Judith Weir CBE, Master of the King's Music
David Matthews

Five Paragraphs on John Cage -A Personal View

Every creative artist in whatever field of activity should read at least one book by Cage. Probably the best one to start with is Silence (1961) which was his first published collection of writings, and which usefully sums up his views on music, art, and life in often witty and sometimes amusing prose. Speaking only for myself, I have to say that Cage is one of the select few composers and writers to whom I have gone back time and again over the past 20 or more years and not tired of. (Others include Hardy, Yeats, and Eliot)

I think it is fair to say that Cage did not produce any new ideas. Everything he did or proposed can be traced to predecessors, and he frequently acknowledged the debts he owed to his numerous “mentors” including Schoenberg, Satie, Suzuki, Duchamp, Fuller, McLuhan etc. Even Mozart may be cited with reference to composing using chance procedures. Cage’s importance is as a focus and disseminator of diverse ideas and thoughts on art, music, and the purpose of these in our lives, and indeed, on how to live.  Above all, Cage makes us question and re-assess our art (and living) as to their content, style, form, purpose, and value. After some adverse criticism of his early work, Cage came to believe that music cannot express emotions as accurately as words and that its real purpose (according to oriental philosophy) was to make us more susceptible to divine influences. Hence, he strove in works from c.1950 to abolish all trace of “personal choice” by using various chance procedures including using the I Ching, star-charts, imperfections in music manuscript paper etc. 

No more masterpieces. He redefined music as embracing all sounds whether organised or arrived at through chance procedures – and we cannot simply ignore the opening of possibilities and liberation of previously supressed or disregarded sonic material. For me, Cage’s importance lies most of all  in his  liberating me from the weight of that heavy load of inhibitions dating from the mid-20th century,  as to what I should or should not be writing,  and showing the various possibilities open to the composer apart from the traditional ones: e.g. chance procedures, graphic notation, use of silence etc. However, I think Cage’s music is not always as interesting as his ideas (or rather his gathering together & propagating the ideas of others). I find his earlier works such as Sonatas & Interludes, the other prepared- piano pieces and the orchestral Seasons more satisfying and engaging musically than some of the later “chance” works. Cage said that he was not happy with being a composer “telling other people what to do” and when, because of this, he gave the performers sometimes considerable freedom in determining the sounds of a piece, the results in performance can be of variable interest.

Cage had his “blind spots”. He did not sympathise with or, maybe, really understand the European classical tradition and consistently objected to the importance of harmony in Western music. His assertion that earlier music was structured harmonically rather than rhythmically can be challenged: one need only look at the importance of rhythmic “cells” in much of the classical repertoire from Bach onwards to see that rhythm has been as important as harmony in determining musical form. And his use of chance procedures has, rightly I think, been the subject of controversy for decades. Can chance procedures always produce interesting music? Is using chance in composition really composition at all or just an amusing game? Can the innocent listener be aware that what he hears is the result of chance or deliberation?  I have used chance procedures in a few works and found the results to be not very satisfying and in need of “tinkering” to improve them – which really nullifies the use of chance in the first place! Another of Cage’s “blind spots” seems to have been jazz – strangely for an American to have this aversion to what is perhaps the most quintessentially American music. Perhaps it was the reliance on harmonic structure and the persistent “beat” of jazz that Cage disapproved of? Cage referred to jazz as “discourse” (conversation?)  – but surely it is more a music of ensembles alternating with solo “displays” of improvisatory skill?

Cage’s mature worldview was very much influenced by Zen Buddhism. When a friend complained that there was too much pain in the world, Cage said that he thought there was just the right amount. Cage was no fool, and everything he said and did has to be considered seriously. “Just the right amount” can be taken to mean “just the right amount at that particular instant of time”. The “now” must be accepted and cannot be altered, according to Taoist thought. We can only alter the future. And I cannot help but think that Cage’s anarchism, although he meant anarchism of the benevolent, non-governmental kind, is wishful thinking. Human nature being what it is, Cage’s anarchy would soon become anarchy in the popular sense of the word: lawlessness and chaos leading inevitably to dictatorship.

MJR 09/23