John Cage: ‘More mainstream than ever’

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson is a music writer and critic with special interest in piano. He spent nine years on the board of the London International Piano Competition and has written extensively on music for leading publications, including the International New York Times, Clavier Companion, The Washington Times, American Spectator and the website Facts & Arts. He spent four years in Moscow as a correspondent and also worked as a journalist in Paris, London and New York. 05.06.2014

When British music lecturer Julia Winterson offered composer John Cage a cup of coffee, he just looked at her. Ms. Winterson, recalling the 1989 encounter, said she thought maybe he hadn’t heard her or didn’t understand her Yorkshire accent. After a long pause, however, he answered quietly, “No thank you. I will wait as long as I possibly can – and then I will have one. It will be wonderful.”

Cage was deep into his macrobiotic diet of rice and beans at the time but even without his caffeine deficit his remark would have been typical Cage – i.e., anything but what you might expect. 

Winterson wrote a tribute to Cage describing rehearsals and a performance at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival of his famous mind-bending Roaratorio: An Irish Circus on Finnegan’s Wake.  At rehearsal, the Huddersfield players were in awe of having the great Cage loping around in their midst. Equipment included 32 loudspeakers.

In a separate performance of the piece, available on YouTube, Cage’s reedy voice reciting his poetry based on the James Joyce work overlays all manner of sound (horses’ hooves, crying baby, barking dog, Irish folk music, crowing rooster, gunshots) for more than an hour. The effect of this piece is eerie but – to use a term often applied to Cage’s music – mesmerizing.

I was reminded of that cup of coffee, recounted in Explosions in November, a look back at 33 years of the Huddersfield Festival, as I listened to a new Cage CD of his keyboard music.  Cage died in 1992 but is back now with a CD from the Naxos “American Classics” series, just making its way to me a year late, that includes A Book of Music for Two Prepared Pianos, Suite for Toy Piano and Music for Amplified Toy Pianos (Naxos 8.559762). Pianists are two young but established musicians, Pascal Meyer of Luxembourg and Xenia Pestova of Britain.

The Book of Music demonstrates how Cage applies his highly disciplined composition skills to a simple figure, allowing it to expand, unfold and grow progressively along varying scale patterns.  Much imaginative percussion punctuates the playing, creating, as the program notes indicate, “an unusually dense, frenetic sounding work by Cage’s standards. It is fascinating and mesmerizing...” (There’s that word again.)

The two prepared pianos (strings dulled or jangled with a variety of felt, rubber and metallic insertions) are played impeccably by the performers, known professionally as the Pestova/Meyer Piano Duo.

The excellent program notes, by Dutch composer Samuel Vriezen, do not hold back. Book is a “minor masterpiece”, he writes, remarkably inventive given its restrictions, full of charming melodic lines – a modest miracle of subdued, yet extremely precise, expression”. I couldn’t agree more. 

The two pieces for toy piano require a Cageian suspension of disbelief as the familiar sounds of a child’s clinking keyboard resound, seemingly at random and unaccompanied. These works are part of Cages’s series that give the performer an important creative role of improvisation, exemplified in his Variations and Fontana Mix. 

Cage always strived to break free from the straightjacket of 19th century European composition, and his concept of indeterminacy took him to a new level. The toy piano players work from general instructions rather than fixed notes, ensuring that every performance will be different from the last. 

In the five movements of the Suite, Cage mandates that the players use no more than nine white keys in one movement, and only seven or five keys in others. 

At first blush it seems strange that a controversial niche composer, writer, painter and “inventor” (as Arnold Schoenberg, with whom he audited some courses at UCLA and USC, called him) can still get the record companies interested. A browse through Amazon makes it clear that demand is thriving for the Cage bath of  originality, both on CD and MP3. Dozens of CDs are in the catalog, with new arrivals coming at a steady pace. 

John Cage rates high marks – tempered with some cool analysis – in Richard Taruskin’s highly respected Oxford History of Western Music.  Cage gets a full, meaty chapter in this indispensable work. “Cage's joyously accepting attitude, ‘naive’ in the special philosophical sense … made him a charismatic facilitator, not to say a liberator,” wrote Taruskin.

For once, a composer has a cross-generational audience too. Professor Marti Epstein, who composes new music and also teaches a course on Cage at the Berklee School of Music in Boston, tells me her young students take away plenty from a semester of Cage – “liberation, excitement, imagination and discipline,” she said. In new music performances, including Cage works,  in Bordeaux, where I spend half my time, the young are in attendance approximately on even terms with the grey-hairs. 

The Cage cult is not limited to listeners. Composers in the U.S., Europe and Asia have deferred to Cage for decades and will probably continue to do so. Critic and composer Kyle Gann wrote, on the occasion of Cage’s death, that all new music starts from Cage.

And editor of the forward-looking site NewMusicBox Frank Oteri, also a composer, wrote on the centennial of Cage’s birth two years ago that that he had studied the composer’s work “voraciously” for many years and boasted some hundred Cage CDs as well as many scores in his personal library. “Cage’s oeuvre and his approach to the making of it have deeply influenced how I listen to everything as well as how I approach my own creative work.”

At Oteri’s behest, French music teacher and pianist Martine Joste said in a video interview that Cage “taught us to listen”. After meeting him, she recalled, she and her students took his music ideas straight on board. “Everything we have done since that time has been completely different,” she said. The full interview is worth its seven minutes length:

Director of the John Cage Trust, Laura Kuhn, protects and promotes the Cage legacy in all his favorite creative disciplines. She tells me she believes he is “more mainstream than ever”. As she tracks his ever-growing reputation, she says “people today do all kinds of things with Cage’s work in creative ways.”

Cages talents are on display currently at the New York Museum of Modern Art under the heading “There Will Never Be Silence: Scoring John Cage’s 4’33”. The exhibition includes a newly acquired “score” of the piece, essentially a signed blank piece of paper. Silencefeatures prints, drawings, artists' books, photographs, paintings, sculptures, and films by such artists as Marcel Duchamp, Kurt Schwitters, Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Morris, Lawrence Weiner, Yoko Ono, Andy Warhol, among others.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention that a large swathe of the music-loving world fails to grasp what Cage was trying to do in his boldly experimental way. Even Ms. Kuhn acknowledges that he was “sometimes heralded but sometimes thrown off the stage”.

Yes, Cage could be volatile and outlandish. Taruskin believes his difficulties with sexual orientation set the stage for certain personality traits, and not all for the worst. “One might say that the bruise that Cage received from an uncaring philistine equipped him with the resentment and aggression that a truly avant-garde artist needs,” Taruskin wrote.

And yet he was no clown. Ms. Epstein recalls that he was a “very, very serious artist who was deeply hurt when misunderstood or made fun of.”  Part of the problem with the anti-Cagers, she says, is their superficial knowledge of his work. She sees hope ahead. “Generally, the more they find out about Cage the more they love him.”

When Cage died 24 years ago, he was still avant-garde. Today, composition has caught up with him and in the best salons passed him by. He saw himself as comparable to Beethoven and Wagner in their times, and he was eager to share his gift. Critic Gann was unequivocal: “He was a great artist, and something rarer: a great man.”

Drawing of John Cage above by the author Michael Johnson.

This review is brought to you by the author who owns the copyright to the text.

Should you want to support the author’s creative work you can use the PayPal “Donate” button below.

Your donation is a transaction between you and the author. The proceeds go directly to the author’s PayPal account in full less PayPal’s commission.

Facts & Arts neither receives information about you, nor of your donation, nor does Facts & Arts receive a commission.

Facts & Arts does not pay the author, nor takes paid by the author, for the posting of the author's material on Facts & Arts. Facts & Arts finances its operations by selling advertising space.

Rate this review

Click the stars to rate

Recent Music Reviews