Chancer

Paul Driver

  • The Roaring Silence: John Cage, A Life by David Revill
    Bloomsbury, 375 pp, £22.50, September 1992, ISBN 0 7475 1215 9

John Cage, who died immediately after this book intended to honour his 80th birthday was published, was a man marvellously indulged and humoured. Perhaps no one among 20th-century buffoons accumulated so much intellectual capital or secured such wide forbearance, and few have been so famous. He was included in every reckoning of modern music’s development and achievement and granted a potent influence on artists in diverse media and of all ages. He was at once the intellectuals’ composer – the kind of symptomatic figure that cultural analysts with small musical equipment would be sure to refer to – and the archetypal risible modernist, all plonks and tinklings, for the man in the street. Like Andy Warhol, with whom he had much in common, he became a household name yet produced practically nothing of real and permanent value. Cage was America’s best Dadaist, best Surrealist, best self-publicist, self-archivist, and its worst composer.

He was a deeply playful and deluded man, whose project (he felt he had achieved it) was to ‘show the practicality of making works of art non-intentionally’, who theoretically abjured personal taste as an artistic criterion, and laboured hard to leave all the business of creating music to chance, but who at the same time documented his most nugatory ‘opus’ with vainglorious care, and pretty clearly wanted to shore a copious and traditionalist oeuvre against his ruins. Asked in 1978 whether his works would outlast him, he replied ingenuously: ‘I’m afraid they will ... I’ve now done so much work in so many different directions that it would be very hard to ... get rid of it now.’ I’m not so sure. I have difficulty in settling on a Cage work that is really apprehensibly there, let alone one that lodges irresistibly in the memory. There is an intellectual custom, an etiquette by which I should now point out that of course this is what Cage sought: a substanceless, chance-born, ludic and Zen-flavoured music that has as little as possible to do with the permanence of art and partakes as much as it can of the random actuality of nature and everyday phenomena. To ignore the etiquette is to place oneself despicably on an everyday level, siding with the man in the street, calling Cage’s bluff, being so vulgar as to presume he has one, and branding him a charlatan.

The philosophical charm of Cage’s ‘purposeless play’ remains strong enough two decades after it reached its zenith of fashionableness in the Sixties to make one pause before suggesting that the interest of Cage today is either in the decorative skills to which a handful of his pieces attests or in the mountebankery itself. But gulp and suggest it we now should. The phoneyness of which those who are unable to distinguish Cage from Schoenberg have always accused 20th-century music really is exemplified by Cage. A trahison des clercs (I’m guilty myself) has given him the benefit of every doubt and the wilder but supposedly logical developments of modern music unfettered scope. But it is hard to believe that the true destiny of music in our century is with the mad camp of Europeras I-V, those theatrical cut-ups of grand opera on which he was working until last year. The Cage project turns out to be unworthy in so many ways, footling, offensive, a bad, interminable joke; and sympathetic commentators may be reminded of those who dutifully spoke for the defence at the Lady Chatterley trial while feeling that it was a bad book.

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