This year it seems you can't kick off your shoes at the end of the day without one of them hitting a John Cage festival, and yet I see not so many concerts programming the pieces I love the most: the piano and string music Cage wrote from the late '40s into 1950.
The String Quartet (1950) is beautifully constructed, lithe like a crispy autumn leaf, precise, delicate, and ravishing. Even more influential for me personally are the Six Melodies for Violin and Keyboard, composed shortly thereafter. This music is so sparse and poetic, so careful and light. It doesn't push you around. It whispers in your ear, like some forgotten August evening. I had the great good fortune to perform the Six Melodies as an undergraduate, and I really didn't know what hit me. Their compositional influence spent time sinking in, not to emerge for about five years, and now I know I'll never be rid of them.
It's always interesting to compare Cage with his teacher, Arnold Schoenberg. They're extremely different musicians in so many ways, but they're absolutely akin in that today, a lot of serious people still can't handle their music. (Incidentally, the way into Schoenberg for me was the early piano music, especially opus 23.) I'd like to think the situation is improving as we develop our contextual bearings and conceptual resources for discussing the Second Viennese school, but for the moment it seems that passersby and neophytes will continue to hate the stuff.
A piece like Cage's limpid, spellbinding Dream (1948) is similar. Though it's not likely to raise the same sort of amateur hackles, it's still not part of the standard rep; people still can't handle it. For some professional musicians it is difficult to trust music this diaphanous and lovely. It speaks with such a clear voice, too clear perhaps to be taken seriously. My assertion is that many performers are actually, on some level, afraid to program music like this--and it isn't their fault, because their support comes from a classical music world cantilevered by the ideal of virtuosity, and for such an institution, an innocuously consonant piece like Dream is deeply subversive. How could such subtle beauty and mystery, such forceful musical ideas, spring from a single line of music with a bit of pedal? The tacit assumption is that anyone could write such simple music, and anyone could play it effectively. And yet so few have.
Everyone of course must expatiate on 4'33", but what other experiments can be done in that lab? 4'33" shattered the test tubes--or, perhaps, questioned whether they existed to begin with. For me as a composer, Dream is far more galvanizing.
I decided to write this about Cage the other day as I reflected on the trite and by-now brittle accusation that he is a philosopher and not a composer. It's a cop-out, made facile by the fact that Cage wrote so voluminously and beguilingly about his own music. Of course he was a composer! He wrote so many pieces! No one is obliged to like them, but expressing distaste or aesthetic disagreement by denying the music's existence is juvenile, and what's more, it's an ad hominem argument. Anyone who dismisses Cage in this manner has not actually responded to his music.
I'm sheepish though also somewhat proud to admit that I've received the same "philosopher-not-composer" critique, in a review of my chamber orchestra piece Night Air.
I'd love it if you gave this short, sparse piece a listen before you read the ensuing discussion.
I don't mean to dismiss or even directly respond to the critic, whose argument was not restricted to the piece's conceptual trappings. But I would like to suggest that I made a mistake when I appended this contrarian program note:
Jazz pianists don't tend to play sparsely, spaciously, the way Miles Davis played trumpet. Because a piano has eighty-eight buttons after all, and when you're improvising it seems logical to use as many of them as possible. So the idiom has developed a norm, an expectation, of fuller textures. In composing similarly there is this questionable assumption that you should "exploit the full resources" of whatever instrument or ensemble you're working with. It seems to me that writing music needn't be about "exploiting" anything.
So this is what I'm doing here -- I'm playing like Miles. The piece is a bit terse, there's a lot of space, and I have intentionally, emphatically, not used the full virtuosic potential of the orchestra. Because the tendency is to say too much and say it too often, and I thought I'd err on the other side this time. As a substitute for constant activity there is a thread of mood and atmosphere. I find that when music offers sufficient temporal and textural space, it becomes much easier to poke your head in and have a look around.
Night Air nods to a tune of the same name by Chicago band Tortoise, who were a crucial early influence on my musical conception.
Now, I stand behind the words and the ideas, but I could have saved them for post-concert beer talk. I did the music no service by saddling it with these inflammatory concepts. Admission: In spite of the program note, the theoretical "underpinnings" described therein were actually ex post facto.
How I really composed the thing is this. I wrote some initial boring sketches that I hated. I threw them away. I sat down at the piano with a new, blank sheet of staff paper. I closed my eyes and took a few deep breaths. And then I imagined the ensemble on stage, the conductor entering, lifting his baton, and beginning the piece.
And what I heard was a string of quarter notes on a hi-hat. So I wrote them down. Then some ambivalent chords; an eavesdropped melody in the strings; a brief, vagrant harp solo.
I did not write this piece by thinking. I composed it by listening. I wrote what I heard.
Then, yes, I philosophized about it for a few moments. And truthfully, I'm not much of a philosopher. I'm not interested in developing logically consistent aesthetic dicta--maybe I thought such a thing was possible or desirable as a hubristic undergraduate, but not anymore. That said, I do have an interest in the conceptual side of my music, and for better or worse, I very much enjoy writing persuasively on the subject.
Lesson: a polemical program note might draw attention to the author, but at the expense of distracting that attention from the music. John Cage is still more often debated than listened to. I've heard it said that Milton Babbitt set appreciation of his music back by the manner in which he wrote about it; I don't think the same is true of Cage, who helped shape many a sympathetic mind when he published Silence. Perhaps the debates have engendered more listening than would have otherwise occurred.
My, isn't it so much easier sometimes to discuss the music than to simply let go and listen.
• Gone Walkabout
• Music as Drama
• Crossroads II
• 10 Best of 2014
• January: Wyoming and the Open
• February: New Mexico and the Holes
• Coming Up
• Notes on The Accounts
• Crossroad Blues