John Cage

November 9, 2006 at 07:10 PM · I've been learning about John Cage in my music history class and boy does it have me thinking... I'd love to hear your thoughts on John Cage, either about his music, philosophies, or anything that is related to him. No unsupported statements please (trust me, I hear enough of them at this school), I'm looking for valid, appropriate, and intelligently thought-out insights. Thanks.

Replies (100)

November 9, 2006 at 07:21 PM ·  

November 9, 2006 at 07:32 PM · eVIDENTLY aNDREW HAD THOUGHTS,


November 9, 2006 at 08:09 PM · Cage wrote a piece that consisted of 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence, so what better comment on his music than an empty message?

November 9, 2006 at 08:32 PM · Cage was one of the great (un)musical self-promoters of all time. Talk about the triumph of form over substance. I guess he could be viewed as the beginning of performance arte--the elevation of the artiste to celebrity regardless of the content or lack thereof.

Actually, Cage rode to prominence on the back of other people's celebrity. I guess the best word to describe him is parasite.

November 9, 2006 at 08:49 PM · 12:21 PM (MST)


From bilbo Pratt

Posted on November 9, 2006 at 12:32

Darn. We got 11 minutes of silence.

I checked out a book called "Silence" about him some time back. I didn't read it all.

November 9, 2006 at 09:58 PM · Well, his was the idea of empowering the performer, and doing away with the "composer as genius" idea that more or less started with Beethoven, according to all the textbooks written for these soporific history survey courses they cram down our throats at music school.

Perhaps it's a profound statement, but it hardly had to be made if you consider how people were playing Mozart and Bach around his time. Ultimately I think that music of chance is interesting in theory because there is real creation happening in front of you, and the spontaneity of it is very nice for about 30 seconds, when it gradually dawns on you that you're party to some gimmickry with litte value. It's like one of those things where once you get the point, you realize that the point being made is interesting and worth considering, but the actual conveyance of the point lasts way too long and you get sick of it.

So in conclusion I put Cage in the same category as an Andy Warhol. A clever designer, quirky philosopher. To me, not much of a composer.

November 9, 2006 at 10:42 PM · I've just recently been getting into minimalism more and more, and it is an entirely recent thing for me. To understand minimalism, you need to realise that it's not about the repetition, it's about the changes. For example, 4'33" isn't 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence. It's getting you to focus in on the other sounds that are constantly happening. Can you hear the sounds of the airconditioning? Are there noises from outside that you can hear in the theatre? Cage wanted us to focus on these sounds, and consider the musicality of these sounds. Consider the artworks that are just a blank canvas. They aren't painted just to get a lot of money, but they're painted in a way so that each person will see something different - you won't just see a white canvas, but you'll see shadows falling across the canvas and it's this that makes the art.

Minimalist music is also about the changes. For a bit of fun, look up Clapping Music by Steve Reich, and try do it with a friend. If you can't find the sheet music, the basic idea is a rhythm |||z||z|z|| where the | are quavers and the z is a quaver rest. After both clappers repeating it 12 times, one moves one quaver so the pattern becomes ||z||z|z||z| then repeat 12 times again... It seems boring but once you actually start doing it it's a bloody amazing piece. Listening to the interaction of the two parts amongst each other.

I've currently got on order the Philip Glass Violin Concerto... can't wait to start learning it.

November 9, 2006 at 11:10 PM · Greetings,

I get the p@oint Ben, but I play music to -escape- from the vconstant noise that surrounds us.



November 9, 2006 at 11:49 PM · Hahaha Buri, I agree...

I think that the sounds going on in the room are just that: sounds. They aren't organized, so they aren't music. They migh be rhythmical, even, but I wouldn't call it music.

November 10, 2006 at 12:46 AM · john cage has always come across to me as an avantgarde apologist rather than a true creator.

imo, cage's compositions and writings are exhortations for charles ives' compositional ideas.

November 10, 2006 at 01:22 AM · To be fair, I once heard a performance at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center of a piece by Cage for a handful of traditional instruments, a percussions section made of coffee cans and other found objects, and a phonograph "playing any bombastic Romantic piano concerto." It rocked! So his music wasn't all self-promotion, at least not in my opinion.

(Nevertheless, I think the empty message is still the right comment -- I mean, how can you not?)

November 10, 2006 at 02:41 AM · I think, personally, that 99% of John Cage's contribution to classical music is empty pretension and shocking-for-its-own-sake postmodernism masquerading as true inventiveness. One thing I do give him great credit for, however, is he was the first to experiment with the "prepared piano", where you put various objects inside the piano to get some unusual sounds. That technique has been used to great effect by modern composers for whom I have infinitely more respect, notably Ali-Zadeh.

November 10, 2006 at 02:54 AM · The ultimate charlatan, along with his soul-mate, Andy Warhol.

November 10, 2006 at 02:52 AM · On a website called UBUWEB you can hear a short piece by Cage called 26'1.1499" for a String Player. I would call the overall effect darkly comedic. A fantastic little piece IMHO. If anyone else listens to it, I'd be interested to know what you think (as long as it's printable;)).

November 10, 2006 at 03:17 AM · His String Quartet in four parts isn't so bad. I have to agree much of what he wrote was just a bunch of nonsense.

November 10, 2006 at 03:41 AM · "They aren't organized, so they aren't music."

Music or not, 4'33" is intended to provoke just this sort of discussion. I guess it works...

As a proud Cage performer and admirer, I'm saddened by the negativity in this thread. A parasite? A charlatan? Not a "true creator?" Empty pretention masquerading as true inventiveness? Are you guys serious? Why do you say these things? Do you feel threatened?

I can understand not liking it, but the personal attacks and character assassination displayed in this thread is embarrasing, not to mention irrelevant to the original question. Like him or not, Cage is a musical giant of the 20th century.

For my part, I think the most significant aspect of Cage's works is the realization in music of aspects of Zen Buddist philosophy that had been previously unexpressed in western music. The exuberant embrace of chance, and unabashed relinquishment of control is not only interesting philosophically; it also makes for good music. I have seen audiences moved to tears by Cage's music. In the end, nothing else matters.

November 10, 2006 at 04:17 AM · Mr. Irons,

No, I don't feel threatened. I simply dislike both his music and many aspects of his compositional philosophy. It's my personal opinion, I apologize for any offence I caused.


November 10, 2006 at 05:00 AM · I think Cage music is a mood thing like a lot of music.

If you have a lot of preconceptions, it is hard to take. When I am in the mood, I really like the tension that I experience, even with silences. It is not always comfortable, but I let it pass by and observe my own experience, and enjoy that part of it. It is like observing your own mind.

Cage is a little bit like single point meditation, which is hard to do if your mind is hopping around or you are attached to a particular sensation that you want from listening to music. I try to free my mind and it is lots of fun to listen to. Sometimes it can be emotional, but if my mind is bogged down, it is hard to be with.

I saw Eistein on the Beach performed at BAM years ago with Robert Wilson sets and Philip Glass score, chorus and the whole cast of thousands, and people were walking out before intermission. Who is to say on any particular day. Sometimes your mood just does not match a piece on a particular day. I find that with lots of jazz. I love it and then I can't stand it.

Some music is fun to play but not fun to listen to, or the reverse depending on what mood you are in.

Always room for one more.

November 10, 2006 at 05:05 AM · Jesse...

I didn't express any extraneously negative opinions about Cage. I just think what has done is vastly overstated, and the notion he's a giant of the 20th century begs the question of just how unremarkable has the last century been?

It's funny that you mention Zen Buddhist philosophy, because every Buddhist I've ever spoken with, or any general discussion of eastern philosophy heavily emphasizes the "deemphasis of self". Cage is all about the self, and in my opinion, all about being ego centric. The word ego obviously has some very negative semiotics but in effect, as I stated before, Cage was all about stressing the moment and giving all control and agency of the performer. If I'm missing some aspect of Zen Buddhism which if I'm not mistaken is heavily centered around selfless existence and the realization that we are simply a recurring lifeform, please correct me if I'm missing something about either Cage or anything you've said.

About that silence song, I think the effect is vastly reduced since everyone knows about it. It's become a cliche, like the Warhol Campbells soup can. I can imagine the tension, self consciousness, and marvelous revalation at the time of the first performance, but the very fact that the observers are conscious of some type of context, their actions are somehow altered or restrained in order to conform to whatever ideal they come into the "concert" with. I think any "performance" of that piece would not be affective today with a contemporary audience.

November 10, 2006 at 05:17 AM · Maura, Ali-Zadeh rocks! Maybe some day you'll come around on Cage. My first post sounds a bit harsh, in retrospect - no need to apologize for your opinion.

Pieter - I have no quarrel with you, because you presented a valid criticism of Cage's music. That's cool. And you made me laugh out loud with the "unremarkable" comment. (My opinion: not very unremarkable!) I suppose the Zen thing depends on how you look at it. If the traditional model is "composer as a god" egotistically handing down directions to the servant-like musicians, Cage as a composer would have to be the antithesis of that, no? In many of his pieces neither composer nor performer has any real control over the piece. In Imaginary Landscape #4, performers control the tuning and volume of 12 radios, but not the actual content. In fact I'm not aware of any Cage music that leaves actual decisions up to the performer, as opposed to, say, Terry Riley... Interesting to see where the dominant ego is in these various compositional strategies.

By the way, I am by no means an expert in any of this - I haven't heard 99% of Cage's music, but I see the worth of the 1% I do know.

Cheers, everyone

November 10, 2006 at 06:23 AM · The Zen aspect of it doesn't have anything to do with philosophy, but rather a point of view, which in his case led to defining questions about music; something that had to be done. If a charlatan did it, then so much the better. That's really Zen. If I went to a Cage concert, I might give it the sound of one hand clapping, but then how it sounds and how much it's enjoyed is secondary really. Similar thing with Warhol, maybe, using style and lifestyle.

November 10, 2006 at 06:23 AM · Jesse, yes, there is one piece I know of where the performer determines how to interpret the piece, and basically chooses what notes to play and the timing. There is a very rough sketch of what the performer should do. It's called TV Koeln and it's for prepared piano. I'm sure there's more than that, but I know of that one, in case you were curious about that kind of composer/performer relationship.

November 10, 2006 at 06:25 AM · I'm with the pianist Earl Wild, he said the 4'33" is Cage's best piece.


November 10, 2006 at 08:59 AM · There's a lot of Cage stuff that is up to a great deal of chance, like piano music where objects are somewhat arbitrarily dropped and hit what they might.

Cage also uses graphic notation, which like Amy says is a rough sketch. Some of Penderecki's quartets use this.

November 10, 2006 at 09:30 AM · A Genius.


November 10, 2006 at 09:45 AM · you know ilya for being an international man of misery you're one hell of an idealist.

November 10, 2006 at 01:03 PM · Seems to me that what we generally think of as "music" has 4 elements:

- rhythm

- melody

- harmony

- structure

In John Cage, I think we have a situation in which all of those elements are missing. If I want to listen to surrounding noise, I don't need John Cage to do it. And, by the way, I think that his "silence" piece is the best one. And did he ever write anything for prepared kazoo?


November 10, 2006 at 01:37 PM · I'm sorry, but those comparing Cage to Andy Warhol and using it as a negative merely display a lack of understanding about art and the genius of Warhol.

As far as Cage goes, there's certainly nothing wrong with not liking his music. However, don't make the same mistake as those above made in criticising Warhol. In other words, just because you don't understand something doesn't mean it's not great.


November 10, 2006 at 01:58 PM · He seems to be on a lot of minds just now. Just read this fellow forum thread...entitled

"Your LEAST favourite piece"

It starts at about post number seven...

November 10, 2006 at 01:45 PM · I'm beginning to see that much of Cage's (and a lot of other art/music of the 20th century) worth is not in the content of his pieces, but WHY he wrote that piece... same thing with Marcel Duchamp, it's not the fact that he wrote R Mutt on a urinal and called it art, it's about his motivation and reasons for doing that. Cage is totally rebelling against everything music had ever meant and basically giving the finger to what "music" had been with 4'33". So would you still say that Cage's "music" lacks a valid point or any emotional grounds? Just adding fuel to the fire...

November 10, 2006 at 02:31 PM · Cage, Stockhausen, and other musical avantgardists worked very closely with visual artists like Rauschenberg and Rothko. There were a lot of reciprocal influences.

I agree with Neil that Cage shouldn't be compared to Warhol. Best I can tell, their philosophies were polar opposites. As quoted in Stiles and Selz "Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art" (Univ. of Cal. Press, 1996):

Warhol: "I like boring things. I like things to be exactly the same over and over again." (pg. 140). "The reason I'm painting this way is that I want to be a machine, and I feel that whatever I do and do machine-like is what I want to do."

John Cage: "A performance of a composition which is indeterminate of its performance is necessarily unique. It cannot be repeated. When performed for a second time, the outcome is other than it was. Nothing therefore is accomplished by such a perfomance, since that performance cannot be grasped as an object in time. A recording of such a work has no more value than a postcard, it provides a knowledge of something that happened, whereas the action was a non-knowledge of something that had not yet happened." (pg. 707).

November 10, 2006 at 03:09 PM · Insightful as a philosophy. Lousy as an inspiration for music.

November 10, 2006 at 04:13 PM · Sander,

would you care to elaborate?

November 10, 2006 at 06:12 PM · Yeah. John Cage and his following obviously have a very, very well-thought-out working philosophy based on ideas and priniciples that they strongly believe in and use as a basis for artistic creation, and can articulate.

That's fine; so did Hindemith and Stravinsky and a number of others. Who can question their dedication to art and their intellecutal integrity. I don't think that John Cage is just goofing around and trying to do something silly.

But I think most of us make a distinction between what we call "music" and what we call "sound." Music is not simply just another form of sound.

The sound of a truck passing by may be interesting and may even have a rhythm to it, but it is not created for the purpose of communication of emotions or the expression of some kind of artistic sentiment. It is just a sound that occurs in the world as a byproduct of the truck's functioning.

The sound of a truck may be interesting, fascinating, and something you might want to listen to, but it seems to me it ain't music. If you're going to be inspired by it to write music, you sublimate it and find within it that which is potentially musical. And then, you write "music," not simply arrange or highlight the noise.

How many pieces of music have thus been inspired by the sounds of a railroad train, or a horse clopping along, or birds chirping, or even a factory? (Remember "The Iron Foundry" by Mossolov?)

So that's what I meant? (At least, I THINK that's what I meant.)

And, in addition, Cage's concept that it doesn't mean anything if it isn't spontaneous and of-the-moment is a philosophy of art I've heard about and read about for decades. I've never found it very compelling or convincing when it becomes a formula, the way it has for Cage.

There was a psychologist named Jay Haley who once talked about the hypocracy of people who are against "playing games," but who (as he put it) "play the game of not playing any games."

Similarly, Cage wants total spontaneity so that it's not predictable. Therefore, he is completely predictable and unspontaneous, because his spotaneity is a formula.


November 10, 2006 at 06:25 PM ·

November 10, 2006 at 07:06 PM · Sander,

You have expressed it very well.

I am thinking if I upload an audio file of my typing on this keyboard (and swearing at it!!)....hmmm..that would be an entire 8 hours of spontaneity :)

November 11, 2006 at 04:05 AM · No he didn't :)

Sandy, I'm afraid it just comes down to consensus. In a land where trucks are music, then trucks are music. There's no privileged frame of reference.

The def. of music I learned was "ordered sound." If disorder is in a framework of order, e.g. presented at a "concert" I'm willing to let it qualify. Doesn't mean we'd give it a standing ovation necessarily.

November 10, 2006 at 07:27 PM · David,

Of course Cage is a philosopher, because he certainly isn't motivated by composing music that stands on its own.

Also, the notion that I don't understand Warhol is laughable. Funny enough, I was at a talk given by 3 art historians, and not one of them thought that Warhol was an artist. I have my own reasons, and I agree that one could call him genius (although the word is grossly overused), but I very much compare Cage to Worhal. It is very much a question of style overshadowing substance and the profundity of Cage's work is vastly overstated. I'm sorry, but most of the people I've met who love John Cage haven't read more than maybe the Harry Potter books and The Davinci Code.

November 10, 2006 at 07:38 PM · Parmeeta, your bio says you live in Bilbao. Home of the Guggenheim, a major modern art museum.

I haven't been there yet, but i'm sure it dedicates space to conceptual art, dada, abstraction of many stripes (pun intended), etc. and other stuff that conflicts with traditional (at least pre-20th century) views of visual art.

I guess you're in favor of just shutting the whole joint down? ;))

Pieter, I'm not a great fan of Warhol, but you have to admit that your view that his work is not "art" is slightly out of step with the art market, which values his works in the many millions of dollars.

November 10, 2006 at 07:45 PM · And he's in a lot of art history books for someone who isn't considered an artist by art historians:)

November 10, 2006 at 07:43 PM · Mitchell, the day I let an economic construct dictate my aesthetic priorities to me is the day I order 8 hookers, an eight ball, and a hotel room on the top floor for me to jump off afterwards.

November 10, 2006 at 07:44 PM · Some (not all) on this thread who are criticizing Cage seem to be viewing his work as all silly silences, truck noises, vacuum cleaners roaring, etc.

But a lot of his work, I believe, has nothing to do with that kind of stuff. I've listened to some of his sonatas for prepared piano (played by Boris Berman on Naxos), and found them quite enjoyable. The short piece for string player I mentioned earlier is a lot of fun to listen to.

So don't throw out the baby with the bathwater.

November 10, 2006 at 07:42 PM · jesse,

my response to the question of john cage is neither positive nor is it negative. i do believe he is an apologist and enthusiastic promoter for 20th century modernist music, and that his pieces serve as paradigm-shifters on the question of 'what is music/what is noise?'

unfortunately, i feel that cage's compositions do not stand on their own merits in the way that say, beethoven's eroica symphony does. even though cage's career was spent championing absolute music, his musical ideas are not compelling in an absolute musical sense.

i would say that pieter's comparison of john cage with andy warhol is quite accurate, although i personally think cage's style is more in line with jackson pollock than warhol. the underlying idea of using common or ordinary objects to make art, the dissolving of artist, art, and audience, the insistence on incorporating self-promotion and controversy into the creation of art, all are to be found in warhol' output as well as cage's.

November 10, 2006 at 08:03 PM · Mitchell, when I was younger I didn't like Warhol. I think it didn't seem visually busy enough to be interesting. Now I like him.

November 10, 2006 at 08:22 PM · There was a 2-part documentary on Warhol on public TV recently. The first part, about his life prior to his becoming a "phenomenon," evoked a heck of a lot of sympathy. He came from a really poor immigrant background in Pittsburgh. His mother was an amazingly sympathetic figure who eventually came to live with him in New York for 20 years.

The second part, showing him in the studio with his dozens of hangers-on, managed to erase the sympathy from the first show and then some.

I can't believe that his work is valued as highly as it is, sometimes I wonder which buyers will be left holding the bag once the market comes to its senses. But it never seems to happen, the works become ever more valuable.

The paradox is that his works are so impersonal in style and yet his personality is all over them.

November 10, 2006 at 09:16 PM · I think the first responsibility of graphic art is to look good hanging on a wall. I think Warhol does that better than anybody. This coming from somebody who collects black light posters from the 70s:)

I agree about his impersonal style. It totally expresses "hip." Very cool. Will it wear out someday? Does that matter? I don't know.

November 10, 2006 at 09:00 PM · Pieter, one day you'll be wrong and know it, but I guess it's not today. Must be wonderful to be so perfectly right about everything every time.

Ahhh, to be young again.

The funny thing about criticising both Cage and Warhol is that they did it while others just stand around saying, "I coulda done better." Thing is, those saying it, didn't.


November 10, 2006 at 09:15 PM · Never heard of Warhol in music class.

November 10, 2006 at 11:07 PM · Neil, Pieter has strong opinions and expresses them. What's wrong with that?

For me, the comparison to Warhol is a pretty good one. I went to a Warhol exhibit once and I liked it for about ten minutes, then I started finding it boring and annoying--which isn't to say that Warhol has never painted a picture that I like. It's a similar thing for me with Cage. Interesting ideas, enjoyable for a while, then starts seeming silly and pretentious.

November 10, 2006 at 11:27 PM · Maybe I'm a purist (maybe?), but just because a person likes something doesn't automatically mean it's art (unless the person in question is named Art). Some people like listening to the sound of trains, or the sound of a baseball being hit off a bat, or the revving up of a car motor. Nothing wrong with that. But it still ain't music.


November 11, 2006 at 12:03 AM · Although I believe that there is nothing whatsoever in common between Cage and Warhol, I will defend to the death your right to think otherwise :)

November 11, 2006 at 12:08 AM · For those that argue that 4'33" isn't organized, it really is.

I believe it is three mvts. and restrictions and bounds are created so in that sense it is organized, because you have rules. Like said before, Cage pushed the limits of what is music.

November 11, 2006 at 12:24 AM · Maura, he wants to belittle anyone who dares to think differently to him, he (and you) shouldn't be surprised when he gets something similar back. Read his posts again. Oh and FWIW I've read a wee bit more than Harry Potter.

As I said, Pieter may one day be wrong, but I've never yet seen him admit it. Instead, his history is one of when confronted with disagreement, he invariably degenerates into some form of denigration of the other person rather than the other person's arguments. That aint clever, even if we all fall into the trap at times, it's merely aggressive. Defend him if you will, but I'm left wondering why.

Additionally, and also FWIW, I will point to my first post on the subject(s) under discussion where I did note I had no trouble with people disliking Cage's or Warhol's approach to their respective arts. I did however, remind that just because something isn't understood doesn't mean it isn't what it claims to be.


November 11, 2006 at 12:55 AM · OK...I guess we should all watch what we say around here.

Edit: sorry, that wasn't meant to sound quite as snide as it came out...

November 11, 2006 at 01:59 AM · Maura, thanks for the history lesson on the "prepared piano". I was at a concert last year where this technique was used and found it intriguing and enjoyable (I don’t believe the composer was John Cage).

Alvin, can you elaborate? How do you come up with three movements? What rules are you referring to?

November 11, 2006 at 02:23 AM · neil,

I have to admit I'm wrong quite often. I'm also not going to get pulled into some little academic debate I don't really care that much about. I don't think I'll ever change my mind on these two people. I think they're clever gimmicks and I see right through it. Then again a lot of what I like isn't popularly corroborated here so maybe I'm crazy. In any case, I'd rather be crazy than boring.

If there's one thing I hate, it's an old person telling me when I get older I'll change my mind. These things are true quite often, but when something runs so contrary to my values on such a fundamental level, I know that there are certain areas in which I shall never change my mind.

The Harry Potter thing was a joke (because I'm positive you must have read Lord of the Rings too), but I still think the anology holds true of these two artists that we're talking about. Say modern art or music, and ever last lacky on the face of the globe who has a cursery familiarity with the west will mention these two names, and almost uniformly extoll their brilliance for fear of appearing unintelligent. I started out in this disussion with a very sober response and valid reasons for not liking them. Then you started pulling the old man gig, so excuse me if I offended your sensibilities. As for you and me, I'm done. I have no problem discussing it with other stupid young people though.

November 11, 2006 at 03:48 AM · Some things come from exposure and living. But if it takes so much time you get old, you're out of luck. Neil wasn't talking about age, but those things that come with it if you're halfway lucky. We old guys have an eye for this. We're always asking ourselves, how much acuity does this young person have, and commenting on it to other old guys.

November 11, 2006 at 04:51 AM · I really enjoy some of his music, especially pieces for prepared piano. Some other things I understand and respect, but might not want to listen to them at great length.

"I went to a Warhol exhibit once and I liked it for about ten minutes, then I started finding it boring and annoying"

This comment made me laugh, Maura, because I immediately thought about how I could go on the street and, however much we won't admit it, find a majority of people who would say the same thing about a performance Bach's violin S&Ps, or much other "classical" music for that matter. Hell, I'd say most would be out of it before a minute into the first adagio, and then briefly entertained with the first minute of the fugue if they didn't leave. Yet to us Bach is undoubtedly one of the greatest geniuses who has ever lived and we are drawn to his art day after day for most of our lives.

Sander, a thunderstorm is not art. In the context of Vivaldi it becomes art. To achieve this with a truck is a much harder task and apparently wasn't achieved with you, but maybe it's possible if you think about it.

Art, especially classical art, is ideal. Life is not ideal. Art that really tries to fully represent life should not be ideal either. Start with your morning routine. The way you look and your breath stinks when you get up, taking a sh*t before you get in the shower to scrub the filth off yourself. That's just the first 10 minutes of your day. Maybe the rest of your day is as beautiful as a Beethoven symphony or as perfect as Mozart's music, but mine usually isn't. It is often chaotic and has at least a few ugly moments, much like the rest of the world. I think this is what composers like Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Webern and Berg started and Cage took to another level. It's obviously hard for many to understand or listen to, but I must admit life is pretty hard to understand and deal with too. This music can be a wake up call.

I recently read a book that was like this; a real depiction of life. The Dirty Havana Trilogy. Dirty indeed. Very vulgar, disgusting, ugly, chaotic, and yet it affected me as deeply as any symphony by a great composer. It was graphically real. It was a wake up call of sorts that pulled my head out of Bach Mozart and Beethoven and made me think about the world and consider music like Cage's.

Obviously the music of the major baroque, classical, romantic etc. composers is absolutely wonderful in its expression of a wide range emotions and its beauty. But last century was an ugly century with two world wars (among many wars), the holocaust (among other genocides), and by far the most suffering and loss of life out of any other century. I think this caused many to distance themselves from religion and the perfection it constantly points to, as well as philosophical movements such as existentialism and the counter culture ideas to become popular. And it is obviously represented in the music and art of the century too.

Other composer's let you think about life as you escape it with their music, whereas someone like Cage lets you think about life as you realize it with his music.

Edit: I forgot to add that I am a stupid young person...though 20 doesn't feel very young.

November 11, 2006 at 01:23 PM · Hi, Brian:

I don't think anyone who has responded on this post is stupid. We may not all agree with each other, but this is really a very intelligent discussion about an involved and highly complex topic.

Maybe I haven't made this quite clear, but my own comments do not represent what I think everyone else should believe. It's just my personal opinion and preference. I continually find the contrary points of view thought provoking and well-worth considering.

One reason I became a psychologist in the first place is that I have always tried to understand the point of view and perspective of other people. That quality does not make me particularly more noble or intelligent than anyone else; it's just the way I am.

So, you can have all the sophisticated intellectual discussions you want about art, life, and the direction music is going in. But to me music is one thing - and the way people like John Cage have stretched the art form crosses a line into something that isn't music.

And that's my final answer.

Cordially, Sandy

November 11, 2006 at 03:06 PM · Jim, as a fellow old guy, let me say that I have learned a tremendous amount over the years. Now if I only hadn't forgotten 95% of it....:)

Seriously, though, I'm reminded of a class I had many years ago with a professor I liked and respected named Professor Schwartz (the same guy who, after he got sick, was for some reason downgraded to being called merely "Morrie"). Anyway, a lot of this class consisted of discussions of a bunch of books he had us read. At the start of one class, he said we were going to be discussing a particular book, and asked us what we thought about it. Being somewhat brash in those days, I raised my hand and he called on me. I said, "I don't think the author knows what he's talking about." He looked at me, took a dramatic and delicious pause, then said, "Oh, so you prefer to put the burden on the author." Whereupon the whole class, me included, erupted in laughter.

Talk about learning experiences.


November 12, 2006 at 09:18 AM · That's fine Sander. I've heard many students in pschology classes say that it crosses the line of what should be considered science. Seems like a similar case here...

November 12, 2006 at 11:23 AM · Some people use terms like "sound art" instead of "music" for an experimental approach which altogether drops any traditional trappings of music. This is practiced by guys like Alvin Lucier. Now, of course, even dropping the term "music," people will debate whether it's "art." I'm not sure the questions of music vs. non-music and art vs. non-art are very productive. They can't be answered objectively, and why should anyone care about peoples' subjective judgments? And haven't we seen that the commonly accepted meaning of "art" as determined by museums and the art market has expanded way beyond what would have been accepted 100 years ago?


November 12, 2006 at 06:27 PM · Sorry Mitchell,

have been away, so didn't answer your post.

I am afraid I don't get what the Guggenheim's got to do with it. I like some modern composers and the others maybe interesting/boring sound experimentalists, but that is not music to me.

I love the building, I like some of the art in it, and some of the other stuff in it I just don't care for. In fact, the other building I love even more,

in a way, equally modern, is just down the river from the Guggenheim, the Euskalduna Palace (music & conference centre), designed by two local architects, because it so cleverly & beautifully incorporates the site's history into the building (it was a working shipyard until the 80's).

With the Cage's music that I have heard, I am reminded of an artist whose sculptures I went to see some years ago. They were pretty similar, but I will give you one example. On the floor was a bucket sitting amidst hundreds of pebbles and small stones of all shapes and sizes (i.e. natural) that were strewn about. There were still many left in the bucket. The effect was as if the bucket had been full of stones and someone had used it throw bucketfuls of stones about.

There was a price tag (1600 pounds). I was wondering, if I bought that "sculpture", would the artist come and throw a few bucketful of stones and pebbles in, lets say my living room, or would each every one of the thousands of stones would be in its exact location as shown in the art gallery?

I think some of Cage's and other modern composers music is a bit like random stones to me. I have had the chance to listen to a load of them, as the Conservatory where my children study ran a series of concerts every year dedicated to contemporary music, mostly from 60s onwards (all sorts, from around the world), and I religiously sat through most of these concerts. There were never more than 20 people at most, so they gave up doing the cycle as from last year. But the day I left at the interval was in a piece when the saxophonist (a beautiful instrument) took off the mouthpiece and started blowing through the barrel, accompanied by, among others, a cello (another lovely instrument) playing between the bridge and the tailpiece, producing sounds I can only describe as something out of a nightmare...and incredibly boring.

OK if people can sit through that, its fine, but I think theres a time when enough is enough, for me.

November 12, 2006 at 07:11 PM · Don't you think it depends on the audience and their willingness/or unwillingness to participate?

I think Cage demands a lot of audience participation. It does not "entertain" in a traditional "tap your foot" or hum along with the melody type of way.

November 12, 2006 at 07:41 PM · I think audience participation is gimmickry.

Two years ago at the Montreal Film Festival they had this Finnish guy who is one of the world's foremost in film with audience participation (ie. audience determining outcome of what goes on the screen).

Again, like Cage's music, you got the point behind their philosophy in 5 seconds, and the remaining half hour was a reiteration of that point. I won't debate whether or not Cage is music, I'm just saying I don't like it, and I don't think it really says much. In fact, I think Cage could have been far more effective if he had just written a book and done some type of lecture series. His illustrations are boring.

November 13, 2006 at 08:20 AM · Pieter, I understand what you're saying there. I can't listen through some of his music either. I find his pieces that aren't so far out, like anything for piano, prepared piano, or vocals (four walls, prepared piano sonatas, constructions...)are pretty cool and am wondering if you've only heard the few things that I don't think anybody condones listening to for a prolonged period of time.

Anyways, my question for you isn't where is the line on music, but where is the line on "gimmickry"? Essentially anything different or new in music that attracts attention is by definition a gimmick. This includes Berlioz or Beethoven adding instruments previously unused in symphonies in order to get the effects they wanted. Or Paganini adding left hand pizz. or playing on one string or richochet bowing and flying spiccato... why not just play normal spiccato? Ligeti searching for all those unique sounds, colors, and textures he can get out of an instrument or ensemble, or only using one pitch in an entire mvt....some of his music and ideas remind me of Cage. I know that you know that these composeres did different and innovative things to enhance their art... but why not let this apply to Cage as well?

November 13, 2006 at 03:42 PM · i dont dislike cage but he is considered a minimalist, implying repetition

there is an old joke I heard once

eno sounds like a warped record

cage sounds like a broken record

November 13, 2006 at 03:50 PM · Reminds me of a minimalist knock-knock joke I heard over the summer:

Knock knock.

Who's there?

Phillip Glass. Knock knock.

Who's there?

Phillip Glass. Knock knock.....

on and on, ad infinitum... :)

November 13, 2006 at 05:48 PM · i wouldn't call john cage a minimalist per se, even though he wrote a few minimal pieces. much of what i've heard by him is largely either aleatory or microtonal.

as far as where the line on gimmickry is drawn, musical effects are meant to enhance a composition's inherent formal outlay, melody, harmony, or rhythm. cage's music often (deliberately) has none of the above. and if the basic elements of music are present, they are there either by accident rather than on purpose, or because they cannot be avoided (eg. you cannot have sound without timbre). imo, john cage makes little to no commitment to his musical execution, but demands total commitment of the listener.

one should not have to read cage's essays to understand his music anymore than one would have to wash bill gates' car to use his computer programs. the product should stand on its own merits. to me, john cage's scores do not stand on their own merit as timeless music. as i stated before, many of cage's ideas were conceptualized and executed to far greater musical effect by charles ives a quarter century earlier.

November 13, 2006 at 04:19 PM · For the german-speaking here: in Germany playing modern music, the musicians sometimes say "That's Hurz, nothing else!" or they write "Hurz in D" on top of their sheets.

In the 80's a comedian and his piano partner pretend to be polish artists singing the premiere of a modern piece. They sing this piece (for sure it's just improvised jabberwocky), sometimes the singer shouts the word "Hurz", which doesn't exist, just a nonsense word. Then they ask the audience for their thoughts & comments about the piece. Hurz became immortal here! Watch it, if you speak german!

This is the "song":

"The wolf - the lamb

in the open countryside

the lamb whoops 'HURZ!!'

the wolf - the lamb - 'HURZ!!'

... a toad is peepin'."

"the goshawk flies - the presence - STORM!!"

"it was the goshawk, and he said:



And these are some of the audiences statements:

* can't judge yet, whether my feelings with it are positive

* reminds me of "Peter and the wolf"

* is the complete work written in this form of narration?

* gonna appear more animals than goshawk and wolf?

* You said, the composer wanted to express his inward feelings, well, as traditional fables use to have intentions - wolf/lamb: this conflict has a long story of struggle, and in this struggle-topos "lamb/wolf" isn't there always the vision of a possible concilation at the end of time? etc. etc.

The comedian provokes a bit, answering their rubbish with even bigger rubbish. At the end the only person, who says "Do you really think, it's classical music?", gets upset saying "Don't call me 'less intellectual' than other people, just because my opinion is different!"


November 13, 2006 at 05:44 PM · that's hilarious! lol

i think i'll use that one. hurz!

November 13, 2006 at 07:21 PM · Of course, they WOULD pretend to be Polish....LOL!

HURZ!! :)

November 13, 2006 at 08:59 PM · "Alvin, can you elaborate? How do you come up with three movements? What rules are you referring to?"

4'33" is bound by, like other pieces of music, time, # of movements, and what you do in each movement. 4'33" has 3 movements. Movement 1: Tacet. Movement 2: Tacet. Movement 3: Tacet. From that you can argue that the sound is organized. If music is organized sound, by extension, 4'33" is music.

November 13, 2006 at 09:31 PM · It's a fact that Cage gets a royalty from every blank CD and tape sold, because it's a copy of 4'33". What a scam! Plus it's the biggest selling tune of all time.

November 13, 2006 at 09:39 PM · Yes, but he deserves a royalty. With all the noise today, we should be able to pay for moments of silence. After all, we now pay for bottles of water, don't we?

November 13, 2006 at 09:46 PM · It's not water. It's new improved Pepsi.

November 13, 2006 at 10:10 PM · backing up a little...

to the issue of experimentation. Someone made the comparison between Cage and Ligeti, both composers who do lots of unusual, unexpected, avant-garde stuff. Well, I adore Ligeti, so it got me thinking about musical experimentation and the avant-garde.

I decided that experimentation is a good thing, so long as it is just exploring new sounds and trying stuff out (and not just being "shocking for it's own sake"). More important though, is think of what future generations will remember. They will remember the experiments and explorations of Cage, Ligeti, Kurtag, etc., that WORKED. Everyone writes some clunkers, and those are the ones that get justly forgotten. It's hard for us sometimes to separate the masterpieces from the...well, the rest, because we're getting hit with all of it at once.

November 13, 2006 at 10:28 PM · From Sander Marcus

Posted on November 13, 2006 at 2:39 PM (MST)

Yes, but he deserves a royalty.

Princess Anne is probably available.


November 13, 2006 at 10:49 PM · Greetings,

I`ve always preferred the horse,



November 14, 2006 at 01:36 AM · 4'33' has been criticized for unsound compositional methods, but it's all a mute point:).

November 14, 2006 at 03:18 PM · My thoughts on John Cage...if he was trying to shake up people's thinking and discussions about music, congratulations, well done.

If he was trying to create good music then he failed miserably.

I have no problem with the concepts of no self, being in the moment, and cause & effect. However, the man's music does little, if anything at all, for me.

November 16, 2006 at 06:50 PM · i tried playing 4'33 once, but my cellist kept dragging the tempo. she also took the repeats and we had to follow her or it would have been a disaster! the performance ended up being 4'58.045. worst performance of my life.

November 16, 2006 at 10:15 PM · I'm a massive fan of minimalism and think composers such as Reich and particularly Glass are phenomenal. However i have never seen eye to eye with Cage. I'm sure as with a lot of music, Shoenberg being the first composer to spring to mind, it is very technically brilliant for both the composer and performer yet i don't find it appealing to play or listen to.

I do however love 4'33 because it is the only piece i can play on the piano!

November 16, 2006 at 11:15 PM · Schoenberg has actually grown on me in recent years, I used to absolutely hate him but now I almost like him. "Verklaerte Nacht" is totally gorgeous, of course, but I'm even growing tolerant of 12-tone stuff and serialism.

November 17, 2006 at 12:26 AM · I can't see how anyone doesn't at least like Warhol's "Dogs Playing Poker".

November 17, 2006 at 11:04 AM · BTW, at the Christie's auction this week, one Warhol sold for over $17 million, and another for over $16 million, both records for the artist. Amazing.

November 17, 2006 at 12:46 PM · I understand that in a master class, when a student was playing 4'33 for Horowitz, he kept shouting, "Forte! Forte!"

The student apologized, and said that by mistake he had brought the wrong music. Instead of the music for 4'33, he had brought the music for 5'33 (the version WITH the cadenza).

November 19, 2006 at 09:52 PM · 'Schoenberg has actually grown on me in recent years'

maura, that sounds painful.

November 19, 2006 at 11:51 PM · a little penicillin will get rid of that

November 19, 2006 at 11:56 PM · Arrrrgh...I need to find a better figure of speech. How about: in recent times I have actually gotten to like Schoenberg, no penicillin needed. :)

November 20, 2006 at 01:20 AM · Greetings,

I predict that with the over prescription of drugs such as penicillin, musician resistant strains of Schoenberg will be emerging all over the place when least expected,



November 20, 2006 at 04:48 AM · and at least Cage doesn`t get clap from his audience......

November 20, 2006 at 06:21 AM · though he fills the audience with crabs

November 20, 2006 at 06:30 AM · some days I feel real sorry for Maura...

November 20, 2006 at 04:15 PM · Aww, thanks Buri! :) It is always amusing to watch my comments seized upon by the court jesters. :)

December 8, 2006 at 08:17 AM · For David, Ben, Jesse etc.: seen these 4 documentary movies about P. Glass, J. Cage, M. Monk, R. Ashley by P. Greenaway? Nothing for me, but at the bottom of the site you'll find some links to further videos and mp3's of them, for instance Cage-mp3's and Cage-videos.

December 8, 2006 at 06:19 PM · If someone ever writes the definitive book on John Cage, it of course would have to be titled, "John Cage Uncaged."

:) Sandy

December 8, 2006 at 07:47 PM · at this point, rusty cage by soundgarden is more appropriate.

john cage - the de-composer.

two more responses before this one goes to the archives...

December 9, 2006 at 06:47 PM · John Cage -- the Truman Capote of music.

December 9, 2006 at 09:39 PM · Thanks, Mischa! Cool videos.

Go Cage :-)

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