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John Cage's Enduring Opus
Is Nothing Sacred?
“‘Fools’ said I, ‘You do not know, Silence like a cancer grows’” - Paul Simon
On August 29, 1952, in Woodstock, New York, a pianist named David Tudor sat silently at a piano for four minutes and thirty-three seconds in the premier performance of John Cage’s “4:33,” the composition for which he is best known. In his kindest words ever about the composer, Igor Stravinsky acclaimed it as John Cage’s “finest composition.” As you will hear in the portion of this piece, selected for the track below, Stravinsky’s assessment is impossible to dispute. As a pianist myself I can assure you, I have never been able, with all my learning and skill, to actually ever play this piece; at least not while awake. If you have never heard it, then you know how great it is. Much like the question, “Have you ever seen The Invisible Man?” we may ask what it takes to appreciate “4:33.” The piece does not really consist of silence; it consists of whatever sounds are present, e.g., car horns from outside or coughs from inside, in the venue where it is performed. As a composer Cage did not surpass his teacher Arnold Schoenberg upon not creating this work. Furthermore, I must admit to preferring it to quite a lot of contemporary A.I. generated songs, and I would much rather hear “4:33” than any popular Christmas song written over the last few years (especially annoying in grocery stores during the last two months of each year.) Frankly, when I see any movie that has scenes with no background music, I must ask why Cage never thought to sue for copyright infringement. In defense of “4:33” it must be noted, or rather pointed out, that the whole point of the piece is to make a point.
In addition to pioneering avant-garde music, John Cage (1912 - 1992) was the world’s leading expert on mushrooms, not an unimportant topic in preventing death by accidental poisoning. He was also very funny, talented at telling jokes with a slow and deliberate style like that of Jim Gaffigan; Cage, to his credit, had perfect comic timing. I have often wondered, sometimes aloud, how much that comic timing was really the driving rhythm of his musical compositions. Whatever else we can say about his career, the one fact that is undeniable above all else is that John Cage was a definitive product of his native state, California. He also is the best-known figure not only in avant-garde music, but also in avant-garde art as a whole, perhaps second only to Andy Warhol. I look back to my days studying music formally at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (U.M.B.C.), where I was expected to study “Experimental Music,” and where I also met John Cage. He came there to perform one day, which has much to do with my consideration that his love of funny jokes explains a lot about his music.
It was the late 1970s into early 1980, when Jimmy Carter was President and double-knit suits were creating discomfort to skin and eyes, that I was in the halls and practice rooms of U.M.B.C. Between classes I was practicing a varied student repertoire of Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier, Mozart Sonatas, Six Little Piano Pieces (Sechs kleine Klavierstücke, Op. 19) by Arnold Schoenberg, and a “Prepared” piano piece by John Cage. The score, so to speak, instructed the performer where to insert various items, a penny, a rubber-band, a small piece of bamboo, etc., into specific wires of a grand piano (the preparations would not work in an upright piano). The instructions include which wires to “prepare” even of notes for which there are three. There is no mistaking in those scores exactly where we are being instructed to stick it. As a result, the instrument was transformed into a mock percussion ensemble with no discernible tones. The score had traditional notation, directing us what keys to press and for how long. The music that resulted had no consistent rhythm, no melody per say, and no harmony.
The U.M.B.C. Music Department had its conditions for earning a degree. Twice a week I was required to attend the “Experimental Music” class, where we were an ensemble of musicians practicing for an end of semester performance on the stage. The Professor conducted us as one would any orchestra. The score was a series of visual scribbles that contained any number of possible interpretations, much like the freedom of association that goes with a psychiatrist’s ink blots. We had no instruments. One day as we rehearsed, the conductor pointed to me: That meant I had to play something immediately. I pulled a comb from my pocket and ran it slowly along the edge of my music stand to make a noise. The professor, that is the conductor, smiled. Later he told me that my idea was “brilliant.”
We were expected to compose our own experimental scores. Well, Cage had already pioneered the “Silent piece” that depends on the sounds of the room or concert hall. What could I come up with to make a really clever avant-garde point? I had it. I called my composition Christmas Tree Lights. The score instructed the performers to arrange blinking lights to act in rhythmic counterpoint and visual harmony to demonstrate that an opus, music even for the deaf, might well contain only the element of rhythm and still be, by technical definition, music. It was more than forty years ago, but I believe I received a “A” as well as accolades from the same professor who conducted our Experimental Music ensemble.
In those days I was working on my bachelor’s degree, which required studies in addition to my major. One of those was Philosophy 101. The year before attending U.M.B.C. I was a freshman at Howard Community College in Columbia, Maryland. Looking back at the introductory Philosophy class I cannot forget that it was presented with a very real amount of pure banality, as well as with a little bit of serious philosophical study sprinkled in, and such names as Plato mentioned on rare occasions, and with dubious interpretations of his works if any at all. When I consider the idea of Experimental Music as a supposed art form, which I studied the following year, I cannot fail to see that something had gone off the rails. I have long realized that the entire avant-garde emphasis I encountered in the U.M.B.C. music department was a departure from art for art’s sake to the less than even sophomoric level of freshman Philosophy. It was not a study in music as much as a weak “philosophical” challenge to the existence of music as music, as well as to any concept of art, of culture, and even of communication. Concerning his “Prepared Piano” works, John Cage said that a written note, to him, did not mean a specific tone as much as the instruction to strike a specific piano key at a specific moment. The problem is this: It really does mean a specific tone. It is a form of written communication and as such is as proper in its meaning as any word, the novel approach of Humpty Dumpty as to how one defines any given word notwithstanding. Art is cultural in its conception, its execution, and in the appreciation it receives. As for that professor: When I caught him relaxing in his office, I could not help but notice that he was listening, not to the walls, and not to a scratching comb, but to a Bach concerto.
Making points, presenting challenges to conventional perspectives, raising probing questions, are all fundamental to learning and thinking. In every generation human culture and discovery undergoes transition. Transitions are necessary to cultural evolution and even to communication between cultures. However, attempting a forced transition only for the sake of presenting a challenge in and of itself, in whatever manner it may be philosophically appropriate, is superficial and awkward. What makes the endeavor inferior to cultural evolution, which includes new ideas and concepts in every form of art, and therefore new expressions and expanding tastes in music, is the simple fact that it must be deliberately introduced and interjected in a way that is not evolutionary. It is not a natural growth and adaptation in culture. And all the arts, including music, are communal and cultural. And what the arts depend on most, and never call into question, is communication.