Friday, November 11, 2005

Playing John Cage

My first exposure to John Cage's music came in eighth grade at age 14. I had begun work on an orchestral piece, and my parents decided that I should show my music to a composer. They brought me to a professor at the Manhattan School of Music who happened to live around the corner from our house. I took along my magnum-opus-in-progress, ambitiously titled "Nova". Perhaps without realizing that I was intimidated (it was the first time I had showed my work to anyone outside my friends and family), the prof glanced over it and remarked dismissively, "This is too square. You must instead write a piece for clarinet and voice, with no barlines." No barlines! I had thought "Nova" was adventurous; it even had a measure in 7/8 meter. "Do you know the music of John Cage?" the prof queried. "Isn't he the guy who wrote the piece with no notes?" I ventured, revealing my mistrust. "John Cage is a genius, a genius!" he exhorted, and for a good deal longer than 4'33" he pontificated on the many ways in which Cage had changed the course of music, while I cowered in shame and continued skepticism.

It was 7 years before I went near a composition teacher again. But I was intrigued by the memory of those strange and vivid - sometimes rambling and random, often humorous - Cage books and scores shoved under my nose on that frightening afternoon. An inner voice continually mused, "what if there's something profound to all that kooky stuff?" But I was too busy delving into counterpoint, fugue, jazz harmony, or Yemenite women's folk chants to spend time contemplating silence. Of course, Cage's name came up now and then, in composition seminars over the years or as a foil in musical conversations, usually in a joking context or in response to an unsolvable question.

In 1992 Cage walked into a hospital in New York and unceremoniously died. I remember the day vividly; I was listening to 'New Sounds' show on WNYC, and John Schaefer was presenting an all-day broadcast of Cage's works. By this time I had already come to know and appreciate many of Cage's earlier works, like the Studies for Prepared Piano, Aria, Clarinet Sonata, and the Constructions. I had a few extra cassettes (remember those?), so I decided to record the show. This broadcast was my first exposure to many of Cage's songs and to the String Quartet, which I listened to numerous times, mesmerized by the calmly shifting sonorities and the particular quality of timelessness. Yet I still found no way into Cage's later works, which seemed to be in the realm of either the purely comic or philosophical, or both, but hardly within the boundaries of what I considered to be 'music'. And I thought that I had a pretty open mind.

Until one fateful day a percussionist at the University of Michigan asked me to take part in her graduation recital, and I agreed to play. "It's all John Cage," she added gingerly, leaving me an opportunity to back out - which I luckily didn't. One of the pieces we played was "Four", a late composition in which stopwatches are used to determine general time frames of note placement (or non-placement) within the piece. Rehearsing it left me quizzical, but performing it proved to be profoundly moving. Before that concert, Cage's later music had seemed to me to be about the concept rather than the experience. But that evening I learned that playing John Cage was, in fact, only about the experience. These were truly ego-less pieces, at least as far as the composer was concerned. We, the performers, weren't compelled to worry about what he had wanted or intended; instead, playing Cage's music encouraged a heightened awareness by bringing the singularity of each moment into full focus. During the concert I felt what I can only describe as a palpable sense of 'becoming' -- we becoming the music and it becoming us. That transformation, a bona fide alteration of consciousness, rendered spiritual the process of realizing his music. I suspect that for Cage, too, it was listening to - above and beyond the act of writing - music that was the truly spiritual experience.

Hearing or performing a work that lasts for zero minutes and zero seconds - or one which lasts for 639 years - is bound to alter one's sense of perception. Engendering such a fundemental transformation in the listener would seem to be one of the primary goals for which most creative artists strive. Does that mean that 0'00" or ASLAP are 'great' works? Maybe it doesn't matter. Cage's music encourages us to consider whether we, as audience members, should even bother seeking greatness in a work. If a piece of art transforms our way of thinking and feeling about the world, it has already accomplished a pretty hefty task.

I find it difficult to reach clear and definite conclusions about Cage's music. I acknowledge feeling uncomfortable referring to him a 'genius' as the now-retired prof did; but then again, I don't relish conferring 'genius' status on anyone, because it distances me from, rather than drawing me towards, their work. I expect that my thoughts about John Cage will continue to morph and evolve, a state of constant flux and spontenaeity which he likely would have endorsed and appreciated.