The Content of John Cage January 9, 1978

In John Cage’s music the idea behind the piece is as important as the piece itself because his work is never really abstract. It is always about something. These extramusical aspects of his work are often played down, but as I listened to four recent Cage works presented on two consecutive nights at the Kitchen last month, I found that the nonmusical imagery occupied my mind more than the music did.

‘Atlas Australis’ is about the stars. As in ‘Atlas Eclipticalis,’ an orchestral work written some years ago, Cage took detailed star charts from an astronomy reference book, and translated each star into a note of piano music. Thus the listener is really hearing the stars in the sky, through the most powerful telescopes available. When the music thins out, we are hearing a patch of sky containing relatively few stars. When the music becomes denser, we are hearing thick clusters of stars. And when the music goes on for well over an hour, and we realize that the pianist has only played the first half of the piece, and that the piece utilizes only the southern sky, visible from Australia, you begin to form a clearer idea of how many stars there are up there.

‘Branches’ is about plants, and all of its sounds are produced by stroking, flicking, scraping, or otherwise stimulating various plant materials. A large pine cone, a small cactus, and materials less easy to identify were mounted on a small table, and Cage performed the piece alone. I was struck by this unique form of communication between plants and people. If it were just a matter of pretending that the plants materials were talking (or singing) to the audience, the idea might seem naive, but there was more to it than this. All of the plants were amplified, via a unique sound system designed by John Fulleman, so we heard the plants through a dense layer of technology. Furthermore, Cage performed the piece, which lasted about 23 minutes, with intent concentration. He followed a stop watch, watched his score, and produced each sound with great care. As with so many Cage works, the performance situation can seem absurd, and from time to time I was tempted to chuckle as Cage ceremoniously plucked on a pine cone. At the same time, the piece is quite serious. It brings humans, technology, and plant life together in a unique and cooperative image. It enables us to witness the plant materials as if through a powerful microscope, probing way inside them and discovering the sounds they contain.

‘Cheap Imitation’ is about Eric Satie. One of Satie’s most curious and celebrated works is ‘Socrate,’ which is one of the first truly static, nondramatic European compositions, and the title ‘Cheap Imitation’ is of course tongue in cheek. The piece is actually a rather respectful homage to ‘Socrate.’ Essentially, Cage maintains Satie’s rhythmic patterns, but subjects the notes and timbres to chance processes. The first ‘Cheap Imitation’ was for orchestra, a later version was for piano, and on this occasion a new version for solo violin was presented. What we really have, then, is recycled Satie, and I found myself sensing the spirit of ‘Socrate,’ thinking about the relationship between Satie and Cage, wondering what Satie would have thought about it, and hearing the music as a strange Satie-Cage hybrid.

‘Inlets’ is about water, conches, and the sea. For this piece Cage has assembled a marvelous collection of conch shells, some over two feet long. The performers fill them with water and rotate them under microphones, producing unpredictable sounds. One thinks of the sea animals that used to live in the conches, and the divers who brought them up. The conches seem to be communicating with us, much the way the plant materials do in ‘Branches.’ I could easily get flowery describing such things, but Cage’s imagery never seems flowery or sentimental.

I have not said anything about how these pieces sound, because I wanted to concentrate on the ideas behind them, but of course the sound is important too. It seemed to me that Grete Sultan played the stars in a rather dull labored way, though some found her approach appropriate. Since neither the tempos nor the dynamics of this music is precisely prescribed, it will be most interesting to compare future interpretations. The sounds of the plant materials in ‘Branches’ were extremely delicate, with ample silence between them. The technology could be heard as much as the plants, and many of the sounds benefitted from echo or reverb effects. ‘Cheap Imitation’ is of course much thinner in the solo violin version than in the piano or orchestra versions, but soloist Paul Zukofsky easily sustained interest for the duration of the piece.

‘Inlets’ offered the most unusual sounds. I became quite caught up in the little gurgles, glugs, and swishes that resulted as Cage, David Tudor and Takehisa Kosugi manipulated their water-filled conches, and these sounds varied a lot depending on the size of the conches. Garrett List blew on a conch, making a shocking loud entrance, continuing without interruption for several minutes and sounding quite grand. John Fulleman’s crackling fire tape played a less important role, but combined nicely with the other sounds.

But even if the sounds of the plants and the conches had not worked out so well, and even if the performances had not been so good, there would still have been much to think about because the ideas behind the pieces were so strong and clear. The same can be said about almost everything Cage produces, whether it is about Thoreau, about politics, about radios, or about the flaws in a sheet of paper. This consistent clear-sightedness in the way he establishes a solid ideological underpinning for each piece is perhaps the most remarkable thing about his remarkable work.