John Cage: Music from Stars February 3, 1975

Humans sometimes display a remarkable ability to explain away things they don’t like. The music of John Cage, for example. When I was an undergraduate, one of my teachers dismissed him as simply ‘crazy.’ Later, as Cage’s influence continued to spread, that explanation didn’t seem quite satisfactory, and the argument turned to ‘abrogation of responsibility.’ Since Cage left a few things up to performers, instead of dictating every sound, he was supposedly not taking the kind of responsibility which a composer is supposed to take. But this argument was perhaps even more naive than the first. If music was only valid in cases where a single individual dictated all decisions, it would be necessary to throw out jazz, Indian music, African music, and, in fact, just about everything that lies outside the European classical tradition. More recently the line of defense has turned to categories. Unable any longer to maintain the earlier arguments with any dignity, I now hear people explain that, although Cage has had a certain influence, it has really been philosophical rather than musical.

There is a certain validity here. Cage, like many artists, has never been very interested in art for art’s sake, and his works all reflect broader questions. He has been concerned with human freedom, with technology, with Zen, with the I Ching, with McLuhan, and more recently, with Thoreau and Fuller. Frequently he discusses such topics in lectures and essays, which make him, I suppose, a philosopher of sorts. But the point, of course, is that Cage’s primary mode of expression has always been music. All of his intellectual ideas have also become musical ideas—and not only in his own compositions, but in those of many other composers as well. People may wish that Cage’s viewpoint is only a philosophical matter, but like it or not, it is also very much an artistic matter.

Eric Salzman’s ‘Twentieth Century Music’ summarizes Cage’s importance very well. ‘Pop Art, happenings, multi-media, minimalism, concept art, and contemporary music theater all owe something, or trace their origins, to Cage; the impact of his ideas is now so generalized that one can only describe them as having entered the main stream of 20th-century art.’ Two generations of younger composers now look to Cage almost as a father figure. Curiously, none of the younger composers actually use the I Ching or the prepared piano or any of his specific tools. Yet something of Cage’s anarchistic political views, his appreciation of all sound, his many notation inventions, or his cross-cultural concerns can be detected in almost any avant-garde concert one hears today. On the other hand, most of the musicians who consider themselves part of the musical mainstream still see Cage as some sort of obscure tributary. And in the music community of this country, at least, his music remains almost as controversial as it was 20 years ago.

None of this seems to have affected Cage very much. Now 62, he goes on with his work as he always has, and I suspect that the results are not much different than they would be if he were universally admired or universally ignored. Much of his recent work has been involved with manipulating Thoreau texts. During the past year or two he has also spent a good deal of time going to concerts and compiling his relatively optimistic thoughts on ‘The Future of Music,’ a long provocative essay published recently in the magazine Numus-West. Simultaneously, he began working on a set of 32 piano pieces, written for Grete Sultan, who premiered three of them at Alice Tully Hall on January 25.

This piano series, called ‘Atlas Australis,’ is a major work, which has occupied him for over a year now, and it is still not quite finished. As in most of Cage’s work, the composing process involves meticulous procedures, which are outlined so thoroughly in his program notes that one could almost write one’s own ‘Atlas Australis’ by following the same procedures. The essential notes are determined by tracing over star maps, so that each note in the music represents a star in the sky. Other procedures, using the I Ching, determine whether a star will become a single note or one of 1175 possible chords, and in which octave. In each piece a few notes which are not used are held down throughout, so as to ring sympathetically, but there are no special preparations and no plucking or scraping.

I have seen the scores to quite a few of the etudes aside from the three Sultan played, and they are all pointillistic. Their countless isolated notes and chords are often quite dense, and in texture, they remind me quite a bit of Boulez’s piano music. But the aesthetic, of course, is almost the opposite. With Cage there is never any sense of purposeful transitions or thematic cells, and consonant and dissonant sounds all intermingle unpredictably.

Like Czerny etudes, the pieces become progressively more difficult, thus presenting a great challenge to any pianist who wants to get through the complete set. All the pieces involve a good deal of hand crossing, because Cage likes the idea of treating the two hands independently, and not allowing them to assist one another. Both of these characteristics are political matters for Cage, who has a strong work ethic, and strong feelings about independence.

It seemed to me that Sultan did not meet the challenge of the music very successfully. Her staccato touch was not always consistent, and I had the feeling that her dynamic shadings were not coming out quite the way she wanted them to. But I think that says more about the difficulty of the music than about the limitations of the performer. When the complete set is finished, it will become a very long evening of music and a tremendous challenge to pianists. ‘Etudes Australes’ may well replace the ‘Concord Sonata’ and the Boulez sonatas as the ultimate tour de force for piano virtuosos.

But more important for listeners is the simple fact that every note in the music is a literal representation of some star in the heavens. Listening to Cage’s rendering of the constellations and galaxies leaves me with the same sense of wonder that I have often experienced looking up at the countless stars on clear summer evenings. Or rather, as Fuller suggests, looking ‘out’ at them.