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

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.

There had been, I soon discovered, a serious scuffle between Cage and the European avant-garde, as each sought a kind of moral high ground for their preferred procedures.

When I finally got to hear the earlier, pre-chance music, it came as a pleasant surprise. The influence of the French maverick Erik Satie was very obvious in the first of his pieces from the 1940s that I got to know, the Nocturne for violin and piano. And the Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano turned out to be anything but forbidding. In fact, these pieces are almost enchantingly playful.

I sought Cage out for an interview when he was in London for performances by his partner, the dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham, at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre. It took days of patient phone-calling and postponed appointments before we finally came face to face in the Bloomsbury apartment he was staying in.

He was unassuming and extremely quiet-spoken. He somehow gave the impression of almost absent-minded dreaminess and sharp alertness. An alarm of some sort went off while we were talking about his Joyce-inspired Roaratorio. I could see him registering it in the pauses between sentences.

He eventually commented, “What is that sound?”, adding, savouringly, “It’s interesting, isn’t it?”, before taking up his original train of thought just where he had left it off.

It was a perfect example of the gentle-spirited inclusiveness of the man who had written a “silent” piece that’s intended to confront listeners with the everyday transient sounds that everyone – bar Cage himself, of course – tries to exclude from the experience of a musical performance.

He seems to have had no fear of where his explorations might lead him. It didn’t bother him if his work could be seen as having anything or nothing to do with conventional notions of art.

“It could relate at any moment. Or not. You could perfectly well see art as not-art. And you could perfectly well see not-art as art. There’s a museum in London which makes that very evident. I know, because I asked the attendants, ‘Is that a work of art?’, pointing to the air-conditioning system.

“And they said, ‘No, that’s the air-conditioning system. But you’re not the first person to ask.’ ”

He struck me as pure and fearless, and he must have been tough, too. Long after I’d interviewed him, I heard on CD the recording of a concert from the Donaueschingen Festival in 1954, which was to have featured one of a series of pieces he had titled after their durations, 34’46.776” for prepared piano.

He was warned that it was probably too long for the Donaueschingen audience. So for just this performance, it became 12’55.6078” but the audience still laughed at the strange sounds and made their disapproval obvious in any number of other ways, too.

There was no laughter at the New Ross Piano Festival on Saturday night, when Hugh Tinney presented an hour-long, late-night, centenary tribute, John Cage and his Influences.

Tinney steered clear of less-acceptable rebarbative works. He opened with three of Satie’s Gnossiennes, pieces that, like some of the late works of Liszt, just seem to come out of nowhere, as if they’re detached from both musical history and the time of their composition.

And he played them with an appropriate reserve, eschewing the niceties of conventional expressiveness, so that they could sound just like themselves.

He brought the same kind of sensitivity to Cage’s own In a Landscape, a piece with clear connections to Satie that Cage wrote at a time when he was concerned with the rigorous working out of note patterns. It’s music of immediate appeal, which works best when it’s left to speak for itself, which is exactly how Tinney approached it.

The opening movements of Sonatas and Interludes – played, of necessity, on a second piano – brought the programme into the ever-fascinating world of the prepared piano, which at once miniaturises the volume of a piano and extends the range of its sound and colour into an exoticism that can even bring to mind the world of Javanese gamelan music.

Two of the Nature Pieces by Cage’s friend and colleague Morton Feldman showcased another kind of miniaturisation – Feldman often specified extreme dynamics, as he did here (“As soft as possible“) – and the effect was of a kind of fairy music.

The closing piece was a Notturno by Grieg, a composer for whom Cage expressed real fondness.

The concert’s only miscalculation was the inclusion of the notorious 4’33” as an encore. The end of a long festival day is not the time most people will have the freshness that this piece really needs if it’s philosophical point is to be best made.

The two days of the piano festival that I got to also included performances by a young Swiss pianist of Chinese origin, Mélodie Zhao, whose programme of Beethoven, Chopin, Ravel and Liszt was at its best when the music was most virtuosic, and Croatian pianist Martina Filjak, who gave an arresting account of the closing fugue of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier sonata.

The Storioni Trio took a nicely mellow approach to Ravel’s Piano Trio, and the festival’s artistic director Finghin Collins presented Brahms (the Op 79 Rhapsodies) and Schubert (the Drei Klavierstücke, D946) in appealingly burnished tones.

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