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.

Frank Kermode, writing of what he approvingly termed ‘decreative’ Modernist poets in a 1966 essay on T.S. Eliot, suggested that one way of recognising them ‘is by a certain ambiguity in your own response. The Waste Land, and also Hugh Selwyn Mauberly, can strike you in certain moments as emperors without clothes ... It is with your own proper fictive covering that you hide their nakedness and make them wise.’ ‘Decreation’ is Wallace Stevens’s word (taken from Simone Weil), and so, by virtue of a shared American tradition of artistic experiment, it has a rough applicability to Cage. But no amount of fictive covering by open-minded critics – and enough has been made to fill a metaphorical mail-order catalogue – can evidently hide the nakedness of Cage. He assuredly is an emperor without togs; an emperor only of ice-cream; perhaps not an emperor at all. In ‘The Modern’, another essay from the same collection (Modern Essays), Kermode deals directly with Cage, and while suavely amused by him and benign in tone, he is firm in his critique: ‘I myself believe that there is a difference between art and joke while admitting that it has sometimes been a difficult one to establish; and I would want to call 4’ 33” and Tinguely’s famous self-destroying machine jokes, if only because however satisfying they may be, they do not seem sufficient in respect of the needs which what is called art has usually sufficed.’ That badly needed to be spelled out then, and is worth repeating now. Kermode gently but decisively dismantles Cage’s artistic premises (silent and suchlike pieces are merely ‘piquant allusions to what fundamentally interests us more than they do, and they could not exist without it’), and puts him in his place: ‘He has now found ... like Rossini before him, the imperfections in paper as a suggestion for notes.’

The dust-jacket of this biography unsurprisingly perpetuates the myth of Cage as ‘the most influential musician of the last half-century’, but the text itself furnishes ample evidence to the contrary, and until it deteriorates towards the end into a detailed list of Cage’s successive projects, affords an entertaining chronicle of air-headedness. Not that Cage was ever vacuous when it came to getting on professionally, seizing a main chance. Even as a youth he was shrewd enough, we read, to secure his own radio slot, a Boy Scout magazine programme on Los Angeles KNX, which was so successful that Boy Scout headquarters (which had not been consulted) insisted on taking it over. He became a devotee of one of the local great composers, Schoenberg, unhesitatingly taking his side against that of another Los Angeles resident, Stravinsky, in the inescapable musical either/or of the day. Legend has it that he persuaded Schoenberg to accept him as a non-fee-paying pupil when he promised to devote his life to composition, and that his master subsequently opined of him: ‘Of course he’s not a composer, but an inventor – of genius.’ That ‘genius’ helped no end, securing an anecdote that would loom large in a life devoted hardly less to anecdote than to music, with frequently (as in the 1958 lecture ‘Indeterminacy’) a distinction between them being impossible to make. It is interesting to note, however, that Hans Keller (so Revill reminds us) dismissed Cage’s lessons with Schoenberg as ‘public fantasies’: ‘so long as Schoenberg was alive, we didn’t hear about Cage’s studies with him.’

One way or another, Cage derived from Schoenberg the self-knowledge that he did not possess a feeling for harmony and turned to writing for percussion; half-searching for spiritual vibrations and doubtless very glad to be able to write any kind of piece at all, he ‘began to tap everything I saw’. ‘The predilection for noise rather than pitch,’ Revill writes, ‘fitted well with his lack of skill and harmony,’ and was almost as easy as composing silence. The piano ‘prepared’ with nuts and bolts so as to be consolidated as a percussion instrument followed in due course, and Cage’s writing for it, quite magical in the Sonatas and Interludes of 1946-8, does display a certain sensitivity to pitch choice, though without evincing any need for harmony. Meanwhile Cage had married a tall girl who walked into his mother’s arts-and-crafts shop one fine day. When Xenia Andreevna Kashevaroff was a child in Alaska ‘she and her friends had a club with only one rule: no silliness.’ Remarkably, she stayed with Cage ten years. What seems to have brought the marriage to an end was the fact that Cage met the dancer Merce Cunningham and belatedly discovered his own homosexuality; the two men lived together ever after. Revill is coy on the subject (‘exactly what happened is not clear and not important’), though he was no doubt constrained in his confidences by Cage himself, who apparently never used the word ‘homosexual’.

The relationship with Cunningham was equally important (to both of them) professionally and personally. The majority of Cage’s scores were now conceived with choreographic requirements in mind and the unstuffy dance format gave ideal scope to his experimentation. (In 1950 Cage had been thinking of writing an opera, about one Mila Repa, ‘a “Tibetan saint” who took the form of a thistle and floated over the landscape ... but the book which included the story had been borrowed from the library.’) With the development of ‘chance operations’ – composing by reference principally to the I-Ching – Cage’s career flourished. A philosophical rationale was found for these operations in the Zen-Buddhist preachings of Daisetz Suzuki at Columbia University, and a brilliant and devoted interpreter acquired in the pianist David Tudor. Although Cage’s chance procedures were extremely time-consuming – many tosses of coins or drawings of yarrow stalks being required for the least decision made with the I-Ching, and computer aid not yet available – that was essentially all that remained onerous about composition, and he was able to turn out piece after madcap piece.

Tudor was so inventively adept at following the craziest instructions of indeterminate scores that the composer Roman Hauben stock-Ramati suspected he could ‘play the raisins in a slice of fruitcake’. Oddly enough, he was never asked to do that, but his Cagean activities included fiddling with radios, dealing playing cards and blowing duck calls in water. This was Water Music of 1952, which ‘unlike Handel’s’, as Cage remarked, ‘really splashes’. Revill drily gives a mathematically precise description of the work’s structure, as he does for very many of Cage’s contrivances, thereby silently endorsing them and perhaps reflecting what he aptly speaks of (apropos Cage’s batty 1976 meostic sequence, Writing through ‘Finnegans Wake’) as the composer’s ‘usual constructively obsessional way’ of doing things.

The biography is thoroughly researched and generally sprightly in tone, and risks the occasional reproof to Cage: for instance, for being, strange as it may seem, too Apollonian, resistant to the vigorous rewards of improvisation, which is not to be confused, it appears, with indeterminacy. But Revill’s thrust is inevitably to take Cage on his own terms and assign value to pieces according to the rigour and ingenuity of their formal concept rather than according to whether they sound like anything. Cage pieces – and I don’t just mean the officially ‘silent’ ones – sound by and large like nothing. Try getting some joy out of the sound dots of the star-map-inspired orchestral piece Atlas Eclipticalis of 1961, or from the previous year’s Cartridge Music for phonograph cartridges and amplified small objects (recently issued in David Tudor’s realisation – alas, not even he prevails here – on a Mode label compact disc): these remote scratchings and rattlings cannot be redeemed as mood music. It is not just that Cage has contrived to set his music free from his own personality and tastes, but that, as sentient, well-disposed, heavily-bored listeners to innumerable Cage concerts all over the world will assuredly testify, he has devised an entity known as a Cage piece which has a life, a fame, beyond the manuscript paper yet apparently no extension in musical space at all. Perhaps a remark from Cage’s verbal score Variations V (1965) provides a clue to this mystery. ‘Changed function of composer: to telephone, to raise money.’

Cage would have been a rather wonderful and definitely substantial composer if he had only found as much in himself to put into his pieces of music as he put into the colourful promulgation of his many fads – for Satie, Joyce, Buckminster Fuller, Thoreau, Duchamp, mushrooms, macrobiotics etc. But we the well-disposed audience are culpable. We should have protested. Twentieth-century music turns out to have been a remarkably complicitous affair, its practitioners and supporters (often the same people) tolerating compositional absurdity for fear of throwing out (let us say) the Webernian baby with the Cagean bathwater, protecting the music-less plinkety-plonks for the sake of the real music which only seems disjointed because it is so new. So distinguished and fascinating a figure as Alexander Goehr has publicly admitted that he began as a composer using 12-tone techniques because it seemed easier. I’m sure he speaks for many. But the point is that a Goehr frets at, exploits and transcends limitations of this sort, to produce original and ‘real’ pieces of music. Made aware of his technical inadequacy, told (supposedly by Schoenberg) that without a feeling for harmony he ‘would always encounter an obstacle, that it would be as though I came to a wall through which I could not pass,’ the young Cage replies (as recounted in the ‘Indeterminacy’ lecture): ‘in that case I will devote my life to beating my head against that wall.’ The older Cage grins and says the wall doesn’t exist. And then we start hearing that he is the most influential musician of the last half-century.

There is some evidence for this claim. While hardly anyone would suggest that the actual sound, such as it might be, of Cage’s music has had an influence, and Revill admits that his myriad of ‘specific practices have not obtained currency’, a reasonable argument is often advanced that the extreme example of Cage’s commitment to indeterminacy not only emboldened his juniors Boulez and Stockhausen to relax their post-serial stringencies and introduce a limited element of performer-choice, but affected, for example, Lutoslawski in his pursuit of the kind of controlled free-for-all for which his mature orchestral works are impressive, and even Britten in devising the conductorless rhythmic flexibility of his Church Parables. Can it be true? Can talent so dubious really influence talent so manifest? On the whole, I doubt it. Those four composers could have derived enabling stimulus easily enough from the classical cadenza or the romantic concept of rubato or from jazz or Eastern music. Although published letters confirm an intimate exchange of ideas between Cage and Boulez in the Fifties, the latter’s thinking about the artistic use of chance was dominated by the subtle divagations of Mallarmé: his friendship with Cage did not outlast the publication in 1957 of his article ‘Alea’, where he elaborated his all-important concept of ‘formal mobility’ (exemplified by his Piano Sonata No 3 of the same year) in a tone that patronised and dismissed Cage. Just as Goehr’s way of dealing with perceived technical deficiencies is far more musically rewarding than Cage’s blank acceptance/denial of them, so Boulez’s – and to a lesser extent Stockhausen’s – incorporation of an edge of indeterminacy into composition is far more keenly interesting than Cage’s throwing in the towel of intentionality. There is a parallel comparison in poetry between John Ashbery’s promiscuous – all too Cage-inspired! – randomness of meaning (at its most flagrant in a poem like ‘Litany’) and the intense emotional charge of Robert Lowell’s ‘gaming with words’ (Jonathan Raban’s phrase). Intelligently controlled chance, as instanced also by the paintings of Bacon and the films of Godard, can even be seen as the defining characteristic of a richly textured, richly responsible Post-Modernism, one which essentially respects rather than mocks the earlier Modernist movement (though premised on a Beckettian sense of fallibility rather than Joycean omnipotence). But Cage cannot be considered in this light. He belongs with no one and nowhere. ‘He represents in his anarchic protest against the European tradition,’ Revill quotes Stockhausen as saying in 1973, ‘the final destination of his own evolution – in a musical no man’s land ... A composer who draws attention to himself more by his actions than his productions ... mixed up with a good deal of philosophical thinking.’ Not that the composer of Atlas Eclipticalis deserved to be lectured by the future composer of that off-the-wall astral circus, Sternklang.

Cage’s clowning was readily tolerated to the end. He became more and more famous, having no trouble expanding his role of court jester (Boulez’s taunt of 1976) into that of a Yeatsian 60-year-old grinning public man. And he was a nice man. I spent a memorable calm morning with him in a London flat in 1982. He had recently completed a series of abstract etchings called Déreau and showed me a reproduction of one, which I found wispy and delightful. His best pieces of music – those that are allowed really to be pieces – are often like that: the Sonatas and Interludes with their other-worldly metallic rustlings, the hypnotic percussion Constructions (1939-41), the austerely simple String Quartet in Four Parts (1950), the quaint Suite for Toy Piano (1948). Somewhere between the roar and the silence of his pretentiousness, Cage’s work can register a definite, decorative appeal. These pieces are reductive in a non-pejorative sense – the analogy is with ‘decreative’ as opposed to ‘destructive’. But all that composition for closed piano, bowls of water, radios and telephones and birds – music made out of anything and about nothing – this is pure destructiveness so far as the development of musicality is concerned. As this century of modernisms and fads comes to an end, and what we will oddly have to start calling 21st-century music challenges composers to think afresh, think differently (without props), ask the right questions and make scores that are solid not flimsy (one can scarcely be more programmatic than that), the last thing we shall need is Cage-games.