In December 1977, John Cage, then aged 65, took up a position on stage at Milan’s Teatro Lirico. Sitting at a table illuminated only by a small spotlight, he produced a sheaf of papers and proceeded to read his text-based work Empty Words (Part III) (1973). The piece consists of passages from Henry David Thoreau’s Journal (1837 – 61) selected by casting the I Ching, and with words and syllables removed. Cage’s reading lasted three hours, and as it drifted further away from signification towards a kind of laryngeal music – a lonely wilderness of glottal sounds – the audience grew restive, first murmuring, then catcalling, rising to an angry hubbub. On the recording released after the event, you can hear a mob approaching Cage’s microphone; finally a mini-riot erupts on stage but Cage will not be turned from his purpose. The disquiet finally subsides to a kind of unsteady equilibrium and the patient survivors even offer Cage relieved applause at the end. But they are surely applauding themselves as much as the composer, for this absurdist exercise in consonance and repetition is as much about the audience’s reception, pushing its tolerance levels to the point where the public occupies the time-space of the work.
In an article published a few years later (‘Preface to Lecture On The Weather’ in his book Empty Words: Writings 73 – 78, 1981) Cage acknowledged Thoreau as a kindred spirit: ‘The fifth paragraph of Walden speaks against blind obedience to a thundering oracle. However, chance operations are not mysterious sources of “the right answers”. They are a means of locating a single one among a multiplicity of answers, and, at the same time, of freeing the ego from its taste and memory, its concern for profit and power, of silencing the ego so that the rest of the world has a chance to enter into the ego’s own experience whether that be outside or inside.’ Thoreau’s admixture of practical wisdom, transcendental philosophy and anarchism spoke strongly to Cage and formed the triangulation points of his own practice.
Seventeen years earlier, Cage had made another very different public appearance, on the American television quiz show I’ve Got a Secret. As he whispered in presenter Garry Moore’s ear, his ‘secret’ was flashed up on screen: ‘I’m going to perform one of my musical compositions. The instruments I will use are: a water pitcher, an iron pipe, a goose call, a bottle of wine, an electric mixer, a whistle, a sprinkling can, ice cubes, two cymbals, a mechanical fish, a quail call, a rubber duck, a tape recorder, a vase of roses, a seltzer siphon, five radios, a bathtub and … a grand piano.’ The audience laughs and applauds with delight. Cage duly runs through a Happening entitled Water Walk, concluding by shoving radios off a table with a resounding crash.
Cage’s demeanour is beautifully poised between aloof genius and harmless nut; a reminder that this most ‘difficult’ of artists was also a consummate communicator, able to play the mass media when he wanted to (he once won an Italian television quiz after answering questions about mushrooms). Although known primarily as a composer, Cage’s achievements stretched across most art forms of the 20th century: he worked with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and his scores are often as valuable for their visual character as for the sonic effects they are designed to produce. In 2010, the Hayward touring exhibition ‘Every Day is a Good Day’ was the first major retrospective in the uk of Cage’s visual art, and a recent show of his prints at San Francisco’s Crown Point Press is just one of the many events marking the centenary of his birth this year (see johncage.org for a full listing of exhibitions and concerts taking place everywhere from Berlin and Lublin to New York and Roanoke). His music accompanied the sequences of Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Rotoreliefs’ (1935) in Hans Richter’s surrealist film compilation Dreams That Money Can Buy (1947) and he composed for orchestras, solo instruments, operatic forces, prepared pianos, radios, turntable, spliced tape and the human voice. As a philosophical peer of Marshall McLuhan and Buckminster Fuller, Cage’s work increasingly moved towards a plurality of media in the late 1960s – peaking with the immersive installation hpschd (with computer composer Lejaren Hiller), a room-sized, audio-visual cacophony of nasa slides, film projections, cut-up sound and noise premiered in the moon-landing year, 1969. Citing Fuller, you could say that the task of Cage’s life was to write an operating manual for Spaceship Earth that handed the joystick over to chance interventions.
Cage began confronting indeterminacy during the late 1940s and early ’50s, when he produced a series of compositions that supplied the tools for generating outcomes within parameters delineated by chance operations with tossed coins or the I Ching. In the 1940s he became a Zen disciple of D.T. Suzuki and took note of the way Indian music was designed to open the mind to divine influences. In the same way, Cage’s work is designed to make the mind receptive to Utopian or anarchistic thoughts. Surrounded in the post war period by art that dealt in blank pages and the simple play of shape and colour – Robert Rauschenberg’s sheets of white, Ellsworth Kelly’s automatic drawings, Alexander Calder’s mobiles – Cage made a religion of indeterminacy. Scores for his series ‘Variations’ (1958–67) and Fontana Mix (1958) involved layers of transparent paper which, when overlaid, created a graphic map of a musical piece, with the nature, duration and volume of sonic events defined by the intersections of dots, ruled lines, squiggles and grids. He’s forever remembered, of course, for 4’33” (1952), a work that’s less about silence than the impossibility of achieving an acoustic or experiential absolute zero (as if his friend Rauschenberg was as interested in the dust and grime on one of his white canvases as the blankness itself).
Written for any number of players, any instrument and for unfixed lengths of time, many of Cage’s pieces are impossible to capture in definitive recorded versions. But as a listening experience, his Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano (1946–8) is hard to beat; likewise The Perilous Night (1944), written at a dismal moment in Cage’s personal life (a gay man trapped in a straight marriage of convenience), is an amazing mechanical piece that turns the piano into a chattering rhythm machine. But it was almost impossible to push past the ne plus ultra of 4’33”, and, until his death in 1992, his output was channelled into a series of whimsical happenings, obsessive text games and mesostics, homages to authors such as James Joyce and Thoreau, and employment as a quietly subversive lecturer (his Experimental Composition course at New School University, New York, was essentially basic training for America’s Fluxus division). In his published writings – Silence (1961); A Year from Monday (1967); and For the Birds (1982) – he became a genial spokesman for the state of Utopia. Twenty years after his death, his influence – acknowledged or unspoken – is audible in free improvisation, ambient music, noise, field recording-based work and sound art structured according to chance, process or automation. His aesthetics fed into abstract expressionism, performance, textual and environmental art, and he set the tone for the growing articulacy of artists about their own conceptual practice.
The dogged spirit that carried Cage through the ordeal on that Milanese stage in 1977 helped him hold on to his altruism for the remainder of his life. In ‘Overpopulation and Art’ (1992), a lecture filmed in the year of his death, he delivered overt political pronouncements on war zones in the Gulf and the Balkans; he imagined a society of full unemployment, or universal self-employment; he spoke of his desire for a world where questions were asked, rather than rules followed. And he nostalgically recalled a squatted property he once frequented in New York, in which artists made work with no thought of profit, humming all the while to the music of passing traffic. The anarchic Utopia he continued to dream of was not a world running riot, but a world in which art would hardly be necessary.
is Editor-at-Large of The Wire. He is the author of Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music (Faber and Faber, 2010) and editor ofNo Regrets: Writings On Scott Walker (Orion, 2012).
First published in Issue 147