John Cage at (Almost) 60 July 13, 1972

It was very gratifying to see a full house at the New School auditorium for the all-Cage concert, June 30. Cage is unquestionably the most influential composer this country has ever produced. Composers have imitated him, critics have made fun of him, intellectuals have bandied his theories around, thousands have read his books. And now that his 60th birthday is approaching, people even seem to be interested in listening to his music. Not only that. A good 75 per cent of the audience stayed until the very end. If he lives to be 80, he may even see the day when a whole audience in his home town, New York, will appreciate his music and approach it with as much respect as other kinds of music. But probably not. By that time, Cage will no doubt have found new ways of offending our senses, of bringing our values into question, and making us think.

The concert began with a very inventive performance by Gordon Mumma of selections from the ‘Song Books’ (1970). Mumma always manages to find a way of making his performances interesting visually as well as musically. Here he did it by realizing each ‘song’ with a different medium. One was done by breathing into a microphone. Another was tapped out on an amplified typewriter. Another utilized an amplified musical saw, played with a bow. In another, he appeared to be making marks on a piece of paper with an amplified pencil. I suppose that sounds gimmicky, but it really isn’t, because the rhythms and colors always end up making some sort of musical sense which goes far beyond the sound effects themselves.

Then there was a film made by Nam June Paik which shows Cage giving one of his lectures, collecting mushrooms in the woods, and, in general, being his delightful iconoclastic self. The bulk of the film is devoted to a Cage composition made especially for the film. This sequence begins on a city sidewalk where Cage is squatting in front of a map of Manhattan with pencil and paper and various charts. He explains in some detail that he is employing random procedures to select different sites in Manhattan and different durations of time. The results of these computations will be the score for a four-movement composition based on environmental sounds. After a few minutes, Cage, with the help of random numbers from some computer print-out pages, has completed his work and the score is ready.

Cut to a Harlem street where Cage is standing on a sidewalk listening to the sounds of people and traffic which make up the first movement of the piece. A number of passers-by end up in the film, and Nam June Paik interviews a couple of them, but Cage is mostly concerned with listening to the sounds and keeping an eye on his stop watch to make sure the movement lasts for the amount of time specified in the score. The film proceeds in similar fashion to Times Square and two other locations, as the remaining movements are presented.

Many people seemed to think the whole thing was a joke, as there was intermittent laughter throughout this sequence. And it is a kind of joke if one wants to think of it as ‘composing’ and ‘music’ in the usual senses. But Cage is not trying to be funny. I think he calls it ‘music’ and ‘composing’ just because he likes the kind of sounds and sequences which arise naturally in the environment and wants people to listen to them as if they were music. Anyway, when the four movements were over and Cage spelled out his belief that anyone can create music for himself by simply opening his ears, the point was clear and there was no more laughter. Everyone seemed to agree with Cage and to appreciate his ingenious demonstration of the beauty of the environmental sounds.

The concert ended with simultaneous readings of pages from ‘Atlas Eclipticalis’ (1961-62) and ‘Winter Music’ (1957) in a format worked out by conductor Gordon Mumma and performed by pianist Philip Corner, trombonist James Fulkerson, and percussionists Max Neuhaus and Gregory Reeve. The music is largely soft and attractive, and is performed with great care. Like much of Morton Feldman’s music, it creates a pleasant drifting effect as it floats by in one unpredictable fragment after another, often with long pauses between fragments. It is much more severe and demanding than the other things on the program, and it was difficult to settle down to appreciating it after all the visual stimulation of the other things. But it was not just a matter of an unwise program order. Cage’s pure musical statements are always difficult to listen to, regardless of context, as they are never casual and entertaining the way his lectures and anecdotes and other things often are.

Which leads me back to my opening paragraph and to the fact that people have been much more interested in Cage’s ideas than in his music. But the music really expresses the same ideas much more clearly and beautifully than any of his other work. Hopefully, we are now ready to deal with these purely musical statements and not be satisfied with what we can pick up through the books and lectures of Cage and the articles of other people.