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Decoding John Cage - The Ultimate Symbol of the 20th Century Revolution in Music
by Frank Manheim

There are clues in American composer, John Cage’s history that explain his confident obscurantism. The unexplained riddle is why it brought him acclaim from the intellectual and cultural establishment.
John Milton Cage (1912-1992) was the quintessential champion of meaninglessness in musical arts. He prepared elaborate settings for performance of arbitrarily generated (aleatoric) sounds – or compositions like his famous 4’33” composition that called for no sound at all. Utter rejection of musical conventions, audience perceptions, and rationality ultimately brought him fame and fortune. Cage and other avant-gardists at first met resistance when they began their assault on the principles that had underlain music’s role in human life throughout history. But ultimately the “ultra-modernists” captured the high ground and leadership in the “serious music” world. They reversed the historic paradigm under which patrons, the church, and consumers of music had been the ultimate arbiters of musical value of compositions and composers.
The above relationship is illustrated by a story behind the late musicologist, Nicholas Tawa’s unusually candid chronicle of American composition in the 20th Century (Tawa, 1995). Tawa cites Cage’s contemptuous dismissal of general music audiences and the idea that music should entertain or inspire. Tawa also shared with me that because of its academic sensitivity he waited until retirement as a professor of music at the University of Massachusetts, Boston before submitting his book for publication.
Cage’s biographer, James Pritchett (Pritchett 1996) describes the composer as having a normal childhood. His parents were supportive of their son, but both showed unconventional streaks that have reflections in Cage’s life. The youthful Cage had strong interest in music but demonstrated no special gifts in composition or performance. He took piano lessons as a boy. Taking special interest in sight-reading, Cage took sheet music home from the library and played it. He especially loved the music of Edvard Grieg. An article on Cage in Classic Cat offers more nuanced detail about Cage’s life than Pritchett, whose acknowledged hero-worship of Cage gets in the way of achieving a fully balanced picture. Cage was a top scholar in his Los Angeles high school. Graduating in 1928 as valedictorian, he envisaged a career as a writer. But after entering Pomona College the same year an incident recounted in a 1991 autobiographical essay caused him to drop out of school and pursue the avant-garde arts, including painting and music.
“I was shocked at college to see one hundred of my classmates in the library all reading copies of the same book. Instead of doing as they did, I went into the stacks and read the first book written by an author whose name began with Z. I received the highest grade in the class. That convinced me that the institution was not being run correctly. I left”.
This incident reveals several things about Cage: he was a perceptive and literate student; he had a penchant for originality and the confidence to follow his instincts. That doing so brought him early success is also significant. After leaving college Cage took an extended trip to Europe, which was supported by his parents. In the latter part of his European tour Cage took to writing music using mathematical formulae. Returning to California in 1931, Cage earned money by “giving small private lectures on contemporary art”. In 1933 he submitted some compositions in a letter to Henry Cowell (1997-1965), then a leader in the “ultra-modernist” movement that included Carl Ruggles, Dane Rudhyar, Leo Ornstein, John Becker, Colin McPhee, Edgard Varèse, and Ruth Crawford. The compositions probably included experiments using a 25 tone row system somewhat similar to the 12-tone row method of Arnold Schoenberg.
Cowell advised Cage to study with Adolph Weiss, a former pupil of Arnold Schoenberg, before seeking to study with Schoenberg, the leading figure in atonal composition. Cage followed this guidance, moving to New York City in 1933. He supported himself as a cleaner at a YMCA while studying with Weiss and Cowell at the New School.
Returning to Los Angeles, Cage studied with Arnold Schoenberg at USC and UCLA, and participated in group classes at Schoenberg’s home until 1935. Pritchett reports that the refusal of Schoenberg to pay any attention to Cage actually enhanced Schoenberg in Cage’s eyes. Cage acknowledged that he lacked feeling for more conventional skills of music composition such as melody and harmony. Later interviews with Schoenberg reported in a Wikipedia article on Cage elicited the comment that Schoenberg found none of his American students interesting except Cage, of whom Schoenberg said, "Of course he's not a composer, but he's an inventor—of genius."
After marrying an artist, Xenia Andreyevna Kashevaroff, Cage took interest in modern dance in the Los Angeles area, accompanying dance classes, writing music for choreographies, and teaching. Especially interested in percussion, Cage invented the “prepared piano” in 1940 by placing various objects on the piano strings, and composed pieces for it. By the mid 1940s Cage had become disillusioned with Western music as a means of communication and took up study of Indian music and philosophy. Given a copy of the I Ching, a classic Chinese text used for divination, by Christian Wolff in 1951, Cage began to use it to compose music by chance. In 1952, he composed what would become his best-known and most controversial work, 4’33”, four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence. Although it and chance music in general alienated some leading avant-garde composers like Karl-Heinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, and Iannis Xenakis, Cage’s reputation grew. His marriage had led to divorce in the mid 1940s, after which he entered into a relationship with Merce Cunningham, a dancer and organizer, who would become his companion for the rest of his life.
Though he gone through times of economic stringency, by the 1960s Cage had become famous. It would appear that the moderate interest in avant-gardism in Cage’s early years fed interest in him and provided enough exposure for his work to sustain him until the upheavals in the U.S. intellectual and artistic world in the 1960s. The rebellious movements in universities and the intellectual circles in the 1960s gave him special visibility. Unique qualities in Cage were a disarming candor supported by rock-like self-esteem. This enabled him to advance increasingly iconoclastic and bizarre productions and ideas with calm assurance that they were significant and worthy of artistic respect, regardless of the peoples’ views about them. His self-confidence let him describe these activities, even his personal limitations or the negative reactions of others, in a startlingly matter-of-fact manner, without bombast or need to argue his works’ merits. An example is in the first page of the Foreword in Cage’s book (Lectures and Writings by John Cage, Wesleyan University Press (1961).
Describing his 1949 Lecture on Nothing at the Artists’ Club on Eighth St, in New York City, Cage notes that this lecture:-
“was written in the same rhythmic structure I employed at the time in my musical compositions (Sonatas and Interludes, etc.). One of the structural divisions was the repetition, some fourteen times, of a single page in which occurred the refrain,
‘If anyone is sleepy let him go to sleep’. Jeanne Reynal, I remember, stood up part way through, screamed, and then said, while I continued speaking, ‘John, I dearly love you, but I can’t bear another minute’. She then walked out. Later, during the question period, I gave one of six previously prepared answers regardless of the question asked. This was a reflection of my engagement in Zen.”
Cage’s obliviousness to reactions to his work is underscored by the comment on “six previously prepared answers.” Even the title of the lecture referred to above, as well the title of another book by Cage, Empty Words, Writing ’73-78 (1979) underscores their lack of meaningful content in any conventional sense. Something about Cage’s calm annihilation of every preconceived concept of music, content, performance or even elementary logic in activities described as “artistic” evidently turned the minds of many cultural cognoscenti into silly putty. It could have something to do with fascination with this intelligent and articulate man, unflamboyant and purposeful, who proposed utterly nonsensical work – and admitted candidly that it was nonsensical and therefore meaningful! Cage had sufficient background and contacts with respected artists to be taken seriously. For susceptible persons and advocates, his actions opened the mind to powerful new states of awareness by pushing preconceived and “reasonable” ideas out of the way.
Cage gained many honors, including election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1978), New York Mayor's Award of Honor for Arts and Culture (1981) and the French Government’s highest honor for distinguished contribution to cultural life, Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (1982). It is fair to assume that officials who gave Cage awards or prestigious invitations such as the Harvard Norton Lectures (1889-1990) did so not because they personally understood or appreciated Cage’s work, but wanted to give their institutions the cachet of being in the forefront of new ideas. That they figured correctly is shown by the fawning review given the published Cage Lectures (I-VI) by a New York Times reviewer:
“Mr. Cage has overcome [the] disjunction between his anarchic art and his elegantly didactic texts, bending his words into a mirror of his music by fracturing conventional expectations and transforming didactic prose into elusive poetry...Especially when he reads [the words], in his frail but steadfast baritone, shaping the phrases and illuminating hidden meanings and poetic undercurrents in word jumbles that seem at first--and may still be, on the less important level of explication--meaningless, Mr. Cage attains a perfect synthesis of all that he is: soft-spoken backwoods storyteller, vanguard modernist, Zen master, kindly village preacher. Yet this is not mere accident: Mr. Cage is making art. And by any generous definition of what art is and can be, he is making beautiful music as well.”—(John Rockwell, New York Times Book Review,
For others, such as the officials who gave Cage awards or invitations like the prestigious Harvard Norton Lectures, they may not have been enthralled by his work, but anticipated that their institution would gain by being seen in the forefront of fostering new ideas. No other aleatoric artists gained Cage’s fame. The special elements of time, place, and personality (including the ability to make outrage work for him as advertising) came together in unique fashion in building his fame.
Cage’s most famous composition, 4’33”, is a perfect parallel to the well-known children’s fable, The Emperor’s New Clothes, by Hans Christian Andersen, yet it only enhanced Cage’s ultimate stature in the professional world. Silence is obviously not music, unless justified by rarified intellectual interpretations. And so it follows that Cage’s “music” is an intellectual-psychological phenomenon, as is his fame, rather than musical composition in any meaningful sense.
Practically every 20th Century music writer who has mentions Cage speaks of his music in terms of mystical auras or obscure intellectual/cultural dilemmas:-
“He [Cage] is a prolific and stimulating man of great influence, though in which direction this influence will finally be seen to have operated most effectively cannot be guessed at” (Stuckenschmidt and Deveson 1969).
“Much of the work of John Cage and, in electro-acoustic music, that of Pierre Schaeffer and other composers of musique concrète are part of the 20th Century avant-gardes’s self-conscious response to the on-going musical dilemmas posed by such conceptual dichotomies” (Theberge 1997).
Though Cage was still famous and lionized by sectors of the cultural establishment in the 1980s Nicholas Tawa reported that a change was emerging in the musical establishment. For example, former avant-gardist, David Del Tredici is quoted in saying:-
“Composers now are beginning to realize that if a piece excites an audience, that doesn’t mean it’s terrible. For my generation, it is considered vulgar to have an audience really, really, like a piece on first hearing”.
At a luncheon in 1985, attended by several younger composers, one young man responded to a critical comment about Cage by Elie Siegmeister, saying that Cage’s resistance to any kind of evaluative process:-
“can convince you that two plus two add up to ten or nothing. For a while, he himself was so convinced. He said that he had learned to find fault with tradition, to find corruption in people and circumstances that contravened his whims and impeded his private plans. These were failings he was trying to overcome”.
That brings me to a final summing up. The data on his life suggest that Cage was an unusually sensitive product of his gifts and limitations, his iconoclastic family influences, and the charismatic avant-garde world he was exposed to early in his life. From 1950 to 1970, he took music composition to the ultimate antithesis of all historical music: i.e. he created works of random or arbitrarily produced sound, even defining an interval of silence as a musical composition. He acknowledged a personal philosophy of anarchism, and took as something of a personal mission the task of trashing the historic role of music as a medium to communicate, to inspire, console, and to entertain. By the way musicians, chroniclers, and intellectuals of the 20th Century treat Cage’s life and legacy, we can assess their judgment about the role of music in society. When we non-professional consumers, performers or writers on music hear composers like Philip Glass or writers about music history speak respectfully of Cage – we know they remain enthralled by the era in which the autonomy of the artist was paramount. They are probably not non-professional music-lovers’ friends.
Frank Manheim
Pritchett, James. 1996. The Music of John Cage: Cambridge University Press.
Stuckenschmidt, Hans H. and Richard Deveson. 1969. 1969 Twentieth Century Music – London And New York: Publisher: McGraw-Hill.
Tawa, Nicholas. 1995. American Composers and Their Public. Metuchen NJ: Scarecrow Press.
Theberge, Paul. 1997. Any Sound You Can Imagine Wesleyan University Press