John Cage :untradition artist

Categories: ArtistsMusicTradition

John Cage was one of the artists who moved the furthest away from "tradition. " Cage himself says that he was trying to accomplish what Ives wanted many years before: to be able to sit on the back doorstep at sundown, listening to the music. In continuing and expanding the Ivesian tradition, Cage shattered the old notions of music as organized sound consisting of melody, harmony, and rhythm (Nicholls, 2007). He wondered why music had to be these things. His questioning led to new concepts of how musical elements could be freed from the restraints imposed on them by conventional thinking.

Most music contains only a few of the available pitches. Melody in its most elementary sense draws attention to a single line, which is a rather primitive way of perceiving music. Rhythm in which eventsoccur "in time" is also limiting. Why, within a particular space of time, can an event not happen at any point, its rhythmic aspects thus being freed from time in the more traditional sense? As Cage puts it: "In a painting an image can go anywhere on the canvas.

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Why can't a rhythm do the same thing within the framework of a piece of music? "

Cage's revolutionary ideas have led to many innovations. He is usually credited with having invented "chance music," music created under conditions that leave certain of its parts to the vagaries of the moment (Nicholls, 2007). Virgil Thomson notes that chance in composition is rather like a kaleidoscope, and "what kaleidoscopes and arabesques lack is urgency" (Grant, 2001, p.

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243). The music may not always have this quality, a condition that can ultimately hinder its expression in purely musical terms. But there is a new kind of musical awareness, a vitality of thought and of imagination.

Cage has redefined the entire concept of direction in music, since he has not been particularly interested in where events are going. Rather, he is more intrigued with the moment and with the possibilities of what can happen during that moment. Cage has also thought about music's purpose, deciding that actually there does not have to be any intent, that sounds alone can be the purpose. He says that "a sound accomplishes nothing; without it life would not last out the instant"( Pritchett, 1996). His aesthetic that everything is music is important, for it opens countless possibilities.

Cage's ideas have made a generation of composers rethink concepts that were taken too much for granted or were ruled out of musical consideration by previous generations. These concepts have, in fact, furthered music beyond its old boundaries. Many of Cage's works are famous because of the revolutionary concepts that formed them. The composition for piano that consists of four minutes, thirty-three seconds of silence, 4? 3? , is a case in point. To dismiss the work as a gimmick or as insignificant because it really is not music is to miss the point.

Composers have pondered the silences in music in previous ages, but it took Cage to realize that silence itself was an opportunity for a complete work and a complete experience. According to Cage, silence is deciding in favor of sounds that are not intended. And Cage feels that silence has philosophical overtones, for it strikes the foundations of the ego. 4? 33? is a difficult work, for there is so much to hear--nothing--and it is a memorable experience, for it shows a world of multiplicity, something that interests Cage far more than aspects of unity within a particular work (Pritchett, 1996).

Because anything is possible in Cage's compositional process, some works are highly organized, while others give an outward impression of random and unrelated orderings. Most of his early pieces, among them the 5 Songs for Contralto (1938) and the Quartet for Twelve Tom-Toms (1943), are carefully conceived and conventionally notated. Music of Changes (1951) was created with the aid of the Chinese book of changes, I Ching, one of Cage's favorite aids in the evolution of a work (Pritchett, 1996). In addition to his novel approaches to the general aspects of composition, Cage utilizes fascinating "instruments" in some of hispieces.

He has written compositions containing parts for brake drums. He has composed music for toy piano. Cage, in fact, has not rejected any possibility if that possibility has an intriguing sound. Thus, the amplified sound of water being swallowed, of a glass breaking or clinking, and of a balloon bursting are excellent sources, as good in their way as a piano or a trombone (Kostelanetz, 1991). Cage's love of both conventional and unconventional sounds has made him reconsider the various traditional instruments and how they can be changed to produce a new result.

One of these investigations resulted in the "prepared piano," which consists of objects such as nails, bolts, pins, and other materials placed between the strings of a piano, creating a diversity of different timbres. Henry Cowell had experimented with various possibilities of piano sonorities earlier in the century, including playing on the inside of the instrument, and Cage was undoubtedly influenced by some of Cowell's discoveries. But in most respects, Cage's is an original concept.

As a result of his pioneering efforts, the prepared piano is for all practical purposes a new instrument, reminiscent of a Balinese gamelan orchestra (Kostelanetz, 1991). Another unusual effect occurs in The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs, a song for voice and piano in which the pianist plays on the piano lid and on various other wooden parts of the instrument rather than on the keys. The piano, in other words, has many sound possibilities from which Cage has realized a diversity of new and unusual timbres (Pritchett, 1996). Cage has been accused of being narrow-minded, of only working with novelties and current avant-garde fashions.

This is untrue. Cage actually is an important figure whose mind is an open one and whose "novelty-fashions" in their total implications are significant and even visionary. They are not fraudulent, nor are they aimed at the destruction of Western musical civilization, although Cage has been accused of that and of just about everything else by his critics. The problem is simply that to the casual observer Cage's music is undisciplined. But this is also false. In some of his works chance itself is the discipline, a "method" that is used to bring about that which is not necessarily intended.

The compositional premises behind one of Cage's latest works, the Etudes Australes, is proof that there is a definite method behind chance procedures and that the results can present as unified a whole as if more conventional methods of organization had been employed (Patterson, 2001). Cage reports that the pieces created the impression of serial music to some listeners, and indeed the uncompromising aspects of the method of creation and the resulting combinations of pitches from that procedure would undoubtedly give an audience an impression of "twelve-tone" writing.

Strictly speaking, of course, it is usually impossible to tell if a work is serial simply by listening to it (Cage, 1966). Yet this association proves a point, for to mistake the chance operations of Cage for serial procedures is to demonstrate that two different "methods" can produce similar aural results. For a serial composer, serial procedures provide the answers to most of the compositional questions and to the continuity within a particular piece.

For Cage, chance operations answer the compositional questions, and from these procedures a continuity of musical expression develops. One of Cage's literary methods is a further example of the logical use of chance operations. In trying to find a title for a book of writings that in a typical Cage manner contains a liberal sprinkling of absurdities. Cage subjected the twenty-six letters of the alphabet to a chance operation with the help of the I Ching. The letter "m" was the winner, and the book was subsequently entitled M.

Although any letter would have worked as well, Cage noted that "m" was a good choice and particularly appropriate because it begins the names of many of his favorite people and things, among them music, mushrooms, Modern Music, and Mao Tse-tung. It was an absurd method for choosing an absurd title for a book of absurdities! Another aspect of Cage's writing demonstrates more positive and visionary qualities of his music. Prelude for Meditation for Prepared Piano Solo (1944) is early Cage, and the preparation of the piano involves stove bolts and wood screws(Patterson, 2001).

This piece, like 4? 33? , can be viewed initially and superficially as one event--a monolith. Within this monolithic experience is an inner world of relationships, of sounds and events that reach far beyond the two pitch classes that Cage employs. The philosophical concept behind a work such as this is simple: why should a piece of music begin, develop itself in intricate ways, and prove itself by an infinite variety that keeps an interest going in the work itself? Why should the variety not be of a different kind?

A piece of music can simply suspend itself in time, although time itself is usually conceived as a terribly limiting artistic commodity. Pieces begin and pieces end. What about what is before the beginning and after the ending? Time, itself a measured fragment of eternity, is always there on either side of an experience of any kind, and, in effect, what happens within the time of a work need not always make the time pass but rather might make it exist within a vacuum, within a world of monolithic yet many-faceted events. Cage's work is an early example of what has become a new aspect of musical experience.

Other composers began thinking about the possibilities of the monolith, and numerous examples have been written in the last quarter of a century. La Monte Young Composition 1960 #7 is a case in point. The work consists of two pitch classes, a B and an F-sharp (the relationship to Cage Prelude for Meditation is obvious), which the composer says should be held "for a long time. " In 1961 the work was played in New York by a string trio, and the forty-five minute duration of that particular reading resulted in "a whole world of fluctuating overtones" for those who were willing to listen (Patterson, 2001).

Experimental composers are not nearly as outrageous as their critics might think. Even a work that attempts by its chance procedures or other random methods of construction to be formless still achieves a form, which, in turn, expands our conception of "form. " For example, if a composer writes some musical fragments on notecards, shuffles the cards, and then plays the music in the order in which it appears, there will be many different orderings but always the same music, rearranged each time.

If one writes a chance piece for ten players with ten instruments, there is a limitation in the fact that the performers are ten, that the instruments are ten, and that the efforts are taking place within an inescapable time span. A composer cannot, in other words, achieve complete freedom, complete formlessness, for that is an impossibility. What a composer can do is achieve a new musical result.


Cage, John. (1966). Silence: Lectures and Writings. The MIT Press; New Ed edition. Grant, Mark N. (2001).

Maestros of the Pen: A History of Classical Music Criticism in America. Northeastern University Press. Kostelanetz, Richard. (1991). John Cage: An Anthology. Da Capo Press. Nicholls, David. (2007). John Cage (American Composers). University of Illinois Press. Patterson, David W. (2001). John Cage: Music, Philosophy, and Intention, 1933-1950 (Studies in Contemporary Music Andculture). Routledge; 1 edition. Pritchett, James. (1996). The Music of John Cage (Music in the Twentieth Century). Cambridge University Press.

Updated: Feb 23, 2021
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John Cage :untradition artist essay
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