I love John Cage for his appreciation of boredom, if not his indulgence in it. Every artist must reckon with the lulls of life in his or her work, but most inject a variety of entertainments into a storyline, smoothing any bit of necessary banality with candy droppings of mindless flow, the promise of action rising. Ta da! Not Cage.
Once, before giving a lecture at Harvard (and a Cage lecture was never just a lecture, but a metaphysical performance), he unapologetically told the audience they were likely to be bored, but that they should view it as an opportunity.
He composed music with such disregard for audience expectations as well, and in so doing became the musical father of everything from punk to techno to minimalism.
In this age of twitches—people reaching for phones to check status updates, tweets, and emails—our lives are quite filled, yet somehow tend to be unfulfilled. Cage would say we need to listen to the emptiness instead of trying to fill it.
I just finished John Cage’s biography, Begin Again, so I’ve been pondering his definitions of sounds and silence and harmony and disharmony, his wonderful embrace of contradictions.
It’s rare that an artist’s work requires the retraining of one’s way of experiencing art itself, but Cage’s compositions not only jarred the public’s sensibilities in his time (the greater part of the 20th century), but still present a challenging dare decades later.
Cage cherished dissonance and happenstance, dramatizing the sounds that fill our lives in all of their random fecundity. His music was a philosophical statement, a confrontation, rather than a frolic or a diversion.
In his most famous piece, 4’33,’’ a pianist walks on stage to play a piece, sits erectly at the piano, adjusts the sheet music, and pauses for four minutes and 33 seconds. In that intense silence—which isn’t truly silence—sound is transformed. Each inhale and exhale, each mysterious scritch and scratch or stray car horn, becomes part of the musical experience. Expectations are flipped as we explore an absence that is also a presence. Mysteries abound.
By focusing on disruptions rather than the connective tissue of a narrative, he obviates the crescendos and diminuendos of music, and his work actually becomes an odd meditation on those spaces of narrative—traditional harmony—not present.
“I didn’t want the mind to be able to analyze rhythmic patterns,” Cage said of one piece. A patterned universe is one with promises of cohesion, a plan, after all.
Instead of the “intention” that drives most artists, Cage created by “non-intention,” relying on the chance guidance found in the I Ching to guide compositions and performances. At one performance, he even handed out programs with different descriptions so that everyone would view the performance through a different lens.
Dissonance held the most interesting beauty to him. With his famous “prepared pianos,” he twisted objects into piano strings so that each note would be a surprise, and the composition would never sound the same twice. To hell with tuning.
Although he conceded in the end that it was impossible not to have harmony, he defined his harmony as “anarchic harmony.”
“One could say that all sounds make love to one another, or at least they accept one another, in any combination,” Cage said.
All we do is music, in other words, but each sound plays off another in a continuing disjointed abeyance, irresolvable, yet beckoning and wondrous. “I want people to be mystified by what’s happening. The reality of our life is mystery,” he said.
I think that deep sense of mystery is what is most important for any artist to honor and revere. Forget the formula, the expectations that can too easily makes work palatable—and suffocate it as a result. In the end, an artist’s dare is what matters.
Some might view Cage’s work as subversive for the sake of subversion, nothing but the high-jinks of a confirmed Dadaist, but Cage religiously and methodically wove a fragmentary, relativist aesthetic with roots in Einstein’s declaration that “there are no fixed points in space.” Cage’s music truly spoke to a plurality of centers, which resonated with him primarily as a Buddhist notion.
Because of such a vast and ever-expanding notion of existence, Cage delved into the question every artist should reckon with: What does it mean to be a person of beginnings? Too many artists find comfort in their endings as they constantly riff on the same theme, which gets so boring to their audience if not themselves. (I heard Carrie Brownstein, formerly of Slater Kinney, say in an interview that the band knew what their next album would sound like before they made it, which is why they broke up—good show).
“I try over and over to begin all over again,” said Cage.
An artist needs no other mantra. Because all of life is finding wonder in the void. Each time I get annoyed by a car’s honking, I’ll now think of how Cage might smile at it, even find it playful.