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"I have nothing to say, and I am saying it." John Cage, 9/5/1912 - 8/12/1992
September 5, 2012 1:04 PM   Subscribe

In honor of the 100th birthday of iconoclastic composer John Cage (previously), NPR asked 33 musicians about the effect Cage has had on their art. The Los Angeles Times has a tour of Cage's travels and experiences in his native city. MeFi's own speicus has a long and excellent essay up at newmusicbox.org about the performer-composer relationship Cage shared with pianist David Tudor (who premiered, among other Cage works, 4'33"). And if you've always wanted to play prepared piano and lack an instrument you want to fill with nuts and bolts, there's an app for that.
posted by the_bone (45 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite

 
 
posted by 0xFCAF at 1:08 PM on September 5, 2012 [10 favorites]


4'33" is the only piano piece I know how to play.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 1:14 PM on September 5, 2012 [6 favorites]


EVERYONE IS A MUSICIAN
posted by ethnomethodologist at 1:29 PM on September 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


Whenever I see Cage's 4'33" referenced I think of the Emperor's New Clothes.... I don't know why.
posted by Mojojojo at 1:38 PM on September 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


Little-known fact about John Cage: in his younger days, he once punched a man's head off.
posted by box at 1:38 PM on September 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


I like the fact that there was somebody like John Cage, amongst others, willing to test to destruction the notion of what music was.
posted by MartinWisse at 1:49 PM on September 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


dances_with_sneetches: 4'33" is the only piano piece I know how to play.
It's also the most widely-pirated musical piece on the planet. I once found over 2,000 copies on sale in Walmart alone.

(plus unauthorized sheet music for it in the Back To School section.)
posted by IAmBroom at 1:54 PM on September 5, 2012


I like the fact that there was somebody like John Cage, amongst others, willing to test to destruction the notion of what music was.

Yeah, no one ever thought about that before.
posted by bongo_x at 1:59 PM on September 5, 2012


Why is it that in every single John Cage thread some users feel the need to pop in the discussion and share their opinion of what a charlatan/hack/whatever they think Cage was?

HAEY THANKS FOR SHARING YOUR DISTASTE WITH ME WHAT A USEFUL CONTRIBUTION TO THE CONVERSATION BRO

On topic, what a great post. I learned a few new things reading speicus' article on NMBx, what a terrific essay--and the personal Cage anecdote shared by composer John Luther Adams in the comments is priceless.
posted by LooseFilter at 2:00 PM on September 5, 2012 [6 favorites]


Yeah, no one ever thought about that before.

I totally know what you mean, that's why I hate all composers from Haydn through Mahler--I mean, triads?? No one ever thought of that before.
posted by LooseFilter at 2:01 PM on September 5, 2012


I'm going to be annoying and just copy and paste what I said in another John Cage thread five years ago.

It always bugs me a little bit to hear people talk about Cage like he was some sort of prankster. Of course he was aware of the humor in pieces like this one, but he did not intend to be a provocateur. What he was doing, especially in his work with silence, was much more intuitive and emotional. Think less Warhol and more Thoreau.
posted by roll truck roll at 2:02 PM on September 5, 2012 [5 favorites]


Plus, and I know I'm ranting here and I apologize but these dismissive comments are pretty offensive, look at the comments some really outstanding musical artists made* about Cage's work and influence on them personally, and maybe have some humility about your judgment.

*(Those comments were part of the FPP, but I'm guessing the snarkers didn't bother to read them before they jumped in the thread to dismiss the work of an extremely thoughtful, provocative, and influential musical artist.)
posted by LooseFilter at 2:09 PM on September 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


I didn't see that John Luther Adams story in the comments! Amazing! (JLA is one of my favorite living composers). That was a really fantastic read. Great work, speicus.

I also really liked the spread of artists NPR rounded up to talk about cage - from old time colleagues and friends like Yoko Ono and Drury to great musicians working in quite different styles like Dan Deacon and Colin Stetson.

Happy Birthday, John. Hope you're enjoying some fine truffles in the great silent beyond.
posted by Lutoslawski at 2:16 PM on September 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Here's a live performance of 4'33" for piano. Which for me, managed to elicit a number of reactions, among them giggling at the pianists' arm swoosh that introduced the third movement, relaxation between the movements, surprise and amusement at myself for reacting like that when there was no audible difference between "in a movement" and "between movements", and surprise that the third movement was so much shorter than the other two. Also, I heard a plane fly over my home, which I wouldn't have heard if I was doing anything else.

Deride it all you want, call it stupid, I don't care. But do listen to it first, at least once.

(Can't help but think that Cage would be pretty annoyed at no-one ever knowing him for anything else other than "that silence thing". I'm going to have a dig through this post and see what else I can find.)
posted by ZsigE at 2:39 PM on September 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


You'll be happy to know that every possible 4'33" joke has already been made, so you'll have to find some other way to prove what a free-thinking iconoclast you are, cutting through all that arty pretension like every other ignorant Internet douchebag. Maybe a thread about Jackson Pollock. I hear my 3 year old could do that, amirite?
posted by DecemberBoy at 2:51 PM on September 5, 2012 [5 favorites]


To determine the attack points of his readings of Cage’s graphs within the 90-minute time frame of his realization, Tudor measured the area or length of each graph, using whatever means of measurement he found appropriate to a graph’s individual form. Usually a decimal ruler, or sometimes a circular slide rule, would suffice… This gave him an area or length A for each graph.

There's something that sticks in my craw about this flexibility concerning possible mappings from graph to realization, but I can't quite articulate it. In my head, it's a lot like the problems you encounter if you apply a super-resolution algorithm to a really blurry image, where the information you retrieve may bear little resemblance to the original image. Here, the gap between the interpretation method and what the score actually contains seems like a tremendous breach in the wall that protects the piece from the intentions of its creator and performers. I tend to think those breaches are impossible to avoid, but that one seems more severe and more foundational than some of the others mentioned in the essay. Great essay, by the way, speicus. Hopefully the dolts have cleared out so we can actually, you know, talk about it.
posted by invitapriore at 2:52 PM on September 5, 2012


As usual, I lament that Cage never, ever composed music for actual musicans to play. If only he had, oh, I dunno, expanded the boundaries of musical notation, or explored the notions of spontaneity and indeterminacy in performance, pioneered electronic composition, or even composed challenging pieces for ensembles both traditional and unconventional, he wouldn't be the online snark-magnet he is today.
posted by Fritz Langwedge at 2:56 PM on September 5, 2012 [6 favorites]


“I must find a way to let people be free without their becoming foolish. So that their freedom will make them noble. How will I do this?” This is also one of the central questions that every interpreter, listener, or scholar of Cage’s music must eventually come up against: “How will my freedom make me noble?”
Perhaps just a question for interpreting Cage's work.

What a wonderful read -- thanks speicus!
posted by weston at 2:57 PM on September 5, 2012


You'll be happy to know that every possible 4'33" joke has already been made...Maybe a thread about Jackson Pollock. I hear my 3 year old could do that, amirite?

I've never met a 3 year old who could remain silent for 4'33"
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 3:40 PM on September 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Thanks for the links, by the way. I'm listening to Music for Amplified Toy Pianos at the moment. The silences focus the mind. It's great.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 3:48 PM on September 5, 2012


the gap between the interpretation method and what the score actually contains seems like a tremendous breach in the wall that protects the piece from the intentions of its creator and performers

I remember reading something eons ago about an early performance of one of Cage's pieces by an orchestra. A good number of the performers decided to do the musical equivalent of making snarky jokes on MetaFilter - they played scales, talked, made funny noises with their instruments, etc. Someone asked Cage about it afterwards and he wasn't bothered by it, saying something along the lines of it was still interesting and exciting to listen to, even if people were intentionally sabotaging it. Given his oft-repeated view that art should imitate nature in its manner of operation, coming up with vastly different interpretations of his scores wouldn't be inconsistent with what he had in mind.

As a personal anecdote, Cage spent a couple days hanging out at with a group of architecture students sometime in the mid-80s. I was lucky enough to be one of them. He was open, generous, funny, inspiring, challenging - just a wonderful person. And really passionate about mushrooms.

He did a reading the last night he was there. I can still hear the conclusion, in his voice: "I have no regrets. I welcome whatever happens next."
posted by williampratt at 4:29 PM on September 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


Why is it that in every single John Cage thread some users feel the need to pop in the discussion and share their opinion of what a charlatan/hack/whatever they think Cage was?

Except this one?

Every time I see John Cage i always default to thinking of John Cale from the Velvet Underground. At least they performed together.
posted by juiceCake at 4:32 PM on September 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Also, check out 120 Hours for John Cage (more). Todd Merrell, a friend of mine is doing a piece for this event.
posted by SteelyDuran at 4:51 PM on September 5, 2012


If I had a nickel for every time someone made a cheap 4'33" joke, I'd have enough nickels to write a chance-based composition based on the I Ching.

No but seriously thanks for the shoutout guys. :)
posted by speicus at 5:55 PM on September 5, 2012


I remember reading something eons ago about an early performance of one of Cage's pieces by an orchestra. A good number of the performers decided to do the musical equivalent of making snarky jokes on MetaFilter - they played scales, talked, made funny noises with their instruments, etc. Someone asked Cage about it afterwards and he wasn't bothered by it, saying something along the lines of it was still interesting and exciting to listen to, even if people were intentionally sabotaging it. Given his oft-repeated view that art should imitate nature in its manner of operation, coming up with vastly different interpretations of his scores wouldn't be inconsistent with what he had in mind.

You should read the article -- I talk about this fairly directly. While this is sometimes the case, at other times Cage is very emphatic that there is a right and wrong way to play his music. In general it has more to do with the spirit of the music than particular notes -- he talks about wanting freedom to make people "noble" instead of frivolous. But I do believe that there was a particular aesthetic he was working toward, and it was an aesthetic expressed in sound. It's not that he didn't care about what the sound was, or what the performance was, but simply that the aesthetic he was working toward was very, very difficult to express in traditional musical notation.
posted by speicus at 6:01 PM on September 5, 2012


Whenever I see Cage's 4'33" referenced I think of the Emperor's New Clothes.... I don't know why.
I know why!
posted by clarknova at 6:10 PM on September 5, 2012


Also, I heard a plane fly over my home, which I wouldn't have heard if I was doing anything else.

Almost like that sort of thing is part of the piece.
posted by hippybear at 8:23 PM on September 5, 2012


flagging all the 4'33" jokes as "noise" because I can't flag them as "silence"
posted by speicus at 9:28 PM on September 5, 2012 [4 favorites]


Today I checked google images for a printed score of 4'33".
There are many examples online.
I was surprised to learn that it was written in 3/4 time signature.
I briefly wondered why he chose that cadence, then quickly realized why.
posted by seawallrunner at 9:36 PM on September 5, 2012


See, also, As Slow As Possible.
posted by mrhappy at 10:12 PM on September 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


John Cage's birthday is also Freddie Mercury's birthday, which is also my birthday. My only real birthday tradition is that I listen to their music for as much of the day as possible. I'm particularly prepared of the prepared piano pieces: this, this, this and this are particular favorites (though I can't find my very favorite!) I've always found prepared piano to be incredible moving, clever, and danceable. He and Mr. Mercury have more in common with every listen.

The closest I come to religion is the knowledge that I share a birthday with these giants, and I have grown faithful with age. The first time I heard about 4'33" I laughed, as everyone does. Silence isn't music, and to suggest otherwise is just silly. I thought John Cage was a troll until I heard his prepared piano pieces for the first time, and listened to them in context. And... I can't really explain what happened. Something coalesced, something I'd suspected since the first time I'd listened to a Nine Inch Nails album or a horror music soundtrack. I fully realized that any sound could be beautiful, could be music. Even no sound could be music. Fuck, everything was music, no matter how ugly. For some reason, that meant more to me than anything else had before or has since. My parents haven't called me in ten birthdays as of tonight. I haven't even had a birthday off in a few years. But every year I play some prepared piano and Mr. Cage calls to my heart, and reminds me that everything is music, no matter how ugly. Even if it's nothing, it's music. Maybe even I am music, no matter how awful I am.

God bless you, Mr. Cage. Happy birthday. It's an honor to share it. I hope there is a heaven, and that you and Freddie have talked it out tonight.
posted by a hat out of hell at 11:49 PM on September 5, 2012 [5 favorites]


*particularly fond of the prepared piano pieces. I had a celebratory glass of wine or two (though Mr. Cage preferred mushrooms).

For more information about Mr. Cage and mushrooms, see also.
posted by a hat out of hell at 12:15 AM on September 6, 2012


Also, I heard a plane fly over my home, which I wouldn't have heard if I was doing anything else.
Almost like that sort of thing is part of the piece.


And dude. Dude. You know that part at.. dude. Like at 2:37 to 2:55 where John Cage has that woman out on the street? And she's yelling at her kid? That was like... genius, dude. Total genius.

Also I hear you can cue it up to Baseball Bugs and it matches, like, perfectly.
posted by clarknova at 1:13 AM on September 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think I can articulate why I find John Cage's music fascinating but find snark an appropriate response to 4'33"

From the 33 Musicians link, here's Shara Worden: 4'33" suggests to me that art may be the very act of noticing, the focusing of one's attention upon the sounds, the movements, the passing of time, the life that is happening all around and within us. The performance creates a framework for the audience, a designated space or time within which one may pause to notice life itself. The artist assumes the role of one pointing a finger toward an object, sound or movement.

I can't help but think of musical performance as a shared act of noticing. One reason I listen to music is that talented artists will call my attention to things I otherwise would have overlooked. Example: Cage heard beauty in a few disjointed, dissonant notes played on a gimcrack toy piano. In performing these notes, he presented them to his listeners as being something worth listening to. Hearing him perform trains me as an audience member to notice that sort of beauty when I encounter it in the wild.

That's not what 4'33" does. The score calls for silence, but any performance of 4'33" demonstrates the impossibility of silence (mutter, scrape...cough). It's a koan.

People who have already had their ear trained by Cage will discover music in the random noise of a crowd that is trying and failing to keep quiet through 4'33", and that's the point, I think, but being given space in which to find beauty is not the same as being shown beauty that I would not have noticed on my own. The exact noise in a concert hall on the day of a performance hall today is noise that has never been heard before, and 4'33" provides the newbie with no guidance about where to find the music in that noise. Can you blame someone for snarking if they were promised music but heard only noise?

The emperor has no clothes. 4'33" is not a piece of music composed by John Cage, and people are within their rights to laugh when they are told that it is a great piece of music. It is possible to hear music while sitting through a performance of it, but whatever music you find in the noise of the concert hall is not something Cage shared with you. 4'33" is an invitation for you to become an artist, to point out beauty with your own finger and your own ear. Imagine yourself on a soundstage, rubbing bits of leather together to try to recreate the sound of the squeaky shoes of the guy in seat 4B, because there was music in them, music worth sharing. 4'33" is an invitation to become John Cage.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 4:14 AM on September 6, 2012 [4 favorites]


You should read the article -- I talk about this fairly directly.

Sorry - I was in the middle of something and just dashed off a quick comment. Thanks for the quite edifying response.

4'33" is an invitation for you to become an artist

And, to put it in general terms, John Cage was an invitation for you to become an artist.
posted by williampratt at 4:38 AM on September 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


You know, people (and especially the haters of 4'33" jokes)... it's possible to make a joke about a work without completely, utterly hating the author. It's even possible to do it without being a philistine nor "a free-thinking iconoclast". 4'33" is inherently funny; to pretend otherwise is to miss (part of) the point as badly as a turtlenecked, Gauloise-drenched kid admiring the "brushwork" in Warhol's tomato soupcan silkscreens.

And calling us names... explicitly against Metafilter rules.
posted by IAmBroom at 7:30 AM on September 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


seawallrunner: I was surprised to learn that it was written in 3/4 time signature.
I briefly wondered why he chose that cadence, then quickly realized why.
I'll bite - why?
posted by IAmBroom at 7:36 AM on September 6, 2012


Here, the gap between the interpretation method and what the score actually contains seems like a tremendous breach in the wall that protects the piece from the intentions of its creator and performers.

I know what you mean. With Concert for Piano and Orchestra, it's hard not to think that Tudor is composing the piece in some sense. Especially when you look at Tudor's realizations, it's hard not to think "this is the score." But the fact that Tudor was very methodical about making his realizations was, I think, a way of protecting himself from intention. He would decide on a particular way to realize a graph and then not deviate from that. And because the piece was written for Tudor, Cage knew he would approach the piece in this way, so it becomes a kind of mutual agreement for them to protect each other from intention.

In a larger sense, though, I think you're right that there's a breach in that wall, but only because there's always a breach. It's impossible to exert no intention at all, but that doesn't make it a worthless exercise. Like a lot of Cage stuff it seems related to his background with Zen Buddhism -- yeah, technically the goal is to reach enlightenment but really it's more about the process of getting there, and if you become really laser focused on getting to enlightenment as a kind of brass ring then you end up missing the point.
posted by speicus at 11:53 AM on September 6, 2012


4'33" is inherently funny; to pretend otherwise is to miss (part of) the point as badly as a turtlenecked, Gauloise-drenched kid admiring the "brushwork" in Warhol's tomato soupcan silkscreens. And calling us names... explicitly against Metafilter rules.

I must have missed the namecalling? Unless you're referring to "turtlenecked, Gauloise-drenched kid"?

4'33" is pretty funny, and yeah, Cage had a wonderful sense of humor. I guess I just don't find most of the jokes about 4'33" very funny? Cage probably would have found some humor in them, but he had much more patience than me. I get cranky and feel the need to make cheap metajokes in response.

Also, I'm pretty sure threadshitting is also against Metafilter "rules." I don't think all the jokes are threadshitting, but there is a bit of lazy, dismissive snark that clutters the thread for the people who are actually interested in the topic. If you think 4'33" is dumb and don't care to learn about the many, many other things Cage has done, why be in the thread at all?

Now I'm coming dangerously close to babysitting the thread, so I'll just say that 4'33" also makes more sense when you see where it was first performed. I WANT TO GO TO THERE
posted by speicus at 12:14 PM on September 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Hmmm, how to put it? In Cage's world, even Schoenberg could be music.
posted by Twang at 1:22 PM on September 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


speicus: I must have missed the namecalling?
Then you missed when DecemberBoy referred to other Mefites as "ignorant Internet douchebags."
speicus:
Also, I'm pretty sure threadshitting is also against Metafilter "rules."
Threadshitting doesn't mean "they made a joke about something I take very seriously."

Seriously. Have a Prozac or something. A few jokes about a well-known musical piece isn't going to destroy this lofty and erudite conversation.
posted by IAmBroom at 1:35 PM on September 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


I cannot recommend enough Kay Larson's new biography of Cage, exploring his connections to Zen Buddhism (an NYT review).
posted by kokaku at 2:33 PM on September 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


P22 Music Text Composition.
posted by ovvl at 5:34 PM on September 6, 2012


John Cage was a genius musicologist, and Silence is an excellent book.

As a composer, his music wasn't really very lovable to me. His random zen aleatoric thingys is conceptually fascinating, but it's tedious to listen to. The experimental music of his genre seems to be a thought exercise which relates more to 20th Century Abstract Expressionist Painting than to music designed for listening to. His lecture about the anechoic chamber which he recorded with David Tudor is really cool.
posted by ovvl at 6:09 PM on September 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


A few jokes about a well-known musical piece isn't going to destroy this lofty and erudite conversation.

Yeah, I agree that freaking out about a few jokes is probably counterproductive. To quote the guy, "I consider laughter preferable to tears."
posted by speicus at 10:52 AM on September 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


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