Thoughts on Cage

Written: October 26, 2004

Some time ago, I was thinking a great deal about John Cage.  He’s most notorious, of course, for his 4’33” (which I think is an incredibly elegant and eloquent work).  Specifically, I was thinking about one of his most lasting contributions to artistic thought; namely, aleatory, or chance-driven music.

I would say there are two primary kinds of chance-driven music. There’s music in which decisions are made by some random process, like flipping a coin or rolling dice; and there’s music in which a large proportion of decisions are made not by the composer but by the performer, who might play from a score which is actually, for example, a map of constellations in the Northern Hemisphere. (It could be argued that this blurs the distinction between the composer and performer.  I’m not interested in that right now.) The two are not mutually exclusive, but the distinction I’m addressing involves whether or not the music is pre-composed. This, also, is a spectrum, not a dichotomy, but it’s useful to keep thing simple for now.

The first ‘category’ was part of Cage’s attempt to remove ‘intention’ from music; to allow a listener to appreciate sounds devoid of intended meaning, to isolate sounds from context. I have always felt that this idea is inherently flawed.

First of all, what music of Cage’s I’ve heard created this way is just plain boring. One of the odd things I’ve found is that music intended to be ‘random’ generally sounds very homogenous.

A more fundamental flaw, I think, is that it is impossible to remove intention from music, at any level.  Cage was never able to escape having to set parameters. At the level of composition, Cage still had to decide what events would be triggered by a particular roll of the dice, or what instruments would be performing. At the level of performance, the very act of organizing a concert is antithetical to the idea of intentionless music.

The second ‘category’ ends up being much like free jazz, as musicians essentially improvise each performance, making each one different. This idea, I think, has more merit. Every live performance of any piece will be unique in many respects, and it was genius to exploit that as the basis for a body of work.

Nevertheless, in application, it becomes more frustrating than fascinating to listen to. When I go to see any work inthis vein, whether by Cage or somebody else, I want to join in and contribute my own voice to the proceedings. Such music, I think, is far more rewarding for the performers who get to experience the work multiple times, and thus experience it changing, than for the audience, to whom it may seem like a bunch of pretentious musicans wanking off.

By no means do I think Cage wasn’t an amazing artist; I think he’s absolutely essential, a towering figure any contemporary artist has to address in some way, whether to accept his ideas, reject them, or find some middle ground. But sometimes, I wish he had stuck to traditional methods of composition, as the music he wrote early in his career is incredibly gorgeous; the music he wrote later is more a demonstration of his philosophy than music qua music. What we gained in ideas, we lost in substance.