instruments (one combination for four measures, then different instruments for the next three, and so on). This 16-measure structure is employed 16 times, so the structural proportions are replicated on the large scale - four units of 16 measures, then three, etc. The piece ends with a nine-measure coda, so the total length of the piece is 256 measures. Micro-macrocosmic rhythmic structure was a method that would serve Cage for the next 15 years.
One of a musician's options in preparing a piece for performance is to learn something about its composer - the motivation being, I suppose, that knowing what is behind the music (a spatial metaphor open to debate, of course) will inform your playing, bring out what's in the music, and help you give a sympathetic performance. The advantages of this option are all the more obvious with an approach such as Cage's, that is in one way or another unusual.
Cage's early percussion pieces are not technically difficult, in the sense of the kinetic challenges of playing speed and moves around the setup. The challenges come from their rhythmic complexity.
The pieces are about different things, compared to a lot of percussion music. Most percussion writing is concerned with rhythmic propulsion - with pulse and meter supported and thwarted by the surface rhythm in a way that interrelates and articulates them, and thereby stimulates an emotional response in the listener. "There's none of this boom, boom, boom business in my music," Cage wrote. For him, a measure was literally a unit of time, "not a one two three four - which I fill with various sounds." Arguably, this permits some leeway with tempo, away from metronomic precision, toward a more relaxed, breathed sense of time.
By the mid-1940s, Cage was deeply troubled by the unreliability of musical communication. "I noticed that when I conscientiously wrote something sad, people and critics were often apt to laugh," he recalled. "I determined to give up composition unless I could find a better reason for doing it than communication." It's a revealing reaction; another composer would either try to improve his powers of expression, or declare that the listeners were fools. Cage took the misunderstanding as a cue to cut out expression and communication from his music.
He found his "better reason" in Eastern philosophy. Cage was teaching Western music to an Indian heiress named Gita Sarabhai in return for instruction in traditional Indian music, and she told him that, in her tradition, "the purpose of music is to sober and quiet the mind, thus making it susceptible to divine influences." In other words, music makes the mind receptive to the spiritual aspects of life. "This is the traditional reason for making music," Cage wrote in 1982, "which, since I came to know it, I have always accepted." The question was then how best to embody the revelation in music.
Cage worked out the "how" once he began to study Zen Buddhism, beginning in the late 1940s. Zen's interest, insofar as it can be said, is an unmediated experience, which appears only in the absence of one's tastes and preconceptions. Cage took the intuitions toward which these premises point, and looked for a way to apply them to music. Musical rules and aesthetic standards, he concluded, bolster and nourish our preferences; for music to help us toward pure experience, we need to give them up.
Beginning with works such as "Music of Changes" (1951), Cage began to ascertain the details of his pieces through recourse to chance operations, "making my responsibility not the making of choices, but the asking of questions." Using chance, Cage maintained, was not frivolous, not an abdication of responsibility - as many critics who don't know his music have said. It was a discipline. He reasoned that if chance governs the musical materials, likes and dislikes would be bypassed; he could thereby make a discovery, "a leap out of reach of one's grasp of oneself."
Cage's central chance method involved the I-Ching, the traditional Chinese book of wisdom. Cage used the I-Ching's coin oracle, in which a number between 1 and 64 is ascertained by throwing three coins six times. In this way, he generated chance-determined numbers that could then be tabulated to ascertain what would happen in the music. From the early 1950s until the end of his life, he used the I-Ching in composing most of his pieces.
This new direction in Cage's music emphasizes even more how research into a composer could help one perform that person's music. The chance pieces are, again, not necessarily technically difficult - although "17'10.554" for a percussionist" (1956) certainly is, with streams of notes at completely different dynamics, so impossibly complex that Cage invites players to read the pages "in any focus" - that is, matching their realization to the limits of their technique.
The pieces are all, however, written in a quite different way to any before them. It's no hyperbole to say that, having moved into chance, Cage had rewritten aesthetics - at least for himself - and to give a good performance of his chance music, you have to understand how and why he wrote it. I would go so far as to say that a good performance without such understanding could only be a fluke.
Most Western music has two key characteristics: Music is inextricably tied up with idea (usually a unified idea), and it is expressive of that idea - of its emotional implications. By contrast, the orientation marks of Cage's chance music are quite different: immanence (it is what it is, here and now), diversity (many things happen at once), the question.
What most listeners get a hint of immediately, though, is that rather than expressing his preoccupation with these things, Cage's work exemplifies it. Take "4'33"," for instance - a piece for any instrument or combination of instruments in which no sound is to be intentionally produced - which is not a nicely-crafted depiction of stillness or a song about the sound of silence. It simply makes you aware of silence by feeding you a slice of it in the concert hall.
This difference in aesthetic calls for a different performance approach: to be centered, focused, devoted - present in the sounds without overwhelming them, neither with emotion nor even with your own engagement with them. You need the discipline to let the sounds simply happen - to resist the temptation to make connections between them by phrasing. Cage's chance music offers an opportunity to discover, through performing, your own discipline, which is the truest, most productive discipline.
In the 1950s, as Cage became involved with Zen as a way to theorize what he was doing, he began to reject the idea of improvisation. The way he accounted for this rejection - and a person's account is not the whole, not even necessarily the main, reason for a belief - was that improvisation necessarily involved taste and memory, things he wanted to slough off, "and it didn't get the improviser to the point where he encountered a revelation." For a person as perceptive as Cage, it's an interesting inaccuracy. Blind spots of this sort, incidentally, are a sure-fire index of the irrational - you might even say neurotic - aspect of a person's belief system.
From the 1970s onwards, though, Cage began to develop his own version of improvisation. It was one of many syntheses on which Cage embarked in the last 20 years of his life: an expansion and re-incorporation that preserved the basic approach he had developed, but extended it to integrate aspects he had excluded.
"I have thought of various ways of improvising thatÉgives [sic] a problem to the improviser to solve as he plays," Cage said. "Child of Tree" (1975) and "Branches" (1976) are percussion solos or, optionally in the case of the latter, ensembles, using ten non-pitched instruments chosen by the performer, made exclusively of plant materials. Cage's only stipulations are that players use one or several pod rattles from the Mexican ponciana tree, and a number of cacti; the sound of their spines being plucked is rudimentarily amplified with a record player cartridge. An eight-minute duration is divided by the player according to an I-Ching cast, and the instruments are allocated to the different parts in the same way, each instrument appearing in only one part. "Using a stopwatch," Cage explains in the score, "the soloist improvises, clarifying the time structure by means of the instruments. This improvisation is the performance."
This structural variability is one performance problem that, Cage felt, circumvents taste and memory. Another is that the plant materials do not last. "If you become very familiar with a piece of cactus," noted Cage, "it very shortly disintegrates, and you have to replace it with another one which you don't know. So the whole thing remains fascinating, and free of your memory as a matter of course."
Just as a key difficulty in performing Cage's fully-notated chance music is that it works in a different way to most other notated music, so his approach to improvisation in "Child of Tree" and "Branches" (and other indeterminate improvisation pieces, such as the "c/Composed Improvisations" - one for snare drum, another for single-headed drums) is unlike that of others. It's not like making decisions about an open-form score by Earle Brown, where your reference points might be action painting or a bebop session; nor is it like free-jazz improv or a blues jam. The basic pointers are similar to those for Cage's notated music - improvise while present, centered, engaged, but don't fill the music with yourself. And keep in mind, in preparation, Cage's reading of Zen, his convictions and blind spots.
This has been a whistle-stop tour of the percussion music of a most interesting and productive figure. Hopefully it begins to explain why Cage is so important in the history of percussion, provides an introduction to his compositional approach, gives some preliminary suggestions as to what this means for performing his music, and opens up questions as to who a person is and how he or she develops. The mark of a significant life is not just the person's own achievements, but also how those achievements encourage others to question and grow.
(David Revill is a composer, performer and writer who wrote Cage's authorized biography, The Roaring silence.)