Reprinted from the July 1966 issue of Pomona Today.
Our Distinguished Dropout:
The interruptions in caps are from John Cage's own writings and recorded interviews. They were originally published in the C. F. Peters Corporation catalogue of his works, Copyright 1962 by Henmar Press Inc.; in the Tulane Drama Review, x, 2, Copyright 1965, Tulane Drama Review; in the pamphlet from the record album of the 25-year retrospective concert of the music of John Cage (Town Hall, May 1958), Copyright 1959 by George Avakian; and in the collection of his essays and lectures published by the Wesleyan University Press, Silence, Copyright 1939, 1944, 1949, 1952, 1955, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1961 by John Cage. They are, of course, quoted out of context, and it is no excuse for me that he should have done something of the sort in his article about Erik Satie. I simply put them in because it turned out to be the only way I could write this article. --Richard Barnes
By now John Cage is notorious, or famous. He's the composer who expects an audience to listen to a Waring Blender in operation and then to the sounds produced in his own esophagus (picked up by contact microphones and enormously amplified) as he drinks the glass of vegetable juice he has just made in the Waring Blender. They say he's the one American who has had much influence on the new music composed in Europe since the war.
His pieces have such an air of novelty that they often sound like mere stunts. Take the piano accompaniment to "The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs" (1942) in which the piano is completely closed; the "Pianist" is told where to strike the wooden structure of the piano, how loudly, whether with finger or knuckle, and with which hand. A quite conventional percussion score, in fact. Why use a piano?
Or take the notorious or famous "silent piece," 4' 33" (1952) (tacet, any instrument or combination of instruments), "a piece in three movements during which no sounds are intentionally produced," Peters catalog number 6777, price half a dollar. John Cage has often explained that there is always something to hear, even in an anechoic chamber; so long as you are alive and if you have ears you can hear it.
A piece in which no sounds are intentionally produced could hardly be less "expressive," in the ordinary sense. However, it has a point which is clear enough if you yourself have the experience. If you don't, it isn't. The same is true of any other music, or, for that matter, of any speech or poetry or writing. One thing about John Cage's development is that you have less and less chance to fall back on hearing what you are supposed to hear or what somebody else hears or says he hears. No wonder so many music critics and musicians feel underemployed when asked to deal with his recent works--though in their own way these works are always quite exacting.
I might as well try to explain what I think about the piano in "The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs." Doubtless John Cage would agree that it's theatre. Since his earliest work he has been moving constantly towards the theatre, first because of opportunity, when he found that dance groups wanted his music while orchestras and even string quartets didn't, and later because he came to think it important that we have eyes as well as ears. By now it seems clear that concerts always have been theatre, in a sense, if we could only have used our eyes properly, and that the theatricality of certain conductors and soloists offended us not because it was theatrical but because the theatricality was too gross and was directed toward cheap effects.
I doubt that John Cage would agree now, though he might have when he wrote the piece in 1942, that there is another reason why the percussive sounds are better produced by striking a piano. That is that whether we like it or not, we know it is a piano. In somewhat the same way I still think it important that the silent piece should have been written by John Cage who had studied with Henry Cowell and Arnold Schoenberg and had written, say, the twenty "Sonatas and Interludes"; whether we like it or not, we know it's by John Cage.
All it is is hearing, and you do have to hear for yourself, but you ordinarily hear differently according to who it is you're listening with. Go to the same movie twice, once with your best friend and once with your grandmother. The same is true of other music which is one reason we still have courses in music appreciation.
If eventually you come to realize what it means in the Vedas (and in some quite recent philosophers) about individual awarenesses being aspects of a single awareness, then presumably it wonÕt matter whether it's by John Cage or not. The same is true of other music, which is one reason we still have John Cage.
"Between Chuang Choi and a butterfly there must be some distinction! This is called the Transformation of Things."
I see in his POMONA COLLEGE PERSONNEL BLANK that John Cage's Occupational Outlook as he entered his freshman year was the Ministry and the next year Writing. You might say he did become some kind of preacher and writer after all. However, I see in his transcript that all he got was a B in his course in Religious Orientation the second semester of his last and sophomore year. Freshman Recreational Interests swimming, tennis, riding, Sophomore sleeping and talking, stealing.
Church: Membership M. E., Preference M. E., Father's Occupation Electrical engineer and Inventor, Mother's Occupation Interested in Club work. Summer Experience (1928) Camping Trip during July; worked at beach during Aug. Summer Experience (1929) I merely proved that I possess neither character, will power, nor back bone. This in a fairly sloppy-looking but quite legible hand that reminds me of his literary style which looks (as you see) so artless. The Registrar has added in red ink his scores on various tests, his second prize in the Jennings English Contest, and June 1930. Does not plan to return. Going to travel in Europe.
It is interesting that John Cage's father was an electrical engineer and inventor. After he came back from Europe John Cage worked for his father for a while checking out patents. I wonder if Schoenberg knew that when he said, "He's not a composer, he's an inventor--of genius."
But Herbert Bruen, whose ideas about composition could hardly be farther from CageÕs than they are, said, "With what he says and what be does, either he's a composer or he's an idiot. And--and--heÕs a composer." Pause. "His great big goofy smile." This after a lecture in Bridges Hall where Herbert Bruen described his own way of calculating and achieving precise, verifiable musical effects.
That same year (1963 I think) John Cage and David Tudor gave a lecture-concert in Bridges Hall. The lecture was "Where Are We Going? And What Are We Doing?" which you can read in Silence. He reads or is silent into a microphone while his own voice reads or is silent from each of three tape recorders. Though he uses a stopwatch and a time score to make every performance pretty nearly identical to every other, no two people hear the same thing because you can't follow four voices at once and have to just listen to what interests you. As with the electronic pieces "Fontana Mix" and "Williams Mix" (when played with all four or eight separate tracks), the sounds themselves are fairly rigidly determined but indeterminacy enters into the actual perception. No doubt it does into the perception of any large orchestral or choral piece but it is not made so welcome.
Afterwards we all went over to Wig Lounge for an informal discussion and a snack of mushrooms. (Along with his other interests, John Cage is a mycologist.) The mushrooms we served were canned. He said that if the artist is supposed to seek beauty he will be more useful if he seeks it in what has seemed ugly.
Earlier in the afternoon, while they were hooking up the electrical gear for the piano, somebody left a microphone on so that when a certain connection was made there was a blast of feedback that was, to me, just past the threshold of pain. John Cage and David Tudor clearly thought it was beautiful, a delightful surprise. Of course they quickly turned off the microphone.
Richard Barnes, professor of English at Pomona College from 1961 to 1998, passed away in 2000.
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