I Have Nothing New to Say and I Am Saying It

…and that is commercialism as I need it. I have ongoing doubts about the propriety of taking off three months of my life to write a Cage book. I never aspired to be a Cage scholar. By the late ’80s so many people were doing excellent work on him that I just bowed out. I have a phobia about competition, and I despise duplicating the work of others. I got a blast from analyzing all of Nancarrow precisely because I was learning so many things no one else yet knew. Years ago Oxford asked me to write a Charles Ives biography. Few things would have given me greater pleasure than spending two years immersed in Ivesiana, but Jan Swafford’s superb biography had just appeared, and the idea of taking all that time away from composition to awkwardly paraphrase what Jan had already said so eloquently just wasn’t conscionable. Yet here I am, and I have nothing to say about 4’33” that hasn’t been said before, and better. If I come up with a single original insight by the time I finish this book, I’ll be as surprised as anyone. 

Luckily, the book is intended for a general audience. It’s part of a Yale University Press series called “American Icons.” The other volumes in process so far concern the Empire State Building, the Superman comic book series, and the Marlboro Man. This last sounds like the one to bet on: the Marlboro Man was invented because Marlboro started out as a women’s cigarette, and they started trying to market it to men. But then the Marlboro Man (before he got lung cancer) became a gay icon, so in a sense he came full circle. How much more fun does that sound like than a book on five minutes of silence?

The sad fact is, though, that this book will advance my reputation in musicological circles far more than the postminimalism book I should be working on. As I’ve noted often before, a musicologist’s reputation is proportionate to the square of the fame of the composer he’s an expert on. Explaining Mikel Rouse and David First and Eve Beglarian to the world will make me more an oddity than an expert. Writing a Cage book won’t put me up with the Beethoven and Bach savants by a long shot, but it will zoom me up near the top of the relatively small 20th-century heap. Quality and content play little part in this dispensation.

And yet that’s not at all why I’m doing it: I’m more doing it in spite of that. I would rather spit in the eye of every musicologist in Christendom than lift a finger to achieve status in such an artificial, unthinking heirarchy. A couple of friends have been kind enough to tell me that I’m a better composer than writer, and I would like to think so. Personally, I believe that my most important contribution to the world is the extent to which I have developed just intonation into a broader musical language, with deep roots in tonal practice and tremendous ramifications for future usage, and if I had my druthers, which I don’t, I’d infinitely prefer to be remembered for that. I have no ambitions at all as a musicologist, beyond righting the wrongs that good composers of my generation have suffered.

So why am I doing this? Because the opportunity arose, offered by an editor who’s an old friend, with a generous advance attached, and, in a Cagean spirit, I grabbed it. Because Cage played a tremendous role in my youth and only a peripheral role in my adulthood to date. Because Zen was a wonderully energizing influence on my life in the ’70s and early ’80s, and I’ve been too long divorced from it. Because he was a wonderful man, and his personal example laid an indelible imprint on my life. (Among other things, I think I absorbed from Cage the lesson that being a prolific and controversial writer can help augment one’s reputation as a composer.) So ultimately my motivations are self-serving, in the deepest possible sense: to get back to my roots, to backtrack over where I came from, to figure out why, at age 17, performing 4’33” in public seemed like such an important thing to do. To revisit those high school days in which I enthusiastically played the Everest recording of Variations IV for my theory class, with my teacher and classmates all terribly dubious as to whether that was actually music. As of June 8 I’m at the beginning of a new 30-year astrological cycle in my life, and I needed to reorient myself. I’m at a lull in my compositional activity, with many large projects just completed and new ones still vague in my mind. And I’m hoping, hoping against hope, that newly understanding 4’33” and the rest of Cage’s post-1950 output, as an adult, will propel me, as a composer, in a new and hopefully completely unexpected direction.


  1. Peter says

    This may sound strange, but I think Cage’s theory of gamuts and his use of the I-Ching (and thus much of his post-1950 output) was part of a wider something in the air at the time.
    From about 1942-1965, there arose in pure mathematics a new theory called Category Theory , developed by people mostly inside a triangle formed by New York City, Chicago, and Montreal. Category theory concerns spaces comprised of abstract objects and the relationships between these objects.
    If you consider the gamuts to be objects, then each composition (each sequence of rolls of the I Ching coins, for instance) creates a particular category. When I first read about gamuts, I immediately thought of category theory, and I found it odd that Cage also lived inside this triangle at this time.
    KG attempts to comment: Huh.

  2. Peter says

    I would also suggest having a read (if you have not already done so) at the artist George Brecht’s lecture notes of Cage’s lectures in his composition class at the New School in 1957-59. These lectures were influential on the formation of the Fluxus movement, and are perhaps the source of Cage’s enduring influence on the visual and plastic arts.
    Even Brecht’s notes are not always very illuminating (he was too busy doing to be writing-about-doing), reading them takes you back to the moment — or, at least, took me.
    KG replies: Thanks, I’ll look for them.

  3. says

    I just finished “Music Downtown” and I really enjoyed it. It was great reading about the music which was happening when(sorry to make you feel old) I was too young to notice. Looking foward to your Cage book!
    KG replies: Thanks. I never mind feeling old.

  4. Bill says

    I think there are some real untapped stories here, for example: why can Cage’s influence be found daily in pop culture but it’s almost non-existent in contemporary composition? Forget what that says about Cage, what does it say about contemporary composition?
    And also sounds like there’s a lot of strong personal feelings about Cage, maybe the best thing would be a gonzo journalism, Gann-and-Cage duking it out type of thing.
    KG replies: I know there are some pop-song references to 4’33”, but when you talk about daily Cage influences in pop culture, can you give me some examples? I’d love to use them, and I’m pretty out of touch with pop culture myself.

  5. Anthony Cornicello says

    I’m glad to hear you’re writing about Cage. There’s nothing like reading a book by a writer who is truly inspired by the subject!
    I’m a fan of those late ‘number’ pieces. There not really discussed much in Cage literature. I think they are a wonderful way of creating truly tempo-less pieces. Cage’s last works were expanding the idea of time-brackets, from single note gestures to long melismatic passages.
    I actually worked for Paul Sadowski in the late 1980s and early 90s – at that time, we were Cage’s copyist. In fact, I’m referenced indirectly on the CD liner notes for “Thirteen”. Yes, I’m the anonymous copyist who worked with Cage on the enigmatic percussion parts for that piece!
    Good luck with the book. I’m looking forward to it!

  6. Bill says

    KG replies: I know there are some pop-song references to 4’33”, but when you talk about daily Cage influences in pop culture, can you give me some examples? I’d love to use them, and I’m pretty out of touch with pop culture myself.
    Just off the top of my head: Brian Eno (and by extension U2, Coldplay, James, David Byrne, etc.), Grateful Dead (and by extension contemporary bands like Grizzly Bear), Quicksilver Messenger Service, Tangerine Dream, Steve Roach, Robert Rich, David Lynch, almost everything on the Cartoon Network, etc.
    Some of these have overtly referenced Cage (Eno, Grateful Dead), but many simply revel in the fact that noise is now allowed peacefully into art.

  7. Samuel Vriezen says

    Bill’s idea that the influence of Cage would be almost non-existent in contemporary music does not reflect my own experience. I mentioned the Wandelweiser group earlier; but over the years, I’ve come across very many people who were somehow influenced by the work of Cage.
    Certainly his work has been an important source for my own – though much of my music has had very different concerns. You can perhaps only tell in my string quartet “Between Chords”, by the sound of it, that it was influenced by the Number Pieces, and my “The Weather Riots” uses the flexible time bracket technique (but it doesn’t sound like a Number Piece at all).
    I love this new spamfilter, Kyle. It’s “March puzzling” now.