Sunday, January 13, 2013

John Cage at 100

I have posted on John Cage before, but I just read an interesting essay on him by Daniel Asia. I also read a rebuttal to the essay in NewMusicBox and a whole series of comments on it. The first thing I notice is that while Daniel Asia gives a fairly detailed, though not technical, series of reasons why he thinks Cage is not an important composer, Dan Joseph in NewMusicBox, does not give what I consider musical reasons why Cage is important, restricting himself to remarks about the diversity of modernism and if you disagree you are "mean-spirited". And I really don't care too much about Cage's contribution to an American musical identity. I'm not an American. As a Canadian who lives in Mexico, I'm not a nationalist of any kind for that matter. So let me weigh in on John Cage.

Let's start with the first part of the Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano, a piece a lot of commentors have said is their favorite Cage:

It's not Mozart! Sorry, couldn't resist. The thing is that I am not unsympathetic to Cage's aesthetic. There was a time, perhaps twenty years ago, when I was very much a Cage admirer. Though even then I found his writings ON music to be more interesting than his writing OF music. I contemplated giving a performance of some of his talks on music. I even wrote at least one piece very strongly influenced by his aesthetic. But as time went on, I'm afraid I have become an apostate of Cage's aesthetic as I don't believe it is a musical aesthetic at all. I can't quite agree with Daniel Asia when he says that "Sonatas and Interludes offers many movements that add up to no perceivable aural structure." The different movements each have a character that is largely rhythmic. Sonata IV, for example, is full of "fiveness" if I can call it that: a lot of quintuplets and time signatures involving 5.

Imagine you want a career as a modernist composer, but you have no real sense of harmony or melody. Your gifts, such as they are, lie in the area of rhythm. Writing for prepared piano, where screws and bolts alter the pitch to the point that it is really not possible to analyze the harmonic structure, is your way to avoid being evaluated in areas you are weak. It's brilliant, really! But it is a kind of aesthetic fraud. Is this what Cage did? I have no idea, I just present the possibility. Here is the second part of the Sonatas and Interludes:

When I was in my Cage phase, I can't say that I was thinking musical thoughts as such. Perhaps 'sound' thoughts or 'sonic' thoughts, but not musical thoughts as such. Cage presents, and intends to present, a huge challenge to aesthetics. But I think that the answer to the challenge is found by listening to his music. It is a simulacrum of music, to steal an idea from Baudrillard, a shadowy copy of music. One of the sonatas sounds like a horribly crippled prelude by Debussy, for example. You can listen to this music and enjoy it and have some kind of experience, but I have to agree with Daniel Asia, it is ultimately frustrating for the reasons he gives: "The emotional landscape is limited and proscribed, ultimately wan and shadowy."

The reasons for this are obvious: Cage was not writing music as such, he was creating a facsimile of music without harmony or melody, without anything but chance sounds within a rhythmic framework. Of course there is no narrative! For one of his talks, he wrote a talk, then cut it up and mixed the pieces randomly. There is not supposed to be a narrative in Cage. But writing music the way he did is to create, at best--at best--a private language, one that we are not privy to. For that reason, it fails as music. Here is part 3 of the Sonatas and Interludes:

But listen and make up your own mind, by all means. Just don't assume it is a musical success simply because everyone and his dog is putting on a John Cage concert for the centenary.


Craig said...

Very interesting thoughts. Cage is on the periphery of my musical experience: there are one or two pieces of which I am fond, but too much of his music (or "music") strikes me as composed of gimmicks.

I like your statement that his aesthetic is not really a musical aesthetic: that, I think, is right, and the same might be said for many of the avant-garde composers of the last century, especially the serialists -- even (I am sorry to say) my beloved Webern!

Bryan Townsend said...

The Sonatas and Interludes are probably the most "listener-friendly" pieces of Cage. So much of what he did, like the Water Music I have posted previously, is a kind of avant-garde theater with little musical content.

Now Webern is a whole 'nother kettle of fish! I should do a post looking into his musical aesthetic...

Craig said...

Webern was so interested in symmetric pitch relationships that, it seems to me, he sometimes forgot to be interested in music! I, at least, cannot hear the "rigorous" orderliness that underlies his music. It was as though his vocation was to be a mathematician, but he had the bad luck to be a composer instead. Nonetheless, I do love his minimalist textures.

If you were to write about Webern, you'd have at least one grateful reader.

Bryan Townsend said...

I'm looking forward to having a look at Webern. I haven't thought much about his music in recent years, though I certainly studied it enough in theory classes. The first thing that occurs to me is how utterly different his music is from that of Schoenberg and Berg. And they from each other. These three are always lumped together, but have real differences.

RG said...

Typically fine remarks!

A friend of mine once wrote a book titled "Much of Jackson Pollock is Vivid Wallpaper". As an academic philosopher (aesthetics), my problem with Cage is that certain of his works (e.g. 4' 33") are fascinating conceptual "cases" –- paradoxes for reflection on the meaning of aesthetic terms. [Cf. Zeno on Achilles and the turtle proving that all motion is impossible. Paradoxes are not meant to establish their impossible conclusions, but to show that something is wrong with the analytic approach being used.]

But Cage's cases are usually taken by commentators as (limiting but genuine) cases "of music". And that habit undermines the application of common sense in the reflections that follow. Of course, it is not Cage-the-man's fault that much of his iconoclastic experiments are received as music (philosophers ought to be just as responsible for gullibility as anyone else). But Cage-the-cases is, at least for now, a kind of stumbling block, or scandal.

Bryan Townsend said...


Yes, you are quite right about the ontological status, if that is the right phrase, of Cage's music: it often poses conceptual problems.

The kind of thing Cage does can appeal to a certain kind of listening. If you don't want to experience someone else's narrative or structure, but rather just let your mind freewheel, enjoying a kind of open musical fantasy, then Cage is perfect. He provides a soundtrack for your musings. You can imagine musical effects the way you can imagine seeing animals in clouds.

In one of the Sonatas I kept imagining that he was just about to break into some Rachmaninoff! But he never did.