John Cage, Silent Partner


In the issue of October 82 (Autumn 1997), Ian Pepper recounts an odd exchange between John Cage and the serialist composer Pierre Boulez. Cage and Boulez had met in Paris in 1949 and continued their friendship by correspondence, a selection of which was published in October 65 (Summer 1993). A curious footnote of this was the omission of perhaps the most intriguing pair of letters: one from Boulez, dated December 1951 (no. 35), wherein he relays with great relish his ideological assassination of Cage’s former teacher and the godfather of atonal serialism, Arnold Schoenberg, who had died earlier that year, along with Cage’s reply dating from the Summer of 1952 (no. 38). What is most curious about this reply is not what Cage says—“Your last long letter was marvelous and gave much pleasure,” he wrote, and that’s all he wrote—but what he doesn’t. As it were, Cage took his sweet time—a full year and a half—to get back to Boulez though as the break in the numbering suggests (and a book on the subject by Jean-Jaques Nattiez confirms) Boulez continued to pursue Cage throughout the impasse.

Curious it was, but not out of character. Although Cage and Boulez continued as penpals into 1954, his letter speaks to the policy that Cage would adopt in the coming years as a matter of both professional ethos and private conviction, one predicated on chance and indeterminacy: the policy of saying nothing and hearing everything. It is no historical fluke that 1952 was also the year that Cage composed his most famous piece, 4’33”, a meditation on the sound of silence in three movements—respectively 0’33”, 2’23” and 1’40” in length. It is on these grounds that Cage is usually taught to students of art history and other such “non-technical” fields, with rightful emphasis placed on parallel developments in the visual arts, namely the work of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. And it is Rauschenberg whom the perennially coy Cage credits with his exposure to the potentialities of the mundane. “To Whom It May Concern: The white paintings came first; my silent piece came later,” writes Cage in Silence (1961).

The piece premiered on April 29, 1952 in Woodstock, New York, with David Tudor performing, that is, opening and closing the lid of the keyboard to mark the intervals between movements as the stunned concertgoers, no doubt held hostage by the etiquette of the arena as well as their own expectations, gathered their bearings. But shock readily gives over to frustration—at the piece itself, at his body of work in general, at his freeform, manifesto-style writings, of which there are many. And this frustration is met by Cage in typical fashion, with the verbal equivalent of an oriental bow or an archaic smile or some other such seeming non-gesture. In Cage’s silent treatment there is something of the wise old owl, the restraint of confidence, tempered versus temperamental, the poise of a Confucian or a Buddhist, to cite Cage’s well-documented interest in Eastern religion and, while we’re at it, shamelessly pander to the stereotype. Does he know something the rest of us don’t? Why else the inhibition? Frustration breeds endless frustration.

A lot has been written about 4’33”, but according to Cage himself—and most scholarly accounts convene here—the piece was meant not as an ode to silence but to the previously unwanted sounds that happened to happen during the performative act—an occasion to mark their formal entry into the musical idiom. Like Rauschenberg’s White Paintings (1951), Cage’s 4’33” is a net, a sticky, neural membrane—a “blank canvas”—for minute particles of perceptival matter. It is here that Cage’s revolutionary contribution is to be found. By composing 4’33”, Cage leveled the playing field between played notes and “just noise,” and in doing so made the definition of what qualified as music a question of intent. To illustrate this, Cage tells the anecdote of entering an anechoic chamber at Harvard University expecting to hear nothing, but hearing instead two sounds, one high and one low—his nervous and circulatory systems at work. “Until I die there will be sounds,” he wrote of the experience, “And they will continue following my death.” Cage recognized early on that silence, like infinity, was shorthand for a greater concept that existed beyond the practical scope of human existence. We can conceive but not perceive. That several versions of the paper score exist today—the original Woodstock manuscript with a dedication to Tudor having been lost some time ago—suggests that 4’33” is primarily a performance piece meant to be experienced in a live setting. Listening to a recording of 4’33” is an unwieldy proposition that tips the balance away from chance to probability: unique it may be, but how much of the crackling of vinyl is truly unpredictable?

In light of this, the revisionist narrative has placed Cage at odds with the prevailing party line of the times—what Caroline A. Jones calls the “abstract expressionist ego,” the incipient cult of the solitary male genius “alternating between bouts of melancholic depression and volcanic creativity” in a kind of self-affirming, bipolar two-step that became the unified front of the midcentury American art scene. The antithesis of Cage, his opponent both professionally and philosophically, was Jackson Pollock, that brackish and misunderstood giant of postmodernism, the definition of the tortured artist. If Pollock’s mythology hasn’t quite held up in hindsight—he was by most accounts needy, ethically ambiguous, enfeebled by alcoholism—Cage’s is a challenge to excavate. Jones suggests that Cage, along with Johns and Rauschenberg, subscribed to a certain “homosexual aesthetic,” an alternative outlook concerned less with the polemics of sex as with providing a detached diagnosis to the problems of mass culture in the tradition of the flâneur, who was at once a part of and apart from his milieu. In 1949, at an event organized by Robert Motherwell, Cage delivered the “Lecture on Nothing,” reminding his audience that nothing in one’s own purview is so urgent or epic as to counteract the sheer magnitude and variety of the universe. To many of the priapic scribblers in the room that day the suggestion of disburdening their egos in such a way must have been nothing short of a slap in the face.

Unlike Cage’s beloved Marcel Duchamp, who deployed the a foreign hieratic to liberate himself from the constraints of the Western canon, Cage and his colleagues knew full well that barbarism begins at home. Their approach drew on native American heritage for its inspiration. While European music was predicated on a system of tonality, Cage himself was primarily interested duration, seeing as this was the only formal musical element present in both sound and silence. In “Forerunners of Modern Music,” Cage writes, “This [durational basis] never disappeared from jazz and folk-music. On the other hand, it never developed in them, for they are not cultivated species, growing best when left wild.” This emphasis on the “wild,” untended element of American music is, on one hand, an admission of latent imperialism, and on the other, an affirmation of his role as “the Other.” In spite of his appetite for Zen Buddhism and dadaist folly, Cage remained almost obstinately attached to the “American” way of doing things.

But while Johns and Rauschenberg interpreted this to coincide with their steady appropriation of the lowbrow, Cage was committed to a higher cultural ideal—a vision away from the clamor of Times Square, with its Warholian soup cans, reeling headlines, discarded syringes, neon signage, teeming with the detritus of life. Whereas Johns and Rauschenberg prized reproduction for its closeness to mechanization, Cage’s interest in technology had more to do with its capacity to orient us toward nature and other such lacunae in our perception. Cagean silence establishes negative space as equal to and interchangeable with its opposite, but in the tactile, spatially oriented compositions of Johns and Rauschenberg there is no such distinction. A more apt analogy is found in the field of modernist architecture, which emerged as a theme in Cage’s written work, pitting against each other the modular scales of Le Corbusier, informed as they were by Renaissance innovation, and the glass houses of Mies van der Rohe.

Cage was horrified by Corbusier’s proposed “reign of harmony,” which he saw as a mandate of aesthetic authoritarianism enforced by the laws of proportion and seriality. Rather than draw a counterpoint from his own oeuvre, however, the self-effacing Cage invoked the egalitarian transparency of glass architecture, which provided the soul with the sort of openness that was sorely lacking in Corbusier’s prefabricated regimentation. The metaphor of (experimental) music as (glass) architecture was one he would return to again and again in his writings and lectures, though over time his opinions were gradually reworked to accommodate more shades and valences, promethean caveats, distinctions nestled in distinctions. Yet Cage was apparently not aware that the vitrine could be an oppressive force in its own way—a false front—that intersecting and reflective glass panes could create their own atmosphere of ambiguity to subvert the newfound clarity and give rise to a more layered, less straightforward form of totalitarianism that facilitated surveillance and obscured the chain of command.

Cage’s rhetorical overtures to glass were apparently informed by his time at Black Mountain College, and later, the Gatehill Cooperative Community, where he lived with the architect Paul Williams and family in a modernist duplex made entirely of glass and lightweight industrial materials. The house stood in a patch of forest alongside and was supported (artificially) by wood columns on one side and (naturally) by the hillside on the other. With one push of the floor-to-ceiling, wall-length sliding glass door, Cage could go from the neat compartmentalization of his living quarters into the unmitigated, sylvan surround; such chaos was always welcome, befitting even, for it mirrored the contents of his mind. It was during these years, between the Spring of 1948, when he and Merce Cunningham made their first visit to the college and the Summer of 1954, when he moved in with Williams, whom he had met there in 1949, that Cage’s mature aesthetic crystallized. It was no coincidence that the house was, in effect, a physical embodiment of his musical philosophy and, like his work for the prepared piano of the early 1940s, a joint human-technological intervention into nature. Just as its architectonics existed on the threshold of organic and manmade, Cage’s music, particularly 4’33”, sought to deregulate what he viewed as the imposed academic injunction between orchestrated and naturally occurring noise.

As Colin Rowe and Robert Slutsky have argued, the synergy of clear forms does not imply one optical perspective but rather the simultaneous—and problematic—perception of different spatial orders. Their argument arises in the context of a larger model of transparency-as-ambiguity but strangely finds a corollary in Cage’s belief that music could benefit from the coexistence of a variety of nonlinear, even incompatible, approaches rather than the strict historical progression advocated by the continental heirs of Schoenberg. Just as one can “see through” a glass structure or, say, the sculpture of Richard Lippold and Duchamp, one can “hear through” experimental music. This was the analogy Cage used in his “Juilliard Lecture” of 1952—no accident, for it was also the year of 4’33”. By 1957, Cage had reformulated his thesis on glass architecture, shifting his focus from the volumetric engagement of space to interpenetrative properties of reflection. Cage’s later point-drawing scores for Variations I (1958) and Variations II (1961), for example, map a series of intersecting lines over an array of random points. The distance from a point to each of the lines is then measured to determine the formal qualities of each sonic variable—pitch, timbre, amplitude, frequency and so on—and define the overall “sound” of the piece. But in the second score, Cage has added a set of overlapping transparencies, a Miesian solution to the problem of complicating spatial relationships. The result looks more like a mathematician’s optimization problem than something destined for the halls of a conservatory and recalls the early Constructivist experiments of the Vesnin brothers and Iakov Chernikhov.

Whereas the serialists, who had consolidated and extended Schoenberg’s twelve-tone method to all aspects of music, saw themselves as casting off tradition or, more accurately, reshaping it on their own terms, Cage ignored it altogether. According to Branden W. Joseph, Cage took issue with atonal serialism for precisely the same reason he had rejected harmonic—or tonal—theories in the past: though they were methodologically opposed, both remained loyal to the same paternalistic model and operated under the same historical assumptions. Placed within the capitalist framework, serialism becomes a form of neurosis, driven by a fetishistic preoccupation with numbers and diagrams, a line of thinking also present in Gyorgy Ligeti’s criticism of Boulez and Theodor Adorno’s seminal lecture, “The Aging of the New Music,” broadcast in 1954, the year Cage toured Europe with Tudor. Adorno, in particular, bemoaned what he saw as the dissolution of the whole (the ego) into parts (fetishism). If ego was necessary to maintain a critical distance from the fomenting culture of capitalism, with its demise came the death of the dialectic. Neither was Cage spared Adorno’s polemicizing. To Adorno, Cage’s method was too unrigorous, a recapitulation of personal responsibility, though in all likelihood he mistook Cage’s passive-aggressive silence for intellectual entropy.

It is with this in mind that we return to Cage and Boulez and begin to decipher their cryptic exchange. Cage’s muteness should not be taken as a disagreement with Boulez’s essential point but as a disavowal of his methodology. Boulez’s self-congratulatory tone—his assertion that he had killed and buried Schoenberg—must have been keenly off-putting to Cage, not in the least because he had himself arrived at the very same conclusions at around the same time. This letter, the longest Boulez had ever written to Cage, was not only a cheap shot at Cage’s master but a display of unchecked hubris. It must have seemed amusing, absurd even, that Boulez should choose to express himself in such a way given the nature and implications of his friendship with Cage. Boulez’s serialism, like Pollock’s abstraction, was by definition autobiographical inasmuch as it courted inquiry, invited speculation, rewrote its own myth with every stroke. But as Adorno theorized—and Cage would have conceded—such an approach lacked the stature needed to fully engage the historiographical critique.

The fundamental distinction between Cage and Boulez, perhaps, isn’t an issue of notation, or even of historicity plain and simple, but of character—that elusive and wily animal that rarely enters into the academic discourse proper. The Cagean answer to Boulez’s literary affect, and to the question of ego in general, is a disarming, demystifying post-Dada sense of humor. Like other American composers of his generation, Cage’s ahistorical imperative was less a contingency than that of his European counterparts, who had toiled under the close gaze of progress for centuries. As James Fulkerson put it, “The fact is we don’t give a shit about European’s only American academics and the inflated egos of places like Britain that think we actually pay any attention to those problems.” According to Geoff Smith, Cage’s legacy was never intended to be prescriptive. Rather, as his contemporaries and those who came after have reaffirmed time and again, what Cage did was open the floodgates—or in their words, “gave permission”—to step outside the bounds of the institutional. Of course, Cage had the benefit of history behind him, having once been a pupil of Schoenberg, otherwise he might have been dismissed as yet another hopped-up provincial eccentric. But for what it’s worth, the recursive architecture metaphor applies here too: while the serialists had tried in vain to renovate a crumbling abode, Cage offered to build a new one altogether. 

This essay originally appeared in the Winter 2010-2011 ("Focus on Blankness") issue of Artwrit.