SA3: The John Cage Issue

My wife and I have a running joke involving a specific nature show trope. The narrative is always the same, and if you’ve seen any television….at all….ever…this will at least sound familiar. It goes like this: A baby animal (usually a panda or polar bear, but sometimes a baby deer or even a penguin if you’re lucky) is learning the ropes of life in the great outdoors. Often they are bumbling around in the cutest possible way, totally unaware of the danger that awaits them later in life, if not in the immediate future, in the form of predators, global warming, hunters, or some other such buzz kill that the producers of the show will surely present to you later to remind you of the harshness of the circle of life. The joke between us has been to look at each other whenever we stumble upon this over used device and say “he has A LOT to learn” with that slight upturn of voice at the end of the sentence that is intended to wring every last bit of twee irony out of the phrase, and accentuate the cuteness of the baby animal while quietly underlining the fact that it will probably be eviscerated in the snow by the end of the hour. Yes, it is a dark household. As I was deleting my fourth draft of this opening essay, that bit of black humor kept running through my mind. It seemed to me that I could easily refer to myself as the bumbling naïve being that had, with no presentiment of the dangers lurking ahead, prematurely undertaken this ambitious issue of SA celebrating the American iconoclastic composer John Cage. I think to truly understand how I ended up approaching this issue, and especially my amazement about the state I’m left in, now that I’m nearing its completion, an observation and a confession must be made. First the observation, and I’m sure this is one that you, as a reader interested in this kind of music has made to yourself already. This is the YEAR OF CAGE. And, why not? John Cage is one of the most interesting and important thinkers of the 20th century. But, here’s where the confession comes in. I LOVE being contrary. It’s not a pleasant trait. I am not proud of it, but it is a part of me I’ve accepted, and when I was approached by Bowerbird with the idea of doing an all-Cage issue of SA to coincide with their festival, Cage: Beyond Silence, my first thought was that it was an opportunity to expose the “man behind the curtain”; to roll John Cage down from his seat on Mt. Olympus and set him in front of the world as nothing more than a simple human being that had a few good ideas (I can tell that you’re already shaking your head and saying to yourself, “he’s got a lot…”) Yes, yes, I know. It was an approach that was pointless and small, and I admit that. That being confessed and atoned for, however, this contrarian attitude caused me to do a couple of things in the content and structure of this issue that make it slightly different, I think in a good way, than it would have been if I had decided to make yet another centennial festschrift to the greatness of John Cage. The first way in which my hubris affected this issue was my attempt to concentrate less on the historiography and apocryphal knowledge around Cage as a person, and more on the pragmatic concerns of performing what he left behind…his music. I think it’s safe to say that John Cage’s music has entered an American musical canon. For better or for worse the performance of his compositions will be played by a vast number of musicians for years to come. These are compositions that demand a certain amount of interpretation by the performer or received information from Cage himself which, after his death, is not possible. The question, then, is how does an accepted performance practice take shape for his work? For those unfamiliar with either the concept of performance practice or with the scores of John Cage, here is an example that hopefully gives a definition of the former and explains the current difficulty with the latter. For our purposes, performance practice can be defined simply as the accepted way in which a majority of musicians perform a specific piece, the works of a single composer, or the works in a particular style or belonging to a particular time period. As an example, the performance practice surrounding the work of Gustav Mahler is to treat his music with great gravitas, the brass playing with heavy dark sounds. This is that music’s standard performance practice (simplified of course). And, this comes, in large part, from the way in which Mahler presented his music through his choice of articulations, dynamics, and other notational guidelines. For John Cage, much of the printed guidelines that created a performance practice around a more traditional composer like Mahler, doesn’t exist. His scores have been purposely created to be open to and almost force interpretation, which makes a codified “correct” way to perform them very difficult to come by. And, it’s this thinking about the performance practice related to John Cage’s music that becomes an interesting idea to explore in this issue. Some of the questions I ended up asking myself as I was preparing material were: Does the way to perform his music become codified and stale if a performance practice is put in place as a iron-clad guiding principle? Conversely, does a lack of articulated performance practice allow for the ambiguity of his scores to devolve into musical anarchy? And, finally, as I began to be completely absorbed in this project, this question seemed to leap to the forefront of my mind: Was John Cage enough of a genius to create musical forms that allowed for something transcendent in the middle path between anarchy and dogma? After setting up interviews and recordings with the broadest possible range of interpreters of Cage’s music; everyone from those receiving the transmission from Cage himself (Joan LaBarbara) to those that are discovering Cage’s music through a rigorous examination of his history, aesthetic, and the scores themselves (JACK Quartet and Rob Haskins), to those that regard Cage almost more as an idea, a somewhat open vessel that provides fodder for philosophical and musical speculation (BSC), I settled down to my foregone conclusion that John Cage had been full of interesting ideas, but that his legacy wouldn’t stand up once you took the genius of his interpreters out of the equation. I was beginning to get a feeling of apprehension, but I was still determined to be successful in my grounding of America’s maverick king. (You can almost feel the eyes of the hungry she-wolf glowing on my fat, furry white rump, can’t you?) Yes, I was wrong. Dead wrong. Delightfully wrong. As I started sifting through the interviews, recordings, and scores of Cage and critically weighed the attitudes of the artists interpreting his music, I felt an epiphany growing deep in the pit of my stomach. John Cage was a genius.... Not just a genius for his use of indeterminacy in The Music of Changes or embracing the sounds around us in 4’33”, but a genius at providing the musicians around him a spectacularly interesting and varied set of forms and molds that they could pour their personalities into. He found ways to create restraints on their performance while still providing just enough ambiguity to encourage lively discussion (see JACK Quartet’s rehearsal of Four). He wrote a body of work that could embolden brash statements of musical language (see BSC’s email discussion on Songbooks and Cage’s legacy to improvising musicians). His oeuvre prompts serious and insightful research (Rob Haskins on the Number Pieces and Songbooks) and his legacy is most telling in the remembrances of those that worked with him (Joan LaBarbara and Ne(x)tworks on Songbooks). All in all, I’ve grown to love John Cage over the last few months. His music has made me respect him as a thinker, a writer, a musician, and a human being. This wasn’t supposed to end up like the other grand celebrations of a great man, but I can understand now why they exist, and I’m proud to give in. And, as I thought about it, this is what Sound American is all about. The hope and idea of this journal has always been to present musicians and their ideas from multiple axes, so that the naysayers and uninitiated can find something of interest to grab onto, think about, and grow. I have to say that I’m damn proud of this issue, as it does this…I know, I tested it.