Monday, July 4, 2011

The Case of John Cage

John Cage (1912 - 1992) is a fascinating composer; one of the most influential American composers of the 20th century. I got to thinking about him because I see Alex Ross put one of his pieces, Credo in US, on his blog today. John Cage was a student of Henry Cowell and Arnold Schoenberg of all people. He is famous for making use of a 'prepared' piano (with screws and other objects placed between the strings to alter the sound), with using the I Ching and coin tosses to make compositional choices and for his most famous piece, 4'33, a piece for piano that consists of three brief movements of nothing but silence. Here is the piece Alex Ross posted:

Here is another piece. This time performed by Cage himself: Waterwalk. This is from a television show in 1960:

There are other more conventional pieces by Cage such as the Concerto for Prepared Piano and Chamber Orchestra of 1950-51:

As Cage says, any activity that produces sound (or silence, I suppose), creates music. This is rather a clever rhetorical strategy: if you will admit to that then the question of what is the difference between good music and bad music becomes trivial. Music is music! But I don't think we should fall for that. The 20th century was, in some ways, a suicide attempt by Western Civilization. The reasons are complex and outside the purview of this blog, but the World Wars, the genocide(s), the totalitarianism, the sheer barbarism and cruelty made the 20th century extraordinary. The transformations in art were also deep and wrenching and often consisted of a similar attempt to destroy the Western traditions of art. Which have, by the way, produced a remarkable amount of great and beautiful music.

So let me ask the question--the only really important question--is there any sense whatsoever in which these pieces could be considered good music? No scare quotes around 'good'. We mostly know what good music is, though perhaps we may need a few listens. Go ahead, go back and listen again to the three pieces. You can certainly answer the question differently for each piece.

But before you do, let me just point out that the performance of Waterwalk  by the composer is a terrible one. He played several wrong notes on the piano, left out two goose calls and forgot completely one of the rubber ducky squeezes. I'm joking, of course. Without score in hand, and perhaps even with, there is no possible way of determining if it was a good, really good, terrible or really terrible performance. Which is really another rhetorical strategy to actively prevent you from making any kind of value judgment. But we must. After all, when you sit down and make a choice as to what to listen to, that is a value judgment.

UPDATE: I want to add that there is a very telling detail in the tv show performance of Waterwalk: notice how the moderator and Cage both stress that everything is being timed with a stopwatch. Stopwatch = precision = validity! I love it.

Let me ask again: is this good music?


RG said...


Those cons who bamboozled the tall browed lovers of Art (incl Music) all during the 20thC were clever boys. The above accurately quoted equation is so absurd, I cannot believe that it is not part of the impudent con itself and appreciated by the moderator and/or Cage as malicious humour and a further contemptuous fillip against the soggy mentalities of that paying public.

By the way, use of the stopwatch was put into pop culture by Frederick Taylor, founder of modern management theory.

Bryan Townsend said...

I'm just waiting for some Cage lovers to discover this post and wax eloquent (or apoplectic). Unless this is a case of preference suppression where we all really got tired of Cage long ago and are just pretending...

Shantanu said...

The performance "Waterwalk" you put up there is quite interesting. I thought about it and tried to figure what the "message" of the piece is and came up with this.

I think it is an indictment of civilisation, or at least those aspects of it that Cage does not like. If you try to find music in the piece, in you per se strain your ears and eyes and try to find some emotional hook to connect with, or a phrase of meaning, you will be disappointed. That is because it is supposed to be irrational and without meaning. I think all works of art are a lot about the communion of the artist with the observer/audience/listener. In the end, art is engaging because of the message. So while Mozart's music mostly is a celebration of civilisation, Bach's music more of a celebration and exaltation of the critical abilities of the mind (those are not stereotypes, just suggestions, if you will), this "demonstration" could be read into as an expression of disorder in the world at present, to put it plainly.

Of course, things like the cacophony of the city, the whole absurdity of the audience being disconnected from the piece itself, and therefore disconnected from the artist/performer (they laugh, while he is serious). Cage projects an image that the sounds should be taken seriously, but in turn they are not taken seriously at all. This reaction of the audience is something that Cage in the beginning wanted to bring out - the point being that they (the audience, and therefore the general public) are not cognizant of the very incredulity of the situation.

A twisted and spiteful double joke!

I hope what I wrote is interesting. I know it's not particularly within the realms of a discussion on music. :)

Bryan Townsend said...

Shantanu, that is a very interesting comment and yes, quite within the realms of a discussion of this kind of music!

I think that you capture quite well the contradictions of this sort of art. At the heart it is quite nihilistic. Perhaps this is because of the horrific events of the 20th century. I can't blame Cage for his take on things. But at the same time, I also don't see the need to take this sort of thing seriously as a piece of music.

For a different kind of piece by Cage, see this post:

Anonymous said...

Here is a masterful interpretation of John Cage's 4'33" on classical guitar by Apostolos Paraskevas:

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks for the contribution, Anonymous!