The one thing John Cage is remembered for more than anything else is sitting silently at a piano for four minutes and thirty-three seconds and calling that a composition. He titled it 4’33”, of course, and I have seen it reproduced as sheet music (“…rest…rest…rest…”), heard it “covered” by various artists who did everything from generate pure binary zero files on a CD to simply put a mike in an empty room, and so on. I even had the pleasure of watching Professor Bullough of my 20th Century Music class perform it live. Sort of.
Cage was the most placidly iconoclastic of modern composers. He didn’t deliberately put wrecking balls through buildings, so to speak; the buildings were just in his way. He did what he had to, and if that meant ditching music as we knew it in pretty much every form, then fine. He embraced randomness as a methodology and applied it rigorously in music-making, if only to show that randomness was not something in us, but a property of the world that we could disregard if we just listened closely enough. One of his favorite Zen aphorisms contains the distillation of his approach to music: “If in Zen something is boring, do it for two minutes. If it is still boring, do it for four minutes. If it is still boring, do it for eight minutes, sixteen, thirty-two. Eventually you’ll find it’s not boring at all but very interesting.” He bored more than his fair share of people.
And if you followed Cage (off a cliff, one might say), there was much to be found in doing almost nothing, or in doing things which didn’t seem to have the slightest relationship to the brick-and-mortal job of musicmaking as we’d come to know it. He composed music by superimposing star maps on blank sheet music, by rolling dice, by doing everything except composing. A good deal of this material was not meant to be recorded or enshrined—there is no such thing as a definitive performance of a Cage composition, by definition—but I suspect it was mostly because he was more interested in seeing what could be done than in actually keeping artifacts of the results. He wanted people to participate in experiences, not just passively receive them prepackaged.
Indeterminacy was one of the glowing exceptions, a work that stands on its own as a recording as well as a concept. Cage’s idea was simple: he would sit in one room with a microphone and read ninety anecdotes he had committed to memory, while in the next room, his friend David Tudor would generate noises from tapes, prepared pianos, radios, and a Slinky attached to the tone arm of a turntable (one of Cage’s favorite noises). Neither could hear what the other was doing, and the results would be recorded as they happened. If one person’s work overlapped the other, that was not something to be avoided; Cage described it as being something like seeing a person on the other side of the street, obscured by traffic. The title was itself a clue to the underlying principle of the work. Cage wasn’t trying to force anything; he wanted to see what would happen naturally. If Andy Warhol was trying to make people see by showing us something as forgettable as a Campbell’s Soup can, John Cage was trying to make us listen.
Most of the stories in Indeterminacy are about Cage or his friends, and almost all of them have some kind of joke-ish punchline, usually one derived from Cage’s own observational insight. Some of them have an almost magical-realistic outlook to them (such as the story about the Eskimo lady); some of them are just plain amusingly odd (the story about going through Dutch customs backwards). More than a few of them are explosively funny. Sometimes I wonder if the deadpan delivery on this record was the predecessor to Steven Wright’s flat-affect style of comedy. But the ultimate feeling is not that Cage is just kidding; he uses his little stories as ways of sketching a space. Tudor’s counterpoints wind up complementing everything in ways that we can’t predict, so that just when we think we know what’s coming, we’re given a subtle prod in another direction. What is most striking are not the noises, though, but the moments when neither Cage nor Tudor are not doing anything at all. They seem to be holding their breaths together, the way jazzmen do. Maybe such feelings are just artifacts of how things came together, but that seems to be a large part of why Indeterminacy exists: to show such things and to celebrate them.
I heard Indeterminacy for the first time shortly after Cage had died, when a New York City radio station did a salute to him and played the album end-to-end. Somehow, the minute I tuned in, I knew what it was. I had heard enough described about the record, and there was nothing else that sounded remotely like it. Folkways had reissued it on a double CD, and soon I was able to hear it end to end—although I suspect Cage would have been happy for me to start anywhere and end anywhere. I played it incessantly; when I went to visit my girlfriend by bus, the tape just about covered the length of time it took to ride the bus and walk to her apartment. It mixed with the sounds of traffic and people around me, complementing it and enhancing it instead of blotting it out.
Cage was an influence on modern popular music for many years before his death. Frank Zappa and Todd Rundgren are two artists that come to mind who employed many of Cage’s ideas about randomness and how the spaces between things are sometimes more important than the things themselves. When he died, he did not so much leave behind a body of work or a catalog of records as he did a sensibility, a notion of how to look at certain things. Even though he disliked the idea of having one’s work boiled down to something as inert as a record, though, Cage’s Indeterminacy is as close as you can get to an artifact with a life of its own.
Tags: John Cage
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind