Online Edition: Fall 2000

John Cage: Writer

John Cage: Writer

Selected Texts

edited by Richard Kostelanetz

Cooper Square Press ($17.95)

by Ramez Qureshi

One evening I heard some modern music: Scriabin, Stravinsky. I also had seen modern painting in Paris.
      My reaction to modern painting and modern music was immediate and enthusiastic, but not humble: I decided that if other people could make such things, I could too.

So reveals John Cage in "A Composer's Confessions." One is grateful or rueful for Cage's youthful immodesty (count me in the former company), for 20th Century culture has never been the same, jammed with the provocative monkey wrench of John Cage's art, the way a musical composition of his might be jammed with an unorthodox sound that would be the last thing one would expect in music.

One only need read the copious and succinct "Notes on Composition" here to get an idea of just what Cage has done to music. Here is a description of "Concerto Gross for 4 TV Sets and 12 Radios," from 1979:

First Installation: In 1969 at the University if California, Davis, I arranged an event called 33⅓ which consisted of an auditorium with eight sound systems, the sound sources being recordings played on playbacks. Each playback had a technical assistant who did not himself play the records but who was available in case a member of the "audience" had difficulty in doing so. For the audience was the performers. Without them nothing was heard. This piece is in that "tradition." It is assumed, however, that everyone knows how to "play" a television set and how to "play" a radio.

Cage explains the politics behind his music: "I had become interested in writing difficult music, etudes, because of a world situation which often seems to many of us hopeless. I thought that were a musician to give the examples in public of doing the impossible that it would inspire someone who was struck by that performance to change the world, to improve it." But this book purports to show Cage as a writer, as its title indicates, so we have Cage the poet, presenting his innovative mesostics, such as takes on the word "James Joyce," rearranging texts from Finnegan's Wake:

                                                 rubyJuby. phook!
                           no wonder, pipes As kirles, that he sthings like a rheinbok
one bed night he had the delysiuMs
                                              that thEy
                              were all queenS mobbing him.

John Cage: Writer is mostly about music, though: criticism, notes, autobiographical testimony. And back to the music. It takes ones breath away to come across a harmlessly nestled discreet description of the legendary "4'33"," that piece consisting of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence, from 1952:

tacet, any instrument or combination of instruments: This is a piece in three movements during all three of which no sounds are intentionally produced. The lengths of time were determined by chance operations but could be any others.

The sound in "4'33"" is that of the background, silence, being for Cage, "not acoustic . . . a change of mind, a turning around" as he discovered at Harvard during his famed visit to its acoustics lab in the late '40s when he heard, in a sound vacuum chamber, two sounds: the high pitch of his nervous system and the low pitch of his circulatory system.

Cage's sense of humor is on display here as well. Cage was known for his laughter, and he provokes much of it in his "Synopses" to "Europera," pastiches from operas stitched together through chance operations:

Dressed as an Irish princess, he gives birth; they plot to overthrow the French. He arranges to be kidnapped by her; rejuvenated, they desert: to him she has borne two children. He prays for help. Since they have decided she shall marry no one outside, he has himself crowned emperor. She, told he is dead, begs him to look at her. First, before the young couple come to a climax, he agree. Accidentally she drowns them.

Chance operations, many of which Cage conducted through the I-Ching, are pivotal to his aesthetics, and Cage explains why: "...the I Ching is a discipline of the ego. It facilitates self-alteration and weakens self-expression." The aesthetic of self-expression is out for Cage; instead he seeks a self-disciplining that seems to anticipate Foucault. Such is the producer's side; as for the receiver's, the end is one of an integrated personality free of neurosis, in retreat to the tranquility of "that island that we have grown to think no longer exists to which we might we might have retreated to have escaped the impact of the world."

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Fall 2000 Table of Contents