The Music is Constant: John Cage (1912-1992)

by Robert Xavier Rodríguez

Composer News, 1992

Chiefly a conversationalist whose talk came hot from a mind that was wise, humane, honest, truthful and well stored with knowledge...a wit and a poet who was quick to seize and to use the unexpected but appropriate image to illuminate truth as it was apprehended by a deeply moral imagination. John Cage? No, these words, from The Norton Anthology of English Literature, describe the legendary Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), an artist and thinker whose life and work significantly parallel that of John Cage, who is mourned by the musical world following his sudden death last month in New York.

Samuel Johnson was widely admired for his vivid personality, his abundant erudition, his trenchant wit and for the powerful and enriching influence he exerted upon his contemporaries. After his death, however, Johnson's creative works (poems and dramas such as The Vanity of Human Wishes, Rasselas and Irene) were dismissed as unreadable, and only in recent years have his Rambler essays and other prose writings been resurrected as evidence of his genius.

Similarly, in our own time, John Cage has been lionized as a writer of words, a lecturer and an indelible personality (expounding winningly on subjects as varied as I Ching, Henry David Thoreau and the sex life of mushrooms), but few have actually sung his praises as a composer. Arnold Schönberg, while acknowledging Cage as his most gifted American student, called him not a composer, but an inventor of music. George Crumb, likewise, dubbed him not a composer, but a musical philosopher. Cage himself has abetted this attitude by steadfastly refusing to court audiences' favor (The function of composers is to hide beauty) and by grounding his work in theoretical rather than aurally based systems (I never did have much of an ear for music). Still, John Cage has left a significant body of works, among them the landmark early pieces for prepared piano (his own invention) and such chance-inspired works as Music of Changes and Atlas Eclipticalis, large-scale structures such as Sonatas and Interludes and The Seasons and stimulating music for the theater such as Song Books, Cheap Imitation (after his soul-mate, Satie) and Europeras I-IV. Whether these titles will go the way of Rasselas is for future generations of performers to decide as they choose what they think is fun to play. In the meantime, let us refresh and renew ourselves in the great river of his ideas, a river that dozens of avant-garde tributaries flowed into and from. Without him, what figure will be left whom every adventurous musician claims as inspiration? (The Village Voice).

Cage always said that his most important piece was 4'33" (1952), consisting of an immobile pianist and four minutes and thirty-three seconds of audience noises masquerading as silence. With this single brilliant stroke, 4'33" joined the ranks of Marchel Duchamp's La Fontaine (the infamous urinal on the museum wall) and Robert Rauschenberg's White Paintings (seemingly blank canvases) as eloquently liberating metaphors for the artist's eternal quest to create works of art from the raw materials of life. In these seminal 20th-Century examples all that was needed was literally to put a frame around the commonplace in order to transfigure it into the magical status of art. As Cage elegantly put it, Music is constant; listening is intermittent.

This has been John Cage's simple credo, in both word and deed. In following it he has left us not just his music, he has opened our ears to the whole world.