Cage = 100: As Influential as Wagner, as Interpretable as Mozart

Cage = 100: As Influential as Wagner, as Interpretable as Mozart

John Cage

John Cage in August 1992, the last month of his life. Photo by John Maggiotto, courtesy S.E.M. Ensemble.

[Ed. Note: This week marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of American composer John Cage (Los Angeles, CA, September 5, 1912 – New York, NY, August 12, 1992).

To celebrate John Cage and his enormous impact on music and culture in the United States as well as abroad, we are featuring Cage related content all week. Visit NewMusicBox each day to read, watch, and/or listen to a different aspect of his legacy which, although Cage himself is no longer with us, is still central to new music. – FJO]

Since as far back as I can remember, John Cage’s music has been placed on the outside, and always, the issues of performance practice were tied to “special considerations”. I’ve never felt comfortable about that. Let’s try a different approach.

Cage is one of the composers whose works have had a defining influence on music history. I would compare him to Jean-Philippe Rameau and Richard Wagner, two composers who had a similar impact on the way people thought about music. It was not just their music that was significant; their writings were equally important. The combination of the music and the writings of Rameau, Wagner, and Cage shaped the music of their respective time periods. When Rameau published his Treatise on Harmony in the early 18th century, it influenced several generations of composers. The writings of Wagner not only redefined opera, they also helped establish the concept of a modern orchestra and the role of the conductor. Cage’s writing made a definitive break with the musical thinking of the past, specifically with the aesthetics of late Romanticism. (Cage’s rejection of the persistent residue of the 19th century might be the source of the often virulent hostility towards him.)

The Wagner-Cage comparison is quite fascinating. Both Wagner (b. 1813) and Cage (b. 1912) created their milestone compositions at the midpoint of the centuries in which they lived—Tristan and Isolde in 1856, the Concert for Piano and Orchestra in 1957—and both works still remained controversial half a century after their creation. Tristan was performed for the first time without cuts by Gustav Mahler in the early 20th century. Wagner didn’t live to see it. Performances of the Concert for Piano and Orchestra with a musically engaged and knowledgeable orchestra started only in the mid-1980s. The one truly great performance at Lincoln Center by David Tudor and Joseph Kubera was in 1993, and the first complete Atlas Eclipticalis was performed at Carnegie Hall in late 1992—performances that the composer didn’t live to attend.

Tudor & SEM at Carnegie Hall

The Orchestra of the S.E.M. Ensemble performing Atlas Eclipticalis, at Carnegie Hall / Stern Auditorium in October 1992; David Tudor, piano; Petr Kotik, conducting. Photo by Wolfgang Träger, courtesy S.E.M. Ensemble.

The idea of comparing Cage to Rameau and Wagner, should lead us to think about Cage the same way as we look at any other composer from the past or present. What should the path then be for a would-be interpreter of Cage’s music? Should he or she follow a tradition, or use an entirely new experience? What can I say?

Music is specific, not universal, and the ability to “understand” or “interpret” a score requires education—learning, and often breaking old habits. To do justice to the music of Cage, one needs to know as much about him as one knows, say, about Mozart. To be educated on how to play the music of Brahms and other 19th century composers does not make one automatically capable of playing Cage, since Cage’s music often requires a different way of reading the score and following the instructions. The most important information about how to perform music, be it by Cage or any other composer, does not come from the score; it comes from a thorough understanding of the style the music has been written in! Style is impossible to write into the score, yet, the knowledge of a style is the most important aspect for successful performance (taking the technical ability for granted, of course). Namely, every style is traced back to the composer, either through the composer’s own performances or through the performances of close collaborators and interpreters. The way we perform Chopin goes directly back to Chopin’s performances and was established by observing, listening, performing, and passing this knowledge from one generation to the next. When this chain is interrupted, as happened with early music, it is almost impossible to figure out how to perform it again, although the scores are available as they left the composer’s writing desk. Chopin’s scores do not look different from Bach’s of Mozart’s, but they surely are played differently. Ninety-nine percent of those differences are not written anywhere. How then should a would-be interpreter learn to perform Cage? He or she should associate with someone who worked with Cage and/or who has worked with musicians associated with Cage, listen to recordings, and read his writings. Playing the notes and reading the instructions is not enough. (Some of the instructions even need an interpretation.) A direct experience, performing the music in a knowledgeable environment—this is the only way to play it properly.

Do we need to “honor Cage’s legacy”? I don’t think so. The legacy of Cage exists on its own, regardless of us honoring it or not. One simply performs the music as best as one can. The legacy of anyone’s work happens through performances (exhibits, publications, etc.). Presenting the work in the best possible way creates its legacy, not arranged “celebrations.”

Cage & Kotik

John Cage and Petr Kotik, August 1992. Photo by John Maggiotto, courtesy S.E.M. Ensemble

I first encountered Cage’s ideas in 1960, when I read the Darmstädter Beiträge zur neuen Musik 1959 which contained some texts by him. Encounters with his music followed, and when we met in 1964 and performed together (first in Vienna and then a few months later in Prague, also traveling to Warsaw), I was ready to perform his music with a degree of understanding that helped forge a close musical relationship. These early experiences were very important for me and influenced the way I have been looking at his music to this day. I became convinced already then that, generally, Cage’s music is not all that different from Mozart’s. Both composers’ scores offer elements of freedom as well as elements that are precisely determined. The difference between a score by Cage and Mozart is in the nature of these elements. While the concept is similar—we are making sounds within a set of time-constrains—the details diametrically differ. This was my conclusion after performing Atlas Eclipticalis with Cage and Tudor in 1964. In fact, I believe that Atlas is a masterpiece that perfectly balances the relationship between what is given and what is open to interpretation. I have been performing this piece ever since.

When Cage started to use a stopwatch instead of counting beats, he referred to the rhythm of getting from one place to another. (Isn’t this what happens during a performance?) In the past, you traveled by horse—clap, clap, clap, clap; today, you take an airplane. It is not so simple, of course, but I like this remark very much. Since the early 20th century, we can universally observe in the music of this epoch the need to weaken—or remove entirely—the sense of the beat, especially the sense of the downbeat. You can find such ideas already in the music of Richard Strauss. In their compositions from the ’50s, Cage, Earle Brown, Christian Wolff, and Morton Feldman completely abandoned any sense, or even any indication of the beat. Feldman later returned to using bar lines, but his complex and changing time signatures completely confuse any sense of ongoing periodicities. Atlas Eclipticalis uses proportional time-organization that depends on the conductor’s signs. In this sense, it is no different from a piece by Mozart, except for the mechanics of the execution. As in a Mozart score, you will find pitches exactly notated, to be exactly performed. The difference is that Cage is giving the choice of the pitch sequence (or sounds in percussion parts), but the notes are written as exactly as Mozart’s. In Atlas Eclipticalis, the notes have to be played without the slightest deviation regarding phrasing, crescendos, etc. Mozart, on the other hand, gives you many choices to interpret the notes, create phrases and make small deviations here and there (within the confines of the style, of course).

The last issue I would like to briefly mention is the business of chance operations in music. If you go to a grocery store and pick up the box of cereal you happen to be standing nearest to, it’s up to chance what you end up buying. This is one kind of chance operation. When Cage (and other composers) decide to use chance in the compositional process (and perhaps in the performance as well), this is an entirely different kind of chance. Here, it is not about chance per se! These chance operations serve only as means to arrive at an unpredictable situation. One step does not predict the next step, and still the result fulfills the vision of the composer (or musician). And in order for these musical processes to remain unpredictable, the results (the actual music composed and performed) have to be executed with precision. The musician must be focused and execute the score with exactness. (You must not “let go” the way you would when performing Chopin—if you learned the style.) Playing Cage requires focus on the music and a state of utter devotion to the performance, the same as with any other composer. The horrors we so often encounter with performances of Cage’s music occur when the musicians believe that, because of chance operations, it makes no difference what they do. It can be this or that—like picking up a box of cereal.

Let us leave the conventional, entrenched conservatism behind. This attitude presupposes that the knowledge of performing Brahms (or beyond Brahms–composers coming out of the tradition of Brahms) is a norm that can universally be applied to every other music. This attitude lacks intelligence, musicality, and liveliness and often turns music into a dead corpse. Lately, I feel optimistic as I see rapid changes around, not just among musicians, but audiences as well. What a difference rehearsing Atlas Eclipticalis now compared to 1992! The John Cage centennial couldn’t have come at a better moment.


Petr Kotik

Petr Kotik, photo courtesy of the Ostrava Center for New Music

Composer, conductor and flutist Petr Kotík divides his time between his native Prague, Ostrava, and New York City. In New York, he continues to serve as the artistic director of the S.E.M. Ensemble which he founded in 1970. In 1992, he expanded the S.E.M. Ensemble to the Orchestra of the S.E.M. Ensemble; their debut concert at Carnegie Hall was a tribute to John Cage featuring David Tudor. In 2001, Kotík founded the Ostrava Days Institute and Festival, of which he is also the Artistic Director.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

15 thoughts on “Cage = 100: As Influential as Wagner, as Interpretable as Mozart

      1. Colin Holter


        • The notions of the Gesamtkunstwerk and the basse fondamentale certainly seem to have continued to resound, to say nothing of Rameau’s research on intonation.

        • Ideas aside, I’d rather listen to Cage’s music – any of Cage’s music, from any period of his life – than to any of Wagner’s music, at any time of day and on any day of the week. (Rameau presents a little more of a toss-up for me.) I promise you I’m not the only person in the world who feels this way.

        • How “history” decides what to “revere” is almost entirely a matter of the socially conditioned value attached to ideas (and, secondarily, of more mundane material transactions) rather than of what we cavalierly describe as music “itself.”

        1. Mark N. Grant

          Mr. Virgil Thomson on John Cage:

          “The truth is that Cage’s mind is narrow….For with him, the original gift, the musical ear, is not a remarkable one. Neither did he ever quite master the classical elements, harmony and counterpoint….Lasting for twenty-one minutes or four and more hours, the Cage works have some intrinsic interest and much charm, but after a few minutes very little urgency. They do not seem to have been designed for holding attention, and generally speaking they do not hold it….whenever I have played his recorded works for students I have found that no matter what their length they exhaust themselves in about two minutes, say four at most. By that time we have all got the sound of it and made some guess at the “permanent” emotion expressed. And there is no need for going on with it, since we know that it will not be going any deeper into an emotion already depicted as static….the music itself, for all its jollity, liveliness, and good humor, is emotionally shallow.” (from “American Music Since 1910,” Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, 1971.)

          1. Colin Holter

            For Thomson to have missed the point of Cage’s music so grossly in 1971 is unfortunate but understandable; for us to do so in 2012 would be a sure sign of intellectual sloth.

            the music itself, for all its jollity, liveliness, and good humor, is emotionally shallow

            He’s looking for a feel-good romantic comedy in a work of investigative journalism.

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    1. Mark N. Grant

      Mr. John Adams on John Cage:

      “It sounds absurd to say that Cage was ‘hugely influential’ and then admit you rarely listen to his music, but that’s the truth for me, and I suspect it’s the same for most composers I know. Cage helped to open my awareness and acceptance of sound — all sounds, not just the pitches of the musical scale. And he set an example for liberating musical forms from the hand-me-down archetypes of European tradition. I don’t agree with those who consider Cage the most important composer after Stravinsky. I think much of his later work is fundamentally, even tediously, didactic. A work like ‘4′33″’ is a demonstration, a lesson in how to listen, so to speak. But to equate its artistic value, as some have, with a work like ‘The Rite of Spring’ is to confuse art with philosophy….He was a great entertainer and endlessly imaginative. But history, at least up to now, has not proved him an avatar here. People want feeling from music, whether it’s Mahler or Coltrane. Music is the most powerfully expressive of the arts, and to deny that critical element of feeling, as Cage did, is to render it largely cold and static.”
      (quoted in the Sunday New York Times Review, page 4, November 21, 2010)

  2. Colin Holter

    People want feeling from music

    Mark, you’re not a child. In fact, you’re a very smart adult. Do you not see the problem with statements like this used to allege that a particular composer’s music is no good? “People want feeling from music” is a statement that packs a great deal of assumptions into the words “people” and “feeling” and probably also “want” and “music.” If a composer’s job is simply to assess what musical means are currently recognized to convey feeling and then execute those methods as effectively as possible, we should do our jobs with IV drips of morphine or ecstasy rather than sound.

    I’m much more eager to argue with you about Cage than with Adams or the late Virgil, especially since one of them isn’t here to volley back and forth with me and the other one is dead.

    1. Mark N. Grant

      My point earlier above, which should be self-evident, is that there has been far from an united front of positive opinion on Cage even from enlightened, forward-looking practitioners in our profession.

      My own feeling, Colin, is that Mr. Adam’s remark rebuffs the very parsing you’re trying to impose on it. As Sigmund Freud once said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

      1. Colin Holter

        To your first point: That’s certainly true – admiration for Cage is not unanimous. This is America, everyone has a right to his or her opinion, etc., etc. I think the burden of proof is on the accuser, though.

        To your second: Again, no argument from me; nobody would accuse Adams of approaching composition as a scope with which to identify aesthetic and cultural problems. A cigar may be a cigar, but what it isn’t is an art-object; the person who rolls a Cohiba doesn’t have a critical responsibility in society, but the person who writes the overwhelmingly beautiful Thirteen (or, for that matter, the very popular Short Ride in a Fast Machine) does.

        As usual, we may have to agree to disagree on this.

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  4. Flux

    I think much of his later work is fundamentally, even tediously, didactic. A work like ‘4′33″’ is a demonstration, a lesson in how to listen, so to speak.”

    The conteptual music is a degenarative, quasi-democratic, quasi-liberal and pretend-to-be art. The dangerous effects are easily demonstrated on the next generation students who, instead to learn something about counterpoint, orchestration and such, start with ‘cageism’ and finish in a total de-composition of the ideas and art music, with a very very weak results.


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