Vulture

Skip to content, or skip to search.

Avant-garde minimalist composer John Cage playing a children's size piano.  (Photo by Ben Martin//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

classical music

John Cage Is Still Rattling the Bars at 100

Pause for a moment, and listen: What you’re hearing is John Cage’s world. The buzz of a New York street corner, the complicated quiet of a country road at dusk, the din of TVs from various apartments mingling on a fire escape — Cage claimed it all. He explored the wondrous border zone between the intentional and the accidental, deploying electronic beeps, mathematical rhythms, scratched recordings, nature’s moans, banged-on pots. He wrote for ensembles of randomly tuned radios, guaranteeing music that sounds predictably unpredictable, depending on whether it is performed in Houston or Beijing. And, of course, he most famously recruited silence, or its approximate facsimile, in 4’33’’, though what really interested him was not the absence of sound but the hum revealed when we’re forced to pay attention. “There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time,” he wrote. “There is always something to see, something to hear.”

That’s especially true in his centennial year, when festivities range from tribute concerts like the “Composer Portrait” at Miller Theatre, coming up on September 20, to festivals — “Beyond Cage,” for instance, which launches at Carnegie Hall on October 22 — and Internet adaptations, such as the participatory project at 49waltzes.com, which invites the public to pitch in and realize the work he wrote for Rolling Stone, titled 49 Waltzes for the Five Boroughs. Among Cage’s countless innovations was what we call crowd-sourcing.

On his 100th birthday (September 5), four members of the Metropolitan Opera’s percussion section ambled onto the stage of Symphony Space, which was furnished with chemical-orange couches, and sat back, rifling through magazines while speakers piped in the hushed, domesticated sounds of Cage’s 1974 recording, Dawn at Stony Point. After a while, the performers began tapping on cups and pens and books that were lying about the coffee table, unspooling the crisply intricate rhythms of Living Room Music. In Cage’s sonic universe, nature, noise, ­silence, and concert music are always bleeding into one another’s territory, forming alluring hybrids.

Cage (who died in 1992) was born in Los Angeles just as the movie industry was establishing itself there, and at one point he pleaded for access to the MGM sound department, the perfect playground for an avant-garde composer. Even after he moved to New York, he dreamed on a Hollywood scale, though he became adept at extravaganzas on a budget. He turned a piano into a one-man ensemble by festooning the strings with felt, paper, and bolts. One of his most magnificent pieces for “prepared” piano is The Perilous Night, in which familiar timbres mix with bleak tollings, crackling, and harsh desert sounds. When CBS hired him to score a radio play, he wildly overestimated the station’s technological capacities. “I wrote 250 pages of score for instruments the timbre, loudness, and relative pitch of which I described, but the existence of which I only guessed,” he later recalled. When the engineers balked, he started again. The resulting work of surreal drama, The City Wears a Slouch Hat, closed the Symphony Space concert, which kicked off the New York Chamber Music Festival.

It’s still easy to laugh at Cage. He courted mirth, often at his own expense. In a YouTube clip of his appearance on the game show I’ve Got a Secret in 1960, he parted the curtain to reveal an elaborate setup of noisemakers and a bathtub. ­Gangly and deadpan before a studio audience, he clinked ice cubes, released steam from a boiling pot, squeezed a rubber duckie, placed a vase of flowers in the tub then doused it with a watering can, spritzed seltzer, and produced a range of other liquid percussion sounds.

Cage’s whimsy was strategic, his playfulness serious. To look back on his lifetime is to observe a revolution take shape, dazzle, and spread. His innovations were thrilling and multifarious. He liberated noise, provided an intellectual framework for electronic music, and gave percussionists a repertoire for which they remain profoundly grateful. Gregarious, accepting, and perpetually curious, he became a genial guru of the downtown avant-garde, perhaps the only artist of that time equally comfortable in the worlds of music, dance, and visual art. (The National Academy Museum has just opened “John Cage: The Sight of Silence,” an exhibit of his prints, drawings, and watercolors.)

That cerebral impishness can sometimes obscure the visceral allure of his music, especially the work that flowed from his 50-year personal and professional partnership with Merce Cunningham. In a 1948 lecture, Cage explained that he rarely began composing until the dance was ready, an inversion that would have driven most composers bonkers. “From a musical point of view,” he admitted, the dancer’s count was “totally lacking in organization: three measures of 4/4 followed by one measure of 5, 22 beats in a new tempo, a pause, and two measures of 7/8.” From this collection of beats, Cage derived an organization that was both rigorous and radical: He made every level of music — from tiny phrases to groupings of measures to large-scale structures — conform to the same irregular proportions. Today, we might call that approach fractal, emulating the nonlinear patterns that emerge in leaves, ice crystals, clouds, and mountain ranges.

Using chance procedures, he struggled to liberate his music from his own clutches, forcing his creative will to dissipate into the exquisite chaos of noise. For Atlas Eclipticalis (which can be played by an ensemble numbering between one and 86 players), he superimposed staff paper on a map of the heavens so that the brightest stars become the loudest notes. Some scores consist only of instructions that read like scavenger-hunt tasks: Improvise, using only instruments made of plants. 

Yet of all his immense and imaginative output, his most durable pieces are those in which the element of chance is constrained — Caged, you might say. Provocations do not age well, especially those neutralized by their success. He craved technology that would allow a composer to make and manipulate any sound; now free software lets children hammer together symphonies of cat mewls or doorbell chimes. Cage preached the beauty of accidental musical collisions; today, the streets are alive with ringtones, symphonies, and snatches of hip-hop exploding out of pedestrians’ pockets. The critic Alex Ross elegantly described the feedback loop between reality and the radical imagination: “Because Cage made his music sound like the world, the world sounds like Cage.” Which is true, but makes me wonder: If the world sounds like Cage, then what do we need him for?

We remember John Cage at 100 not simply because he was an iconoclast but because he was a traditional creator, too. His Third Construction, for percussion quartet, is a marvelously expressive machine, a kaleidoscope of changeable timbres and simultaneous rhythms that wander away from each other, meet up, and then part again like intertwining streams. Though it has no fixed pitches, no harmonies or tunes, it’s one of those works — like a Beethoven piano sonata, or a Monteverdi madrigal — that draw you deep into their bewitching complexities. It makes you want to shut out the world’s cacophonous chatter — to retreat into music, in the most archaic, pre-Cageian sense of that word.

Photo: Ben Martin/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images