View from Outside the Cage

The best way to kickstart a new book is to blog it, right? I have tried, since age 15, to reread John Cage’s Silence every few years, and I’m always amazed at how different it seems time after time, how many new meanings I get from it and how many old ones seem no longer there. But now, researching my 4’33” book, I’m gaining a much clearer picture of Cage than I had in my youth. I’m now the age Cage was in 1964-5, and his work of the 1940s and ’50s seems to me much more transparent than it used to, though not particularly less admirable. 

What strikes me in rereading through vast swaths of Cage is how subjective his viewpoint is. He was always advocating pure objectivity, getting away from his likes and dislikes, but his underlying reasons for such advocacy seem to boil down to: he just liked it that way. This is not the impression I took away at 15. Cage was so tied into Marshall McLuhan and Buckminster Fuller and Joseph Campbell and everything hip that he seemed to be laying the groundwork for a permanent new paradigm shift – and woe to the loser who didn’t get on board. By upbringing and happy accident Cage preferred optimisim to pessimism, nature to personality, acoustics to metaphor, and therefore we must all prefer them too. But now I’m noticing how often his recipes for the new music ultimately get attributed, frankly, to his personal taste. I’ve started a running list of his comments in which he justified his mandates subjectively. Take the following passage, written in defensive reply to a negative 1956 review by Paul Henry Lang, and oft-quoted these days in explication of 4’33”:

For “art” and “music,” when anthropocentric, (involved in self-expression) seem trivial and lacking in urgency to me. We live in a world where there are things as well as people. Trees, stones, water, everything is expressive… Life goes on very well without me, and that will explain to you my silent piece, 4’33”, which you may also have found unacceptable.

Well, I’m with him when he rejects self-expression as a major artistic motivation. But then he takes a speciously logical but nevertheless flying leap onto the extremely thin ice of equating self-expression with anthropocentrism. What, to deal with human concerns in my music means I’m merely “expressing myself”? The only possible escape from narcissistic expression of one’s momentary emotions is to leapfrog over the entire human race altogether and write music from the standpoint of rocks and trees? This catapults out a considerable army of babies with relatively few liters of bath water. 

Now, the attempt to de-anthropomorphize music was a fascinating project, and for a few decades it vastly enlivened the experimental music scene, as a fertile source of new processes and perceptions. I have nothing whatever to say against it. Nevertheless, most music is made by humans for the purpose of being listened to by other humans, and to posit that there is now something unworthy or inauthentic about embedding anthropocentric concerns in one’s music would be to impose stringent limitations indeed. But so it goes, with Cage endlessly elevating his personal preferences into universals, quoting Thoreau and Coomarasamy and Meister Eckhardt to mean things they never would have supported in a million years. Thus, after 1955, a painting can only be truly “modern” if it is not destroyed by the presence of dust and shadows, and only music can be truly of our time that is in no way interrupted by the noises of traffic or a crying baby. Yet I possess an otherwise wonderful 1982 Harold Budd recording rendered unlistenable by a crying baby, and I know very few composers, even ones tremendously grateful to Cage, who wouldn’t be upset by having one of their recordings marred by outside noises.

I don’t in any way mean to imply that Cage was dishonest, or even presumptuous. It is every artist’s prerogative to make a public case that his or her own aesthetic is currently the best or hippest one on the market, and more power to him or her for being a good salesman. It was the style of the time to draw universals from one’s personal preferences (something that the more relativistic composers of my own generation have noticeably refused to do). Boulez elevated his personal concerns into formulations of a new law, so did Stockhausen, so did Babbitt. If Cage’s case differs from theirs, it was in that the aesthetic he pompously attempted to impose on the world was so much more cheerful, humbler, less authoritarian, so much more open to amateurs, so much more accepting of everyday life, that one felt almost churlish in opposing it – though in the end it was every bit as subjective and contingent. That was the source of his incredible presuasiveness. His cheery, out-of-left-field openness made one yearn to agree with him, even when his pronouncements provoked an internal reaction of, “Yyyyyyyyeah, wellllllllll, buuuuuut….” His justifications provoked smiles, but didn’t, in themselves, allow for the fact that historical pendulums, having swung one way, swing back, and that the variety of human psychology is infinite. His objectivity came as a breath of fresh air after a subjective era, but to draw the seemingly invited implication that humans didn’t need both sides would have been ridiculous. 

And actually I believe that Cage, as a person, recognized this. After the 1990 premiere of my I’itoi Variations – as un-Cagean a piece as one might care to write – he came up and complimented me warmly. The sometimes austere desiderata expressed in his books did not limit his personal relationships. 

All I’m saying, in fact, is that Cage was in no way what he has so often been called: a philosopher. He created a remarkable illusion that he had reached some kind of Ground Zero of artistic experience. But the illusion that his new “philosophy” now exposed Beethoven, Mahler, and jazz as frauds was one that very few people ever fell for, and it is difficult for a music lover today to avoid noticing the eccentricity of his preferences. In his music he scoped out large new areas that composition had never before occupied, and in his writings he justified his explorations with stunning articulateness. But actually, it was the MUSIC that justified his explorations (when it did), not the other way around. He made no ongoing objective survey of the philosophy or psychology of musical experience; instead, he wrote the music he felt compelled to write, and then wrote with astounding beauty about why he wrote it. A philosopher would have had to account for the attractiveness of music for which he had no sympathy. I’m more of a music-philosopher than Cage was, as was my late colleague Jonathan Kramer. A philosopher starts with some objective survey of aesthetic experience and, from it, derives musical principles. Cage, like most composers (and there is no reason to judge him harshly for it), went the well-traveled opposite direction. And, since he never claimed to be a philosopher, it is no reflection on him that he did not succeed in becoming one.

My own evaluation of Cage as a composer is that he has been somewhat overrated by his champions, and, of course, infinitely underrated by his detractors. There are pieces I’m dearly attached to from every Cagean period: In a Landscape (the permanent theme song of Postclassic Radio), Dream, The Seasons, Experiences Nos. 1 and 2, the 1950 String Quartet, Hymnkus, 74, Europeras 1 and 2. Some pieces are a blast to hear live: Credo in US, Imaginary Landscapes No. 4 (which I once conducted as a student at Oberlin). Others I just don’t care for at all, notably Atlas Eclipticalis and some of the late “number” pieces. I’m not a huge Sonatas and Interludes fan, but I respect it and am always glad to hear it. Variations 4 is an unforgettable paradigm for audio collage, while 4’33” and Music of Changes are historic landmarks (like Le Marteau and Gruppen), arguably more exciting to think about than to listen to. Etudes Australes is remarkably fun to play. In short, Cage was a composer, one of astonishing variety (and the usual unevenness). 

As for his writings, the technicolor mushroom-lined road they mapped out for us all was really only for himself alone, though he made it sound so inviting that many like-minded individuals signed up for part of the journey. He introduced me to the I Ching and opened me up to an entire world of irrationality and natural complexity. (A random-number generator plays a walk-on role in a piece I’m writing right now.) His personal ethical example left a deep, deep mark on me, though his road itself proved too breezy a route for my darker, more solitary temperament. “He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?” But a philosopher? Not consistent enough. Not objective enough. Not rigorous enough.


  1. says

    Dear Kyle,
    An imposition of stiff requirements for rigor, consistency, and objectivity would result in many classic philosophers getting purged from the roles. I understand your point, though: Cage was a composer. I wouldn’t call him a philosopher either; he was a fertile conceptualist and, as you point out, a great polemicist, though.
    The common view — which I perhaps erroneously share — is that he’s been more influential as a polemicist and conceptualist than as a sonic stylist; as you point out, for much of his career he would have shunned anybody’s calling attention to his sonic style anyway. This is not a judgment — I really enjoyed a live performance of one of the late number pieces (though I probably wouldn’t care for a recording of it — and that’s fine) and love a lot of his stuff.
    I look forward to your book!

  2. Bill says

    I think you’re judging him by the yardstick of Western philosophy?
    KG replies: Well, I’ve read tons of Indian and Chinese philosophy, and I don’t see much more correlation there, except insofar as the ethical attitude enters into aesthetics. Coomaraswamy, for instance, outlines a full Buddhist philosophy of art that I could imagine attempting to make art in accordance with.
    To answer you and Samuel here at once, I guess what I don’t find in Cage’s writings (which consistency and rigor would supply, and Samuel’s entirely right that they’re present in spades in his music) is any clear feeling of that paradigm shift I mentioned, any set of insights that would lead me to compose differently than I would have before reading Cage, except in the usual technical sense of using chance processes or other devices he came up with – just as I might have gotten the octatonic scale from Bartok, or polytempos from Ives. If I were going to really take Coomaraswamy’s philosophy of art seriously, which I’m just too ingrainedly Western to do, I would have to change all the circumstances under which I make art, why I make it, what standards I apply to it. Just as I would if I were going to take Tolstoy’s prescriptions in What Is Art?, or Cardew’s. But if I decided to reread through all of Cage and remake myself as a “Cagean composer,” I can’t even figure out what that would mean, or what I would do differently in my music – aside from learning not to be so irritated when the phone rings.
    UPDATE: Well, I do know what I could do differently in my music – I could make its continuity such that unintended sounds wouldn’t constitute an interruption of it. But I already write some ambient music, and so few composers of my generation have latched on to that idea of Cage’s that I’ve always thought, to the extent he was a philosopher, he certainly wasn’t a very influential one – though he was a tremendously influential composer.

  3. says

    Kyle, nice post, with good observations – and I absolutely agree it’s not very helpful to think of Cage as a philosopher – but there is also much in what you write that I look at quite differently.
    The main reason why I wouldn’t see Cage as a philosopher is simply that he never wrote a philosophical text. But I do find him both consistent and rigorous, and ‘objective’ is not a word that I find meaningful in this context. Cage was consistent and rigorous in his approach to his works.
    You bring up the paradox of egolessness. Essentially, it comes down to saying, Cage could not forego having an ego as he was making choices for how to write music. That’s a truism. The real status of egolessness I think is this: on the one hand, it’s an ideal, something you can strive for but never quite attain; on the other hand, it did get expressed in the form of rigorous technique(s). Technically, I guess egolessness in Cage most of all comes to mean: defining a field of musical phenomena, and then finding a way of selecting among those phenomena that does not involve choosing. And that technical approach was being developed gradually in his work, in many different forms, on the basis of the unattainable ideal.
    And that’s where Cage was so consistent and rigorous: in following the unattainable ideal. In Badiou’s terminology, (if I may risk some angry commenters by bringing up that philosopher again) Cage was a militant for a Truth – such a Truth here being a new way of looking at music that can change the entire field. Composition method, notation, performance practice, function in society, ensemble structure, the notion of the musical event or concert itself: everything you can think of in music was subjected to a new way of looking. (And this went a lot farther than the much more limited revolutions of Boulez or Babbitt, even, I think, farther than the rather wide-ranging Stockhausen)
    Such Truths certainly involve a basic decision – the choice whether or not to go down that road – but once you make the basic decision to follow that path, to try to make some unattainable idea true in musical practice, it’s no longer a question of mere random preference, but it becomes a question of logic – of a new, unforeseeable logic that you unfold by working on it. Preference is simply too weak a word, too suggestive of whim, for what it means to make decisions of that order. Again using Badiou’s terminology, if you admit some such Truth, you are ‘faithful’ to it – which is for Badiou exactly the only way to achieve subjectivity! (his notion of subjectivity is a little more abstract than most folks’ – a subject is not a person, but is a process of fidelity to a truth that persons can subscribe to; a subject is something you partake in, not something that you are; if you’re not engaged in some such truth, you’re basically living some sort of animal life, just prolonging your existence while working, watching tv and paying off your mortgage etc.) In that sense, I would say that Cage was very consistent and rigorous and completely subjective.
    (I wouldn’t really know what would render an artist – or, for that matter, a philosopher – ‘objective’)
    Perhaps in his writing and terminology, Cage was less consistent. The word ‘anthropocentric’ that you’re picking on may indeed not be the most felicitous term. In fact, Cage’s methods became quite interesting when they get applied to historical, political, social situations. Like in Apartment House or the Song Books. In that kind of work, Cage is very much looking at humans, and how they live and work together. But of course, he’s looking at humans according to his different way of looking that derives from his fidelity to his ideal, which you can indeed call antihumanistic – in that it doesn’t start from some pre-defined notion of what it should mean to be human – but that does allow humanity to appear in a different, refreshing way, seen by means of chance.
    So I certainly think there’s a little more going on in Cage’s remarkably consistent method in a stunning variety of artistic styles than good salesmanship. But I fully agree that Cage’s example is not one that has to be followed as if it were a law written in stone. That would be totalitarian, and totalitarianism is never good for you, not even if it’s based on Cage.

  4. Rod Jones says

    My yearning to agree with Cage was challenged by the description of his working on Apartment House that James Pritchett quotes. Cage described his first draft of the piece as “miserable. No good at all. Not worth the paper they were written on.” He then goes on to describe two or three other attempts to design a process of chance composition the result of which he might find satisfying. For me, trying to square that description with Cage’s various exhortations to be “open to no matter what eventuality” has acted like a kind of koan which has resulted in my being less concerned with the systems and more interested in just listening to his music.

  5. says

    Cage’s music, like just about everyone else’s, has discreet but often overlapping compositional and philosophical elements. Important factors involved were: 1) the influence of his father as inventor; 2) his incredibly industrious and concientious work-ethic when it came to creating some approach, solution or action; 3) his early and serious inability to create very much using traditional music theory and forms, while still absolutely set on his desire to create music; 4) being the kind of personality that gravitates toward pure phenomenology in both the natural a social world, i.e., the guy who is fascinated with sunsets, cracks in the sidewalk, improbable actions and coincidences by and between people; 5) an attraction to elements of philosophical and metaphysical ideas (mostly Asian) that reinforce acceptance (not neccessarily embrace!) of “the other”, the unusual or disallowed. Looking at his work through these elements strips away some of that “philosophic” interpretation, and grounds it back in the man and his life. To me, none of this is really philosophy as much as simply coping mechanism. There is a place in Cage’s writings, interviews, etc., from the mid 60s through the 70s, where he tends to get a little caught up in the sociological hype of the time, and I think suffers for it. It’s then that he starts sounding rather more “philosophical”, yet less like himself.
    KG replies: I’ll buy that.

  6. Peter says

    Kyle, you said in your reply to Bill:
    to the extent he was a philosopher, he certainly wasn’t a very influential one – though he was a tremendously influential composer.
    Perhaps this is not the subject of your book, but it is worth noting for the record that Cage has been extremely influential on contemporary visual and plastic artists, by emphasizing the found and the contingent, by directing attention to context and to the surrounds of artworks, and by using what are commonly-but-wrongly-called chance procedures in creation. (As I’ve noted here before, it is a western mis-understanding of Taoist thought to view the “I Ching” as involving randomness.)
    I don’t know any other composer or sound artist whose writings and compositions are routinely included in collections, academic studies, libraries and even bookshops of 20th-century visual art.
    KG replies: Well, that’s certainly a good point. I’ll have to give some thought as to what that says about him.

  7. says

    Cage was/is also a highly regarded poet — not by all poets, but by prominent poets such as David Antin, the poet and influential anthologist Jerome Rothenberg, and the late Jackson Mac Low. His poetry is fascinating, and I think we would do well to take seriously his comment that his desire to score his lectures with time markings came from a desire for poetry.

  8. says

    Re Peter’s comment: What it says about Cage is that the procedures he created weren’t about the medium. Music, art, writing, theater… you could pour anything into them. Kind of goes way back to that problem he had with traditional composition; he could never get a handle on traditional formal processes, so he had to make new ones up that he could understand and deal with. From the late 30s/early 40s, his main preoccupation became how to create some framing structure, that he could then pour whatever figures, actions or “gamuts” into, and in some way this never changed through all the later developments.

  9. says

    Kyle – me, I certainly do have an idea of what it could mean to be a Cagean composer, but it’s by following his formal thinking more than following some dictum or taking over a technique he might have used – and I agree you wouldn’t get it if you’d just read his writings. Cage’s thought needs the body of the work for to be clear. But the writings and the works do reinforce one another, and they stem from the same ideal. I particularly find that his formal thought, completely rearranging the link between time and material, is a core point, leading to a very different way of putting sounds in time. It has made completely new types of compositional criterium emerge as crucial, far beyond chance techniques or environmental awareness. (For example, I think of somebody like Tom Johnson very much as a Cagean composer).
    Steve’s point that “Cage’s music, like just about everyone else’s, has discreet but often overlapping compositional and philosophical elements” is correct, of course. But that doesn’t account for the singular consistency and consequence of Cage’s views. As Peter points out, Cage’s work is influential in the plastic arts – and to that you can add a comparable status in experimental poetry, and similar influences on theatre, film, and of course, dance. (And it’s not only the ‘writings and compositions’ that the museums are interested in: Cage did quite a bit of pretty nice visual work of his own – check out To Sober and Quiet the Mind from Crown Point Press). Certainly, you could say of any composer that there are discreet but overlapping compositional and philosophical elements, but in Cage’s case they are interesting, and in, say, Wuorinen’s case – let’s say they are there somehow, and remember how Cage said that eventually, everything can become interesting…
    I’m actually working towards something like a philosophical reading for Cage with my friend Ernst van den Hemel here at the Perdu Foundation, putting him in a couple of broader perspectives. We believe it might be worth trying to trace Cage’s relation to Transcendentalism, read as an American philosophical discipline the way Stanley Cavell reads it; and, furthermore, tracing those ideas and their construction back to Calvin – who certainly was a very systematic thinker and whose theory of the eucharist already provides for an idea that everything in ordinary existence is at the same time charged with a divine significance. (So that we could establish a tradition of JCs: Jesus Christ, John Calvin, John Cage!)
    My hope in this is that it will prove productive to read musical form philosophically.

  10. says

    Steve –
    “What it says about Cage is that the procedures he created weren’t about the medium. Music, art, writing, theater… you could pour anything into them.”
    This is in the right direction; however, I feel that his ‘procedures’ always must involve an analysis of the medium in question – that is, I think primarily on the way material /appears/ in such a medium. The procedures for text generation are in fact on the whole very dissimilar to those for music generation, since words are very different things from notes; for example, the text works tend to rely to a much greater degree on pre-existing source materials. There really are no general ‘procedures’ or ‘methods’ so much as there are certain recurring tools (gamuts, I ching, rock outlines, etc.) and a very strong recurring ‘attitude’ (or set of ideals, or values, such as Nonintention or Discipline).
    What you say about the framing structure is important, but what fascinates me most is how the framing structures interact with material. Composition in Cage seems often seems like some sort of questioning of the material he’s working with, an investigation into its modes of appearance. That’s also why he could sometimes reject results (which Rod seemed disappointed with) – if a procedure wouldn’t yield something, if it wouldn’t make the material shine in a new way that would at the same time be particular to it, the procedure was not good.
    Kathan Brown has a bit in To Sober and Quiet the Mind that is worth quoting. It involves applying fire to paper to obtain prints –
    Cage thought we should try lots of different kinds of paper and even though it seemed impractical we tested a sheet of /gampi/, a skin-like Japanese paper so thin it can only be used for printing if it is mounted to something heavier. The big fire selected at first by chance demolished it, but Cage adjusted the parameters that controlled fire size and soon we were able to pull some large pieces out of the pile of ashes on the press. Cage was fascinated that the paper was so sensitive that it picked up occasional imprints from the newspapers used for the fire. Still, he was dejected. “It’s just a mess,” he said.
    “Wait,” said Marcia Bartholme, his chief printer at the time. She tossed the crumpled and burned papers into a bath of water. Soon they straightened out, and after mounting (“It’s what we would normally do with this paper,” Bartholme explained) suddenly we had a map-like form, or a seaside landscape. Cage was suffused with joy.
    “Oh, it’s beautiful! Don’t you think it’s beautiful? I can’t believe it. I couldn’t sleep all night. I thought my whole life had been a waste!” He was laughing, of course, but it made me think. Once he got started on a path, he might make adjustments but he wouldn’t set out in a different direction until the path arrived somewhere. Each time something seemed to be a mess did he wonder, if only briefly, if his whole life had been a waste?”

  11. alfred says

    It may be worth taking into consideration the trajectory that leads up to the Black Mountain zeitgeist. Albers once wrote something to the effect of “Using the term ‘Self-Expression’ is like referring to ‘water swimming’.”
    The undeniably elegant convergences of shapes and systems (and their development out of Bauhaus ideals of craftsmanship) in Cage’s music is all-too-often ignored due to the polemics and the later, in someways inexplicable, connections to abstract expressionism that seem contrary to the mission of self-negation.

  12. says

    Kyle, I wonder if you will be writing about Cage’s influence on performance techniques. Is it possible that his ideals are better able to withstand the paradoxes you raise when you consider how they might apply to performance, not to composition?
    KG replies: It’s a subject that hadn’t even occurred to me, Corey. Please do elaborate.

  13. says

    Being only 17 at the time, I naiively asked John if Modern Dance was the modern way, what then of Classical Dance? John was preparing lunch in a kitchen of a mutual friend, in a house in Winnipeg Manitoba. Cage referred me to a famous church in St. Boniface, the town across the river. Many years ago the very old stone church had burned down and had been rebuilt as a very modern building, but the architects had kept the surviving stone facade.
    “The ‘new’ building is perfectly nestled within the ‘old’, the two go together beautifully, and there is plenty of room in the world for both.”

  14. pgena says

    One of the times that I’ve had him speak to my classes Cage said:
    “Composers usually say about me, ‘He’s a good philosopher, but not much of a composer,’ and philosophers usually say, ‘Well he’s not much of a philosopher, but he’s a pretty good composer.'”

  15. Rodney Lister says

    I’d include in your list of his wonderful pieces The Suite for Toy Piano, Ophelia, The Melodies for violin and keyboard, and The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs. Oh, and Cheap Imitation–in any of its versions. I agree with you about the Sonatas and Interludes.
    Have you read Carolyn Brown’s book from last year? It’s really wonderful, a great read, and is very informative about Cage and very wise and canny about his thinking about what he was doing as a composer and how it influenced and was influenced by his work with Cunningham. Among other things it made me realize that dance is as important to his body of work as it was to Stravinsky’s.
    In thinking more about 4’33”, partially as a result of your earlier posting and partially as a result of just having read David Nichols recently published book on him (which is neither a satisfactory biography–which it doesn’t claim to be–or a satisfactory survey of his work—I realized that the problem about that line that we’re supposed to listen to ambient sounds as being the piece is that that doesn’t leave any room for consideration of the performer(s) of the piece. Cage was so intent on discipline and concentration and devotion to the task at hand on the part of the performers that it’s hard (for me, anyway) to believe that he really meant for the performers to just sit their and have nothing to do with the results.
    I think the thing that I find ever more important about Cage is that he was such a composer, with a capital C, in a very natural and deep way, but was he always so intent on escaping the effects of his consciousness and control. If I consider the Suite for Toy Piano, which I think is a very grand and noble piece, and think about the fact of trying to perform that piece on the toy piano, it becomes an exercise in dealing with human limitations and trying to overcome them. (And it’s not the only one of his pieces that brings up that situation. That’s also one of the main things that comes up if you try to do the orchestral version of Cheap Imitation.)
    I love Imaginary Landscape No. 4. I’ve conducted it a number of times. It’s really hard, since not only does what you do as a conductor have no relationship at all to what sounds come out, there’s no result that you can imagine that can guide you in preparing for what you do. You just have to keep trying to remember what those metronome markings are and doing all those ritardandos and accelerandos as accurately as you can and hope for the best. It still seems to me to be a really great piece somehow.
    KG replies: As always, Rodney, you and I have very similar tastes. Those are all great pieces.

  16. Rodney Lister says

    I always find it flattering when you say we have similar tastes. However, we haven’t discussed, say, Babbitt or Schoenberg recently, or Cowell–or at all. We might come to a parting of ways…
    KG replies: Well, oddly enough, I love Babbitt’s vocal works, especially Philomel (fantastic), Vision and Prayer (greatly underrated), and Widow’s Lament in the Springtime. I’m partial to Canonical Forms, All Set was a pleasure of my youth, and I’ve been known to enjoy the Piano Concerto. Beyond that, not much else. The string quartets, I think, are awful.
    The Schoenberg pieces I love are easily ennumerated: Six Songs Op. 8 (best thing he ever wrote), Op. 11 piano pieces, Second Quartet, Herzgewächse, Moses und Aron, Weihnachtsmusik, Serenade. Unless I’ve forgotten something, there’s nothing else of his I ever need to hear again.
    Cowell is more difficult. Quartet Romantic is one of the great important pieces of my life, and I love many of the early piano works, of course. I like the Icelandic Symphony, Ongaku, Homage to Iran, and then it begins to trail off, ending in a remarkable mass of terribly forgettable music. Although I gather there’s a lot of Cowell I haven’t heard.
    Have we parted?

  17. Rodney Lister says

    Well, I’ve never heard any thing of Cowell’s that seemed the least bit interesting to me, but then I’ve never heard any of the pieces you listed. So I guess I should give them a listen. I actually was at the first performance of his last Symphony (#19?), which the Nashville Symphony did the first performance of (with Thor Johnson, I guess)when I was in high school or maybe even junior high school (in which case it was probably Willis Page, not Johnson). My memory of it–what there is after so long–is actually favorable.
    Babbitt–all the pieces you list, agreed. I’ve played the composition for Viola and Piano a lot, and I love it. I also love Du, which is a vocal piece, so probably alright by you. The Solo Requiem is pretty wonderful, I think, as is Triad (for clarinet, viola, and piano–also a piece I’ve played). I actually really like the 2nd and 6th quartets (There’s a wonderful recording of the 6th and an old reiussued not all that great recording of the 2nd on John Zorn’s label, along with the composition for guitar–which was originally called “Sheer Pluck” and the Occasional Variations, which I also like). I can’t make much of the 4th quartet or the 3rd. I also like the composition for 4 instruments. The last time I heard The Head of the Bed, I saw some way into it which had alluded me previously. I also like the Semi-simple Variations.
    As to Schoenberg, agreed on everything, except I really like the 4th quartet which I’ve coached and know pretty well, and the violin concerto, and the Variations for Orchestra, and (very much) the Suite, Op. 29 which really is, I think, all things to all people–and worthy of a blurb I recall about Tom Lehrer from the back of one of his albums–“Mr. Lehrer’s (Mr. Schoenberg’s) muse is not fettered by such inhibiting factors as taste.” It’s a piece that clearly consumed him and his imagination. (I think.)
    So, not so much, maybe.
    KG replies: I do like Du, and I remember a favorable impression of the Solo Requiem, while the Babbitt 3rd and 4th quartets are the ones I’ve heard the most; never heard the 6th. And I should give the Schoenberg Suite another listen, I mix is up with the Serenade. Truth is in the details.