One name that musicians may run across often in the literature on John Cage and not recognize is Richard Fleming. He’s a philosophy professor at Bucknell University, a friend of mine for twenty-five years, and he edited, among others, two books with our mutual friend Bill Duckworth, John Cage at Seventy-Five and Sound and Light: La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela. Richard spent a lot of time with Cage, and teaches a fascinating-sounding course, in the philosophy department, comparing the respective Harvard Lectures of Cage and Leonard Bernstein – almost unimaginable, since Bernstein’s lectures are about the underlying grammar of music and Cage’s are chance-determined words and phonemes. A lot of the material, heavily involving Wittgenstein as well, ended up in his beautiful little treatise Evil and Silence.
Anyway, due to problems with publishers similar to ones I’ve encountered in recent years, Richard has decided to publish his long article on Cage via the internet, and here it is:
I’ve been saying for years (as you all know) that Cage wasn’t a philosopher, by which I have meant that Cage’s writings don’t fit the genre of philosophy as I know it. But Richard tackles the issue head on, and insists that Cage was a philosopher in a very different sense, in that his music makes us rethink our concepts of the world. “Listening to Cage,” he writes,
awakens and stirs us to resist, accept, embrace, reflect, frown, laugh, question, affirm, challenge, walk away, dance, and talk. It brings to mind the brackets or conditions of possibility, the agreements, which govern what we do. This is nonintentional philosophy and music.
He quotes Wittgenstein frequently: “[P]hilosophical problems arise when ‘I don’t know my way about’; and then new questions come to mind,” and this is the state of mind Cage’s music induces. And he closes with a meditation on the tape piece Fontana Mix:
Having provided a grammatical place for our talk and listening, we end this brief excursion in nonintentional philosophy and music by answering more directly our original question about Fontana Mix: Why would we listen to this? It is not hard, now, to suggest that listening to Fontana Mix awakens us from the tired standards and routines in which we find ourselves. It agitates and reorients our sense of importance. It tests our sense of mistake, interruption, ruin, and justification. It clears the ground for questioning our concepts anew.
It’s a deeply-considered article and very elegantly written, and ever since I read an earlier version of it several months ago I’ve been soft-pedaling the Cage-not-being-a-philosopher notion. I am convincible, and Richard’s too brilliant to argue with.