Music by lord of silence speaks for itself
John Cage heard music in a distant alarm, and saw art in an air-conditioner, and this week we were reminded of why his music – and silence – has echoed through the years
IT’S PROBABLY fair to describe John Cage (1912-92) as the man who achieved the greatest notoriety as a composer in the 20th century. That notoriety persists to this day and stems from the extremity of the radical positions he adopted during his life. In the 1930s, Cage studied with another great musical bogey-man, Arnold Schoenberg, then living in exile in Los Angeles. It was Schoenberg who said Cage was “not a composer, but an inventor – of genius”.
Cage first became famous through his pieces for strange percussion ensembles, using brake drums, thundersheets, anvils and water gongs. The percussion music even brought him coverage in Life magazine.
Sandwiched between features on Navy boxers and a South African witch doctor, the March 1943 article on his percussion concert told readers, “Band bangs things to make music” (see iti.ms/SYhlT8).
He wrote Living Room Music for four performers who played on household objects. His use of what he called a “prepared piano”, with a range of metal, wooden and rubber objects inserted between the strings, turned a humble keyboard into a one-man percussion band.
The developments that were to make the greatest impression in the 1950s were his moves into composition by chance procedures, the creation of pieces which were indeterminate with respect to their performance and, in particular, the silent piece 4’33”, the title indicating the duration of the “silence”.
For Cage, the point of the piece was that there was no such thing as complete silence. There’s always something going on, and if you remove every sound outside yourself, you’ll still be confronted with bodily noises of your own, like the pulsing of your blood.
I met Cage as a writer long before I got to hear any of his music, either in concert or on disc. The books were typographic wonders. He obviously took a delight in forcing readers to negotiate hurdles, and mingled with the oddly-spaced words, and sometimes puzzle-like patterns of the texts, were snippets of personal experiences, casting things that had happened to him into the form of Zen stories.
The pictures on the back always showed him with a beaming laugh, even the one that caught him out of doors, basket in hand, collecting mushrooms – he won a TV quiz in Italy in the 1950s, answering questions on mushrooms.
The music itself could be something of a puzzle too. And it was remarkable how the works of the high serialists of the 1950s – angularly dissonant and controlled with mathematical rigour – could sound not a million miles away from Cage’s chance music, written by the throwing of dice or through consulting the I Ching, the Chinese book of changes.