John Cage: A Juilliard Centennial

John Cage in 1989.

In January, 1960 the top rated CBS television game show I’ve Got a Secret featured one of its most unusual celebrity guests. Crew cut, bow-tied, genial host Garry Moore introduced a lanky, tall man in a dark suit. His name was John Cage and Moore called him, “probably one of the most controversial figures in the musical world today.” Normally, the show’s guest whispers a secret to the host as a scroll reveals it to the at home audience. The panel then proceeds to question the guest, in order to guess his secret.

Cage whispers to Moore that he is going to perform one of his compositions called “Water Walk,” so titled because he employs a pitcher of water, and he walks around the “instruments.” The instruments include traditional ones such as a grand piano, 2 cymbals, and a few small pitch pipes. But the audience begins to laugh as the scroll continues: a rubber duck, an electric mixer, ice cubes, a seltzer siphon, a steam pressure cooker, an iron pipe, a bath tub, and five radios, the laughter increasing as each instrument is listed. Moore consults with his producer and decides to eliminate the Q and A part of the segment, the game itself, and tells the panel what Cage is going to do. A curtain parts revealing what appears to be the stored contents of someone’s garage. A certain ad hoc element is added to the performance “score” when Moore explains a jurisdictional labor union dispute, unresolved at show time, about the five radios, a fight over which local has the right to plug in the radios. Cage offers a solution that is in keeping with what promises to be a Dadaesque event, a kind of acoustic parallel to Jean Tinguely’s Homage to New York, the subject of my last blog essay. The difference here is that Tinguely’s performance was for a few hundred upscale MoMA guests. Cage’s music is going to be seen and heard by a TV masscult audience of millions, most of whom have no idea he is America’s leading avant-garde composer, but who think he’s some eccentric crank from Stony Point, New York.

Here is the introduction and “performance,” probably from an old kinescope:

The proud figure of the iconoclastic maverick is a venerable tradition in American concert music. Insurance salesman and part time composer, New Englander, Charles Ives, is their godfather. Ives experimented in polytonality, even with two orchestras simultaneously playing different scores. Ives spawned Henry Cowell, a West Coast pianist/composer whose forte was something called “tone clusters,” which called for using the entire forearm as a kind of hammer on the keyboard. A contemporary of Cowell’s was George Antheil who expatriated as part of the American 20s Parisian arts scene. The score of his Ballet Mechanique for the film by Leger, Man Ray, and Dudley Murphy called for two airplane propellers (it will be the subject of an upcoming essay). After this French avant-garde flirtation, Antheil returned to the United States where he continued his career—composing for mainstream Hollywood movies such as In a Lonely Place and The Pride and the Passion. Harry Partch, a native-born Californian like Cowell, developed a microtonal system that required him to invent his own instruments. And Conlon Nancarrow, after flirtations with communism and service in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade during the Spanish Civil War, expatriated to Mexico, where he composed dozens of scores for player pianos. Many of them are so complicated that, in transcription for a live concert performance two pianists are required. John Cage, born in Los Angeles in 1912, is cut from the same cloth as these mavericks, but his music is even more of a crazy quilt.

Most of these composers are known to me only through their music. John Cage, however, was a brief, but unforgettable, live presence in my life. In the spring of 1963 I was a student in Vienna, most often seen by friends, standing up in the “gods” of the Vienna State Opera House, a place so high up that the stage looked like the deck as seen from the crow’s nest of a British man-of-war. A midnight curtain after a five-hour performance of Die Meistersinger or Die Götterdämmerung invariably called for several tankards of Pilsner Urquell at the closest Bierstube. I soaked up German/Austrian high art as avidly as I did the local brews. But one night John Cage and his amanuensis, David Tudor, came to town for a concert: not in some experimental student venue, but in the prestigious and historic 700 seat Mozartsaal of the Konzerthaus. I knew a little about Cage from a few anecdotes about his use of the I Ching as a compositional guide for his development of indeterminacy and aleatoric technique—that is, his exploration of non-harmonic musical development based on chance and random choices. Clearly, John Cage encountering a staid Viennese audience was going to be quite interesting. It was. Several of Cage's scheduled works, sonatas for prepared piano, were at least played on a concert grand, and the String Quartet in Four Parts used four bowed instruments, although it displayed utter indifference to any dramatic structure normally expressed in the quartet form. But the performance of 4’ 33,” Cage’s infamous piano piece in three movements where the only sound emanating from the piano is of the pianist turning a page of the score and opening and closing the keyboard lid between movements as he starts and stops a stopwatch—was too much. Hooting would have been too rude for these über-cultured Viennese, but they made their point as they rushed for the exits. By Cagean standards the performance was a success because the point of 4’ 33” is the silence onstage as well as the ambient sounds in the audience, even if it’s raucous. The “music” of dozens of Viennese feet shuffling for the exits must have delighted Cage.

This anecdote defines the point of everything that John Cage’s music is about. He just wants us to listen to sounds. All kinds of sounds. For him, music is simply sound, whether it is organized by Beethoven, by chance decisions, by ambience—or silence. He said that “the material of music is sound and silence. Integrating these is composing.” Cage’s life was spent in challenging the traditional concept of music, and many of his works compel the listener to redefine what he imagines music to be.

Near the end of his life he expressed these thoughts, interspersed with his signature laughter, for a film interview, as the sounds of Sixth Avenue traffic provided accompaniment outside his Manhattan apartment window.

In the interview Cage refers to his friend, the artist Marcel Duchamp; both of them were avid chess players, Duchamp to the point of virtually abandoning art. In 1947, Cage wrote a piece for prepared piano dedicated to Duchamp; it was for a sequence of Duchamp in the Hans Richter silent film Dreams That Money Can Buy. The piano here not only anticipates the rhythmic modality of the 60s minimalist composers; it also sounds Asian: Japanese or a Balinese gamelan. This is no accident. At this time in his life Cage had become a Zen Buddhist and he continued to explore the line of non-Western harmony in his work.

Some of Cage’s music is lush, even lyrical; much of it is not. The challenge of how to meet his music on the composer’s rather than on the listener’s terms was met recently by the Juilliard School of Music in NYC. Its early February week of concerts held annually under the rubric FocusFest explores in depth a single composer or group, or an allied movement in 20th century music. This year it celebrated the centennial of John Cage’s birth.

The Juilliard John Cage centennial program.

Several years ago, its weeklong concerts celebrated the centennial of Elliott Carter, now 103, another American maverick who is still composing; Carter is the subject of an essay I wrote in Dec. 2009.

John’s Bailiwick—“Happy Birthday Mr. Carter: Centennial Plus One” link

John Cage and Elliott Carter, Amsterdam, 1989.

Clearly, John Cage is no academic ivory tower composer, slavish to the dictates of Schönberg and serialism, even though he studied briefly with the master of the Second Vienna School. The rock band Sonic Youth cites him as an influence; they recorded several of his pieces on their SYR4 album. The English alternative music band Stereolab wrote a song titled John Cage Bubblegum. And then there’s Frank Zappa. And the entire minimalist movement including Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass is indebted to the percussive and repetitive rhythms that pre-occupy Cage. An easy entry to illustrate this is Cage’s Fifth Sonata for Prepared Piano. Listen to it not as just a piano but as a percussion ensemble with piano.

As unusual as the piano may sound, the scores for many of these pieces, the Sonatas and Interludes, look quite traditional.

Score for “Two Pieces for Piano.”

Sheet music is one thing. The ancillary pages of instructions Cage provides to “prepare” the piano are equally as specific as traditional notation. The arrangement of wood screws, bolts, washers, nuts, bits of plastic or wood between the keys is not arbitrary. In this next video the German pianist Tim Ovens follows with a tape measure the exact placements called for by Cage as he prepares the piano for the Fourth Sonata.

Ovens next plays the Tenth Sonata in a concert performance. There are cutaways to the guts of the piano harp where you can see how the individual notes react. Like much of Cage’s music it is alternately quite percussive, unexpectedly lyrical, and ends on a delicate thrumming motif.

In the following decades Cage became increasingly fascinated with aleatory composition and performance. Many of the pieces during the FocusFest week featured solo student performers who followed Cages’s compositional imperative, performing charted movements and activities that had been determined by the composer’s chance decisions. For this kind of composition the printed score departs from tradition.

Score for “Concert for Piano and Orchestra.“

The aleatory works are not strictly speaking improvisations as in jazz but enlist decisions made beforehand by the performer based on timing directions and choices under specific guidelines of the composer. The specifics of every performance may be quite different, but the structure is not. It may be difficult to express this idea in words, but to watch the young Juilliard musicians embrace the options that Cage offers, is to see the musician not just as interpreter but as co-creator. One of the many things that I experienced in the Cage Centennial concerts was a sense of myself reaching up from the audience to the stage, to the personal space of the performer, as if by invitation. One piece in the Cage FocusFest embodied this feeling for me. It was titled Child of Tree from 1975. It is a composition for “amplified plant materials” and was performed by Juilliard student Andrew Funcheon. It calls for a close mikeing of natural objects like a seedpod rattle, plucked cactus needles, crushed twigs, and leaves. These amplified sounds may challenge the concept of music that we normally expect, but the commitment of the performer convinces you of the musicality, and the sheer allure of the odd sounds is quite beautiful. In the documentary that ends this essay you will see Cage himself “playing” this piece as his longtime partner Merce Cunningham and his company dance in the background.

John Cage and Merce Cunningham.

This sense of intimacy with the performer is not something that I have read about in the critical literature about Cage, but I am certain he intends it. Cage was far from an oddity or an aloof artist. He was witty, verbally adroit, and engaged in the detailed reality of life: in the moment-by-moment passage of the ordinary that we take for granted and often ignore. So, his relationships to the performers of his music is by definition also detailed and intimate.

This idea of John Cage as an everyday man, as well as one of the century’s most influential cultural seers, is impossible to present in a brief essay. Fortunately, there is a documentary that does just this. The video here is compromised by a slight sync anomaly and by poor duping but it takes you on a mini-history of 20th century avant-garde art. Along the way you meet critics and artists such as Marcel Duchamp, Merce Cunningham, Yoko Ono, Laurie Anderson, and Robert Rauschenberg. They all give eloquent testimony to Cage’s significance. The film begins and ends following the composer, a world-class mycologist, as he harvests mushrooms in the woods near his home. He brims over with the sheer ecstasy of life in the simple pleasure of a being in nature.

I have not been able to find credits for the filmmakers or if it is available on DVD. Much Cage material on YouTube has been disabled. So far, maybe because of its obscurity, this documentary has been spared. Here it is:

John Cage died in 1992. In less than a month he would have been 80. The whimsical bad boy of the avant-garde whistled his own tune to the very end.




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