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?