Cage in the Mind’s Repertoire

I find it a little odd that, to accompany John Coolidge Adams’s review of Kenneth Silverman’s new John Cage biography, the Times added a little side feature by asking Adams whether he actually listens to Cage’s music. Adams’s answer, in part: “It sounds absurd to say that Cage was ‘hugely influential’ and then admit you rarely listen to his music, but that’s the truth for me, and I suspect it’s the same for most composers I know.” 

For the record, it’s not true for me. In a Landscape, Experiences 1 & 2, Dream, and The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs are pieces I just get an urge to hear now and then, and have to put them on. If I no longer listen to the 1950 String Quartet, it’s because I listened to it so frequently in my younger years that I kind of overdid it – most Mahler falls in the same category. As for the chance music, there are times when I really like having Etudes Australes, Music of Changes, Hymnkus, or the Arditti’s recording of Four on in the background, for a kind of cleansing aural experience that I can tune in and out of without being pushed in one direction or another, a comfortingly human yet neutral presence. I guess Cage on record is a different experience than Cage live, but last week Aki Takahashi came to Bard and played The Perilous Night (which has a reputation as the ugly stepchild among the prepared piano pieces), and in her beautiful, intent performance I was absolutely charmed by it all over again. Then there are pieces I don’t necessarily play at home but am always happy to hear, like The Seasons and Three Dances for Two Prepared Pianos, and others (Imaginary Landscape No. 4, Credo in US) that I’d rather experience live than listen to a disc of. Plus the Cage performances that remain in my memory as life-changing, like Europeras I & II. So Cage has not in the least receded into one of those composers who had an impact on me once but whose music I no longer need. 
I do agree with Adams that Cage wasn’t the most important composer after Stravinsky; I think Feldman has had a more enduring impact on how people compose, and there are certainly recent figures whose output I find more consistent in quality than Cage’s. I hope I’m reading too much into the Times‘s question in thinking it sounds like, “Surely you don’t still listen to that stuff?” But would they have asked the same question about any other composer?


  1. says

    For the record, I listen to a lot of Cage quite often. Not because I have to force myself to, the way I put on some Carter every now and then to see if I finally “get it” (I still haven’t, after more than 30 years of trying). But I think Cage got the reputation of being, as Schoenberg put it “not a composer, but an inventor…of genius.” So as a result, many people think his music isn’t worthy or serious. That was the stereotype I had grown up under, until I heard the String Quartet in Four Parts and it blew me away (particularly the third movement), followed by the old recording of the Three Dances on the B side of an old Four Organs LP on Angel. I have come to love a lot of Cage-not everything grabs me, just as is true for any other composer. I agree with you about Feldman-and come to think of it, there’s pretty much nothing among his works that doesn’t amaze me every time.

  2. Ernest says

    Everyone I know that is at least familiar with Cage’s work, seems to stop at In A Landscape as far as his music is concerned. The rest of their interest is sort of a grateful acknowledgment of Cage pushing the boundaries of what music is. I don’t know anyone else besides myself who actually likes to hear the number pieces, which are my favorite, or Etudes Australes. I don’t want to seem unnecessarily harsh, but I don’t understand the reluctance, or the ignorance when it comes to Cage’s music. There’s a wealth of beauty, of intelligence, and humor in much of he wrote. It’s sad that John C. Adams can’t stomach it.
    I guess I see it in a vulgar way, that Cage rightfully earned a place in the pantheon of great composers, but many people still try to deny it, instead focusing on his celebrity whenever there’s mention of it; like his stature was based in a Paris Hilton famous-for-being-famous way.
    To me, the most important composers were and are Cage, Feldman, Browne, and Tenney for all of their insights, and how exciting their music is. The unfortunate thing is that Cage never seemed to be an exemplar; everyone (probably moreso people in my age range, the twenties) thumbs their nose at Cage’s work, and gravitates towards trying to mimic Feldman, and failing badly. It’s not doing Cage, nor Feldman’s memory any good.
    Like the punk explosion; a world of self expression, and individuality degraded into three chords.

  3. Luk says

    I listen to Cage more often than to Schoenberg, Stockhausen, Boulez, Mahler, Stravinsky, Händel, Wagner, Strauss, etc.

  4. Rodney Lister says

    I don’t listen to Cage much or Feldman. I don’t think either of them does so well on recordings. But I do play their music as often as I can and I would go pretty far out of my way to hear them played.

  5. says

    In my own musical environment, Cage is generally a far more important musical influence than Feldman. In fact I believe that most of Feldmans relative influence comes down to the fact that he represents the conservative wing of NY School experimentalism, so it’s easier to fit him in with the classical tradition; and, without meaning in any way to deny Feldman’s importance, I feel that I, myself, inhabit a world where there is more interest in the radical wing.
    To get a sense of Cage’s real influence, one should not study the string quartets and concertos that get written today. Rather, study what Robert Ashley has to say about Cage and about Feldman to get a better sense. Or get outside of music completely. Study what artists, poets, cultural critics and political thinkers have to say about them. I think from such perspectives one may begin to get a sense of what influence means at the deepest level.
    And then get back to the music, because Cage was a composer first. Yes I listen to Cage (and to J.C. Adams, almost never – his is a music that has nothing for me in it, I’m sorry to say).
    I think the problem is we have hardly begun to understand how Cage’s music works.
    KG replies: We’ll have to talk about that conservative wing of NY experimentalism over a drink sometime.

  6. says

    Joëlle Léandre’s recording of “Ryoanji” is very beautiful and I put it on from time to time. If I still had the record of Cage pieces that Brian Eno produced I would listen to that too. It’s never been released on CD (why??), but the tracks are available online here:
    Robert Wyatt singing Cage is a treat. He produces sound, enunciates text, and phrases like a folksinger or a pop singer, which might not be idiomatic to Cage but works wonderfully well.
    Elliott Carter’s early Copland-ish songs probably don’t count as “real” Carter, but they’re beautiful too. Jan De Gaetani recorded great versions of two of them on “Songs of America” — Cage, Copland, Ives, Crumb, Crawford Seeger, Babbitt, W. Schuman, and others are on it too, including Stephen Foster and Carrie Jacobs-Bond (a popular songwriter from the 19-oughts). Great album.
    KG replies: Yeah, that Robert Wyatt album really sold me on those pieces. I believe it did come out on CD briefly, but didn’t stay in print., Of course, I digitized my vinyl.

  7. says

    I’m glad you wondered if the listening question would have been asked about any other composer. I thought of it immediately when the question came up.
    On the other hand, it might be interesting to ask a composer what composer(s) he or she loves and considers an influence but doesn’t listen to all that often.
    KG replies: Interesting question. But many of the composers who influenced me the most I *don’t* listen too much any more because I so internalized their music that I don’t really need to listen to it any more, not because I’ve lost interest.

  8. says

    I’m with Ernest – the later time-bracket pieces can be really great listening, and I’ll listen to them at home pretty frequently. Seth Josel’s electric guitar recording of Five is really beautiful. And, um, who with ears doesn’t love listening to Sonatas and Interludes?
    Now I’m curious if Peter Garland would give me a hard time for saying this, but the composer who really fits the bill of hugely-influential-but-never-listened-to (for me and most of my friends) would definitely be Cowell.
    KG replies: Yeah, I know what you mean. But I still would love to hear live performances of Ongaku and the Icelandic Symphony. I really respect and admire Sonatas and Interludes, and am happy to hear it, and love teaching it, but somehow I never developed an affection for it. It’s well-written but cold, like Bach’s Musical Offering or Hindemith’s Ludus Tonalis.

  9. Samuel Vriezen says

    It’s perhaps an exaggeration to use the word conservative, but perhaps if you look at it this way: Feldman took Cage’s influence seriously, and his work explores its implications within the forms of traditional concert music practice. I’d say that Cage, on the other hand, even when he got back to concert music (besides doing etchings, performance art, poetry etc.) he kept on reinventing its very mode of operation. More so than Feldman, who will have a string quartet be a string quartet, a soloist a soloist and an orchestra an orchestra, even if he makes them do very special things.
    And I think it may well be for that reason that Feldman gets quoted more among composers who write concert music as an influence mostly for attitude towards sound and form – relatively estheticist positions, which may be what I associated with a kind of “conservatism” above – whereas the influence of Cage still tends more towards questioning the boundaries and organizational structure of the art form itself, and therefore is more easily taken up outside of normal concert music practice.
    KG replies: I see your point. But I have trouble thinking of either For Samuel Beckett or For Philip Guston as less radical than Cage, and in fact, I think they’re more *successfully* radical than most of Cage’s music, and also outside traditional concert music practice.

  10. Bob Gilmore says

    Interesting discussion. I think Samuel puts his finger on it: there is a group of people (which includes myself) for whom the “radical wing” of the arts is always going to be the most exciting and important side, a group consisting mostly of creative artists or related types. But I can totally understand the point of view of the non-specialist “music lover” who finds Cage’s music largely incomprehensible and/or boring.
    Maybe somewhere there’s a world of people in the middle, people who can enjoy Apartment House 1776 (my personal favourite) one day and a Beethoven Piano Concerto the next.
    KG replies: Well, I’m hardly a non-specialist music lover, though I used to represent that group professionally. My pragmatic impulse, after a lifetime of listening to Cage, is to concede that as much as I love some of his works, others just never came to mean anything to me. I would love to hear Apartment House 1776 live again (sans orchestral sabotage), though I don’t think listening to a recording would be much fun, while I really don’t care if I never hear Atlas Eclipticalis again, live or recorded. I suppose my more nuanced position is that the radical wing is absolutely essential for taking music into new territory, but that we also have to admit that some radical moves lead only to dead ends. But I’m also open to Samuel’s suggestions that late Cage is analogous to late Beethoven, that most people don’t know how to listen to it yet, and that musicians will in the future – just as some late Beethoven is still unintelligible to non-musicians today. Hate to admit I’m one of the visionless ones, but one has to take risks.

  11. Bob Gilmore says

    I have to disagree with my good friend Samuel on the late Cage number pieces. I find them terribly boring and not interesting on any level. I think by that stage Cage was finally out of ideas. When I’ve looked at or listened to those pieces I always have the sense that he doesn’t really care what pitch comes next, or where exactly it comes, or if you’re playing it in tune, etc. So I find I don’t care either.
    KG replies: I haven’t heard many of them, nor gotten very interested, but I do like 74.

  12. Ernest says

    From what I’ve read, the number pieces are more about the individual players and how the interact creating the music; by making choices, and seeing how ‘harmoniously’ they can play. Part of it might be the influence of Feldman finally coming to the forefront, but it has a definite social element. Cage’s preoccupation with society, and the betterment of it.
    I think any notion of making ‘interesting’ music was dropped long before then owing to his fascination with Zen and non-action.

  13. Samuel Vriezen says

    Ha, Bob, I won’t argue with you finding the number pieces boring – but do I know for a fact that those were the most influential of Cage’s pieces regarding my own compositional development! (And I agree with Kyle that Seventy-four is a wonderful listen).
    But my point about our understanding of Cage applies to most of his work from, say, the Variations onwards, which is where I believe it starts getting explicitly beyond questions of musical form as such and broaching questions of the social organization of (musical and other) form, further developed by people such as Wolff, Ashley and the Wandelweiser composers.
    A final argument, and this is getting to be all for the sake of argument by now of course, for Cage’s bigger influence is I think Feldman himself, whose work we might not even have if not for Cage!

  14. says

    Does “radical” (as in “radical wing”) mean “better”?
    Does something have to be radical first to be good?
    To me, much of Cage’s last pieces are not worth listening to. Perhaps they weren’t intended to be listened to. Or, maybe it’s the fault of the performers.
    However, Music of Changes, for example, I could listen to over and over again (and have). Go figure.

  15. says

    I’ve been thinking about Cheap Imitation a good deal lately, and that seems like a piece that belongs on your Cage playlist. One of the things I love dearly about it is how outside of any philosophy it stands.
    I blogged a bit about the philosopher-not-a-composer nonsense and Cheap Imitation here:
    KG replies: I love Cheap Imitation, but the only recording I have of it is a violin arrangement, which I don’t like. I basically only know it from playing through it. Glad to see you’re writing about music again.

  16. Michael Vincent Waller says

    Great comments Kyle et al.
    I would purport that Four5, for saxophone quartet performed by Ulrich Kreiger on Mode Records is one my favorite recordings of a Cage piece.
    I guess, why I like this work so much, is because of the precious attention to spectral phenomenon (largely reinforced by Ulrich and his work with Phill Niblock). Cage’s 18 microtonal ragas section in the piece Song Books (Solos for Voice 3–92)(1970) also excites me, but the notation seems rather unrealistic.
    In the end, Cage’s pieces that begin with a FOUR (Four5 and 4’33”) are arguably his best inspiration for 21st century composition.