Before And After ‘Silence’: Beyond 4’33”
In March 2020, Él Records released Lollipops, a three-disc retrospective of John Cage’s works. The set included the full 25-year Retrospective Concert Of The Music Of John Cage and Indeterminacy albums, plus other important pieces from the Cage archives. The album was named by its compiler, Mike Always, with a nod to a classical tradition that Cage never really felt part of (‘lollipops’ being a term used for collections of a composer’s shorter works), while also acting as a response to Stereolab’s ‘John Cage Bubblegum’ from 1993.
“I didn’t really enjoy the Branca piece. It wasn’t because it was so loud, because I can put up with the loudness…. I felt negatively about what seemed to me to be the political implications. I wouldn’t want to live in a society like that… in which someone would be requiring other people to do such an intense thing together. Branca is an example of sheer determination, of one person to be followed by the others. If it was good intentions that he was expressing, with vehemence and power, it would be like one of these strange religious organisations that you hear about, wouldn’t it? Or if it was something political it would resemble fascism.” – So That Each Person Is In Charge Of Himself – interview with Wim Mertens, Navy Pier, Chicago July 8 1982
Though it took place almost 25 years later, John Cage’s interview with Wim Mertens explains why he was reluctant to have his legacy as a composer profiled at a concert organised by his partner Merce Cunningham and his artist friends Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Cage was troubled by the idea of any form of retrospective of his work, and detested the idea of the composer as this kind of ‘godhead’ figure that must be obeyed. Cage’s works, especially those that embraced the principles of chance and indeterminacy, were the antithesis of the traditional composer. Their structure typically meant that the composer himself need not be present for the performance, and the performer had as much of a hand in the way a piece sounded as the one whose name was credited on the score.
The night before his interview with Mertens, Cage had sat through a performance of Glenn Branca’s Symphony No. 2: The Peak Of The Sacred, delivered by a tentet of nine guitarists and one drummer that included Branca himself as well as Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo. The performance formed part of the New Music America festival, and Branca was one of the headline acts. In his interview, Mertens tries to suggest some sort of similarity between Branca’s popularity and Cage’s own. Even in 1982, Cage could not – or maybe would not – acknowledge his own success. He was still looking forward, still contemplating his next move, and the idea of looking back over his career wasn’t something he was especially keen to do – in 1982, let alone in 1958 when Cunningham, Rauschenberg and Johns proposed what was functionally titled the 25-year Retrospective Concert Of The Music Of John Cage.
The concert was staged at New York’s Town Hall on Manhattan’s West 43rd Street on Thursday May 15 that year, with around a thousand audience members in attendance. Town Hall was a venue synonymous with protest, vitriolic lectures and radical thought, having been constructed in 1921 by McKim, Mead & White as a place for universal education on the issues of the day. The idea of an evening of Cage works being performed in such close proximity to Times Square’s squalid, brightly-lit entertainments has a certain contrarianism to it, even for the coterie of artists, dancers and musicians that surrounded Cage, but that’s New York for you.
Recorded by George Avakian and originally released as a three LP boxset in 1959, the Town Hall programme showed how rapidly Cage’s approach to composition had evolved. The earliest piece included, 1934’s Six Short Inventions For Seven Instruments still included trace elements of European classical convention, if only in the practical choice of instrumentation – flute, cello, clarinet, trumpet, two violas and violin – but was filled out with discordancy and built out from non-linear structures. Crucially, even in 1934, Cage’s distrust of one of European classical traditions – the climax – was writ large. Cage could not stand what he described as the “sustained climaxes” of composers like Wagner, and that’s apparent in an early work like Six Short Inventions For Seven Instruments: there is no logical and recognisable pay off here, leaving the listener somehow cheated by their own expectation. It was a conceit that Cage would return to continually in his ensuing works.
If there was one piece of Cage’s that did include a climax, it was the original performance of 1939’s First Construction In Metal. In that performance, the piece concluded with the smashing of a lime rickey bottle by his then-wife, Xenia Cage. In Cage’s hands it was a climax, insofar as it signalled the end of a piece, but it was hardly the noisiest element of the composition. A piece originally intended for six percussionists and piano, First Construction In Metal relied on three distinct Cage staples: a rhythmic structure arranged in a non-conventional manner; percussion that was atypically an exploration of the resonant properties of the whole instrument rather than played traditionally, and; a piano whose sounds were manipulated, in this case by an assistant applying a metal rod to the strings. At the Town Hall performance, the pianist was the frequent realiser of Cage pieces, David Tudor, with Merce Cunningham responsible for the manipulations.
While I was researching an Electronic Sound article on Cage’s most (in)famous composition, 1952’s 4’33”, I kept alighting upon interviews where people regarded that as the first piece of Noise music. I couldn’t completely understand that, given that Noise has always struck me as fully determined rather than indeterminate. If any Cage piece should be held up as providing a pathway to Noise, it arguably should be the sculpted cacophony of First Construction In Metal, being generally constructed of conventional percussive instrumentation played not dissimilar to striking out at objects in a scrapyard, with only the briefest intrusion of melodic counterpoints.
If Cage is thought to have – perhaps unconsciously – invented Noise, there is perhaps a more compelling argument for him having been the conscious architect of electronic music. The 25-year Retrospective included a performance of 1939’s Imaginary Landscape No. 1, a piece that was conceived in a Parisian radio studio as an accompaniment for a Jean Cocteau ballet and which was never intended for performance. The piece is of fixed duration – six minutes in total – and is performed using two vari-speed turntables each playing a different Victor test-tone LP, accompanied by a muted piano and cymbal. The Town Hall performance came from Doris Dennison, John Cage, Xenia Cage and Margaret Jansen, the quartet that had performed this originally in Seattle’s Cornish School radio station on March 24, 1939. Across its passage, we hear sounds that emerge like sonar pulses, whining oscillations, a snatch of tension in the form of a wandering string passage that would be more logical as part of the soundtrack to a Hitchcock movie, drones, and slow-motion cymbals. It is sparse yet cloying, framed by unpredictable detail and otherworldly, disassociated sounds.
“A sound has no legs to stand on.” – John Cage, 2 Pages, 122 Words On Music And Dance (1957)
Cage stayed on stage for a performance of The Wonderful Widow Of Eighteen Springs (1942), a piece which became one of his earliest ‘hits’ – if the frequency of performance was the determinant of a hit, that is. For the piece, Cage took a page from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake – a passage from page 556 to be precise – and set about scoring the impressions he took from that page. A recording of this work, as is the case with so many Cage pieces, doesn’t necessarily do it justice for the physicality of Cage’s use of the piano cannot be appreciated fully. Here, Cage would hit the lid or body of the closed piano with different parts of his hand, creating expressive percussive sounds and randomised rhythms. His playing is here accompanied by contralto Arline Carmen, whose vocal stays in three pitches per the stipulations of the score, the result being a strange mix of Indian percussion and European operatic tradition, presented with the flair and flourish of visual theatre.
That same approach arose again in the following year’s She Is Asleep. The first movement, for percussion quartet, wanders and trails, rising in intensity but of course never climactically; the method of playing induces a kind of melodic sensitivity, somehow approximating the restless, turbulent peace of sleep. The second movement finds Cage again reunited with Arline Carmen, only here Carmen’s voice trembles and wobbles like it is being processed into electroacoustic texture, skipping, and juddering along while Cage’s prepared piano offers clusters of raindrop-like tonalities.
The 25-year Retrospective then proceeded with Cage’s Sonatas And Interludes (1945 – 48) for prepared piano, here performed by his friend Maro Ajemian. Ajemian had delivered the first performance of the suite fourteen streets away at Carnegie Hall in 1949 and was thus the first true master of these pieces. The two hour preparations required to randomly place nuts, bolts, bars, screws and other metal objects into the body of the piano are every bit as much of the composition as the playing of the pieces themselves, much like the way a recording engineer or programmer might prepare sounds in a studio before recording commences – Cage here brings that preparation into the root of performance, meaning that what you hear, across almost thirty minutes of Ajemian’s performance, is just a fraction of the entire piece when you take that laborious preparation (and later dismantling) into account.
Even though the Sonatas And Interludes are among Cage’s most familiar pieces, frequent listening – even to the same performance – perpetually discloses more and more interesting detail, oddly-skewed melodic gestures trying valiantly to overcome the weighted limitations placed upon them, and percussive sounds emerging where melodies once would have been. In writing the brief Sonatas, Cage was influenced profoundly by Indian philosophy and the writings of Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, specifically the concept of eight ‘permanent emotions’. Coomaraswamy broke these into two groups – a white group containing humour, wonder, eroticism and heroism and a black group containing anger, fear, disgust and sorrow.
Cage also playfully described the process of composing the Sonatas And Interludes as like finding seashells while walking on a beach; that latter aspect explains why these pieces seem to operate along a path of perpetually unfolding discovery, clusters of activity interlaced with moments of searching. In typical Cage fashion, while each piece purportedly reflected one of the permanent emotions Coomaraswamy, he refused to say which went with which, though perhaps someone who has studied music might be able to discern that in the set of keys used in each piece.
What you hear evolving across the entire breadth of The 25-year Retrospective is the advancement of Cage’s aesthetic. By 1952’s chiming and beautifully messy Music For Carillon No. 1, here performed by David Tudor, we find Cage beginning to use chance operations in his music. 1953’s Williams Mix perhaps exemplified Cage’s interest in chance techniques, something that he was pursuing in parallel to Merce Cunningham’s own use of chance in his choreography around the same time.
Realised by Cage, David Tudor and Earle Brown, Williams Mix – the third of five pieces in Cage’s Project For Music For Magnetic Tape (1951 – 1954) – was completed in 1953 but only given its premiere at The 25-year Retrospective. A skipping, hopping stew of sound not unlike a radio being rapidly switched between channels, Williams Mix was constructed from eight simultaneously-played tracks on four tape machines, with tapes chopped up according to chance interventions determined using the I Ching. Its score was presented as a 193-page dressmaker’s pattern showing where to make the cuts on the tape which was laid upon it. For the version presented at Town Hall, the original sounds were prepared by Louis and Bebe Barron (though it would appear they were listed as Colonel Richard Ranger and Louis A Stevenson Jr) and were split into six categories – city, country, electronic, manually produced sounds, wind-produced sounds, and ‘small sounds requiring amplification’ – and the overall effect is not dissimilar to one of Rauschenberg’s collages.
By the end of Williams Mix, some members of the audience – liberally-minded though they may well have been – were beginning to feel frustrated, and whatever expectations they may have had going into a concert environment have been thwarted. You hear angry, dismissive comments and applause that sounds ponderous and sarcastic rather than reverential. The mood sours further on the concluding piece, Concert For Piano And Orchestra (1957 – 1958).
Concert For Piano And Orchestra was here conducted by Merce Cunningham and had only just been finished prior to this premiere performance. Across a duration of over twenty minutes, your first impression of the piece is that it’s a bit of a mess, like a jazz orchestra tuning up, or where each player is performing their own distinct section with no heed to what anyone else is playing. It’s also a lot like a Portsmouth Sinfonia performance only without any of the humour. There are percussive sounds like instrument bodies being hit; droning sounds; sounds like electronics but which are actually stuttering passages of muted horns, or whining string manipulations. Unsurprisingly, Cage had prepared the piece meticulously, listening carefully and open-mindedly to all the possible sounds that each instrument could make and then writing a piece that explored those typical – and atypical – sounds comprehensively.
“The audience often cheered the composer, though toward the end… there were some who began to make sounds of their own to try to stop it.” – Ross Parmenter reviewing The 25-year Retrospective, The New York Times, Friday May 16 1958
It was not a comfortable experience, for either the players or audience. For the players, the absence of a traditional conductor was dismaying: Cunningham “moved his arms like the hands of a clock to measure relative time,” recalled Cage, something which Jasper Johns thought was beautiful, but which perplexed a group of players used to more specific instruction. At eight minutes and other points thereafter, you hear premature applause and laughter despite there being no suggestion that the piece is over, giving you pause to wonder whether these interjections were not disgruntled audience members celebrating a complex solo as in jazz performance, but in fact taped sounds. It is an uncomfortable, unsettling piece, laced with great tension and anxiety; playful yet unnervingly discomfiting. In that context, the concluding applause (and vociferous shouting) is both celebratory and full of relief.
Él’s three CD set is rounded out by four additional Cage works, none of which are mere bonus track filler but highly important works in their own right – Double Music (1941), Indeterminacy (1959), Cartridge Music (1960) and Fontana Mix (1958).
Double Music was written by Cage and fellow New York composer Lou Harrison, conducted by Cage, and recorded in 1961. The piece saw Cage returning to the four percussionist framework, each player using a variety of conventional and unconventional instruments including bells, gongs, homemade brake drums and thundersheets. Double Music also saw Cage embracing Harrison’s intense exploration of Javanese gamelan music. Consequently, the effect is melodic, with various sequences of sounds overlapping in cycles to create a spiralling, non-linear effect.
Indeterminacy: New Aspect Of Form In Instrumental And Electronic Music was recorded in 1959, and found Cage recounting ninety short stories, each one lasting a minute, irrespective of how many words they contained. Consequently, and much to the initial frustration of engineer Mel Kaiser, sometimes Cage talks quickly and at other times he speaks in a sluggish delivery full of pregnant pauses. These stories can be found written out in full in Cage’s Silence book (1968), and are intriguing in their own right, being both biographical, diaristic accounts of important events in his life but also illuminating his disparate non-musical interests – mycology being one; Zen Buddhism being another. Hearing Cage’s soft delivery and his presumably deliberate mispronunciation of the city he had grown up in – Los Angeles, here called Los Anglès – highlights the playful, humour-filled personality that anyone who met and worked with him found so charming.
For the recording, Cage was in one studio room and David Tudor was in another, and neither could communicate with the other. Tudor’s contribution was to interject by playing his sections of Concert For Piano And Orchestra and Fontana Mix, intentionally drowning out what Cage is saying. Sometimes the two inputs are in synch with one another, almost like Tudor is applying Foley effects to Cage’s radio play-style narrative, at others the two components jar – urgent sounds while Cage is describing something meditative, for example. This was precisely the effect that Cage wanted. For him, the intention of indeterminacy was “to let things be themselves”, and you can hear that across the length of this piece, which was originally released as a double LP by the Folkways imprint.
“Giving up control so that sounds can be sounds (they are not men: they are sounds) means for instance: the conductor of an orchestra is no longer a policeman. Simply an indicator of time – not in beats – like a chronometer. He has his own part. Actually he is not necessary if all the players have some other way of knowing what time it is and how that time is changing.” – John Cage, History Of Experimental Music In The United States (1958)
Cage returned to the adaptable turntable for 1960’s Cartridge Music – of a fashion. The piece was realised by Cage and David Tudor in 1962, and alongside First Construction In Metal provides the true foundations of Noise music. Here you find amplified sounds of indeterminate provenance, scratchy sounds, guttural sounds, sounds like sandpaper or panting, sounds like the pulsing lasers of Star Wars, and sounds like dragging a finger across a stylus, along with bursts of wavering, oscillating distortion. The link to the phonograph is evident in the title – Cartridge Music utilised the amplified cartridges of record players with objects such as feathers and toothpicks inserted into them, alongside contact microphones. The effect is an intense tapestry of the smallest sounds blown up into gigantic proportions. “All sounds, even those ordinarily thought to be undesirable, are accepted in this music,” said Cage of the piece.
The Él set concludes with Fontana Mix from 1958, originally recorded by Cage at the Studio di Fonologia in Milan. The piece used the same six sound input of the Williams Mix, but utilised a more elaborate score, giving rise to an indeterminate piece that skips, jumps around from ear to ear with seemingly random abandon but which was, of course, meticulously prepared. Operatic singing, indecipherable gibberish, radio tuning, bursts of indeterminate sound can all be found here; as was frequently the case with Cage’s work, the effect can be disorienting but in true Cageian fashion, the process to get to the final Fontana Mix was painstakingly detailed.
Lollipops includes a comprehensive booklet of liner notes including extracts from Cage’s lectures, the accompanying notes from the original 25-year Retrospective and Indeterminacy LPs, extracts from Silence, along with photos and quotes from various sources that highlight Cage’s influence, process and methods. In an age where an artist’s work, from whichever discipline, can be reduced to one or two signature works, Lollipops provides an indispensable field guide to the vast body of challenging works that Cage left behind, making it essential listening for anyone remotely interested in exploring this most enigmatic of composer’s work.
Lollipops by John Cage was released March 20 2020 by Él Records / Cherry Red. Buy Lollipops from the Cherry Red website here.
Words: Mat Smith
Thanks to Lee Ranaldo, Matt Ingham, Mike Alway and to Meredith and Reed Hays for taking delivery of my beaten-up ex-library copy of Indeterminacy in New York. The second and third quotes from John Cage were chosen by randomly selecting pages from John Cage’s Silence at 2259 and 2304 on May 8 2020.
(c) 2020 Documentary Evidence