John Cage (not)

published in The Wire No.273, London, 2005
reprinted in Epiphanies: Life-Changing Encounters With Music, Strange Attractor Press, London
John Cage - Speech (1955) performed at the Symphony Space, New York, 1982

For over 30 years, too much has been said about John Cage’s notion of ‘silence’. I first encountered Cage in 1975 – my formative year. While listening extensively to Prog, Krautrock, glam, disco, Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Stockhausen, my interest in the musical polarities of heightened surface and sonic density broadened my aural perception and made me aware of obtuse interconnections in supposedly disparate musics. Conversely, I heard next to no Cage that year, but read his Silence (1961), Richard Kostelanetz’s John Cage (1970) and Calvin Tomkins’s Ahead Of The Game (1965). I thought Cage might provide insight into my ‘conflicted’ listening. Although enthused by the concept of widening one’s listening range to accept all sounds, I could not get past the haiku-tinged, wispy ‘love of life’ aphorisms mottling these books. Fortunately, the Cage music I heard the following year imparted greater moments, from the delicate prepared piano of Sonatas & Interludes (1946–48) to the overloaded sono-media collage of Fontana Mix (1958). Yet while many other writers, composers and artists I encountered also seemed attracted to his thoughts, Cage’s Easternised philosophising did not appeal to me, high as I was at the time on Duchamp’s wilfully perverse articulation of a meta-practice of art and Warhol’s theatrical denial of any art practice.

Cage – or precisely, the presentation of Cage back then – irritated me with its ‘a-culturalism’ – the way his ‘indeterminate’ compositional strategies removed the work from any cultural specificity. This irritation acted on two levels: firstly via its locus in the rarefied domain of experimental music practice and its influence on Fluxus’s alignment with the art gallery – realms where composer directive and artist statement overrode any socio-cultural framing of their outcomes. Secondly, through the reduction of ‘sound’ to a quasi-mystical zone where ‘sound itself’ speaks most eloquently of its substance and existence. From the precious privilege born of the former to the vacuous view endeared by the latter, the appreciation of Cage seemed delineated by its own anechoic chamber which excluded the world and its cultural noise – all while deftly reducing it to an amorphorous voluminous mass. It was as if all sound was to be celebrated – so long as it wasn’t labelled, categorised or named.

If this were a standard Epiphany, we would now move on to how something revolutionised my misreading of Cage. That never happened, nor is it likely – so Cage enthusiasts may maintain that indeed I am continuing this misreading. Proportionately, Cage tends to be lionised more as time goes by – indeed, as if time remains frozen. The critical ground for Cage and the sprawl of experimental music from the 60s onwards has undoubtedly produced many great works, but ‘a-culturalism’ still embalms their didactic spread: much of that work could be excitingly recouped not by returning to their mythological originations as artworks, but by considering them unpatronisingly in tandem with all other forms of sound and music happening in their time. Such an option would move us not to a thin understanding of ‘sound’ but a maximised register of ‘music’. ‘Sound’ – via its purported expansiveness and inclusivity in opposition to a presumably outmoded notion of ‘music’ – is still invoked today in experimental music circles as if it is pure, real, natural, truthful – I can hardly type such words without my brain hurting.

John Cage - Speech (1955) performed at the Symphony Space, New York, 1982

Similarly, the mere utterance of ‘the beautiful’ – despite its Zen slant inferred by Cage’s lectures, talks and interviews – is still deemed to be an escape hatch to a ‘de-critiqued’ zone. There are many contemporary musicians and composers – from the realm of academic turrets to the subterranean sewers of avant rock – who talk of a redefined beauty in sound, and their views are thereby inflected with a foppish, affected amour des arts. The idea that ‘sound’ is somehow the essence of musicality is a concept as sentimental as the conclusion of Lord Of The Rings.

Many years after my high school encounter with Cage, I saw the 1990 PBS documentary I Have Nothing To Say And I Am Saying It. It précised all to be expected of Cage, alongside a number of alarmingly unqualified assertions by learned others of his great contribution to 20th century music. Again, I was struck by how time was still frozen. Again I was flummoxed by the narrow gauge of critical discourse generated from such supposedly all-encompassing life-celebrating concepts.

But just as I was disengaging myself from the journalistic accolades of this documentary, the programme shifts to a rehearsal and presentation of Speech (1955) – one of Cage’s composed actions for radios, here staged in 1982 at the Symphony Space, New York. Again, it’s one of those works that ‘sounds better on paper’ than it ‘sounds itself’ – which is Cageian, I guess. But this time, we’re in New York during the stirrings of hiphop. As the performers shift the dials, funky breaks, electro beats and disco divas materialise in this symphonic space. Maybe in early ‘multimedia’ performances like Radio Music (1956), Jerry Lee Lewis and Joe Turner ruptured those premieres with their musical identities – but no writer of the time would have had the acumen to trace the inter-cultural connectivity of noise-making in both. Cage’s essays, plus many writers on his work, are alarmingly dismissive of the noise of post-war American mass culture. The problem is that no writing since has evidenced such connectivity of cultural voices which generate the noise that allows Cage and those influenced by him to, through contradistinction, espouse notions of ‘silence’.

This is not to denigrate the Cage legacy: it will persist. If I had written this in 1975, it would have the same punk flippancy it retains over 30 years later. If anything, the shortcomings in applying Cage’s ideas to a pluralist cultural domain has conversely allowed me the freedom to declare no fundamental difference between Gary Glitter’s “Rock And Roll” and Stockhausen’s Kontakte. I’ve since perceived that the abject acoustica of even the most vapid music can sometimes betray an overwhelming depth of ‘sound itself’ in contrast to the pumped-up self-mythologizing that passes for the bulk of so-called radical sound art practice. The PBS doco without prescience documented precisely what hiphop was doing in channels of production beyond this Cage performance. Seminal ‘sonic energisers’ of this period and place, Terminator X and Hank Shocklee, were arguably more Cageian than Cage in their embrace of the overload of sound, noise and music in the urban noisescape, plus their music ‘sounds itself’ at the praxis of technology, folk, industry and art. Watching this doco in 1990 – some time after Public Enemy’s radical yet populist ‘call to noise’ – as four people feebly twiddled radios between stations, the shards of music I heard ironically proved one of Cage’s seminal and liberating ideas: there is so much more beyond the concert hall.

Text © Philip Brophy. Images © PBS & John Cage.