Are You Putting Me On?

Are You Putting Me On?


Image courtesy of Bigstock.

There have indeed been a great number of John Cage concerts, festivals, articles, and discussions throughout the world in 2012 in celebration of his centennial and I can certainly relate to experiencing a bit of Cage fatigue, especially here in New York where the din of Cagean noise has approached a veritable roar. However, what I have a difficult time relating to is the completely cynical rejection of Cage and his legacy that the composer Daniel Asia conveys in his article “The Put on of the Century, or the Cage Centenary” published on January 3 in The Huffington Post. In this rather mean-spirited piece, which begins by noting that this year (2013) marks the 100th birthday of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Asia repeats many of the standard criticisms of Cage’s music that have been made from the beginning: that it is non-developmental, it lacks form and structure, it lacks meaningful pitch relations, it lacks tension and release, etc. He also asks the question: “While Cage is being feted this year among my musical colleagues almost as much as Stravinsky, why should this be so, and what does it mean?” The author goes on to recapitulate a bit of 20th-century music history in making the antiquated case for the supremacy of “the tonal enterprise” (i.e.: harmony and counterpoint), seemingly dismissing the entirety of modernism in the process.

I am no proselytizer for modernism, but at least I accept that it happened and that our music and culture have been forever altered by it. Nothing is essentially wrong with the “tonal enterprise,” but most of us acknowledge that in the aftermath of the tumultuous 20th-century, we live in a dramatically expanded field of possibilities. Not only do we now have a range of idioms and languages such as atonality, aperiodicity, serialism, jazz, heavy metal, gamelan, gagaku, Chinese opera, punk rock, mountain music, electronic and computer music, sound art, field recordings, noise, balloons, bird songs, sirens, mechanical instruments, MIDI controllers, free music…you name it, but we also have a whole universe of approaches to form and structure. To rely only on the traditional recipe of hierarchical relationships, the play of consonance against dissonance and the ultimate resolution of expectations, is to live in the past.

Which brings us to Cage: I believe I am in good company when I assert that John Cage is our country’s most important and influential musical thinker. It would take much more time and space for me to fully make that case, but suffice it to say that Cage revolutionized music in such a way as to make it possible for anyone to make any music they imagine. His example of openness and acceptance of diversity has inspired many to become involved in music, and perhaps most importantly, through both his own work and his proselytizing on behalf of a great many neglected or unknown composers, he essentially defined our understanding of a distinctly American musical identity. While we here on these shores are undoubtedly rooted in Western civilization, we are a decidedly multi-cultural and free-thinking nation, and as we have come to recognize, many of us identify as much with the East, the Americas, Africa, and “other” as with European ideals. Our homegrown musical culture makes this clear by its vast diversity. To ignore the complexity of our situation is foolish.

Now I don’t expect everyone to endorse or emulate Cage and his aesthetic, although a little more love for his Sonatas and Interludes would be nice—it’s probably his greatest work! (Check out Maro Ajemian’s 1951 recording first issued on Dial Records and later by CRI. Wow!) It would in fact be in keeping with his very ethic of openness and acceptance of diversity to follow your own path (he often said as much). But I do expect composers working today, especially in America, to have at least an understanding of what Cage means and why he is important. How an American composer and professor, Daniel Asia in this case, living and working in the western states no less, could still have no real understanding of or interest in a composer who is arguably our greatest and most influential figure is, well, surprising. The bigger question for me is why this should be so and what does it mean?

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79 thoughts on “Are You Putting Me On?

  1. David Toub

    I agree. Was Stravinsky important? Sure, but he also wasn’t an American composer (hence the decreased prominence of his anniversary here in the US), nor was he necessarily a disruptive influence beyond Le Sacre. Cage disrupted everything. And while most music folks have at least some familiarity with Stravinsky, far fewer really and truly have a clue about Cage’s output. All the more reason for a composer to at least be somewhat supportive of all the Cage concerts.

    Cage, like Partch, Ives, Feldman, LMY, Cowell, Nancarrow and only a very small number of other US composers truly changed the way we think about music. Whether one like Cage’s music or not, or agrees with his disdain of improvisation and the music of Glenn Branca (I don’t agree, for example), his output was extremely critical and important to everything we do as composers today. Cage was a true master, and his music always surprises me and usually delights me. Is that worthy of a lot of celebration in the country of his birth? Uh, yes.

    1. Frank J. Oteri

      For the record, Igor Stravinsky arrived in the United States in 1939, became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1945, was based in Southern California for decades, and spent the final two years of his life in New York, dying in 1971. So I would quibble about his lack of Americaness being responsible for his compositional legacy (much of which was created here) not being more widely performed. (In fact, Stravinsky’s American legacy was the focus of an article by Leon Botstein we reprinted herein less than a year ago.)

      Stravinsky’s influence on American composition was quite profound. While it’s perhaps most discernible in the music of Arthur Berger, Ingolf Dahl, Irving Fine, Louise Talma, and Harold Shapero (who is still alive), it influenced many others in subtler ways as well. Stravinsky’s endorsement of Elliott Carter’s Double Concerto (he hailed it as a masterpiece) solified Carter’s critical reputation and Stravinsky’s embrace of 12-tone methods (which happened during his U.S. years after the death of the also-naturalized U.S. citizen Arnold Schoenberg) might have been what tipped the scale in that direction for a generation of American composers. Charles Wuorinen even created a composition from Stravinsky’s final sketches early in his career which has been previously noted herein.

      As for the actual music Stravinsky penned in America, there are some real gems including the Symphony in C (premiered by the Chicago Symphony in 1940), the Ebony Concerto (written for Woody Herman who premiered it in 1946), Agon (for a 1957 Balanchine ballet), The Flood (a piece created for CBS television–can you believe that!–in 1962 that Don Byron turned me on to), and Requiem Canticles (1966). Stravinsky was even asked to compose a commemorative work when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated (The Elegy for J.F.K. which was composed and premiered in 1964). So all in all, there have been few American composers as prominent as Stravinsky.

      That said, John Cage is clearly also an extremely important and influential composer (perhaps ultimately even more so than Stravinsky, but why should we have to choose between them). To assert otherwise seems somewhat historically misguided which is why I was delighted when Dan Joseph asked to respond herein to Daniel Asia’s Huffington Post essay. My own feelings about Cage and his music should already be well-known to the readers of this site, but I’ll conclude here by including a link to an in-depth study of Cage’s chamber music I wrote last year for Chamber Music magazine in case any one wants to know my thoughts about specific Cage repertoire.

      1. David Toub

        Frank, we always seem to find ways to disagree with one another, I guess ;-)

        I never said that Stravinsky wasn’t a US citizen, but truth be told, one could make similar claims to his being French, and I suspect that at his root, he remained very much a Russian. Bartòk, Varese and Schoenberg also could be considered “Americans,” but come on.

        I only raised the perceived difference in terms of being “North American” (NB: Canadian and Mexican composers are as “American” as we are) as one way to account for why Stravinsky celebrations are perhaps less of a big deal on this side of a pond compared to those for a US “maverick” (and I really hate that term after what McCain did to it).

        Do you consider Nancarrow a US composer? I suspect most of us do, but of course, he was mostly productive in Mexico after our government treated him horribly for being part of the Lincoln Brigades.

        1. Frank J. Oteri

          Actually I consider Nancarrow as well as Bartók , Varèse and Schoenberg to all be American composers. I try to have the broadest view. If you’re born here you are always an American and if you move here and create music here the work you do on these shores is Amreican music.

          As far as I’m concerned Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, composed in the United States and first performed by the BSO, is one of the towering American symphonic works of the 1940s and you can actually hear the jazz influence in his subsequent Third Piano Concerto. A pity he didn’t live longer and create more music here.

          All of the 12 works that Varèse acknowledged as his compositional legacy were composed after he relocated to the United States and even though he titled all of his works in French, it’s fitting that the first of these he named Amériques since he felt that being here was directly responsible for liberating his music.

          Schoenberg, while less demonstratively open to the influence of American music and ideas on his own music, created extraordinary works here as well – e.g. the Piano Concerto, the Fourth String Quartet, A Survivor from Warsaw, and influenced countless American composers, not just the “contemporary classical” who adopted 12-tone methods but also film composers (he was based, after all, in L.A.) and, of course, John Cage…

          1. Kyle Gann

            Then let’s get back on. 2013 is not Stravinsky’s centennial. It’s the centennial of Le Sacre du Printemps. Le Sacre du Printemps is not American. It was written in Switzerland by a Russian and premiered in Paris. The piece’s centennial has no specifically American significance.

          2. Neil McGowan

            Why do you believe that appropriating composers from other countries means ‘having the widest possible view”?

            Is that the finest favour you can bestow on them?

          3. david toub

            Thanks Kyle. I can’t believe we’re debating who is an “American” composer. It’s like how at the U of Chicago, people would get into all sorts of religious debates about which Nobel laureates could be claimed to be Chicago’s.

            Back to Cage…

          4. Frank J. Oteri

            Why do you believe that appropriating composers from other countries means ‘having the widest possible view”? Is that the finest favour you can bestow on them?

            Kyle is certainly correct that Rite of Spring is not American repertoire and I’m sorry that my comments about Stravinsky were unclear and wound up getting misconstrued as at attempt to appropriate that particular composition as “ours.” Indeed Daniel Asia’s comparison of the Cage centenary with The Rite‘s centenary was a bit like apples and oranges since you can’t equate a life’s work with just one piece.

            But I was responding to David Toub, not Dan Asia, who posited that “Stravinsky […] wasn’t an American composer (hence the decreased prominence of his anniversary here in the US)” and that admittedly got my dander up since I’m particularly sensitive to issues of xenophobia. (I am not implying here that David was being intentionally xenophobic; I know him and he is NOT a xenophobe. Nevertheless when I saw that comment, I felt compelled to chime in about Stravinsky’s decades as an “American composer” which was a very important part of his compositional legacy.)

            The fact that ironically none of the compositions Stravinsky composed in the United States have yet become repertoire mainstays here the way that The Rite of Spring has I think speaks less to their intrinsic compositional worth (which I concede is subjective) and more to how we, even a hundred years after its premiere, elevate European classical music over anything that’s homegrown, which at this point–as the legacies of Cage, Stravinsky (during his American years), and countless others prove through the vitality of their musical creations–is absurd. The classical music community in this country does not pay sufficient attention to the music that has been created in this country and certainly does not give sufficient “prominence” to the anniversaries of our important composers here; such behavior is ultimately suicidal to the future of this kind of music in this country.

            To bring my comments more firmly back to Cage, and to follow up on Gene Capriglio’s comment, it is indeed gratifying and vindicating to see how much Cage was performed this past year. But most of the performances of Cage’s orchestral music happened in Europe where they are perfectly fine with acknowledging a major American composer. Sadly, it seems, more than we are — what’s the excuse of any American orchestra that did not perform Cage last year?

          5. david toub

            Sorry if I was misunderstood as well, Frank. Not only am I not a xenophobe, as you correctly state, but I’m also not a fan of nationalism in general, but that’s besides the point. I only proffered this as a possible explanation for why in the US, a Cage anniversary is celebrated more than would be a Stravinsky one, and an anniversary of a specific work at that. Truthfully, we’re pretty bad at honoring our own composers, artists, etc. I completely agree with your observation about orchestras in the US and Cage. I’d say the same for Feldman (still much more performed in Europe, particularly Germany) and many others.

      2. Dan Joseph

        Frank, thank you for this perspective on Stravinsky. Although I wrote primarily about Cage, I also have a high regard for Stravinsky, something that was fostered in no small part to the years I spent at CalArts during the early 90s. At that time the Stravinsky legacy in Los Angeles was very strong and I heard many stories from older faculty – Nick England, Mel Powell, Paul Vorwerk – about Stravinsky’s years in the city. I participated in a performance his Mass as part of the chorus, Requiem Canticles was the subject of an analysis course, and other works (Octet, Les Noces and the ballets for example) were studied in orchestration and harmony classes (maybe this was/is typical of music programs around the country?).

        I collected also a nice stack of Stravinsky vinyl during those years, something in generous supply throughout the many LA record stores. I am particularly fond of "Stravinsky Conducts Music for Chamber and Jazz Ensembles" (Columbia M 30579) which includes the Ebony Concerto with Benny Goodman as soloist. A very American piece indeed! Anyhow, there was a lot of love for Stravinsky in LA; I wonder if this is still true twenty years later?

  2. Christian Hertzog

    Cage not only democratized composition; once he opened his music up to chance operations, he democratized listening. Anyone with an open mind can get as much from Music of Changes as a music professor can. You don’t need to be able to perceive motives or rows or processes. All you have to do is listen.

    I wonder how much of the Cage backlash by composers is some kind of professional envy. After Messiaen, Cage appears on more recordings than any other progressive composer born in the 20th century. I go into this in more detail here:

    1. Jeff Winslow

      That’s because there is so little to get.

      This can be interpreted as a failing or an asset, but this audience member says, stop doing me such favors. Another person’s narrative is far more emotionally engaging, any day. We weren’t meant to live merely inside our own heads.

      I suppose there might be some kind of professional envy coming from “progressive” composers. (Cage is far down the list when composers Mr. Hertzog considers non-progressive are included.) As a composer who refuses to buy into this pernicious dichotomy, Scarlett, I just don’t give a damn.

      1. Christian Hertzog

        Out of all the composers for classical ensembles born after 1900, Cage is actually 9th on the list of number of available recordings at today. I’d say that’s pretty high up there. If you follow my link above, you’ll see the figures.

  3. Neil McGowan

    Invoking Cage in any discussion of modern music ought to be the musical equivalent of Godwin’s Law.

    It reduces any discussion to a pissing-up-the-wall contest, whilst ensuring that no other trends in C20th or C21st music are discussed at all.

  4. Gene Caprioglio

    I would simply like to add that the musicians and audiences of the world have very clearly indicated how important Cage is to them. There were an unprecedented number of concerts, festivals and symposiums this year.
    Interest in Cage has steadily increased since his death, I have the numbers to prove it. His disappearance has been predicted many times by many people who should know better. Sorry Dan, you may not like it, but Cage is not going anywhere, his ideas and his music are solid, and he will ultimately be recognized as a major contributor to Western Civilization and just plan old Civilization.

    Disclaimer: I am an employee of C.F. Peters, Cage’s publisher. So I clearly can be said to have a bias, but the numbers do not lie.

    1. david toub

      Gene, I can corroborate this to some extent. When I was in Munich in October for work, I happened upon a music store in the main square that had an entire display of scores by Cage. I spent a lot of time in that store browsing through them (and also the score of Reich’s Double Sextet, which that enlightened store also had).

  5. Russell Platt

    I have to agree, at the end, with Frank re Stravinsky. Yes, he spent the balance of his career elsewhere, but he made several masterpieces here, and, with Balanchine, participated in a great postwar American moment in which we took our place as the world leader in music, art, and architecture.

    There is no particular “place” now, which Cage, of course, foresaw. I’m not that sympathetic to the later Cage, but at the very least Sonatas and Interludes and Third Construction reveal, without question, a great composer.

  6. Richard Kessler

    “…although a little more love for his Sonatas and Interludes would be nice—it’s probably his greatest work!”

    While I am not so sure it’s his greatest work (that’s often a tough call with any composer), I do also LOVE that work. I heard it last year and it just blew me away. I heard a ton of piano music that year, since there’s lots of piano music to hear at a conservatory, and in retrospect it was the Sonatas and Interludes that I enjoyed the most.

    Dan, thanks for this good blog entry. There is so much to discover and learn about John Cage and his music. In many ways it’s the thing I like the most about Cage. There is just so much there to experience and learn from. He will teach the world forever.

    1. Neil McGowan

      I hate to burst your bubble, but Cage is a long way from ‘teaching the world’. He is almost never played in E Europe. In fact many musicians have not only not heard his works – they have never heard of him at all.

      Of course you will attribute that to ignorance – but then I doubt you will have heard of many of the composers of E Europe in the C20th either.

  7. Tom

    I shed crocodile tears as Cage’s music once again falls silent. After a century of serialism, atonality and the lunacy of Boulez and the Darmstadt School, I say let’s be rid of these “composers” – their works can be segregated to ghettos of 20th century modernism festivals, but should not mar our concert halls.

    Glass achieved nothing that wasn’t already achieved by Perotin and the Nostre Dame school of the 1100’s. It’s too bad that critics don’t look far enough back in music history to evaluate the level of a composer’s plagiarism.

    In the real world, i.e., outside of major cities like NYC and Chicago, as well as the state funded European scene, contemporary minimalism and darmstadtism drives audiences from concert halls in droves. Putting on a piece by Schoenberg will decimate an orchestra’s subscription base. Is THAT what art music is supposed to do?

    It is interesting that the 20th century composers most often played in concert halls today were more or less all adherents (albeit sometimes through force) of tonality. These are Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Bernstein and Copeland. Composers still alive and writing music today have, like Rautavaara, returned to an eclectic style involving tonality.

    Yes, composers have a broad palette of styles to work with today. Alas, in the academic environment where fledgeling composers study, darmstadtianism is still alive and well. Sadly, it leads to the ongoing writing of more musical crap. “Modern” composers stopped assimilating contemporary pop music into their styles – as they had since the baroque – in the 1920’s when jazz figured prominently in the compositional techniques of Martinu, Ravel, Gershwin and more. After that, we descended into the darkenss of tone rows, tone clusters and gongs. Art music has lost at least a generation of audiences as a result.

    They may have had a broad palette of styles available, but most mainstream composers of the 50s and onwards didn’t incorporate rock, country, disco and so on into their styles. Why? Boulez wouldn’t have approved, and they wouldn’t have gotten a tenured academic position, which is what contemporary composers need to pay the bills.

    As a result, we are wringing our hands and crying about declining audiences, lack of youth interest in symphonic or chamber music and the resulting culling of orchestras and opera companies. Rest in peace, Glass, and may your “music” rest with you.

    1. david toub

      I’m really confused by your comment. On the one hand, I completely agree with you about Boulez and the serial/academic crowd driving away audiences. But then you seem to complain that pop and other modern popular music aren’t influencing minimalists, etc. and that’s where you totally lose me.

      The reality is that Reich was heavily influenced by jazz. Glass played backup keyboards on Polyrock’s first album. First time I heard Glass in person was at a rock club in Chicago. LMY was and is very much into blues and jazz and was a major influence on the Velvet Underground and other groups.

      While Cage had his systems just like Boulez and Stockhausen (Cage eschewed improvisation but used chance operations as a methodology), he was completely outside academia, and to equate Cage with Boulez seems wrong to me. And dissing minimalism as “plagiarism” and insinuating that it isn’t “music” is frankly ludicrous and as idiotic a statement as the stuff a lot of academics used to fling at me in the late 70’s and 80’s when I started listening to and composing postminimalist works. Name five composers who weren’t influenced by anyone else, including Perotin?

    2. david toub

      I forgot to mention: minimalism is hardly “driving folks away in droves.” To the contrary; that’s in part what’s kept some venues going. The most popular piece of new music in The Netherlands (which has far more new music in a month than most cities in the US, and sometimes even NYC) is a 1-3 hr (or longer) piece by the late composer Simeon ten Holt (Canto Ostinato) that has been recorded and performed more times than I can count. And I really do mean “popular;” the average person doesn’t get scared away by it but actually gravitates to it, and it is quite postminimalist.

      Einstein on the Beach sold out the Met in its original performances. While I get that minimalism/postminimalism may not be your cup of tea, just as Carter/Babbitt might not be mine, let’s not make unsupportable claims when the evidence clearly supports the opposite conclusion.

      1. Tom

        I bow to your better knowledge of Cage. I can’t say I’ve studied him in any detail, or heard a large chunk of his oeuvre. What I have heard I found tedious.

        I didn’t say ALL new music was crap. If ten Holt is enjoying momentary popularity with music that can be listened to, as was the case with Gorecki’s 3rd Symphony and Rautavaara’s 7th, then good for him (though I understand he’s deceased and can’t really enjoy his fame).

        The problem is that contemporary music has gotten such a bad name thanks to the Boulez/academic/minimalist crowd that even putting an unfamiliar name on the program will keep audiences away these days. I wouldn’t have any problem with making audiences in Peoria-like towns aware of excellent composers like Schnittke, Shchedrin and Rautavaara, but they won’t come to it, because they automatically equate contemporary music with complete crap. I remember when I was subjected to a live performance by Meredith Monk in NYC. The music made me want to crawl up the wall, and the audience was one consisting of her “true believers.” I’m sure that kind of music works great when you’re stoned or on some other kind of psychotropic drug (not that I’ve tried it), but even to a musically educated listener like me, it was painful to endure. I can honestly say I didn’t come in with any preconceptions at the time, since I’d never heard of Meredith Monk and minimalism wasn’t particularly popular in Europe.

        I do know the music scene in Europe quite well, and audiences there are generally more knowledgeable and open to contemporary music (even if it’s bad contemporary music). Just because some piece is popular in Holland or NYC doesn’t mean much for general audiences in the US. Glass and Reich may have been influenced by jazz and rock, but they surely didn’t translate it into a form that draws broad audiences. Gershwin, on the other hand, does, so where did those two go wrong?

        Do tell me how minimalism differs – broadly speaking – from the works of Leonin and Perotin. It’s possible Cage had never heard of them or their music, but I rather doubt that. I like listening to Perotin and his contemporaries, and when I hear Glass, Monk or other minimalists I think “what the heck, this was already done 800 years ago.”

        As Donne wrote, “no man is an island.” It would, of course, be impossible to name 5 composers who were totally without influence from others lest we travel to Borneo or the upper Amazon and find some lost tribes. There are some, though, who definitely had moments that seem to come from nowhere in the musical canon. Gesualdo, Bouzignac, Schoenberg, Scriabin and Bartok would be my 5 top choices. I only omit Stravinsky because he did have Scriabin as a forerunner. But then, one could always argue that Scriabin had late Liszt as a forerunner.

        1. David Toub

          Oh hell, I’m not sure where to even begin here.

          Again, you’re combining the academic folk who alienated most people with the minimalists, who did much the opposite. Lumping Boulez with Glass is just nonsensical.

          Actually, ten Holt’s piece is not having its moment in the sun. It was written in the 70’s and premiered not long afterwards. I can’t understand how you can claim to be pretty familiar with the scene in the EU yet not realize that postminimalism is very popular there. There are even debates over whether minimalism is an EU or an American invention, with the Europeans claiming it as their own. I disagree, but the point is that they are very happy with it.

          Sorry you don’t like MM’s oeuvre. I happen to love it but do admit it’s not for everyone. You’d probably despise my music even more.

          As far as Schoenberg, I think he’d admit to having come out of the whole Brahms, Wagner and Mahler milieu.

          1. Tom

            I’m not lumping Boulez with Cage stylistically, of course. I am lumping him with the -isms of the 20th century that have helped kill off audiences and resulted in a disinterest in programming contemporary composers by orchestras, opera companies and chamber music societies. Again, I’m not talking about big city audiences or orchestras, nor of university orchestras and concert series. I’m talking about the Peoria-style concert-goer.

            I did scratch my head a bit before I put down Schoenberg. I was wavering between him and Ives, but probably should have put down Ives. His music is more extraordinary qua the musical environment he composed in.

            As for minimalism being popular in Europe, you have to remember that I’m talking some 20 years ago and in a particular geographical area. I did travel around Europe quite a bit, but usually to enjoy the visual arts, since I had more than enough of music at home. Where I grew up and where I resided, I can honestly say that the only minimalism I ever heard or saw programmed were The Chairman Dances and Short Ride in a Fast Machine. I’m sure there were/are pockets in Europe, where minimalism is popular. Poland is probably one, given Grażyna Bacewicz’s proto-minimalist works. Ghedini’s nascent minimalist tendencies haven’t spread widely in Italy to the best of my knowledge, barring the example of Berio. Finland and the Baltics are, of course, minimalist havens.

            I’m still interested in your opinion about why Gershwin managed to synthesize his music with jazz successfully from an audience viewpoint, and why Glass and Reich don’t enjoy more popularity among general audience than they do in spite of their jazz and rock-inspired works.

            Also, do explain the difference between the music of the Nostre Dame school and the minimalists to me. Broad brush-strokes will do, no need to get into the obvious nitty gritty like modality vs. tonality.

            I would never listen to your music coming in with preconceptions. Thus do not assume that I would automatically despise it. There must be performances of it on YouTube, so I shall look up your name there.

            I must say that I like John Borstlap’s comment further down. It gave me a new perspective on evaluating 20th century avant garde composers.

        2. Jon

          Glass and Reich don’t draw broad audiences? What? I guess I don’t have any real statistics (but I’m sure someone could find some sales numbers) but those are probably two of the best known composers around among a broader audience. If you were to go up to a bunch of random people and ask them to name a contemporary composer, I’d be willing to bet Glass would be one of the most common names people actually knew. And Reich was one of the keynote speakers/guests at SWSX, one of the biggest rock festivals in the world, when I was there a few years ago. People in the rock and jazz worlds generally are aware of Glass and Reich, which is more than you can say for most living composers. And as for not being as popular as Gershwin, Gershwin didn’t live in a world that had such an over saturated market for music, where you basically need the support of a major corporation to reach a really sizeable audience

          1. Tom

            Jon, if you were to walk up to a random person and ask them to name a contemporary composer, they’d say Kanye West.

            I have been in the classical music biz all my life, and believe me, Glass and Reich do NOT draw a broad audience. I know what I’m talking about from experience.

            It only seems that way, because there are enough contemporary music nuts around who will come to a concert or modern music festival in NYC, Chicago and various European capitals.

            If you take Reich to an area that is less densely populated and feature one of his works on a regular season concert, your subscribers will be PO’d at having to pay to listen to that kind of music.

          2. Jon

            let me be more specific since you want to be difficult, if you asked someone to name a contemporary classical music composer, Glass is probably the name most people would know. I would bet money that Kanye West is at least aware of Glass.

            Now from my experiences in various rock scenes, people know who Glass and Reich are. People I know in jazz know them, people I know in hip hop know them. To say their music has no influence outside of an academic classical world is just flat out wrong.

            But maybe we’re making different points. you seem to be arguing that a broad audience only means attracting stereotypical middle america. in my mind a broad audience means reaching different groups of people with different interests, and Reich and Glass are among the few contemporary composers who can actually do that.

          3. Tom

            Ah, you’re an East/West Coast intellectual supremacist.

            What makes middle american audience “stereotypical?” Your use of this word in conjunction with what I would consider normal audiences, i.e., 99% of concert-goers, clearly demonstrates the problem of contemporary music. Composers look down on anyone who isn’t a converted acolyte and dismiss the rest as intellctually sub-par hicks because they don’t like Reich or Glass (and a host of other avant-garde composers).

            The result of this approach by composers is crappy music, if random tone cluster combined with occasional strikes on a Balinese gong can be called that.

            I’ll ask Kanye about Reich next time I see him. Meanwhile, don’t think I’m a Republican redneck who flies the Confederate flag and rides around in his pick-up truck with a M-4 and a dozen 100-round magazines under the seat, cuz I ain’t.

            I just advocate that composers should write for the pleasure of general audiences instead of for him/herself and his/her 13 disciples. You know – sort of what the likes of Brahms used to do.

          4. Jon

            good lord you’re a difficult person. I’ve been living in Indiana for the past decade, I’m certainly not in love with the coasts, but I also don’t make the mistake of assuming that a midwestern audience is the only audience, and a broad audience has to reach beyond just that.

            Now I don’t see much productivity coming from this conversation so I’m stepping out. And please give my regards to Kanye

    3. Antonio Celaya

      The last century or so was a morass of movements and styles. Musicians and visual artists seem to have felt the need to adopt movements, – suprematisim, orphism, the überserialism of Babbitt et al – perhaps for the same cultural reasons that political movements became bound to a myriad of hideous and ultimately destructive doctrinaire regulations. Maoism, Stalinism, Lennism, Hitlerism, Mussolinism, Francoism and Second Amendment Revolution Nuts all set out their versions of ultimate truth to monstrous results. It is no accident that high modernism, in its obsession with “innovation,” adopted an artistic version of Mao’s continual revolution. Despite the preaching of the more doctrinaire, serialism and other not-so-popular movements produced some powerful music. SErialism arose as a formalization of what Schoenberg had been doing freely. I find that Schoenberg’s formal methods of avoiding a strong tonal center led to a gray, less interesting music. One never has a doubt what Pierrot Lunaire has to say. The fact that it speaks of an terrifying time for Schoenberg – on the social, political and personal levels. Some of the early serial works still have that power. Serialism was not such useful tool for the rather restrained classicism that Schoenberg adopted when his life was more settled. Boulez’s theories set out notions about the music that nobody can hear. But Pli Selon Pli is a ravishing work. The chromatic background becomes something of blank canvas on which he splashes color. Rautaavara abandons a tonal center when it suits what he has to say. Musical methods make wonderful tools but poor religions. We have enough religions to make our lives miserable. I’m not convinced that what you are really advocating is an art that reaches a broad audience, but an art that, for you, renews certain traditional practices that you understandably hold dear. I’m not much of a Glass fan, but if what you are interested in is composers reaching lots of people, then Glass is your guy. He makes the big bucks because his audience is larger than Rautaavara’s (I like much of Rautaavara’s music). The course of society’s tastes are not something we can control in the long run. Some producer can find a formula that grabs attention for a year or two, but we must each “cast our fate to the wind” in the long run. I think that our lack of control over our musical fates causes great anxiety in an isolated outsider niche like New Music. We can only strive to compose music that we love and hope that somebody else loves it too. There’s a dissertation for somebody. “The History of Musical Anxiety as a Function of the Need to be Loved.”

  8. John Borstlap

    What I totally miss in the article and in the discussion, is the awareness that Asia’s approach is psycholgical and aesthetic, which inevitably leads to making distinctions, including hierarchical notions – something is better than another thing. Seen from the point of view that composers in the past created high quality works, be them all very different from each other, the average artistic quality of 20C music is quite poor – that is, music which left the boundaries of tonality and opened-up an infinite range of possibilities of sound sources to be used by composers.

    The, for some people, rather disappointing truth is, that the basis of the art form itself, is the natural interrelatedness that tonality provides. Music which is not tonal, can never be music, but remains in the territory of sound. With the deletion of tonality as a means to construct musical entities, all that was left is sound. To consider music without tonality music, is a materialist interpretation of the concept of ‘music’. It would be better to understand that a totally new form of art has developed: sonic art, which exclusively operates on the level of matter: sound. Music however, creates a psychological context of its own. When you play a recording of a Bach concerto at home, the unexpected hooting of a car in the street may be irritating or frustrating, but you will not confuse the sound with the interrelated context of the recording, because that context operates on another level. But if you were playing a recording of Xenakis, you would not be so sure, because sonic art happens on the very same level as environment noises. That is why Cage merely confirmed the basic principle of sonic art: all noise, all kinds of sound, can be music. But of course this is not so, because if anything can be music, nothing is.

    Cage was not a composer but a decomposer: he never wanted to write music, considered as an art form. In contrary, all his endeavors were dedicated to disconnect human intervention from sound, hence the chance operations, to arrive at ‘pure sound’. His work can be compared with concept art in the visual arts, which also is not art at all but something else.

    Cage should not be considered a composer but a sonic concept artist. Only THEN can you enjoy the pranks, the nonsense, the surrealist absurdities, as a kind of entertainment in case you have nothing better to do. But as a composer? Absolutely not.

    People like Stockhausen, Boulez, Xenakis et al were also sonic artists, not composers. That’s allright, but the real problem is the claims of these people, they want to parade as composers while lacking all the talent required for that art form. So, Daniel Asia is just right, but he could have explained further – probably there was not enough space to do that. The complaints about ‘hierarchical thinking’ and accusations of ‘limitations’ are unjust: art exists on the condition of limitation, of choice, of aiming high. The freedom that trendy contemporary fashions claim to have brought to ‘music’, merely opened the gates to the numerous untalented people who finally could play-act a nice little role as an ‘artist’ without having to invest talent, training, and the efforts to acquire capacities in value judgment and understanding of distinctions, without which no art can exist. Art has never been something that was easily acquired.

    1. David Toub

      “Cage was not a composer.”


      I used to think, when I was a kid and didn’t really know Cage’s music, that he was more of a philosopher or idea person. Since getting to know his music and life more closely, I have changed my opinion, and would disagree with Schoenberg. Cage was indeed a composer and a composer of genius. Have you listened to his early piano works? His prepared piano works? His number pieces? You don’t have to like them but you should at least be able to acknowledge them as compositions.

  9. John Borstlap

    The wide-spread confusion about the question of what constitutes music and what the nature is of sonic art, and the nature of tonality, are pretty clearly expounded in the recent book ‘The Classical Revolution’ (Scarecrow Press 2013). Another tome which explores questions like these, is Roger Scruton’s monumental ‘Aesthetics of Music’ (Oxford University Press). Nowadays, there are composers who see through so much nonsense of the past century and who try to reconnect with the last flowering of music: pre-war, pre-modernist music, which showed a very pluralistic field without dogma – except the Schoenbergian one, of course, but which was only one out of many different trends. A very striking example of new classical music is the work of contemporary French composer Nicolas Bacri, convert from ‘high modernism’, first writing a brilliant type of super-Boulez, then returning to tradition and found his real voice, an expressive and touching one, and: original.

    The British composer David Matthews, brother of the modernist Colin Matthews, also explores traditional tonality, with excellent results, proving that it is not tonality which is exhausted but the fantasy and invention of composers who believe the conformist ideologies of postwar historicist thinking.

    The music of these people leaves anything produced by sonic artists like Cage lightyears behind in terms of quality.

  10. Antonio Celaya

    Does it seem that this entire conversation is all a bit too butch to be taken seriously? Each side bandies about lofty (and perhaps irrelevant terms) terms such as “historical significance,” “artistic importance,” “ transcendence,” and all other manner of grand propositions. I find the entire dialogue about “historical influence” and “artistic importance” to be just too macho and conformists for comfort. Has it stuck any of you guys that not one women has added a comment to the newmusicbox end of this …, shall we call it a debate?

    I was quite amazed by the revelations in Mr. Asia’s article and I have ben amused by Mr. Asia’s article and the passionate arguments by his critics. I was graduated from the University of Arizona Music School back in the dark ages of the 1970s. I escaped the place before Mr. Asia’s arrival. My experience there may have been quite different if I had encountered Mr. Asia. We didn’t get the pleasure of evenings of Cage or Stravinsky during my unhappy years at the U of A Music School. I don’t intend to attack Cage, and I very much like the Sontatas and Interludes and a good deal of Cage’s other music. When I was about 20 I fancied myself a Cageian. I have grown to be distrustful of Cage’s more puritanical aspects, but I still appreciate his attempt to broaden his methods of listening to the world. I don’t suggest that Cage’s doctrine is one of universal and absolute truth, just that I find it useful and sometimes pleasant. As a much maligned but honest platonic once asked “What is truth?”

    Asia is disappointed that Cage did not advance those things that Asia values in Euro-United Statesian music. Asia’s critics largely seem upset that Asia doesn’t value the things they value. Both seem guilty of failing to recognize that they embrace or reject Cage because of his success or failure to advance tastes for particular world views – though I Asia is less culpable than many of his critics. Wittgenstein would have thrown up his hands (or perhaps he would have thrown something, as he was reputed to have done on one occasion) at much of Mr. Asia’s statements and those Asia’s critics. William of Ockham might have chuckled.

    Asia puts many of his values out there. Asia:

    • Likes music that has a quasi-narrative, that is music with a narrative –like dramatic course
    • Likes Music that uses harmonic trajectory
    • Likes piña coladas and getting caught in the rain (no, perhaps that’s some other composer)
    • Likes music that demonstrates compositional virtuosity
    • Likes assurances that future audiences will continue to listen to certain music
    • Like music that influences the way other composers write their music
    • Likes “transendance” (and perhaps he also likes “spirituality”
    • Dislikes static music
    • Dislikes suggestions that the music he loves

    Asia’s Cagean critics:

    • Like “democratic” music (by which I assume they mean music that can be created by people without particular training or high levels of skill)
    • Like to live in America (No wait, that’s Maria from Westside Story)
    • Like music that is a metaphor for stasis
    • Like music that influences the way other composers write their music
    • Dislike rejection of Cage’s values

    To play the “historical significance” card is to jump into a pointless game. Let posterity take care of its own listening habits. Nicola Porpora and Boïldieu were once popular and influential with their contemporaries. Were their audiences wrong? I suggest they were not. Neither are we wrong to ignore those composers (with the exception of desperate PhD candidates). Obeisance to the influence of composer seems excessively conformist, and conforming to what future people may find important is just pathetic.

    “Artistic significance” goes undefined by all in the debate. I am not without lingering influence of Cage, but let’s admit to ourselves that what any of us in the “New Music” milieu do is irrelevant to most of the listening world. Influencing others is not per se a virtue, unless one lives by the rule of pollster. If one wants to play that game the do it right. Text in for your favorite singer on American Idol. Worrying about “artistic influence” is to reject those parts of Cage’s value system that I most value. The rejection of “historical and artistic influence” as a means of judging another composer- or another life course -is the heart of his defense of Satie against the critic Abram Shulsky. If you haven’t read Cage’s witty and exuberant letters with Shulsky I urge you to seek them out.

    Wittgenstein, get your poker. As for Professor Asia’s longing “transcendence” leaves me fearing that we are on the edge of new Wagnerian age. What does “transcendence” mean in this case? Isn’t transcendence an awful lot of metaphysical speculation for a piece of music?

    Why is Mr. Joseph saying he doesn’t wish to defend modernism in defending Cage? He’s correct that there is something of a whiff of high modernism’s ideological puritanism is Cage’s moralistic rejection of choice.

    Now I won’t join Rodney King in asking if we can’t all just get along. Artistic feuds are too amusing to miss. If they weren’t we wouldn’t have so many of them. I just wish that people were more forthcoming about their predilections and presuppositions. Both sides are spouting values as though they were setting out verifiable facts. I think I will go and listen to In a Landscape and the Three Flabby Preludes (for a dog)

    1. Jeff Winslow

      A WHIFF?? Let me reword that for you: “There is the overpowering stink of high modernism’s puritanism in Cage’s moralistic rejection of choice.”

      But beyond that, there is a special source of discomfort (for me) in it that one doesn’t encounter in Schoenberg, in Boulez, in Glass, or any other whipping boy Tom et al. might wish to come up with. All those other composers (have) sought to create, through their own musically informed choices, memorable bits of constructed sound which you carry about with you afterwards, not necessarily to communicate anything specific, but to resonate in some deep way with your own experiences, and even on occasion, emotions. Among these three composers I have my likes and dislikes, but I get that they’re doing that. Admittedly based on scattered input – e.g. hearing Stephen Drury perform Etudes Australes, hearing some of the number pieces, reading the long, fascinating article here on NewMusicBox some months ago on David Tudor’s preparation of performance scores from Cage’s instructions in Piano Concert – it seems to me that Cage categorically eliminated this level of connection with his audience after a certain point. But that’s exactly the level of connection which makes me most want to listen to music!! (Along with a few billion other folks.) I think that is why some feel that he is not really a composer, or more precisely, why he is a composer only in the most trivial sense of the word, and why his name arouses a special enmity. The bastard rejected us. :-)

      But as has been pointed out, that was hardly Cage’s only dimension, and so even those of us who feel that way can still enjoy, for example, the famous Sonatas and Interludes, even if, even there, the experience is an eerie one, for me somewhat like the final scenes in Spielberg’s movie “AI”. At least there is that resonance. (And his calligraphy is gorgeous.)

      As usual Mr. Celaya has put me somewhat (but contentedly) to shame with his wider background and delightfully nuanced reading of the controversy. If by any chance anyone is reading this after having only skimmed his commentaries, go back and read them more carefully – they’re long but IMHO worth it.

  11. Allan J. Cronin

    Wow, that’s a lot of responses and a lot of spirited and, at times contentious, discussion. But it would be poor use of logic to assume that this makes Cage a composer of note.

    My personal view is that Cage was a metatheorist challenging the very foundations of musical practice. In so doing he influenced a wide variety of composers and sound artists. And I think that his theoretical musings as well as analyses of his compositional approaches will yield interesting and likely useful ideas about the future directions of music.

    I also think of Cage as a composer though citing the number of recordings is a questionable indicator of a composer’s success. Perhaps the same could be said of performances. Unfortunately I think that the test of time is a better measure of a composer’s success. But even that can wax and wane. It is very difficult to evaluate the success and function of the arts in a reliable manner.

    But I do think of Cage as a composer and the reason is pretty unscientific actually. I find that some of Cage’s music stays in my head and is replayed from time to time. That is I retain a certain sound image which incorporates his music. I think it was Aaron Copland in his “What to Listen for in Music” that introduced me to this concept.

    I don’t know all of Cage’s works but the prepared piano sounds of Interludes and some of the shorter works for this instrument stay in my head and are familiar sound objects. Also his use of the human voice, particularly his voice, and his deconstructions of Thoreau, Joyce, etc. I find stay in my head.

    And while I appreciate the intellectual discussions, which are most entertaining, I know what I like and will pursue those sounds that most move me or at least those that most take residence in my memory regardless of their theoretical or historical significance.

  12. Pierre Medard

    The truth is eventually trying to appear. What nonsense on both sides !!
    The moment rules are abandonded art disappears. Cannot be revived with words. The need for recognition is the cause. How sad !!

    1. Antonio Celaya

      I hope you don’t think that I suggested that Cage abandoned rules. If anything he boxed himself in during the the second half of his life with a myriad of moralistic rules. Even his early music is rule-bound. The rules he used for the Sonatas and Interludes and The Wonderful Widow of 18 Springs are not the rules of functional harmony, but his rules give the pieces a cogency.

  13. AJ Sabatini

    Talking about music as if it were solely about its sonic dimensions, or, even, calling music ‘sonic art,’ seems like talking about food as if it were solely about its chemical composition. Or, to be more aesthetic about it, visual forms and objects as it they did not involve perception, culture, subject matter and a thousand other elements.

    Creating, performing, responding, using sound and music is interwoven with everything ranging from natural sounds and the human body and voice to organizing social groups to the manufacture and manipulation of instruments, technology, and architecture. Cage’s life’s work and his relentless attention and collaborations as an artist focused on all aspects of ‘music.’ He expanded an understanding of the what, why, how, when, who, where, with, who for, and what for? of music, art and the world. Plus writing a few other matters. Unlike many of the composers listed in other posts on this above, Cage’s work and ideas extend to all things musical, which, is almost to obvious to say. (There is a current exhibition in at the Philadelphia Museum of Art called, “Dancing Around the Bride: Cage, Cunningham, Johns, Rauschenberg and Duchamp,” which hints as some of Cage’s engagements).

    On another note, it is always peculiar when one or two of an artist’s works – from an lifetime – are isolated as examples of their entire thought, aesthetic, production.

  14. Mary Jane Leach

    Yikes, guys, enough already!

    So we had yet another person who felt that he had to tell us how much he dislikes and/or doesn’t understand John Cage. Why should we even care what he thinks? Especially, since to me what were his most egregious remarks, were his misunderstanding the history of harmony and counterpoint (1000 years, really?) and the work of Schoenberg. Those were enough to discredit anything else he had to say. If you can’t get the facts right, why should we respect your more subjective musings?

    To me, Asia’s remarks were an ego-driven way to get publicity for himself, in which he certainly has succeeded, as well as feeling that we should all have a monolithic view of music. As, seemingly, do many of the commenters in this thread.

    1. Tom

      We should care because a person’s opinions, which are certainly linked to that person’s ego, are the starting point of a debate.

      One may or may not like those opinions, nor the person who states them, but if they inspire a reasonably sane discussion, then they have some merit.

      I dare say that today, with the scope of music we have available through recordings, it would be difficult to find a musically educated person holding monolithic views of it – unless s/he were a complete idiot (or a PhD student of composition, as one commetator so pithily put it above). Surely Mr. Asia does not qualify for that epithet.

      1. Mary Jane Leach

        Tom, did you even read my comment? You may care, but I don’t. Why should I? We can’t all care about the same things, and you may have noticed, I haven’t either denigrated or praised Cage in my comment, I’m just dealing with credibility. Asia, who I don’t remember as having such reactionary views when he lived in NYC, lost credibility with me on the facts, which I stated above, being off only a generous 40% (it’s actually more) in his statement about counterpoint, and his seeming unawareness of the breadth and dimension of Schoenberg’s oeuvre. So why should I care about his opinion about Cage, which, like poking a wasp’s nest, is guaranteed to get a reaction? If someone states that the earth is flat, then I am less apt to take his opinion about global warming seriously. That’s just the way things go – if you don’t get the facts right, then your opinions won’t be taken seriously.

        Besides, must we keep on having these antiquated arguments? Starting point? This argument/discussion has been going on for sixty years, and Asia didn’t bring anything new to the table.

        Finally, I really don’t like responding to people who don’t post their full name

  15. Olivia

    Many people who dislike Cage’s music and aesthetic are basing their opinions on his chance music. I believe his greatest piece is his percussion quartet, “Third Construction.” I would like to hear any of Cage’s critics say that this piece is not a composition, and that Cage is not a composer after listening to it and studying the score. Any composer might agree that it’s silly and offensive to push another composer into a box based one one piece of music tgey wrote. And to evaluate a composer’s importance and relevance on one moment of their composing career? That would be hypocritical. His “Sonatas and Etudes” are lovely, as well as “Amores”, and my personal favorite, “Imaginary Landscape No. 2.”

  16. Phil Fried

    Is it any news that a composer prefers the opinions and music with which they are in agreement?

    Rather its news when they don’t.

    What we are talking about here is belief not fact. Beliefs that are simply confluent with the composer/writers artistic prejudices.

    For example: Schoenberg scares away audiences? Nope.

    (Extra credit for bringing up Cage’s teacher just to keep the circle of disdain moving). It seems that in the blogosphere negative ideas just seem to be more powerful than positive ones. Sigh.

    This argument about style is a red hearing. Straw man? Really!

    No sonic prejudice!

  17. Dan Knight

    I find John Cage to be not a composer, but a noisemaker (or silencemaker, as the case may be). An interesting one at times, but often more by accident than by any kind of purposeful intent on his part. To paraphrase Macbeth, Cage’s “compositions” are a plethora of sound and fury, signifying nothing. And that’s exactly the way Cage wanted it to be. The emperor (in this case, John Cage) not only had no clothes, he knew he was naked and was perfectly comfortable with being so. Music was sound, and sound (or lack thereof) was music for him. There is philosophical substance here, but no soul. None whatsoever.

  18. Dan Knight

    Central to the discussion of any of Cage’s music must be his definition of music. For Cage, music was sound. Just that.

    Herbert Read, a noted art critic of the 20th century, said that art, in order to be art, must have three things; form, structure and meaning.

    Cage agreed that music should have form and structure. “Meaning” was a non-entity for him. It really is that simple, and that profound.

    People who wish to find meaning in their art (and music) will not find it in John Cage. And those people, more often than not, will find his work unsatisfying.

    Those who can live with art devoid of meaning can accept, even embrace, his work. For them, form and structure are enough.

    1. Jeff Winslow

      Those who can live with life devoid of sex can accept, even embrace, the convent and the monastery.

      Not for me, thank you just the same.

      The only profundity here is in realizing that meaning arises in the minds of the audience, and Cage was hardly the first to notice that. Composers can choose to engage with it or not, but they can’t control it. The lack of control seems to have bothered Cage a lot after a certain point, so he pretended any such engagement was impossible. And yet people continue to be moved by Brahms, even by Boulez. (Is anybody going to step up and claim with a straight face they’ve been moved to tears by a Cage chance piece?) Maybe he really was frightened by old ideas – maybe he wasn’t just anticipating Steven Wright with a goofy saying like that. Hell, now I feel sorry for the guy.

      1. Frank J. Oteri

        Is anybody going to step up and claim with a straight face they’ve been moved to tears by a Cage chance piece?

        I’ve actually been moved to tears by the recording on Mode featuring performance of Ensemble Ars Nova singing Cage’s late number pieces for unaccompanied voices, specifically Four2 and Five. (Both of these are among the “number pieces” that John Cage composed in the last five years of his life which marked a new approach to harmony and were based, yes, on chance operations.)

        I was so moved, in fact, that when asked to do a presentation on new music over a decade ago for the conference of the American Music Personnel in Public Radio (AMPPR), I decided to play a little game and do a “blindfold listening test” after which I asked for a show of hands of radio programmers asking them if they would play what I had just had them listen to on their station before revealing what it was. One of the recordings I played during that presentation was Four2 and it proved to be among the most popular. Almost everyone’s hands were raised, including a program director who was particularly proud of his rather closed-minded approach toward any music that was created in our own lifetime. His most frequent retort to any new music he heard was, “Not on my radio station.” So after seeing his hand raised enthusiastically, now with a twinkle in my eye instead of the tear, I pointed directly at him and said, “I’m so happy. You just agreed to play John Cage on your station.”

        1. David Toub

          Very little music moves me to tears. I’m basically a cold-hearted SOB.

          But even so, why is that the test of music? Has anyone been moved to tears by Elliott Carter? Who cares?

          1. Jeff Winslow

            Now why am I not surprised here. :-)

            If a piece of music can’t reach ANYONE to that degree – not necessarily that specific reaction – I’d say that’s an indicator of how little it’s loved, and what’s not loved (or hated) is soon forgotten. No time for the judgment of history Allen Cronin refers to, or that is the judgment. It correlates well with how memorable a piece is for me, and I certainly care about it with respect to my own modest output. Who knows, maybe our indefatigable FJO will be Cage’s savior. I must give the number pieces another listen.

            I can imagine being moved to tears by Carter. When I finally heard the Cello & Piano Sonata I had the impression I’d finally heard some Carter I could love. When I get to know it better, who knows. I’ve been moved to tears by various Ives songs, and not the popular sounding ones either. I’m a blubbering (and manic of course) wreck after The Rite of Spring. (Should I admit this in public?) Haven’t quite got there with Music for 18 Musicians though it is my favorite Reich. I’m not saying everyone should be like this, but you can imagine what it meant to me when, many years ago, after I listened in open-mouthed wonder in my first experience of the Ligeti Etudes (admittedly, the tears for Autumn in Warsaw only came after a few more hearings), Etudes Australes by the same performer came across as just a dull and hopeless mess. And this is but one of many similar experiences.

            But no doubt you would consider all these works which move me so much “saccharine”.

          2. Frank J. Oteri

            Jeff, thanks for the encouragement ;) as well as for your openness to exploring Cage’s number pieces. I hope you find in them something that you will aesthetically appreciate. (I almost just typed “find in them the same transcendent sonic majesty that I do” but then I realized that the last thing I would want–or, for that matter, what Cage would have wanted–is for you or anyone else to have the same experience that I or anyone else has had. Your experience of music does and should belong exclusively to you, which is why I find the arbiters of taste and relevance so irritating.

            That said, I was quite taken with your litmus test of being moved to tears by a piece of music. I have actually used crying similarly not just for music but for films, theatre, and literature as well. Admittedly I have had a hard time finding paintings and sculptures that have made me cry.

            But what about being moved to laughter? For me that has also always been a sign that something has reached me deeply. And it has happened for me with a great deal of visual art and verbally-based art, but much less so with music. Cage and Carter were both known for their sense of humor. (One of the supreme joys of my visit to Tanglewood in 2008 was discovering a photo of them together, both laughing.) I can think of few musical events I have attended in my life that made me laugh out loud, but Ne(x)tworks’ February 25, 2011 performance of John Cage’s Songbooks (a work that albeit has little in common with the “number pieces” or my own personal compositional aesthetics) actually did. I wanted to stream the whole thing on NewMusicBox during the Cage centenary but unfortunately something went awry with the video camera that Ne(x)tworks had set up to record it. At least part of it was documented and was posted to YouTube…

          3. Bob Nold

            For me, it’s “Since I Don’t Have You”, by The Skyliners. I also get all choked up over the theme to a certain rental car commercial they play on TV here.
            Okay, maybe the tears flow when I hear the Cavatina of Op. 130 or the slow movement of Schoenberg’s D minor quartet, but nothing like The Skyliners’ biggest hit.
            And I bet I’m not alone. (Maybe here, but not in the wide world.)
            The obvious conclusion, if tears are a sign of being in the presence of great music, is that classical music is simply inferior, and if more composers wrote music like “Since I Don’t Have You”, everything would be fine.
            Why don’t they do that?

          4. Jeff Winslow

            I think most of us have stayed on track here, but let me emphasize I never advanced “being moved to tears” as a test of greatness, whatever that is. Merely as a test of a work’s engagement with an audience, which is hard enough to define.

            Certainly, being moved to laughter would be another good one. Thanks, Frank, for posting that video, even if what I mostly got out of it was that trombone may be the musical equivalent of Mel Brooks’ dictum about words which include the letter “k”. Also, isn’t there supposed to be some disrobing in there? :-)

            Or even anger. Some kind of reaction at least. NMB recently carried an account of Glenn Branca’s music engaging powerfully with Cage as audience on at least one occasion, for example.

            Even a temporary detour into hedonism would do. Such moments have been frustratingly rare for me in Cage’s chance music however.

            I haven’t found much visual art that’s moved me to tears either, but one which did, taking me completely by surprise, was Gauguin’s “Christmas Night (the Blessing of the Oxen)”. I’d include a link but I don’t think it has quite the impact on the small screen. And as you say, the details are so dependent on the individual, whether in painting or in music.

            Film of course is superb at this, but again in the “surprised me” category: Marilyn Monroe dancing off into the moonlight in “The Misfits”. But now I am dancing off into digression land (without triggering tears of anything but frustration I’m sure) so I’ll stop.

            P.S. My apologies to Allan (sic) J. Cronin for referring to the wrong Allen! (in a different message)

        2. AJ Sabatini

          Regarding tears, Steven Feld’s “Sound and Sentiment: Birds, Weeping, Poetics, and Song in Kaluli Expression.”
          (Univ of PA Press, 1982) relates how, for the Kaluli people of New Guinea, the only thing that counted in music was if the song made the listeners weep. When played Western music, they only asked if the people who listened to it wept when they heard it. Everything else did not matter. This raises some questions, like: would Bach have cared about analysis of his music? what is the influence of social/aesthetic conceptions on perception? for starters.

  19. Bob Nold

    There can be few things less edifying in life than hearing people tell other people what they don’t like. To paraphrase E.T.A. Hoffmann, writing about Beethoven, suppose it were your problem that you don’t like Cage’s music, and not the problem of the music itself.
    Egos are not interesting.
    To Mr. Asia I would say: Go listen to the whole of String Quartet in Four Parts and tell us, in purely musical terms, why this is not music. Or that it isn’t beautiful. Define “beautiful music”.
    To the charge that Cage’s music is “sophomoric”, just look at the score of the Freeman Etudes.
    What, precisely, is “transcendent” about the Symphony of Psalms? What chords or progressions can be described as “transcendent”, or creating a feeling of transcendence? What is transcendence, anyway?
    There are also few things less relevant to the appreciation of music than knowing the composer’s intent, or philosophy. If intent were critical to appreciation, or understanding of meaning, then every composer who wanted to be another Mozart would be another Mozart, and even bad music would be good, because of the intent that produced it.

    1. Jeff Winslow

      Egos aren’t interesting??

      I wouldn’t bother except that Cage himself seemed to have trouble coming to terms with ego. One result was the incorporation of chance, which was his biggest failure IMHO. (Maybe even his only one, but it’s big enough.) At the risk of inflating the ecstasies of Cage acolytes, I’m vaguely reminded of Einstein floundering around in the latter half of his life trying to unify all the field theories. Einstein knew it wasn’t working however. He listened, as it were.

      I think it’s fair to say the historical record shows that egos are fascinating. Even hyper-inflated ones unfortunately, which I imagine are the ones Bob Nold was actually referring to. A normal ego is a necessary part of the human balance.

      1. Bob Nold

        Cage was a student of Zen, probably the ultimate ego-killer.
        I think it’s fair to say that the historical record shows that egos are completely irrelevant. We know next to nothing about Shakespeare’s ego; is his work therefore of less interest?
        As far as evaluations based on ego are concerned, these tell us next to nothing. Webern thought Bartok’s fourth quartet was “too cacophonous”. Does the Bartok then become more cacophonous because Webern didn’t care for it?

  20. ariel

    These exchanges are all quite amusing and pathetic at the same time …everyone has an answer – composers writing only to other composers -theorists writing to other theorists..
    and on and on ……every exchange is based upon “whose ox is being gored “…. all
    sterile profundities….meanwhile in the real world -symphony orchestras are battling to survive – recitals have become “rare events ” instead of the norm , audiences have dwindled-schools have cancelled music classes … the arts have taken a beating…

    These continuing exchanges reflect the event that happens often in my back lawn where
    I have several long gone over the hill oak trees .. every once in a while every branch
    of the trees is occupied by crows —the noise is numbing -endless squawking ,then
    silence then all are gone…. all that remains are bird droppings and the terminal trees.
    Nothing has changed ………

      1. ariel

        Tom – the point is that while the musical ship is slowly sinking the
        fools aboard the ship are debating the credentials of various composers
        rather than attend to how they might save the ship . Their thoughts are like farts in the wind , signifying nothing .

        1. Tom

          I wouldn’t be quite as dismissive of the thoughts expressed in this thread, but I agree that the debate about composers who the vast majority of classical contemporary music will never want to listen to is not particularly productive.

          Some years ago, I read an article in the NYT about famous contemporary composers (so famous I forget their names), who wanted to hang up the conposer’s coat because their pieces were performed so rarely. Someone would commission a piece to score brownie points, and the premiere would be the only time that piece was heard. No other orchestras were interested in repeating it.

          A bit sad, really, if it weren’t pathetic.

  21. Mischa Salkind-Pearl

    As far as I can tell, (and I may be a little late to the game here), questions of whether someone is a composer or whether a particular piece is music are concocted with the intention of finding a defensible reason for dismissing the music. It’s easier to write off Cage’s by categorically eliminating the possibility of even regarding him as a musician; from that perspective, his work isn’t even worth looking at.

    But we all know that these questions are red herrings. Arguments can be made about the identity of artwork, but who gives a damn? If you dislike Cage so much, just leave it at that— he doesn’t speak to you.

    Don’t begrudge me being a little bitter (I’m losing the energy to take seriously people who haven’t found reason to accept that Cage has contributed vastly to the future of music and other art), but in my judgment anyone who dismisses Cage for being unmusical is not only missing the point, but has missed the entire concept. Cage was not simply letting us chill out and be cool, cuz anything is music, man; he was demanding we take urgent responsibility for our listening. I understand the desire to hear music sometimes which tells us something specific, through musical topoi and recognizable harmonic drama; but it is emotionally and intellectually lazy to look for an excuse not to engage with our own personal experience of sound. According to Cage, a good listener is a critical one, not a passive one.

    Sorry if this is too much responsibility for some of these commenters. I guess I’d say they “aren’t listeners.” Is that too mean?

    1. Michael Karman

      This comment of Mischa’s gets to the very core of the matter, I think:

      “[A]nyone who dismisses Cage for being unmusical is not only missing the point, but has missed the entire concept. Cage was not simply letting us chill out and be cool, cuz anything is music, man; he was demanding we take urgent responsibility for our listening. I understand the desire to hear music sometimes which tells us something specific, through musical topoi and recognizable harmonic drama; but it is emotionally and intellectually lazy to look for an excuse not to engage with our own personal experience of sound. According to Cage, a good listener is a critical one, not a passive one.”

      1. Mischa Salkind-Pearl

        Thanks, Michael. It seems to me that we get wrapped up in ideas of what music should do. The Western classical tradition is rich and full, and one could easily lose oneself in it for a lifetime. But that our tradition engenders a very specific notion of what music “is” and “does” should be obvious. Whether we look for ways to appreciate other perspectives or not, we simply MUST accept them.

  22. David Toub

    As an aside, I was just in an operating room here in Amsterdam with an older gynecology colleague, and mentioned I was listening lately to music by the late Simeon ten Holt and right in the OR, he said “Oh, the guy who wrote Canto Ostinato.” I asked him why he knew it and why it’s so popular and he said “it isn’t atonal.”

    My point is that new music doesn’t have to be saccharine to be popular, and most importantly, new music can indeed be popular. So, were I to mention Steve Reich to a US gynecologist, I’m highly doubtful he/she would reply “Oh, that guy who wrote Music for 18 Musicians.” Sad that that’s the case.

    1. Bob Nold

      Reminds me of the story Schoenberg told about getting on an elevator (I could have this part wrong) and the elevator operator said he remembered the song about “rote fuerstliche Rubine” in Pierrot…
      Schoenberg also said there was plenty of good music still be to written in C major.
      I wonder, though, if someone did a harmonic analysis of Canto Ostinato and compared it to a similar analysis of a guitar solo by Tom Morello, which would be the more dissonant? I’m guessing the latter, by a wide margin, at least in the solos that are not almost pure noise.
      So why is atonality acceptable in rock, but not in classical music? I think I know the answer, but prefer to pose this as a rhetorical question.

  23. Allan J. Cronin

    I have been moved to tears by many different musics but I have also felt inspiration and been filled with joy as well. Sometimes my grasp of a given piece of music was relatively immediate but there are pieces and styles which I have found irritating and inscrutable.

    With some of these difficult pieces I have later experienced a revelatory perspective when I heard the music in a different context. Many times I have been listening to a piece which compelled my attention only to later find it was a piece or a style which I had earlier dismissed. This is the experience to which Mr. Oteri refers in an earlier comment.

    I think that it is difficult to not bring preconceived notions to the listening experience. Rather some music (and I think the same can be said for all the arts) does not lend itself as easily to immediate appeal. Certainly most innovative musics and other arts have met with resistance or outright condemnation. Just think of The Rite of Spring, Joyce’s Ulysses, Kandinsky, Schoenberg, Beckett, etc. and while lack of appreciation does not by itself indicate a failure of perception it is pretty common. Nicholas Slonimsky’s famed Lexicon of Musical Invective is emblematic in its documentation of contemporary negative critical opinions of music later embraced as masterpieces.

    Unfortunately only the test of time seems to be a reliable means of determining the cultural value of art. So I think that this lively and contentious discussion will continue ad nauseum for untold years until the music in question is embraced and valued properly. Of course there will always be detractors but even the notion of a flat earth is still held by some.

  24. Ryan

    Perhaps Cage and Stravinsky (and Ives et al.) would be proud that this discussion exists, and to this level. It gives me hope that new music (of all sorts) in America still has passionate support.

  25. Corey Dargel

    Repeating here a post that I made on Frank J. Oteri’s follow-up post:

    NMBx should invite the Cincinnati-based composer and percussionist Allen Otte (a John Cage expert) to write a response to Daniel Asia’s myopic and ignorant diatribe. I have almost no respect for The Huffington Post, but perhaps it would be worth submitting to HuffPo a response written by Otte and signed by as many composers and performers and listeners as possible. The notion that there is something *wrong* with an artist who thinks in “meta-” ways is, quite frankly, stupid, as is the argument that Cage’s music has no structure or discipline (though it may be true that musicians who don’t truly understand Cage’s philosophy of music-making and performance give inadequately structured performances of Cage’s music). Finally, “directionless[ness]” is something I would expect a composer and professor in the 21st century (like Daniel Asia) to understand as a *valuable* quality of many many many 20th- and 21st-century compositions that stand out as exemplary, moving, and trend-setting. Once again… get thee to Allen Otte.

    1. Mischa Salkind-Pearl

      This is an excellent idea. Otte is one of many brilliant interpreters of Cage, and one who understands what it means to be on the other end of the pencil and paper. I would throw in my money for Steve Drury as well, the Boston pianist who has tirelessly worked to promote the music he believes (in his characteristically broadminded way) to be valuable. This has often included Cage, and not just at the centenary.

      And to second your point, Corey: aesthetic preference aside, we have witnessed so many decades of composers and performers utilizing sounds and methods which Cage either pioneered or which are associated with him, that one would expect any expert (or educator) in contemporary music to recognize their value. Maybe someday….

  26. Pingback: Red Pill, Blue Pill: Professor Asia’s Cardinal Sin | Also Sprach FraKathustra

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