BOOK REVIEW / An ear for the ordinary art of noise: 'The Roaring Silence: John Cage - A Life' - David Revill: Bloomsbury, 22.50

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The Independent Culture
DAVID REVILL intended this biography as an 80th-birthday tribute, but was beaten to it by the obituaries when John Cage died last month, a few weeks short of the event. With compensating prescience, it quotes Cage talking, amiably, about death ('not so bad after all') and the prospect of his scores surviving him ('I'm afraid they will'). But then it quotes Cage talking about everything from unemployment (a good thing) to Schoenberg (likewise, although Schoenberg wouldn't have returned the compliment).

For a man whose metier celebre was silence, John Cage perfected a technique of Wildean quotability. His life was one long statement; and as often as not it came intoned in the bipartite formulae of biblical didacticism ('People say X, but I tell you Y') that betrayed his childhood origins in a family of zealous and eccentric Midwest preachers. After early leanings to some kind of ministry, he discarded their religion but kept their style. And with a father who made his money (not much) from inventions, Cage was predestined to the role of guru / inventor, the musical equivalent of men who spend their lives making world-betterment machines in garden sheds and selling shares in them to gullible investors. That he found a fair number of takers was a mark of the persuasive power of the post-war avant-garde.

At that time, of course, Cage was the avant-garde: the pivotal figure in a world triumvirate that included Stockhausen and Boulez before aesthetic conflicts shattered their relationship. Of the three, Boulez was the true technical musician, Stockhausen the seer-like visionary, and Cage - well, Cage wasn't much of a musician at all, as he was candid enough to admit. Asked if he had become less interested in music over the years, he replied, 'No, I've been less interested in music all along' - which was typical of the engagingly oblique non-answers he liked to field to facile questions, but also profoundly true.

His most significant discoveries were sociological rather than musical, and almost always triumphs of default - forced into originality by incompetence in more conventional disciplines. As a young man he discovered that he had no ear for harmony, something of a handicap for a would-be composer. Undeterred, he devoted himself to writing for percussion and rationalised his way out of his predicament by developing a theory of composition defined by time- length where harmony had no place. No matter that the history of Western music stood against him. Western music was 'in error'. Harmony was about 'forced' relationships. Cage offered natural alternatives.

It was the same with the famous 'prepared' pianos of the Forties, an assault on the traditional sonorities of the instrument by jamming screws, rubber strips and other extraneous objects under the strings. The odd distortions which that created lent themselves to post-hoc explanation as a liberating step on Cage's journey towards indeterminate composition. They also camouflaged his modest keyboard skills.

But to deny Cage the status of Musician is to raise the question of what Music is: and that's a question Cage himself asked more provocatively, and persistently, than anyone else of his generation. That he asked it so naively took the debate back to first principles. Art, for Cage, was an experiment in living, a controllable rapprochement with what was actually beyond control; and music therefore ought to be concerned with the everyday sounds of life - which it could be once it had shrugged off the formal requirements of harmony. If the sole determining framework was time-length, music could be made from noise. Or silence. And the dominant idea in Cage's catalogue of discoveries was that silence is itself a kind of noise - acoustically incapable of achievement; a state of mind, an absence of intention.

The experience that prompted this conclusion is well-known: Cage's visit to an anechoic chamber which supposedly created a completely silent ambience, but still left him hearing his own blood-supply and heartbeat (the 'roaring silence' of the title of this book). But it was preceded by an encounter with the painter Robert Rauschenberg's all- white canvases, which argued the impossibility of visual emptiness. If nothing else a painting gathered dust, and therefore content. It could never be entirely blank. And that was the reasoning from which Cage proceeded to write his most notorious work: 4'33, four minutes and 33 seconds of silence, in three movements. Cage regarded it as central: 'No day goes by without my making use of that piece in my life and work'. And as always, he could rationalise what it was doing after the event. By 1952 when the piece was written (and yes, it is actually scored and notated, with precise durations for each movement) he was immersed in Zen Buddhism and well advanced towards the nihilism of classics such as 0'00, a 'solo to be performed in any way by anyone' whose score specifies 'a disciplined action' with maximum amplification. When Cage performed the piece he used it to catch up with his correspondence: he would sit on stage answering letters - a paradigm of virtuosic possibilities in the everyday.

The chief feeling as you read this book is that it documents a past more remote than Mozart's. The very term 'avant-garde' has acquired a finite, historical application. It generates a nostalgia that David Revill's book buys into - not uncritically but with a sometimes over-generous sympathy. As a biography which set out to engage its subject's lifetime approval, it presents Cage as a charming, off-beat polymath. It doesn't dare to ask the question: is this man a charlatan? - which, even if the answer is no, needs to be put. And it draws too tight a veil over things that Cage clearly didn't want discussed: his personal life, his homosexuality, and his long relationship with the choreographer Merce Cunningham. Such issues, says the book, are 'not important'. If I were Mr Cunningham I'd disagree.