Musical Notes by K-Mozart

Valley Performing Arts Center

John Cage: Innovator, Part 2

May 11, 2014 by Christine Gengaro, Ph.D.

We left John Cage with his Music of Changes from 1951. In that same year, Cage continued to explore the idea of indeterminacy with Imaginary Landscape No. 4. This work is “scored” for a dozen radios, each of which needs two performers, one who turns the volume knob and the other who changes the station. Cage was meticulous in his directions for the twenty-four performers, but the sound of each performance would be unique based on what happened to be playing on the radios at that particular moment in time.


This is a grand shift in the idea about what composed music should be. For all of western music history, composition had been an act of will—the will of an individual. Someone like Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) likened the composition of a symphony to the creation of an entire world. With this idea in mind, he was incredibly mindful of how to notate the music he was writing so that each interpretation would be as close to his intentions and visions as possible. Mahler was primarily a conductor and he was no doubt aware of how interpretations could slip away from the composer’s original intent—especially without careful notation (including metronome markings, dynamics, and special directions). John Cage, who was born a year after Mahler’s death, came to represent the opposite of this incredible sense of control, an idea known as indeterminacy. While this is a fascinating idea, composers like Iannis Xenakis and Pierre Boulez were opposed to the idea of indeterminacy in music. One can understand why: with traditional composition defined as the act of writing music and having it played as close to the score as possible, the idea of indeterminacy must have seemed like the disintegration of their art.


But Cage was beginning to think that instead of bending the world and—musically speaking—its sounds and instruments, that the artist could adapt to what was around him or her. In 1952, this idea reached its culmination in 4’33’’, a controversial work, in which a player or players sit silently on a stage for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. The only noises that can be heard are the ambient noises in the room, the sound of the audience, a random cough here and there, or perhaps even a siren passing by outside of the auditorium.


A quick look on Youtube shows many versions of this piece. There is an interesting phenomenon I have noticed in observing modern performances of 4’33’’. Modern audiences know to expect silence. There are “movements” in the work that are symbolized by the body language of the player. A pianist, for example, might open or close the lid of the piano. In those moments “between” movements, audiences seem to relax, as they would in a piece with sounds, sometimes waiting to cough or shift around for these breaks. It’s interesting to see the way people listen, intent to “hear” the imposed silence, but willing to cough or move around in the silence between movements. This piece and its controversy bring up an even larger issue: what is music? This is a philosophical question that has many answers, and it is a question that can be answered by each individual. What’s music to me might not seem like music to you. And that’s okay.


While you yourself might be mulling this question over in your head (so many things to consider! Does music need melody? Regular rhythm? Traditional instruments?) let’s talk about John Cage’s “Happenings.” Happenings were performative events that might include music, dance, and other types of performance art. They were increasingly popular in the second half of the twentieth century, and allowed composers, video artists, performance artists, visual artists, and others to create one-of-a-kind events with very few limitations. One of the most important collectives of artists who created Happenings is “Fluxus.” Members of Fluxus include video artist, Nam Jun Paik, composer La Monte Young, and performance artist, Yoko Ono. Fluxus has a direct line back to John Cage through the classes in Experimental Composition he taught at the New School in New York City. Many artists who would become the main core of Fluxus attended these classes. As with indeterminacy, these “happenings,” and the artists who created them, challenged traditional ideas about the definition of art.


In the second half of the century, Cage began a relationship with Wesleyan University that would continue for decades. He gave lectures and classes while his fame as a composer grew, and all the while he explored new ideas. But he returned to a couple of ideas more than once. In 1962, ten years after 4’33’’, Cage wrote 0’00’’ (also known as 4’33’’ No. 2). The score of the piece is this sentence: “In a situation provided with maximum amplification, perform a disciplined action.” The first “performance” consisted of Cage writing that single sentence. Not content to leave well enough alone, Cage revised the work for its second performance to include the following four directives, “the performer should allow any interruptions of the action, the action should fulfill an obligation to others, the same action should not be used in more than one performance, and should not be the performance of a musical composition.” Cage went back to the same well one final time in 1989 with One3, in which the “performer” must construct or assemble a sound system in a hall in order to amplify the sounds of the auditorium and the audience. It’s 4’33’’ taken to its sonic limit, without actually giving each member of the audience his or her own microphone.


Cage was interested in rather large-scale works. In 1969, Cage collaborated with Lejaren Hiller, who was the head of the University of Illinois’ computer music department, on HPSCHD (a play on the word “harpsichord”). It is a huge multi-media work incorporating more than fifty tapes of sounds, slides and short films to be projected on screens, and excerpts of music to be played by seven amplified harpsichords. These musical excerpts came from random clips of music from Chopin, Mozart, Schoenberg, and others, including Cage and Hiller. The pieces of the pre-existing music were assembled by a computer program and algorithm that incorporated principles of the I Ching. The first performance took more than five hours. In response to this piece, Cage said of Hiller and himself, “I don’t think we’re really interested in the validity of compositions any more. We’re interested in the experiences of things.” I can’t think of a better way to explain what Cage was doing in the years from 1952 to 1992.


Cage suffered from arthritis, sciatica, and arteriosclerosis in his last decades, but he didn’t stop thinking about music and its possibilities. We continue to celebrate John Cage in many ways. The world celebrated his centenary in 2012 with concerts, happenings, and other projects. The echoes of his experiments are still being worked out. Prepared piano, the development we talked about in the last blog, is still being used by modern composers, and there are events that could considered "happenings" all over LA, and indeterminacy continues to be an idea that modern composers must contend with. Cage accomplished much in his career, and he was so far ahead of his time that we are only now catching up.


Dr. Christine Gengaro is an award-winning educator, and a successful writer and musician. She has been on the faculty of Los Angeles City College since 2004. A graduate of the Ph.D. program in historical musicology at the University of Southern California, Dr. Gengaro currently serves as the program annotator for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. She has also written notes and other materials for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Camerata Pacifica, and the Mozartwoche concert series in Vienna. Her research interests include music and film, music and literature, and classical music in popular media.

Dr. Gengaro's first book, Listening to Stanley Kubrick: the Music in His Films, was published by Scarecrow Press in 2013.

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