John Cage at 100

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert The Cage Concert, performed on Dec 13, 2012 at Carnegie Hall.

This ASO tribute to John Cage comes barely three months after what would have been the composer’s 100th birthday, and at the end of a year of Cage celebrations all over the world. John Cage fits perfectly into the ASO’s ongoing exploration of the achievement of American composers from the 20th century, which during the past three seasons has featured Henry Cowell, George Crumb, and Walter Piston. But there is a special reason for the ASO to focus on Cage, and it stems from the relationship between the ASO and Bard College, where the orchestra is in residence each year as part of Summerscape.

In 2007, Cage’s longtime collaborator and friend, the late Merce Cunningham, decided that it would be better for the John Cage Trust, which oversees Cage’s archives and performance materials, to be placed in residence at Bard. The director of the archives, Dr. Laura Kuhn, who authored the notes for today’s concert, is now a member of the Bard faculty, and helped curate this program. Three of Bard’s faculty members have linkages to Cage and his legacy: the composer Richard Teitelbaum (who has also been a staunch advocate of the music of Henry Cowell); Kyle Gann, the composer and music historian, whose recent book on Cage was met with critical acclaim; and Joan Retallack, the poet, who has written extensively on Cage. Cage paid a visit to Bard in the late 1970s. One of the most memorable events I have performed in at Bard was the concert marking the installation of the Cage Trust at Bard that included a performance of Cage’s “Lecture on the Weather” with Merce Cunningham, John Ashbery, Jasper Johns, and myself.

The presence of a poet, a painter, and choreographer in a performance of a Cage work succinctly expresses the extraordinary influence that John Cage exerted on all of the arts during the second half of the 20th century. Cage continues to fascinate composers, poets, and visual artists. Perhaps no composer since Richard Wagner has had as great a following outside of music, particularly in the arts and in the realm of ideas, owing to the power of his writings. It is ironic that many more people have read John Cage than have sought to, or managed to listen to his music. And even a larger number (as in the case of Wagner) believe they understand Cage and his meaning and impact without having read Cage or heard Cage’s music.

In its own way, Cage’s approach to music emerges out of a Wagnerian conceit that all of the arts are interrelated. But Cage traveled from that premise along his own path toward exploding the traditional boundaries and distinctions between art and life. He did so in a manner inextricably linked to the events of the 20th century, particularly its challenges to inherited notions of space and time.

Much nonsense has been written about the intellectual and aesthetic consequences of the discoveries of modern physics, beginning with Einstein’s articulation of the special theory of relativity. But at its core, the revolution in modern physics debunked notions of absolute time and space and the privileging of a single universal frame of reference. No frame of reference had priority as a point of observation and measurement. Much like the deleterious translation of Darwinian thought into popular culture and social theory that has haunted everyday conversations and prejudices about human nature, the dynamics of competition, the emergence of social elites, and invidious distinctions between so-called “races,” the transporting of the precise language of physics into the realm of aesthetics (and more gravely, ethics) has resulted in many soft-headed notions about there being no truth in the world and no criteria for making distinctions or comparisons, just a myriad of subjective perspectives.

Nonetheless, the post-Newtonian science of Einstein and his contemporaries contributed to a cultural climate that emboldened a new generation of composers in the first half of the 20th century to contest what was once held as the natural objective validity of tonality and musical form. It inspired among European and American composers a renewed non-condescending respect for other systems of music outside of the West. This cultural climate of the mid-20th century in which Cage came of age inspired him to think in a shatteringly original way about sound and silence, about the artificiality of the barriers between constructed musical space and ambient sound. His writings rendered the question of what constitutes music into a never-ending, complex, ambiguous, and exciting exploratory enterprise. The same cultural context fueled the opposite tendency—the effort by composers to control musical time more precisely. Stravinsky was attracted, for example, to the pianola by the idea that the intentionality of a work of music could be rendered objectively.

Cage contested the claim that there is a marked difference between our efforts to locate and place every sound in relation to other sounds in a musical composition—which became a near obsession among certain composers of the mid-20th century—and the manipulation of sound using chance, indeterminacy, randomness, or unpredictability. Modernists following in the path of Schoenberg, with whom Cage briefly studied, sought to protect their compositions from the sloppy inaccuracy and romantic expressiveness of performers by using precise metronome markings and elaborate performance indications. Cage charted a different strategy, embracing a more fluid and permeable sense of the perception of time and the creation of musical communication.

The issues and challenges that Cage raised remain alive and actual in our own time. His writings and works have an increasing and not declining following all over the world. No American composer with the possible exception of Duke Ellington and George Gershwin has exerted such a powerful international influence. There is something uncannily American—in the sense of Walt Whitman—about John Cage, his thought, his music, his engagement with other media, and the conduct of his life. His career has shaped our sense of what we mean when we call an artist “original.”

At his core, however, John Cage was a musician and a composer. It is as a composer of larger scale works that we remember him at this concert. His most famous work, 4’33’’ was performed first by one instrumentalist. Furthermore, rather than represent Cage with an evening of all his own music taken from several periods, we decided to honor Cage by placing him, despite his startling individuality, squarely within the history of 20th-century music. For that reason, the program features a work by Erik Satie, whom Cage admired and who can be seen as a direct inspiration. Satie, alongside Alfred Jarry (the author of Ubu Roi), was perhaps modernism’s genuinely avant-garde composer, whose music, with its veneer of simplicity, took on the historicist cultural traditions of the late 19th century. Indeed, in his notes for the performance of Cheap Imitation, Cage connects his imitation of Satie’s Socrate to the I Ching, a text central to Cage’s thought and career.

The Webern on this program links Cage to the one composer out of the second Viennese School who pioneered in the distillation of sound and the explicit use of silence, and the decaying spaces between types of sound and timbres as compositional elements. The Webern points to the common biographical ground between Cage and Morton Feldman, whose work on this program pursues, in a manner somewhat different from Cage, notions of indeterminacy and the varieties of the perception of the musical experience as resistant to standardization. And Feldman shared with Cage a deep interest in the visual experience and the connection between the aural and visual experiences. Framed by one contemporary, Feldman, and two predecessors, the program features a rare performance of the two sets of Etcetera, which date from the last phase of Cage’s career.

Just in case the traditional concert audience harbors the commonplace belief that playing music that is not notated in the traditional manner and which leaves many decisions and choices to each individual player is somehow an undisciplined form of music-making requiring less rehearsal and practice than the rendering of a Tchaikovsky symphony, it should be noted that Cage and Feldman are extraordinarily precise in their instructions. Indeed performing one of these works requires more rather than less rehearsal, because the possibilities of what can be realized are that much greater.

The prejudices against what was regarded as Cage’s form of radical modernism have never been quite erased. It would be foolish to dismiss them as mere philistinism, just as it would be offensive to assume that just because an approach to music represents itself as a radical departure from tradition it is superior owing to its novelty. One can get a succinct notion of how disciplined and serious Cage’s enterprise as a composer was from the closing paragraphs of his notes to the performers for Cheap Imitation:

Not less than two weeks before a projected performance each musician shall be given his part.

During the first week he will learn the melody, at least those phrases of it in which he participates. He is to learn, among other matters, to play double sharps and double flats without writing in simpler “equivalent” notes.

During the second week there will be orchestra rehearsals on each day, each rehearsal lasting 1 ½ hours. If, at anytime, it appears that any member of the orchestra does not know his part, he is to be dismissed. If as a result one of the essential 24 parts is missing, the projected performance is to be cancelled.

John Cage’s legacy will continue to command attention during the 21st century. His stature within the world of performance art, the visual arts, and aesthetic thought is nearly unrivaled. But Cage the composer and his music still require advocacy.