Guest Essay About John Cage Written by Kirstin Duprey
“I don’t listen to all that new crap, I only listen to REAL music.” How many times have you heard (or maybe used) that line?
Growing up, I often heard the argument against modern art (including music) that it wasn’t “real art”. But what is “real art”? What is “real music”? That answer is going to be different depending on whom you ask. There is a long-held debate among people about the value of modern art and performances and whether or not they really are what they claim to be. Music is heavily susceptible to this debate due to music being such an integral part of society. The avant-garde movement after World War II was a breeding ground for controversial expression that continues today, and one of the most remembered figures from this time is John Cage, especially his controversial work 4’33. Still today many people question if what he did was really music. By looking at a few of his works, we can go down the ladder of “weirdness”, so to speak, and look at why they may or may not count as music.
The first piece we’ll look at is Suite for Toy Piano, which was composed in 1948 for a dance suite that was choreographed by Merce Cunningham. It contains five movements, each being two minutes or less. Looking at the first movement of the piece, despite the usual inability to analyze Cage’s works, this movements allows for it to a degree. The piece consists of notes from a G Major five-finger-pattern exclusively and follows a standard time signature. The piece is meant to be played on a toy piano, but it can be played on a regular piano as well. It is very easy to identify the musical components in this piece. The presence of a diatonic key as well as a simple meter would make it difficult for a person to deny this piece being music.
Williams Mix was composed in 1952 by splicing together tapes of six various types of sounds: city sounds, country sounds, electronic sounds, manually produced sounds, wind sounds, and “small” sounds which need to be amplified to be heard. It has a rhythmic structure of 5-6-16-3-11-5. About 600 different tapes are needed to make a version of this work. The musical aspects of this piece are notated in the score. The score denotes dynamic, pitch, and timbre at various times throughout the piece. The instructions of when to put certain types of sounds and what pitch they should be could easily be interpreted as tempo and notation. While some may find it a stretch, there are definitely many ways in which this piece still exemplifies the creation of music.
Water Walk premiered on the game show I’ve Got a Secret in 1960. John Cage told the host that he had titled the piece this way because it involves things that use water and he walks around during it. To perform this, one would need to acquire a water pitcher, an iron pipe, a goose call, a bottle of wine, an electric mixer, a whistle, a watering can, ice cubes, 2 cymbals, a mechanical fish, a quail call, a rubber duck, a tape recorder, a vase of roses, a seltzer siphon, 5 radios, a bathtub and a grand piano. Each event is timed, and Cage carried around a stopwatch while performing to make sure he stayed on time. The score for this looks like a map, describing where/which item to use and when. The use of a stopwatch to keep time is reminiscent of tempo in a traditional piece. The use of different objects mimics the use of traditional percussion instruments. These characteristics of this work are similar to the characteristics of a multiple percussion solo, which makes it much easier to argue that, yes, this is music.
45’ for a Speaker is part of a larger work, called Ten Thousand Things. A speaker is to read from a monologue that lasts for 45 minutes. There were multiple topics and paths that each stanza could take: speech or silence, duration, and new material or old material. If it was new material, there were 32 possible topics that could be chosen from. Each line is supposed to take two seconds to read, which Cage himself admits may be impossible, but that the reader should try anyways. In the monologue there are also instructions for the reader, such as blow nose, lean on elbow, whistle 3 times, and click. 45’ Minutes for a Speaker is meant to be laid over the other works in 10,000 Things, to create a unique effect. Again, the use of time restriction while performing mimics tempo. This is perhaps the most difficult piece to defend as music on its own, as it seems more like poetry than music. However, the overlay of the speech over the rest of the works in 10,000 Things makes this song seem like a very gentle form of rap. The presence of instructions for the speaker to do certain physical actions could be related to either body percussion or different forms of timbre. For these reasons, one could still defend this as music.
The first question one should be asking when analyzing if a person’s creations are music is whether or not they meant that to be the point. John Cage certainly did believe what he was doing was music. As he said of Water Walk to the host when asked if he took his music seriously, “Perfectly seriously, I consider music the production of sound. And since in the piece which you will hear I produce sound, I would call it music”. Cage also said that everything people do is music. He had a very environmental take on music, that music could be found everywhere. He was very interested in creating music for society, but not for any sort of gain. He himself was somewhat of an anarchist and he wanted his music to open the eyes and ears of his listeners to the world around them. John Cage did, however, realize that his music was very unorthodox and hard to accept by some people. In an interview he said “If this word, music, is sacred and reserved for eighteenth- and nineteenth-century instruments, we can substitute a more meaningful term: organization of sound.”
Despite the eccentric nature of his music, the public’s reception of John Cage’s works was not decidedly bad. Many critic reviews were positive. In a Chicago Daily News review, one critic described being present for a premiere.
“A savage sort of rhythm poured off the stage that had the audience squirming in its seats… Finally the audience began to enjoy itself, applauding enthusiastically, to be rewarded with a pleased-as-pie grin from Mr. Cage.”
Another review came from critic and peer Eric Salzman from Stereo Review magazine. He spoke highly of Cage and the philosophy behind the music.
“Well, thought I, either Schumann has gotten stuck in the speakers or my mind has finally been blown. It was neither, of course, just part of Variations IV. It is such coincidences that make Cage’s nuttiest freakouts somehow relevant to a nutty world scrambled by a technology we hardly yet understand. Well, dig it, man, dig it!”
Given that comments from everyday music listeners of the time are hard to come by, and that those who were not already planning to attend such concerts as these would probably not hear Cage’s music, it is difficult to gauge exactly how well-received his music is, especially considering that Cage himself ignored critics as much as possible and therefore did not write on the subject much.
Looking from a technical standpoint, one could debate for a long time whether or not John Cage was a composer or an inventor, or perhaps a mix of both. Do his esoteric markings of how to make sounds truly count as timbre? Is writing how long a certain action takes actually count as tempo? Can any object be considered a percussion instrument?
All of the questions have the potential to be answered yes. Considering that, Suite for Toy Piano, Williams Mix, Water Walk, and 45’ for a Speaker, could certainly fit the criteria for music. However, people could still debate the legitimacy of the works in the musical world. If music is simply the organization of sounds, then John Cage is correct in that everything is music. But does that really make him a composer, if everyone is always making music? Perhaps the making of music lies with intent. If a person intends something to be taken as art, it is. If a person intends to make music, then surely they too are making music, regardless of what other people think.
John Cage Defined in the 1950s, http://www.plosin.com/beatbegins/projects/dacey.html.
John Cage Complete Works, johncage.org/pp/John-Cage-Work-Detail.cfm?work_ID=246.
“John Cage ‘Water Walk.’” Performance by John Cage, Water Walk, I’ve Got a Secret, 2 Oct. 2014, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gXOIkT1-QWY.
The Piano in My Life, rosewhitemusic.com/piano/writings/ten-thousand-things/.
“‘45′ For A Speaker’ (1954).” A YEAR FROM MONDAY, http://www.ayearfrommonday.com/2012/01/45-for-speaker-1954.html.
“Who Is John Cage? Everything You Need to Know.” John Cage Childhood, Life and Timeline, http://www.thefamouspeople.com/profiles/john-cage-336.php.
Kostelanetz, Richard. Conversing with Cage. New York, NY: Routledge. 2004 (1987 orig.).
Kostelanetz, Richard. John Cage. Edited by Paul Cummings, Praeger Publishers, 1970.
Paolini, L. (2018). John Cage on “I’ve got a secret”. [online] Available at: http://www.johncage.org/blog/paolini-cage-eds-editlp.pdf [Accessed 1 May 2018]