Nov 1st 2014

The Other John Cage

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”


When composer Morton Feldman first heard Atlas Eclipticalis by John Cage he described it as “the most thrilling experience of my life.” The composition had some of the usual odd Cagean touches: notes were based on the arrangement of stars in the firmament. Feldman, whose own work is currently enjoying a renaissance, admired all of Cage’s work and once called him “one of the most fabulous people any civilization ever had – as a person, an intellect, in his view of life.”

(Drawing: John Cage as seen by the author, Michael Johnson.)

Leonard Bernstein begged to differ. He performed Atlas with the New York Philharmonic in 1962 but only after delivering an introduction that had the “uptown” crowd laughing at Cage and his avant-garde music. The players worked on it for a week in rehearsal, Bernstein said, and had to make “psychological readjustments” to bring it off (big laugh).

Atlas Eclipticalis may be music bedlam to some but it serves as a good example of Cage’s power to attract and repel different audiences. I find myself in the former camp, even more so for his influence on the creative spirits who came after him. That influence remains in place today.

A lifelong maverick, Cage died in 1992 at the age of 79. His controversial music is his best-known legacy. But his voluminous writings and artwork, equally inventive, have been unfairly neglected. As critic Richard Kostelanetz puts it, “regardless of what you think of his music, John Cage should be considered a major American author,” yet his literary and visual output has been largely ignored.

I spent much of the past summer trying to right this wrong for myself, looking at “the other John Cage” through his often-playful writings and his experimental visual artwork. By the end of the season I was convinced that there is no better way into the mind of this renaissance man than tackling some of the thoughtful non-academic books by and about him. Just listening to his sometimes irritating compositions had never led anywhere in particular for me. (By the way, he enjoyed irritating others because it was a way of “keeping us from ossifying”.) Yes, I too had to make psychological readjustments, and they came slowly. To read Cage or to tolerate his reedy voice, one must first slip into his avant-garde 1950s world. But his style, while it may be off-putting at first, becomes strangely addictive.

Cage brought to bear his California-bred aesthetic, merged into his fascination with Oriental influences, and developed a unique voice in writing, painting and thinking. He worked on the far horizons of the arts for half a century, goading new generations to cast off their timidities and put their natural creative instincts in play. A cornerstone in his mental architecture was a need for the artist to dispense with ego, which he felt soiled the creative process to gain better sales or public adulation. He found his answer in such impersonal techniques as the scattered stars or the I Ching (the ancient Chinese Book of Changes), and its chance operations. In many of his writings he managed to induce fresh sparkle by the force of his ideas and by breaking free of standard line-by-line page makeup. He dabbled in multiple typefaces and eccentric layouts sometimes intending to mimic the way the mind takes in words, or sometimes to render them as speech.

Cage’s influence in the past 50 years has been on a higher, more general level: the need for total freedom in the arts. His artistic heirs credit him with showing them how to let the mind roam free. Indeed, Cage was always searching for the new, with little regard for public acceptance or rejection. Essays on the avant-garde today frequently cite him as the granddaddy of us all.

But is Cage too weird for a general audience? A good test of your readiness for Cage-shock is his hour-long Roaratorio: An Irish Circus on Finnegan’s Wake, written and theatrically narrated by Cage himself. This is not, strictly speaking, music. He reworks the James Joyce novel and adds a gunshot, a crowing rooster, birdsong, Irish folk music, rushing water, laughing women, gargling, chattering children, traffic noises and a couple of gongs against his narration. All is piped at specific intervals through 45 loudspeakers. In time, I came to love this chaotic production and now hear echoes of it in everyday life.

One might ask, “What was he up to?” Cage knew. He once invoked Zen Buddhism to help us slow down and understand some of his work. “If something is boring after two minutes,” he wrote, “try it for four. If still boring, try it for eight, sixteen, thirty-two, and so on. Eventually one discovers that it’s not boring but very interesting.” And boredom, he added, has the power to trigger new ideas.

I find Cage’s writing anything but boring, although it is defined by another era — the lower Manhattan intellectual climate of the 1950s and 1960s, and can be sometimes impenetrable. One critic is easier on him, however, calling his prose breezy and charming, if a bit stylized at times. This is exactly as it struck me, too, except that I would add that it is like nothing you have encountered before.

At the top of the Cage booklist is his 1961 cult classic Silence, a collection of his essays, poetry, germs of ideas, aphorisms and ramblings republished last year in a 50th anniversary paperback by Wesleyan University Press. It is a great dipping-in and dipping-out book.

Half a million copies of Silence are in circulation, many of them in shreds from reading and rereading. I had to read the book three times to grasp it. The diet it offers is varied. Included among dozens of mind-bending contributions are such relatively straight essays as his reflections on artists Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, and composers Edgar Varèse and Erik Satie. One intriguing entry is his often-quoted “Lecture on Nothing”, first delivered in 1949 at The Artists’ Club in Greenwich Village:

Half intellectually, half sentimentally, when the war (WWII) came along, I decided to use only quiet sounds. There seemed to me to be no truth, no good in anything big in society. But quiet sounds were like loneliness, or love or friendship. Permanent, I thought, values, independent at least from Time, Life and Coca-Cola. I must say I still feel this way

Further down in Silence he explains what he and choreographer and lifelong partner Merce Cunningham were trying to achieve in their collaboration:

Our attention is to affirm this life, not to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply to wake up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and one’s desire out of its way and lets it act of its own accord.

I was taken by his “History of Experimental Music in the United States” for its plea for more independence and free-thinking in any creative output. A key passage:

One does not then make just any experiment but does what must be done. By this I mean one does not seek by his actions to arrive at money but does what must be done; one does not seek by his actions to provide pleasure to the senses (beauty) but does what must be done; one does not seek by his actions to arrive at establishing a school (truth) but does what must be done.

The respected composer/critic Kyle Gann, another prominent Cage analyst, claims in his new introduction that Silence “is the book I have reread most often in my life,” although Gann finds that the meaning of it keeps shifting as he grows older and wiser.

Gann acknowledges his Cage bias in a separate piece published in his book Music Downtown: “At 16, I was so enwrapped in Cage’s ideas that I began to feel guilty listening to records when I could have been outside listening to traffic.” Cage argued for all sound, including ambient noise, to be included in any definition of music.

Writing, after all, was what Cage wanted to do before he devoted his main efforts to music. He spent two years at Pomona College in a writing program but finally gave it up. In an “Autobiographical Statement” written in 1989, he recalled:

I was shocked to see at college one hundred of my classmates in the library all reading copies of the same book. Instead of doing as they did, I went into the stacks and read the first book written by an author whose name began with Z. I got an A. That convinced me that the institution was not being run correctly. I left.

Even Cage’s early music efforts were disappointing to him. What was music for, after all? “I was disturbed in my private life and in my public life as a composer,” he recalled. “I could not accept the academic idea that the purpose of music was communication, because I noted that when I conscientiously wrote something sad, people and critics were often apt to laugh.” Finally he found his answer in a meeting with Indian singer and tabla player Gita Sarabhai. “The purpose of music,” she told him, “is to sober the mind and make it susceptible to divine influences.”

After leaving Pomona, he continued working on his prose and poetry. One of the signature pieces is his 1970 essay “Mureau”, a title he concocted from “music” and “Thoreau”. He reworked Henry David Thoreau’s writings on music, silence and noise by mixing letters, syllables, words, phrases and sentences via his I Ching chance operations technique. He started from Thoreau’s Journals.

The scrambled language requires uncritical but concentrated reading, similar to Thoreau’s own focus on sounds in nature. Something different comes through, perhaps a sensation close to what Thoreau experienced by taking in the symphony of nature’s sounds in the woods around Walden Pond. In this sample, I have simplified the typography for easier reading:

sparrowsitA grosbeak betrays itself by that peculiar squeakariEFFECT OF SLIGHTEst thinkling measures coundness ingplease We hear! Does it not rather hear us? sWhen he hears the telegraph, he thinksthose bugs have issued forth The owl touches the stops, wakes reverberations …

Like “Mureau”, his “Indeterminacy” series of short anecdotal stories has been the subject of much interest, and some derision. The series consists of about one hundred short paragraphs to be recited within one-minute timeframes (rapid reading for longer ones, slow for shorter ones). Pro-Cage audiences love listening to recordings of these performances.

Some are amusing, others intentionally pedestrian. His aim was to display the innate randomness of life itself. My favorite funny one concerns a trial in Alaska:

An Indian woman who lived on the islands was required to come to Juneau to testify in a trial. After she has solemnly sworn to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, she was asked whether she has ever been subpoenaed. She said, ‘Yes. Once on the boat coming over and once in the hotel here in Juneau.

In a more pedestrian vein:

Once when several of us were driving up to Boston, we stopped at a roadside restaurant for lunch. There was a table near a corner window where we could all look out and see a pond. People were swimming and diving. There were special arrangements for sliding into the water. Inside the restaurant was a juke box. Somebody put a dime in. I noticed that the music that came out accompanied the swimmers, though they didn’t hear it.

Here Cage reads his stories while David Tudor makes various unwritten accompanying sounds, some of them on a piano, in a separate room:

Kostelanetz’s book John Cage (ex)plain(ed) is the most readable Cage primer, collecting 16 brief essays and one interview covering the highlights of Cage’s free-form life, everything from his homosexuality to his radical consciousness to surveys of his major works. Commenting on Cage’s book A Year From Monday, Kostelanetz says the text is “riddled with observations on how delightfully random both art and life can be”. Kostelanetz quotes Cage as saying: “I like to think that I’m outside the circle of a known universe, and dealing with things that I don’t know anything about.” Indeed, he admitted that he and his pianist collaborator David Tudor were treated as “idiots and clowns” for their audacious public performance art during a two-month tour of Europe in 1954. Their antics included opening an evening with a piano mechanically rising to stage level. Cage is at the keyboard and Tudor is on the floor banging on the underside of the instrument. They have been alternately applauded and hooted off the stage for trying out such subversive ideas.

A creative force who fit right in with the abstract art and new-music worlds, Cage was welcomed in Greenwich Village bars and lofts as an intellectual free spirit, a “polyartist,” as Kostelanetz called him – a person adept at two or more unrelated arts. His good humor and his original mind drew in the best of the avant-garde, including artist friends such as Marcel Duchamp and the young Yoko Ono and her then-husband Toshi Ichiyanagi.

Cage could be modest about his accomplishments, sometimes justifiably so, considering how naïve they seem today. His left-wing leanings led to an infatuation with Mao Tse-tung’s China in the 1960s. “I felt very close to Mao,” he wrote in his collection M: writings ’62-’72 (a title chosen by his chance operations techniques borrowed from I Ching). Mao’s admonitions to the Chinese during the Cultural Revolution to revolt against authority, including his own, “were ones to which I wholeheartedly concur. It is right to rebel.” He said he admired Mao’s “clear-headedness.” He was equally uncritical of R. Buckminster Fuller, a friend who thought he foresaw in the 1950s that half the world’s population would have all it needed in food and comfort by 1972, with the other half getting there by about the year 2000. “If Fuller’s prediction has so far come true, it is not because of anything we Americans have recently done. We have the Chinese to thank, and Mao Tse-tung in particular.”

Cage was proud to have changed his mind frequently and seemed unconcerned with the consequences. “My mind seems in some respects lacking, so that I make obviously stupid moves,” he wrote in his book A Year From Monday. “However I have a redeeming quality: I was gifted with a sunny disposition.”

This sunshine shows through in much of his highly stylized poetry, often arranged in typography that he called mesostics – stacking words so that a vertical line down the middle reveals a key word of explanation. His interest in mushrooms is revealed in this mesostic:

They are found in Moss.
                             Under bark
                        On Stumps,
On the sides of patHs in the woods,
                   Near stReams,
                           arOund trees,
      in the spring in Old orchards
             in the autuMn
 among fallen leaveS

In John Cage (ex)plain(ed), even his friend Kostelanetz looked on these efforts none too kindly:

It is a simple measure of Cage’s originality that nobody ever made poetry like this before – the method is, like so much of his work, at once sensible and nutty.

But Cage had a very personal definition of poetry. In his essay “Preface to Indeterminacy”, he said his poetry was not to be categorized by its content or ambiguity, but by its allowing “musical elements (time, sound) to be introduced into the world of words.” Previous poets, of course, had long ago discovered the same thing but Cage made his idea seem new.

To my musical ear, he achieved his aim in some poems better than others. A typical example:

Wasps are building
summer squashes

saw a fish hawk
when I hear this.

Both bushes and trees are thinly leaved
few ripe ones on sandy banks
rose right up high into the air
like trick of some pleasant daemon to entertain me
and birds are heard singing from fog.

Cage’s entire career included an element of the visual arts, including performance, set design, dance and “happenings,” a genre he is often credited with inventing. Musicians have long associated Cage’s unique style of notation with the visual arts, although Cage was adamant that these pages “were not intended to be beautiful.” His score for his experimental piece “Fontana Mix” was designed to instruct players. Today it is considered an accidental masterpiece.

He came to concentrate on serious painting and watercolors only later in life. He could see the end coming. “It strikes me that since there’s obviously a shorter length of time left than I’ve already had,” he told an interviewer, “I’d better hurry up and be interested in whatever I can. There’s no fooling around possible. No silliness.”

He plunged into printmaking, then took to watercolors. Many would hang happily in modern homes of Scandinavian design. The work, bursting with spontaneity, is subtly tinted with smoke and fire, sometimes with burnt edges. Colors tend to the beige and light brown, with strokes of light blues and reds. Others are ink on paper, little more than scribbles.

In the last decade of his life, at Mountain Lake Workshop in Virginia, he produced 120 watercolors, many of them highly experimental. Collected by artist Ray Kass in his book The Sight of Silence, the watercolors reveal Cage as determined to apply no less creative freedom in his artwork than he had in writing or music. He often chose feathers over standard brushes, and did several works outlining the shapes of stones collected in Appalachian rivers. In one series, he painted with his eyes closed. In another, he used partially smoked or singed paper. Another, in collaboration with Rauschenberg, was a long imprint of tire treads made with black paint poured by Rauschenberg on Cage’s car

Kass believes Cage’s visual art found receptive audiences more easily than his music. “Cage’s paintings,” he wrote, “convey a sense of abstracted landscape, which also exists in paintings by abstract expressionists Mark Tobey and Jackson Pollock.” His work has been widely shown in exhibitions throughout the United States, Europe and Japan. Part of the public appeal is knowing that these works came from John Cage’s original mind unsullied by commercial aims.

Cage’s paintings have surged back into the art world in recent years to rival Marcel Duchamp as the leading avant-garde figure of their era. He is now established as one of the artists most likely to be invoked by “anyone interested in expanding the conceptual boundaries of contemporary art,” wrote critic Robert Malbert in his introduction to Every Day is a Good Day: The Visual Art of John Cage.” “His enduring influence is due as much to his philosophical attitude and ideas lucidly expressed in his writings, lectures and interviews, as to his work as a composer.”

His legacy thus is very much in the “polyartist” tradition, leaving touches of brilliance wherever in the creative world his interests took him. Yes, sometimes he could be “nutty”, as Richard Kostelanetz wrote. But it is striking to notice how often his name or his works are referenced in books and essays concerned with art. “It all started with Cage,” a pianist friend in Bordeaux tells me.

Gann wrote an affectionate memoir in Village Voice a few months after Cage’s death. John Cage, he wrote, “was the river that dozens of avant-garde tributaries flowed into and from. Without him, what figure will be left whom every adventurous musician claims as an inspiration?”

“I’m going to miss running into Cage,” wrote Gann. “He was a great artist, and something rarer: a great man.”

This article was first published on the Open Letters Monthly. Republished here with the kind permission of the author.



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