Today would have been John Cage's 100th birthday. He is, to my mind, one of the two most important American composers of "serious" music (what we call "classical" music to differentiate it from pop music). Only Charles Ives is his peer.
Unlike Ives, essentially a romantic who took orchestral music and completely blew it up, Cage threw the rules out the window. Or rather, he wrote his own rules to subvert (the results of) the rules already on the books. Cage and Ives are polar opposites; one listen to the Sonatas and Interludes followed by Ives's Fourth Symphony tells you all you need to know.
Cage studied in Los Angeles under Arnold Schoenberg, whom he adored. Schoenberg and Cage, however, did not exactly see music the same way:
After I had been studying with him for two years, Schoenberg said, "In order to write music, you must have a feeling for harmony." I explained to him that I had no feeling for harmony. He then said that I would always encounter an obstacle, that it would be as though I came to a wall through which I could not pass. I said, "In that case I will devote my life to beating my head against that wall."
And beat his head against the wall he did.
Zen Buddhism is at the core of Cage's life as well as his music, and Buddhism's defining tension - the reality that it takes great discipline and practice to achieve the nothingness at the center of Buddhism - was also the defining tension of his music. Years back I wrote a piece about the destruction of the common in music, contrasting the explosiveness of John Coltrane's free jazz with the discipline of Cage's compositional games:
In the quest for music which eaches beyond the mundane, the tension [between "free" playing and composition] gets accelerated into an existential problem: Coltrane sought to reach other worlds by obliterating the ego, and he chose to obliterate the ego by exploding it (in a sense, maximizing it until it became something beyond ego). Cage sought to reach other worlds by obliterating the ego, and the method he chose was simply to erase the ego. Both would say their methods involved maximum amounts of freedom: for Coltrane, there were no rules. For Cage, there were no decisions.
This was written in the context of 80s and 90s "noise" music, when the stated aim of "noise" artists was to break down the current musics so something new could be built in its place. The common way to do that was to move as far away from anything resembling music as possible, which quite often meant taking musical instruments (primarily guitars, due to the flexibility of electric guitar setups) and actively making them sound non- or anti-musical. Breaking down music also meant ignoring pop song structures, and quite often those breakdowns were improvised. Following the lead of noise artists from Borbetomagus and Derek Bailey to Z'ev and No Wavers like Mars and DNA, those retreating from music leaned more and more on improvisations, leading to a free improv movement that closely parallels, but is not necessarily the same as, free jazz.
But here, again, the specter of John Cage stood as a cautionary tale to improvisers:
the “free” player is one who doesn’t allow her/himself to be limited by commonly accepted laws of harmony, rhythm, melody, etc. But, post-Ornette, post-Coltrane, post-Cage, it seems to mean both more and less than that … more, because the logic of the allowable has exploded beyond the furthest reaches of even Ayler. Less, because the element of the random seeks, a la Cage, to remove the humanity of music altogether (perhaps therein lies the ultimate freedom: the freedom from ordering sound, the freedom from making music). In fact, as Cage has insisted, the common conception of freedom leads to music of habit, or music of the known … music which, more often than not, turns into a banal Grateful Dead orgy.
Cage demonstrated that composition is essential in breaking down the plaque of centuries of rules, norms, and ideas about what good music is supposed to be. Along the way, he made music from the abrasive Cartridge Music to the completely over the top HPSCHD (early computer music, back when computers were run with punch cards), to the sensitivity and beauty of the Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano. Not to mention, of course, 4' 33", the "silent piece" . . . one of the most infamous works of music ever written. And yes, I do mean written: I have the score for 4' 33" sitting on the music stand of my broken down piano upstairs.
On top of all that, he was a pretty good poet, as well as one of the world's foremost authorities on wild mushrooms. Mushroom hunters worldwide knew exactly who John Cage was, though most of them didn't find out he was a composer until they read his obituary.
In the end, I don't think he really did end up beating his head against Shoenberg's wall. I think he turned that wall into nothing.
3 am Kentucky
John Cage is the desert
a sip of bourbon
dim light by an open window
cars up on 64 outside
the notes flower
as the desert, after a shower