John Cage: Idle Thoughts

Of course he’s not a composer, but he’s an inventor … of genius.
(Arnold Schoenberg)

A composer with often serious intentions, who was perceived a bit too gimmicky by many people.

Too many musicologists and journalists have had a field day spewing out more column inches about Cage’s ideas than his music (which perhaps says something about the influence of his ideas vis-à-vis the value of his music) and in so doing elevating his status disproportionately high, versus contemporaneous musical explorers such as (for example) Cowell, Harrison, Hovhaness, Partch or Rudhyar.

History tends to sort itself out within a century or two.

Aria and The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs, both performed by Cathy Berberian were the first works by Cage I ever heard. I was hooked. Aria is a wonderful, beautiful musical work. I recall a particularly effective performance by Sarah Walker, as part of a Cage retrospective organised by Tim Souster, if I recall correctly, back in the 1970s. Her superficial visual resemblance at that time to Cathy Berberian was exploited to the full.

I suppose that, over the years, I must have listened to at least half of Cage’s output at one time or another but, whilst I see no reason not to take him seriously, he deserves to be taken seriously on his own terms, not those of someone else. It is hard to forget what Schoenberg said of his one-time student but, for me, it is Cage’s way of taking nothing for granted that marks him out as someone worthy of note; Albumasar has put it succinctly with the words:

Something that could be characterised as a “musical” quality of attention, a heightened awareness of the relation between sound(s) and time which we associate with music … it isn’t a question of learning special techniques as a listener so much as opening listeners’ “sense of music” to a much wider range of experiences, whether a frog plopping into a pond as in the famous haiku or a pneumatic drill on a building site …

This, to me, is what characterises Cage’s rôle in the musical life of his time.

My own listening experiences nevertheless have led me to get little out of Cage, but that’s a very personal matter and not intended as any kind of value judgement. Whilst a good deal of the gimmickry of which Cage has been accused by some has its origins largely in the imaginations of the accusers (i.e. I do not see Cage as the kind of artist who would set out to do that kind of thing for its own sake), I have to admit that the Cage pieces that I find the most disappointing of all are those that would perhaps be least likely to attract such accusations in the first place, such as the string quartet pieces and the Freeman Études.

As to the “frog ploppng into a pond” and the “pneumatic drill on a building site”, I cannot help but think that Cage did himself few favours or helped his real cause when he stated that he had never heard any sound that he hadn’t enjoyed; I’m not for one moment suggesting that this wasn’t true but, taken purely at face value, it could be interpreted as seeking to undermine a sense of discrimination.

Related:

John Cage’s 4’33”

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2 Responses to “John Cage: Idle Thoughts”

  1. What a timely post, as heaven knows I’m trying to develop my listening skills lately. I was unfamiliar with Cage, but found much of his music interesting AND pleasing to the ear, which is always a pleasant surprise for me.

    As for 4’33”? All I could think of was the tale of the Emporor’s New Clothes.

    Still working on the listening thing, I suppose.

    • Thanks for your comment, Jo. 4’33” is a notorious piece which is best ignored … I think I kind of evened things up when I stole the score from a music shop in York thirty years ago … so Peters Edition and John Cage got no money … I tried lining the cats’ litter tray with it … but the cats didn’t want to crap on it …

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