By 1963 , John Cage had become an unlikely celebrity. Anyone who knew anything about music – who had perhaps followed the perplexed reviews in the New York Times – could tell you how he had managed to transform the piano into a one-man percussion ensemble by wedging nails, bolts and erasers between its strings; or how he had – ‘and you’re never gonna believe this’ – somehow composed silent music. Even people who didn’t follow music knew Cage as the ‘nut’ who had appeared on the popular quiz show I’ve Got a Secret and performed his piece Water Walk, for piano and a collection of household implements. (When the host asked if he minded being ridiculed, Cage replied: ‘Laughter is always preferable to tears.’) He received lots of letters from people who felt that composed music had a future beyond classical convention, and from others who felt strongly that it didn’t and shouldn’t. In order to cope with the demands of his mailbox, Laura Kuhn tells us, he adopted the Note-O-Gram – a new piece of technology that anticipated the functionality of email while retaining the aura of a letter. Cage would write in his blocky handwriting on a top sheet, over colour-coded reply sheets and carbon paper, then mail the top sheet back and keep the carbon copy for his own records. Cage’s correspondent was expected to reply inside a box positioned to the right of his message: assuming everyone wrote inside their boxes, and remembered to tear out the carbon paper underneath, the process would result in both parties retaining a complete record of their exchange.
Cage’s delight in the Note-O-Gram was typical of a man who often seemed impatient to embrace the new. The Selected Letters of John Cage appeared just months after the first complete edition of Cage’s Diary: How to Improve the World (You’ll Only Make Matters Worse), and Cage’s apparently limitless confidence in his visions of the future drives both books. Kuhn claims in her introduction to the Letters that taken together the two volumes provide something like an autobiography. Certainly, they provide a fascinating insight into the evolution of his ideas about sound and art. Cage’s voice has often been represented by the catchy bon mots at which he excelled – ‘I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones’; ‘I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry’; ‘Which is more musical, a truck passing a factory or a truck passing by a music school?’ – but in the letters and diary he discusses his work in a less contrived fashion, and the principles behind the bon mots can be seen taking shape.
It is striking, in his earliest letters from the 1930s, just how earnest a student of Western classical music he was, given the outspoken critic of it he would later become. ‘It is very necessary to hear as much music as I can,’ he writes. He tells the wife of his composition teacher, Adolph Weiss, about a ‘very uninteresting’ performance of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony, endured so that he could hear Jascha Heifetz playing the Beethoven Violin Concerto ‘superbly’. He speaks of his admiration for Stravinsky’s way of ‘seeing life close and loving it so’ – though he would later complain of Stravinsky’s ‘intellectual poverty by exploiting music of the past’ – and regrets missing a performance of the Fifth Symphony by Sibelius, a composer whose teleological structures and Romantic approach to tonality embodied everything the mature Cage would fight against.
In 1933, the 21-year-old Cage, feeling that it was his destiny to become a composer despite his threadbare knowledge of music theory, fired off letters to those best placed to further his aspirations. Schoenberg had recently arrived in Los Angeles. Weiss, who was his first American student, put Cage in touch with him. The story goes that Schoenberg dismissed him, telling him he lacked an ear for harmony. Peter Yates’s book Twentieth-Century Music: Its Evolution from the End of the Harmonic Era into the Present Era of Sound (1968), reported Schoenberg as saying that Cage was ‘not a composer – but an inventor of genius’, a back-handed compliment that stuck to Cage for the rest of his career. But Kuhn prints a letter that Cage wrote to the German composer Dieter Schnebel in 1973 that provides more context. Cage clearly took his studies with Schoenberg of counterpoint and harmony seriously. The major issue between them seems to have been Cage’s determination to move beyond academic exercises. He wanted to show Schoenberg his compositions; Schoenberg refused to look at them. ‘That was my diploma. But why he gave it remains a mystery. How did he know? He would neither look at my work, nor listen to it. I invited him once to hear my early work for percussion. He said he was busy.’
Kuhn follows the letter to Mrs Weiss with one from 1939 to the New York-based composer and critic Virgil Thomson – and what a difference a few years has made. Cage is now 27 and has left behind any of his former regard for European classicalism. He asks Thomson if he might be interested in writing something for percussion and reports with pride that his group already performs works by key experimental composers such as Henry Cowell, Johanna Beyer and Lou Harrison. In addition to the usual orchestral percussion instruments, Cage tells Thomson, ‘we can improvise instruments from junkyards or construct things, given specifications.’ Stravinsky and Bartók’s orchestral music had already given percussion players more to do than simply emphasise harmonic climaxes with clashes of the cymbals, in the fashion of the Romantic symphony. But Cage followed Varèse, whose pioneering percussion ensemble work Ionisation he praised in a letter from 1940 to Peter Yates – the same Yates who later extracted that damning quote from Schoenberg – as ‘in no way an imitation of natural or city sounds, but being instead an expressive organisation of sound as opposed to tone’. A lot of the music Cage’s group performed had more in common with the percussion music of the Balinese gamelan than with anything European.
But Cage already had the next frontier in his sights. While he was approaching concert venues and university music departments that he hoped might be interested in hosting his percussion group, he was also writing letters attempting to raise funds for a centre for experimental music, electronic music in particular. ‘Only through the use of electrical means,’ he writes, ‘may important advances in the exploration of sound be made’: ‘American music will be enlivened and enriched by such exploration and use of new musical materials. These can best be brought about through the co-operation of scientists with a real appreciation of music, and composers with an understanding and appreciation of science.’ Percussion and electronics felt like the appropriate instrumental hardware with which to create music relevant to 1950s America, and not reliant on European models. There was no rulebook for writing electronic music, and by using percussion Cage was able to liberate sound from Western scales – he scored his Imaginary Landscape pieces (1939-52) for instruments including gongs, tin cans, drums, buzzers, radios and coils of wire.
Cage’s first mention of Erik Satie comes in a letter from 1944 to the dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham, Cage’s partner. Socrate, Satie’s piece for voice and piano, he enthuses, is ‘an incredibly beautiful work. There is no expression in the music or in the words, and the result is that it is overpoweringly expressive.’ Pre-empting many of Cage’s arguments against composers who exploited rhetoric to manipulate emotions, Satie wrote in 1923 that the ‘Wagner dictatorship was master of all and odiously dominated public taste’. The emotional inner life of the characters in Wagner’s operas is described by harmonic tension and its eventual release. But Satie, and subsequently Cage, believed that sustained sonority was a worthy goal in itself. Cage wrote that Satie ‘consistently structured his music on lengths of time rather than harmonic relations’. The push-pull of harmonic tension and release that structured Wagner’s music was absent from Satie’s. He wasn’t interested in shepherding his material towards points of climax, or in having sound symbolise emotional states; combinations of notes didn’t have to lead anywhere. Furniture Music, a sequence of instrumental pieces written in 1917, was designed to dissolve into the surrounding ambience of a room. During performances Satie would encourage audiences not to listen consciously, but to let the sound of the music soak into their consciousness through the environment. In this Satie prefigured Cage’s 4’33” – the notorious ‘silent’ piece – and the idea behind it of sounds that are ‘accepted by me rather than imposed by me’.
Partly in order to expand his collection of original Satie scores, Cage spent much of 1949 in Paris, where he met Alice B. Toklas, Olivier Messiaen, Alberto Giacometti and Pierre Boulez, whose recently completed Piano Sonata No. 2 and ensemble work Polyphonie X were considered de rigueur Modernism. When he returned to New York the pair began a correspondence – anthologised in unabridged form as The Boulez-Cage Correspondence (1993) – that remains one of the foundation texts of new music philosophy. Cage was initially infatuated with Boulez, gushing on one occasion that ‘without news of you I am without news of music, and you know I love music with all my heart.’ He went to considerable efforts to organise the American premiere of Boulez’s Second Sonata – performed by the pianist David Tudor, who would premiere 4’33” – but relations between the two composers began to deteriorate as Cage’s obsession with using chance in composition proved incompatible with Boulez’s insistence that every parameter in a piece had to be carefully controlled – an intensification of techniques and attitudes inherited from Schoenberg and his pupil Anton Webern. In a letter from 1949 to the composer Peggy Glanville-Hicks, Cage voices his doubts: ‘Boulez can’t understand interest in Satie … If I had any criticism of his thought, which I don’t, it would be that he is too wrapped up in method … Minute controls.’ Kuhn’s selection leaves out many of the Cage/Boulez letters, but she does print a letter to Yates from 1959 in which Cage writes: ‘I have letters from Pierre renouncing friendship with me since I was employing chance operations.’ Boulez’s final letter to Cage signed off with the decidedly lukewarm: ‘I remain a capuchin who thinks fondly, if not helpfully, of you. PB.’
Issues of control and chance continued to dominate Cage’s thinking during the 1950s. By using magic squares, or the I Ching, or constellations of stars, to determine pitches and note lengths, he was able to free ‘the ego from its likes + dislikes + its reliance on taste or memory’, as he would later explain to the poet Jackson Mac Low. His piece Williams Mix (1953), intricately spliced together from six hundred sections of pre-recorded electromagnetic tape, and his solo piano work, Music of Changes (1951), were assembled using instructions divined from the I Ching. But by the time an audience heard them their structures had been fixed, just like Boulez’s. It was in 1952 that Cage and Cunningham travelled to Black Mountain College, the multi-disciplinary liberal arts summer school in North Carolina led by the poet Charles Olson, for a ‘Happening’ – a form of theatre, inspired by Artaud, in which artists from different disciplines performed simultaneously on stage. As Cage watched the Happening unfold, his eyes were drawn towards a series of all-white canvases by Robert Rauschenberg that were pinned to the ceiling, and the idea of a piece without any ostensible ‘musical’ content was born.
Cage’s increasing infamy through the 1950s was largely due to 4’33”, which premiered a few weeks after the Black Mountain Happening at the Maverick Concert Hall in Woodstock. Many doubted his motives for producing it. A letter from Helen Wolff, the mother of the composer Christian Wolff, expresses concern that Cage’s art had collapsed into immature gimmickry; he reassures her that his piece was ‘full of sound, but sounds which I did not think of beforehand, which I hear for the first time the same time others hear’. A retrospective concert held at New York’s Town Hall in 1958 ended with the first performance of a piece that squared the conceptual circle around chance and control. The Concert for Piano and Orchestra – not a ‘Concerto’: Cage considered each musician in his 14-piece ensemble to be a soloist – did not exist as a score but as a self-assembly kit consisting of loose-leaf instrumental parts, including a part for a conductor whose arms rotated like the hands of a clock, but whose movements had no bearing on the sound produced by the players. Each performance was different: Cage said he considered the work to be perpetually ‘in progress’, a piece that would never reach ‘a final state, although I find each performance definitive’.
At the Town Hall Cage had worked with a carefully selected group of sympathetic performers in order to achieve a faithful performance of the Concert, but when Leonard Bernstein programmed Cage’s similarly designed Atlas Eclipticalis as part of a New York Philharmonic season in 1964 exploring the avant-garde, he wasn’t so lucky. Bernstein had intended to follow the piece by leading the Philharmonic through a collective improvisation, but Cage wrote a letter pleading with him to change his mind (he didn’t). ‘Improvisation is not related to what the three of us’ – Cage’s work had been programmed alongside music by Morton Feldman and Earle Brown – ‘are doing in our works. It gives free play to the exercise of taste and memory, and it is exactly this that we, in differing ways, are not doing in our music. Since, as far as I know, you are not dedicated in your own work to improvisation, I can only imagine that your plan is to comment on our work.’ Bernstein also found himself having to quash a mutiny when his players, each of whom was wired into a network of contact microphones for Atlas Eclipticalis, realised that their efforts might not even be audible to the audience: Cage, perched behind a sound desk, would filter out some lines and increase the volume of others, according to instructions from the I Ching. When he came to introduce Atlas Eclipticalis to the audience, Bernstein spoke of notes being placed on the page with the intention of provoking ‘accident’; this, as he euphemistically put it, had involved a certain amount of psychological readjustment on the part of the orchestra. ‘They are artists,’ he continued, ‘trained to reproduce with exquisite exactness the notes that are set before them, whereas tonight they are confronted not only with notes, but with diagrams, charts, graphs and sets of complex directions in prose.’
Bernstein was making the point, often overlooked, that Cage’s work is as much about new ways of writing as it is about sound. Conventional music notation is an informational system that allows musicians to translate patterns of notes into sound. This way of working was undermined by Atlas Eclipticalis, in which the use of chance procedures made it impossible to produce recurring and memorable patterns. Analogue electronics, of the sort that Cage deployed in milestone works like Variations II (1961) or HPSCHD (1969), were unpredictable too, and there were no rules for how to write scores for them. And how exactly should 4’33”, which contains no intentional sound, be expressed on the page? On a piece-by-piece basis, Cage needed to give careful thought to the symbols and images he used in his scores so that musicians could translate them into sound. As a result, he became an expert at designing graphics and manipulating text, and this, in turn, changed the way he wrote prose.
In a letter from 1973, Cage insists that words and ideas, like sounds, ‘need to float, only assuming particular relationships in individual minds momentarily … A fixed syntax implies monarchic mentality.’ His Diary: How to Improve the World (You’ll Only Make Matters Worse) represents the kind of non-monarchic writing he had in mind. He described the book as ‘a mosaic of ideas, statements, words and stories’. It was originally published in instalments; Siglio’s edition is the first to collate all eight of them. In the preface to his book M: Writings ’67-’72, which included parts four to seven, Cage revealed that he had been inspired to start the Diary by Buckminster Fuller: ‘I began the diary optimistically in 1965 to celebrate the work of R. Buckminster Fuller, his concern for human needs and world resources, his comprehensive scientific designs for making life on earth an unequivocal success, his insistence that problem solving be continuously regenerative.’
There is a notable shift of emphasis in the letters when Cage, from 1965, begins corresponding with Fuller and Marshall McLuhan with the same ardent fervour that had once characterised his letters to Boulez. In a letter to the British musicologist Wilfred Mellers, he recommends McLuhan’s The Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media: ‘I agree with McLuhan that we live during a period of great change, out of the Renaissance – and the relevance of Renaissance measurements – into a period produced not by print but electronics.’ Barely a letter goes by without mention of Fuller. The two men had first met during a summer course at Black Mountain in 1948, and two decades later Fuller’s ideas about the distribution of resources and environmentalism – especially his idea of ‘spaceship earth’, fuelled by the sun and requiring constant vigilance and maintenance – chimed with Cage’s own concern for the planet (as expressed by his recent conversion to a macrobiotic diet).
McLuhan’s ideas about how human perception is changed by technology appealed to Cage, who had always felt that the future of music lay with electronics. In a letter from 1971 to the social philosopher Norman O. Brown, Cage compared writings by Fuller and McLuhan to a recent book by the French philosopher Jacques Ellul, most likely The Technological Society. Cage felt that Ellul’s stylish writing had turned the book into a ‘watertight work of art’, but Ellul’s complaint about ‘life under technique’ had clearly got under his skin. Ellul equated technology with the ‘technique’ of propaganda. Cage, though, claimed to prefer
the Fuller + McLuhan view that technique is [an] extension of man to the Ellul view that it is outside, separated + intent on destruction. Electronics (central nervous system extended) permits the notion of a world that could come to its senses, just as individuals have been known to do. Ellul’s family looking at TV has no conversation. They are in the presence (McLuhan) of everything at once. They are with the third parent (Fuller) thinking world, developing the revolutionary spirit.
Far from being a watertight work of art, Cage’s diary at times buckles under all his ideas about music, the environment, communication systems, food (especially mushrooms: Cage was a keen mycologist) and cameos from composers and friends like Marcel Duchamp, Fuller and McLuhan. By mixing with the likes of McLuhan and Fuller, Cage clearly felt that he had joined a global village of thinkers concerned with expanding human consciousness using new technologies; he felt understood by them in a way he never did by classical musicians. Back in 1948, Cage had complained that ‘Schoenberg still thinks as Beethoven but new-fangles it through new method.’ Twenty years later his criticism stood, but could be formulated in explicitly McLuhanesque terms. The form of any medium, McLuhan posited in the most celebrated line of Understanding Media, is inseparable from, and indeed influences, how the message it carries is understood. Cage had no patience with composers – he considered Beethoven an especially egregious offender – who used the medium of music to obscure the message, not to mention the beauty, of unmediated sound.
‘There will never be silence,’ Cage wrote in his letter to Helen Wolff, ‘until death comes which never comes’; but when death finally did come – Cage suffered a massive stroke on 11 August 1992 and died the following day – many assumed his work would die with him. Cage’s quixotic ideas, they believed, required his presence and charm if they were to be sold to a sceptical audience hungry for Beethoven and Mahler. Yet in the years following his death the message of his silence roared ever louder. As if to vindicate his faith in technology, the compact disc arrived: the new medium’s absence of background hiss suited the often delicate textures of his music better than vinyl, and his music began to appear in abundance on CD. The New York-based Mode label instigated its heroic project to record the composer’s entire output, fifty volumes at the time of writing.
Brian Eno’s definition of experimental music – a composer sets up a situation in which a variety of unforeseen outcomes may occur – developed out of his fascination with Cage and directly influenced the heuristic strategies he deployed when producing albums by David Bowie and Devo. The television comedy Ally McBeal featured an eccentric lawyer called John Cage who often confused his opponents in court by saying precisely nothing, and in 1992, the composer Antoine Beuger and violinist Burkhard Schlothauer founded the Wandelweiser Group, a collective of composers and improvisers who to this day grapple with the question: after the silence, what next? Cosey Fanni Tutti, from the British postpunk group Throbbing Gristle, once commented that Cage reminded us that what music communicates ‘is always going to be largely dependent on the subjectivity of the listener irrespective of the presentation and intention of the composer. That’s where the beauty of music/sound lies.’ Perhaps this is the hardest lesson that Cage taught classical music. Strip away the mythology of great composers and the stories their music told and all that’s left is sound. Then listening becomes a proactive responsibility. Music is no longer entertainment. You must sit, sometimes in silence, and listen hard.