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ARTICLE Plain text for smartphones & printers

Destigmatizing John Cage
by Michael Karman

For such a charming and gentle man, without a scintilla of contempt for anyone in his entire being, John Cage nonetheless did manage - and continues to manage - to aggravate a great many people. His evident successes are held against him as surely as his putative failures. He has been demonized as thoroughly and as surely as Schoenberg has been, and for the same reason, for destroying music and replacing it with either an emotionless system or with no system (and even no sound) at all. Never mind that other people continued to write music as if neither serialism nor indeterminacy had ever existed, both Schoenberg and Cage had somehow managed to capture the hearts and minds of a chimerical “intellectual and cultural establishment” and for that can never be forgiven.

John Cage is widely known as the guy who wrote a piece that has no sounds in it. He did, of course, nothing of the sort. The performers are instructed not to play anything, it's true, but that is simply to allow the heretofore unregarded or unwelcome sounds—which are going on all the time, regardless—to be regarded and perhaps even welcomed. The reality of 4'33” is not that is the absence of sound but that it is the presence of sounds that are unintentional. After visiting an anechoic chamber and still hearing sounds (one high, one low), Cage realized that, as a practical matter, there is no such thing as the absence of sound. Hence his redefinition of silence as all the sounds that the composer does not intend. It doesn't take much of a mental effort to imagine that if 4'33” is performed near a construction site or a busy highway, it will be quite noisy. In its first performance, there were the sounds of the wind and of rain on the roof of the venue as well as all the noises made by the audience. What it does not contain are any sounds intended by either the composer or the performer.

Now, “no sounds intended by the composer” might strike some people as even more revolutionary—or possibly as even more obnoxious—than “containing no sounds.” So be it. That is what the piece is really about, intention. And not, I hasten to add, about the absence of intention. It is no more about the absence of intention than it is about the absence of sound. In this piece, the composer instructs the performer not to produce any sounds, using, in the score published by Peters, the familiar music term “tacit.” What does that mean for the audience? That intention has been handed over to them. There have been many examples of intention being handed over to performers, from the improvisatory nature of all baroque music to the cadenza (before writing them out became a thing) to the aleatoric interpolations of such European composers as Lutosławski and Stockhausen. 4'33” is a clear example of intention being quite clearly handed over to us, the listeners. In it, Cage has arranged for us the opportunity to hear and to listen to all the sounds that we used to ignore or, failing that, to deprecate.

Even more, for the first time in musical history, we listeners have been invited to participate in the creative process, to attend to ambient sounds as if they were music, as indeed they do actually become, because we are attending. We have created music, by listening, where we used to hear only noise. Ironically, this attentiveness also spills over into more traditional musics as well. Once one is attuned, one gets more out of any sonic experience whether one prepared by another person or one that one makes oneself by listening to whatever happens. There's a further step, as well, which is that one can begin to enjoy sound as it happens without turning it into anything. Without “aestheticizing” it, which is probably the most trenchant, the most informed, negative criticism of 4'33.”

I don't think it's too much of a stretch to think of John Cage's most significant contribution to music as being this invitation to listeners to, well, to listen. Stravinsky had already pointed out that even a duck hears. Stravinsky of course was talking about the effort it takes to listen to music with sympathy and understanding. Cage simply adds “sound” to that equation, and in so doing redefines listening as well as a creative act. That many listeners have soundly (!) rejected that invitation, insisting on being supplied with certified masterpieces from certified masters before making the effort of listening is regrettable and not a very convincing criticism of Cage's music or of the thought that went into it.

It should be easy to see, by now, what I think of anyone who accuses Cage of having destroyed music or of having turned his back on centuries of tradition or of ignoring the needs of the audience. There is nothing destructive about either Cage or about his thinking. He has shown how it can be possible to compose without needing to control every little sound—something that has never ever been completely possible, anyway, given the reality of what performers do. He has shown that we can listen to any sound or sounds, intentional or not, and be pleased by them. That sounds only positive to me.

Michael Karman



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