MUSIC / But is it music?: John Cage, who died in August, would have been 80 years old today. Keith Potter defends the composer's eccentric philosophy

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The Independent Culture
IT HAS often been said that John Cage's ideas are more interesting than his music. His importance in encouraging musicians, composers and their audiences to reconsider the fundamentals of music, and what it is for, has been widely acknowledged. And while those in the field of classical music are not always aware of it, Cage has been a crucial revolutionising influence on many other areas of artistic endeavour. Some have even come to Zen Buddhism or the I Ching because of him. Yet for many musicians and music lovers, Cage's compositions are naive or boring, or both.

At least the early, pre-chance compositions - the music he wrote up to 1951, chiefly for assorted, sometimes unusual, percussion ensembles and for his own one-man percussion band, the prepared piano - have by now made some headway. With units of time as his building blocks here, Cage could pour any kind of content he liked into them, sweeping away all the tonal-versus-atonal arguments that plagued other composers of the period. The resulting music has an immediate attractiveness few can resist, due not only to its engaging sounds but to its rhythmic vitality, and also because Cage often allows melodies to take flight or even harmonies redolent of other music to emerge.

Whether the tinkles, twangs and thumps of the prepared piano make you think of the Indonesian gamelan or any other non-Western phenomenon, musical or otherwise, Cage's early works constitute a quiet revolution as captivatingly musical as Debussy's. Many of these pieces are now available on record, such as the famous Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano (1946-8); and a few, such as the Third Construction for percussion quartet (1941), are well established in the concert repertoire.

But the real trouble comes with Cage's work from 1951 onwards. More than two-thirds of Cage's career was devoted, if not quite all to the use of chance means, then certainly to making compositions put together by avoiding as far as possible the intervention of his, or (and this is much misunderstood) anyone else's, personal expression or intentions. 'Taste and memory', as he often called all this, are willingly surrendered; 'non-intention' is pursued to bring about what the human mind is incapable of doing unaided. Cage himself, though, does suggest a connection between his 'early' and 'late' periods: 'it takes place at the point of silence, in the fact of duration being the basic musical element. If we have emptiness as a basis for music, then other things can enter in.'

Now you can deal with all this by avoiding arguments about music - or indeed anything - along rational Western lines altogether. In other words, you attempt to imitate Cage in his manner of operation, as he himself might have put it, by invoking the Zen Buddhism he so ardently espoused in the late 1940s. It is arguable - if that is the right word - that this is the only way at all of 'discussing' not only the approach but the results. What is one actually to say about the experience of listening to Cage's chance music when the composer himself has made such statements as 'Value judgements are not in the nature of this work as regards either composition, performance, or listening'?

Many of this enormous number of compositions, of much greater variety than in his earlier phase, come closer to poetry, to the visual arts or, most commonly, to what is most easily characterised as performance art. So we might also conclude the matter by accepting the majority of Cage's output as something quite other than music altogether. After all, he was a pioneer in blurring the distinctions between different art forms as well as between 'art' and 'life'. The infamous 4' 33' (1952) is a clear opportunity to listen to the natural and other sounds around one (unintended sounds, unless the performance is subverted, as it often is). HPSCHD (1967-9) assails its audience with a panoply of visual and other aural stimuli as well as bombarding it with seven harpsichords, most of them playing various arrangements and derangements of Mozart's 'dice-game' music. It can be experienced primarily as a kind of social event: an evening of pleasurable conversation, or whatever, accompanied by an entertaining cacophony. Though Cage appears to have condoned many of the quite substantial number of discs available of his later works (including HPSCHD, complete with a 'computer printout for playback control' to allow listeners to perform their own chance operations), the absence of such diversions provides only part of the reason for his disdain for recordings.

Both these works, however, not only interestingly confuse 'art' and 'life' but encourage concentrated listening. HPSCHD proves just as open to different interpretations on the listener's part as 4' 33', and maybe even more open to the perceiving of relationships between sounds - seemingly abandoned by Cageian indeterminacy. Some years ago I attended a peformance of HPSCHD in Bonn. After it had been going a while, the American composer and Cage scholar William Brooks came up to me and said 'Listen. It's in C major]' And it really was. Not so surprising when you consider that the Mozart 'dice-game' music is in that key, or that its triple-time, minuet lilt is actually quite well preserved by Cage.

Besides, why shouldn't the 'other things' that the composer says his basic idea allows, include familiar sounds, or even order and discipline? That Bonn performance, at least, could be experienced as something much more coherent and musical, in a sense most musicians would recognise, than one associates with Cage's chance music.

This kind of C-major-ness, however, is clearly a far cry from the one familiar with the classical composers. HPSCHD's C major in fact dissolves as some of the harpsichord parts 'erase' the 'dice-game' music. But while even this could be called a 'progression' of sorts, the overall shape of the work does not encompass the sense of forward movement, still less of development, which many would say was crucial for music to be truly tonal. I doubt that anyone whose experience of music is governed entirely by the idea of progression away from (and probably back to) a tonic key will ever get much from Cage's work. It is, however, interesting to see how far such apparently unCageian ways of listening can go, even with the works, many of them written during the last 20 years of his life, which entirely avoid the 'theatrical' dimension common in the 1960s: pieces such as the fearsomely virtuosic Freeman Etudes for solo violin, for instance (finished two years ago, and due to receive their first complete performance in Frankfurt on 18 September).

I wouldn't say that hearing Cage's music as if it were by an unknown, almost certainly more conventional composer always yields results. Nor would I argue that a search for coherence which may be considered at odds with his philosophy should be the sole justification for the survival of Cage's later works. But I do insist that such an approach is far from perverse. After all, while he never gave the carte blanche to performers of which he is often accused, Cage possibly did more to encourage us to be free and independently minded listeners than anyone else ever did. Whatever we feel about his philosophy - and I for one must confess I find it difficult to apply consistently everything he said to the experience of listening to his music, never mind to daily life - Cage still has a great deal to offer us through the medium of his own compositions. Let's open our ears and continue to listen to them.

Keith Potter is a lecturer in music at Goldsmiths' College, University of London. Anarchic Harmony, a festival designed to celebrate Cage's 80th birthday, continues in Frankfurt until 21 September

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