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?