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.