Regular readers of this blog will know that I usually try to encourage folks to commemorate an event or a composer’s anniversary by engaging with musical works relating to the historic day; in the case of composer and artist John Cage, who would have turned 100 on 5th of September, this might be harder, you could think. After all, he wrote 4’33” and famously said “I have nothing to say and I’m saying it.” (Silence: Lectures and Writings, Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press 1961, p. 109; UL: M470.c.95.39; Pen: Rb.570.91C.Z1) What else is there to know about Cage? Why should anyone care about his music? You could short-cut any engagement with his thoughts and works by dismissing it not as music but as drivel.
Let’s tackle the last point first. Listen to In a Landscape (1948) and tell me that this isn’t music:
Okay, even I – a piano player of very limited abilities – could play this (if you are tempted: scores at UL: MR.340.a.95.9, item 7; at Pen: 881.E.C26), but we could probably all agree that it’s definitely music. Some of Cage‘s works for percussion only are also very ‘approachable’ (and I don’t mean with a hard hat and earmuffs, as if entering a construction site): just listen to First Construction (in Metal) (1939; UL score: M320.a.95.3, item 3):
As far as I understand things, the key to perceiving Cage is to treat him as an “inconsistent” composer; this is not such an unusual request: think of the various musical and aesthetic personae which Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky, for instance, offer us. Cage offers various phases, and his earlier works as well as his later works offer sonic and aesthetic beauty. Thirteen Harmonies (1985) is a case in point: it might not be as traditional or as palatable (others might say ‘boring’) as the original harmonies of this US chorale setting, but if you are listening to the sounds and ignore that there is a certain lack of syntax, the sounds themselves are actually very peaceful and calming.
If you have followed me this far… it might be worth commemorating Cage with a piece called Cheap Imitation (1969). Cage was dying to use Eric Satie’s work Socrate (first published in 1919) to accompany a dance devised by Merce Cunningham; however, the publishers did not permit him to use the original. The result is Cheap Imitation, which is Satie’s work but with notes removed:
UL: M360.a.95.125, item 2 & MRA.340.95.31[Order in Anderson Room (Not borrowable)]
Throughout this post I have added a link every time I use Cage‘s name, with a different web address for each occurrence to highlight the fact that 20 years after his death (he died on 12st August 1992), his music, art and ideas are still being presented in various events, documented and commented on. Denying his importance and impact is no longer possible; however, who knows whether it will last another 20 years? Who cares! As long as you don’t just summarise him as a composer of one work, and one (seemingly) nihilistic statement, you might be in for some interesting surprises and discoveries.