Meta Music

The other night I saw this wonderful documentary,  "John Cage: Journeys in Sound", by Allan Miller and Paul Smaczny. I was so impressed by it that I watched it twice, and filled a couple of pages with notes. I find his story and his work so wonderfully inspiring.

If you have ever been at a performance of a piece of music by Cage, you are not likely to ever forget it. He is perhaps most know for "4´33´´", a piece for piano - or rather not playing the piano for 4 minutes and 33 seconds.

A lot of people would argue, as does Chaim Tannenbaum (philosopher and musician) in the film, that if music is defined as organized sound, that is not what Cage is doing at all. Tannenbaum says that Cage is making it hard - impossible even - to respond to his work as one would respond to music, and therefore, it can not actually be music, but rather a sound performance. He says that Cage inspires interesting thoughts about the nature of music. Still, as unorganized as his sounds may be, he is apparently the bestseller among American composers!

Cage was very influenced by buddhism, and in 1952, he recieved a copy of the "I Ching" from a friend. He learned about its method of throwing coins to procure hexagrams. He says in the film:
Instead of sitting cross legged, I decided to continue sitting at my desk, but changing my work from the making of choices to the asking of questions, which would be answered by the means of chance operation."
He didn´t like improvisation, because he believed that improvisation takes you back to what you know, and he wanted to take his art beyond that, into territories you didn´t know. Composing by chance operations prevented his subconscious to interfere with the composition, and that´s what he was after. He was not into self-expression at all (as most artists are), he wanted to create as nature creates (or as he imagined that nature creates). He also said that he had "given up that whole idea of value judgement."

One of his teachers was Arnold Schönberg, and he advised the young Cage to seek his fortune elsewhere. He said Cage had no feeling for harmony, which I suppose is another way of saying he wasn´t particularly muscial. "You´ll come to a wall," he said, and Cage responded that "I´ll beat my head against that wall." I find the idea quite comforting, that it´s possible to devote your entire life to doing something you really don´t have any natural talents for, and because of it push the boundries of that field and create something of real importance.

The most interesting project right now is perhaps the performance of "Organ²/ASLSP (As SLow aS Possible)" in Halberstadt, Germany. It started in 2001 and is supposed to go on for 639 years (!) in the church of St Burchardi. I just put it on my list of things to experience before I die.

And, among his scores there are beautiful pieces of visual art. You can download some of them for free, and this is a page from his "1958 aria (voice) BW - useless without colors".

What I love about Cage is that he gives me lessons in music, in perception, in being even, expressed in tones. He really pushes me and makes me pay attention. He is simply exceptional.


  1. john cage is great fun. i have a post scheduled to publish in october when the next note is played in "as slow as possible", and i get a kick out of asking people to compare performances of 4'33". oddly, each performance is different. what a trip lol

    1. Love to hear you are a fan! It would be so great to be in Halberstadt when that happens, I bet the atmosphere is wonderful.