A smile for John Cage
The man in the funny hat was born 100 years ago today in Los Angeles, and died in Manhattan on the 12th of August, 1992. Shall we make anything of that life trajectory? Born on the Pacific Rim at the dawn of modernity, lived long enough to witness the post-modern scene he helped create as if flourished near his Greenwich Village home? Probably not, in any meaningful sense, though we may smile at the thought. And that, for me, is the best reaction to the music of the man in the picture, John Cage: Don't look for meaning; do take pleasure. "Purposeless play" is how Cage defined music. And while you may rightly stop short of applying that definition to, say, Bach, Beethoven or Bob Dylan, it fits Cage's own whimsical, playful spirit like a nut fits a bolt, and like both fit the strings of Cage's most enduring invention, the prepared piano.
Indeed, from the hardware stuffed inside the piano, and the anvils and break drums Cage used in his pioneering percussion works, to the common objects Cage "plays" in his celebrated appearance on the TV game show "I've Got a Secret," Cage took a childish delight in the music of everyday life. Whether or not you want to consider what he did on the TV show to be "music," much less pay money to attend concerts of it, is up to you. When it comes to the works Cage composed after his adoption of "chance procedures," in which the music is determined as much by randomness and non-musical criteria (e.g., a roll of dice, a map of the New York City skyline, the imperfections in a sheet of paper) as by the composer's choice of pitches, rhythms, etc., I admit to preferring my amusement at a distance. Fun to know about, not so interesting to hear. When it comes to the works of Cage's earlier years, up to about 1950, works that range from great rhythmic intricacy to virtual motionlessness, and from great complexity to the ultimate in spareness, I admit to being utterly mesmerized. Check out Russian pianist Alexei Lubimov's forthcoming all-Cage CD "As It Is" when it's released by ECM later this month. Or get ahold of the Cage albums by pianist Margaret Leng Tan, who also wrote a moving tribute to Cage for the New York Times. (Note: Some of Tan's best Cage CDs were done for the New Albion label, which recently went out of business. But the CDs are, for the present, available as downolads from Ariama. And the CD containing "Four Walls," which she wrote about in the Times piece, is available as a CD-R from Amazon.)
Even if you don't appreciate Cage's music, which is nothing to be ashamed about, perhaps you can at least acknowledge the powerful, ongoing influence of Cage's ideas. No Cage, no minimalists, no "downtown" composers, no noise-rock like Sonic Youth, no a lot of the most intriguing music around today. Maybe they're not your favorite music, but they're all vital parts of the contemporary scene, without which music, and life, would be a little more boring. So for that alone, Mr. Cage, thanks a lot, and best wishes for happy mushroom hunting in the next realm.