WLRN-FM 91.3 (NPR)
Subtropics Radio I: John Cage
Produced, Steve Malagodi
by Steve Malagodi
John Cage is the acknowledged progenitor of modern American avant-garde music, having completely turned around the preconceptions, conventions and goals of classical European composition. In its place he both spouses a radical plan of integrated arts, music, poetry, theater, with social organization and natural life style, and he consistently produces work that conforms to that radical plan.
John Cage was born in Los Angeles, in 1912. In many ways his work and his life have mirrored our century, in reverse. While nations, states and international conglomerates centralized power in hierarchical structures, accompanied by increased militarism, Cage created methods of composition and critical analysis that are decentralized, that is , not dictated by the artist personal taste or memory, and later by creating work not predetermined or dictated by even the composition itself.
Speaking about this in the book “Conversing With Cage,” regarding the difference between chance operations used in his “Music of Changes” and the indeterminate techniques used in works as his “Variations,” Cage explained: “Chance operations can be used to make something that is fixed. The is how I made the Music of Changes. I used the I Ching in order to write down something that enforced a performer to go through a particular series of actions. Then later, when I began my series of Variations, I was intent on making a kind of composition that was indeterminate of its own performance, a composition that didn’t itself prescribe what would be done. In other words, I was intent on making something that didn’t tell people what to do. At this point I attack, if I may say so, what seems to me to be a questionable aspect of music. Music is, after all, not like painting; music is a social art, social in the sense that it has consisted, formerly, of people telling other people what to do, and those people doing something that other people listen to. What I would like to arrive at, though I may never, what I think would be ideal, would be a situation in which no one told anyone what to do and it all turned out perfectly well anyway.”
Cage realized that “My problems are more social than musical: how may people be free without being foolish.” He has always regarded art as a utility for understanding and social change, rather that just certain techniques arranged into what he calls “merely art.”
Again, from “Conversing With Cage,” he relates, “One difference between Harry Partch and myself, also a difference between myself and Lou Harrison, is that they became interested in intonation and control of microtones, where as I when from the twelve tones into the whole territory of sound. I took noise as the basis of it. I don’t try to make the situation of what is musical and not musical more refined, as both Partch and Harrison do, but I start from the other direction, from noise, and not use sounds that don’t do honor to noise. And I suggest that the same thing might bring about an improvement in society, that instead of basing our laws on the rich, as we have, that we would do we to base them on the poor. If we can have laws that make poverty comfortable, then those laws would do well for the rich also, but the other way around is oppressive.”
His work has nearly always been multi-disciplinary, not only extending across the artistic genres of music, theater, dance and specially poetry, but also extending outside of, what I consider to be, the disciplines of art, into the indisciplines of politics and government. While the rest of the political world was strengthening the twin horrors of capitalist states and Stalinist state communism, Cage was, and still is promoting the American individualist doctrine of anarchism. He speaks and writes much about his anarchist mentor Henry David Thoreau. He has given whole lectures on the subject of anarchism, integrating the ideas of philosophers like Thoreau, Paul Goodman and others, with the art of his friend Marcel DuChamp and Merce Cunningham and the science of another friend, Buckminster Fuller.
statistics: 1 us composer