The Unique and Unconventional Genius of John Cage

9 Dec

Through unconventional techniques, confusing compositions, and jarring sounds, twentieth century American composer John Cage changed the course of music history. Born in California in 1912, Cage became one of the most influential avant-garde composers and music theorists, and used his unique musical philosophy to baffle audiences.1“John Cage,” Encyclopædia Britannica, September 01, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/biography/John-Cage. Even after his death in 1992, Cage’s legacy has inspired many musicians to think outside of the box. Particularly through his interpretation of sound, his reinvention of instrumentation, and his adaptation of musical form, John Cage sparked an era of musical innovation, and earned the title of musical genius.

Reshaping Sound

Cage’s most infamous, and most widely misinterpreted, work is his 1952 piece, 4’33”. The concept and performance of this piece are quite simple, but can be surprising and confusing to an unknowing audience member. A pianist steps onto the stage and approaches the piano, as with every other solo performance. They take the bench, close the lid over the keys, and start a timer. Exactly thirty seconds later, the pianist resets the timer, signaling the end of the first movement. With three movements and a total duration of four minutes and thirty-three seconds, John Cage debuted his “silent composition” to the world.2Kyle Gann, “No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage’s 4’33”,” New Music Box, April 01, 2010, https://nmbx.newmusicusa.org/from-no-such-thing-as-silence-john-cages-433/.

Philosophically, Cage was fascinated by sound, and the possibility of the lack thereof.3Will Hermes, “The Story of 4’33”,” NPR, May 08, 2000, https://www.npr.org/2000/05/08/1073885/4-33. He sought to question the contents of music and art; that is, he wished to discover how absence of sound could be considered music.4Kyle Gann, “No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage’s 4’33”,” New Music Box, April 01, 2010, https://nmbx.newmusicusa.org/from-no-such-thing-as-silence-john-cages-433/. As documented in his essay series Silence, Cage concludes that pure silence is essentially unachievable.5Will Hermes, “The Story of 4’33”,” NPR, May 08, 2000, https://www.npr.org/2000/05/08/1073885/4-33. Even in a chamber designed to simulate absolute silence, Cage notes that he could still hear different pitches, ultimately coming from the work of his nervous system and his cardiovascular system.6Will Hermes, “The Story of 4’33”,” NPR, May 08, 2000, https://www.npr.org/2000/05/08/1073885/4-33. Sound will always be present, no matter what. Through 4’33”, Cage explored this idea further, and shifted his focus to ambient sound, and how it can be utilized in music.7Kyle Gann, “No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage’s 4’33”,” New Music Box, April 01, 2010, https://nmbx.newmusicusa.org/from-no-such-thing-as-silence-john-cages-433/.

While there is no music coming from the performer, as one may generally expect, 4’33” does not, and cannot, consist of complete silence. Listen to William Marx’s performance of the piece below, and take note of what can be heard. A man coughing, people rustling in their seats, a quiet “shh” from an audience member, and a number of other indeterminate sounds are all present throughout the performance.

William Marx’s performance of 4’33”.8Joel Hochberg, “John Cage’s 4’33”,” Youtube Video, 7:44, December 15, 2010, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JTEFKFiXSx4&t=1s&ab_channel=JoelHochberg.

These sounds are the foundation of 4’33”. They are mundane, mindless, and common, but when put in the correct context, are transformed into art. Generally speaking, when one thinks of musical genius, they might think of the technical and emotional brilliance of the great composers of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries.9Paul Robertson, “What is Musical Genius?,” Clinical Medicine 8, no. 2 (2008): 181, https://www.rcpjournals.org/content/clinmedicine/8/2/178.full.pdf. Even though many of them introduced new methods of manipulating and controlling sound, Cage was the first to fully employ the idea of silence and ambient sound as music, as achieved in 4’33”. As what he deemed to be his favorite and most important piece, Cage used 4’33” to redefine how sound can be truly considered art in the musical canon.10Kyle Gann, “No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage’s 4’33”,” New Music Box, April 01, 2010, https://nmbx.newmusicusa.org/from-no-such-thing-as-silence-john-cages-433/.

Revolutionizing Instrumentation and Form

In addition to his unique use of sound in 4’33”, Cage often expanded an instrument’s sound capacity through his own, contemporary invention: the prepared piano. The idea behind this creation was to increase the percussive capabilities of the piano to produce specific, otherwise unattainable, sounds.11Maggie Molloy, “Inside John Cage’s Prepared Piano: Q&A with Jesse Myers,” Second Inversion: Rethink Classical, May 11, 2016, https://www.secondinversion.org/2016/05/11/concert-preview-john-cage-sonatas-and-interludes-qa-with-jesse-myers/. Cage was able to achieve this by placing everyday objects, such as screws, nuts, bolts, rubber, and even cutlery on occasion, within the body of the piano.12Maggie Molloy, “Inside John Cage’s Prepared Piano: Q&A with Jesse Myers,” Second Inversion: Rethink Classical, May 11, 2016, https://www.secondinversion.org/2016/05/11/concert-preview-john-cage-sonatas-and-interludes-qa-with-jesse-myers/. The placement of these objects was far from random. For each piece that was performed on a prepared piano, Cage would create a detailed and explicit table of preparations to go along with the score, that indicated which objects were to be used, and their precise locations in the piano.13Jeffrey Perry, “Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano: Performance, Hearing and Analysis,” Music Theory Spectrum 27, no. 1, (2005): 37, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/mts.2005.27.1.35. Completing these preparations can be anything but an easy or simple process, but hearing the remarkable effect that they have on pieces of music exemplifies the brilliance of Cage’s elaborate modification to the piano.

Image of a prepared piano, by Maggie Molloy.14Maggie Molloy, “Inside John Cage’s Prepared Piano: Q&A with Jesse Myers,” Second Inversion: Rethink Classical, May 11, 2016, https://www.secondinversion.org/2016/05/11/concert-preview-john-cage-sonatas-and-interludes-qa-with-jesse-myers/.

Sonatas and Interludes (1946-1948) is a collection of pieces written by Cage to be performed on the prepared piano.15Betsy Schwarm, “Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano,” Encyclopædia Britannica, July 21, 2014, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Sonatas-and-Interludes-for-Prepared-Piano. With this collection, Cage wished to express nine distinct emotions: the heroic, the erotic, the wonderous, the comic, sorrow, fear, anger, mirth, and the odious.16Betsy Schwarm, “Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano,” Encyclopædia Britannica, July 21, 2014, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Sonatas-and-Interludes-for-Prepared-Piano. To do so, he chose to write in sonata form, using its standard exposition, development, and recapitulation structure.17Sidney Prim, “What is Sonata Form?,” Liberty Park Music, May 2018, https://www.libertyparkmusic.com/sonata-form/. Many great classical composers of the eighteenth century, such as Mozart and Haydn for example, developed and popularized the sonata.18Sidney Prim, “What is Sonata Form?,” Liberty Park Music, May 2018, https://www.libertyparkmusic.com/sonata-form/. Now, the form is quite standard in composition and in music theory, without significant structural modifications since its popularization.19Sidney Prim, “What is Sonata Form?,” Liberty Park Music, May 2018, https://www.libertyparkmusic.com/sonata-form/. 

Cage made sure to abide by the accepted form for his sonatas, and composed most of them in binary form.20Betsy Schwarm, “Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano,” Encyclopædia Britannica, July 21, 2014, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Sonatas-and-Interludes-for-Prepared-Piano. While nothing was altered structurally, Cage focused his musical innovations in this piece through sound, specifically by use of deliberate preparations for the piano, as explained by Stephen Drury of the New England Conservatory.

Stephen Drury discussing the preparation of a piano.21New England Conservatory, “How to Prepare a Piano with Stephen Drury,” Youtube Video, 5:09, December 23, 2011, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=myXAUEuECqQ&ab_channel=NewEnglandConservatory.

Even though the sonata form has been utilized many times over the past few centuries, Cage’s modifications to the instrument, as well as his rhythmic structures, were completely unique. Sound and rhythm defined much of Cage’s musical philosophy and innovation, and both of which are explored frequently throughout the Sonatas and Interludes collection.22Jeffrey Perry, “Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano: Performance, Hearing and Analysis,” Music Theory Spectrum 27, no. 1, (2005): 36, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/mts.2005.27.1.35.

Looking specifically at the rhythmic structure in these sonatas, there are a number of key things that Cage does, as analyzed by Jeffery Perry. As an example, in Sonata II, Cage uses an anticipatory, hesitating rhythm to help musically express one of the nine emotional themes of the collection, mirth.23Jeffrey Perry, “Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano: Performance, Hearing and Analysis,” Music Theory Spectrum 27, no. 1, (2005): 48, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/mts.2005.27.1.35. This rhythmic structure is highly reminiscent of early jazz, which is generally an adaptable and flexible style to compose in.24Jeffrey Perry, “Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano: Performance, Hearing and Analysis,” Music Theory Spectrum 27, no. 1, (2005): 48, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/mts.2005.27.1.35. Since the early classical composers who refined the sonata form were certainly not using jazz or its techniques in their compositions, this is an example of Cage’s impressive ability to transform an already well-developed structure using modern ideas and themes. 

The techniques, rhythms, and energy of Sonata II highlight how well Cage was able to combine classic musical form with modern means of expression. Inara Ferreira’s performance of the piece demonstrates how through both the prepared piano and rhythmic structure, Cage evoked the feeling of mirth through his music.

Inara Ferreira performing Sonata II, from Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes.25Inara Ferreira, “John Cage – Sonata II (from Sonatas and Interludes) – Inara Ferreira, prepared piano,” Youtube Video, 2:18, August 31, 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xObkMpQqUyU&ab_channel=InaraFerreira.

The Sonatas and Interludes collection represents how Cage was able to synthesize older, well-accepted structures with his own interpretation of sound, rhythm, and performance. While keeping the rules and traditions of the sonata intact, Cage broadened the capabilities of the form to achieve a distinct expression of emotion. And, through the use of the prepared piano, Cage was able to revolutionize the instrument and its sound. The prepared piano alienates the original piano from a sound perspective, while still maintaining much of its original character and purpose. This exactly parallels what Cage did with the sonata: taking a well-developed, fixed form, and expanding its capacity to communicate his ideas about sound, music, and emotion. For centuries, virtuosos and composers have changed the landscape of music through their originality, and John Cage is no different. His bold approach to composition, his willingness to venture into previously unexplored musical territories, and his profound philosophical take on sound as an art form, set Cage apart, and affirmed his recognition as a musical genius.

Reevaluating Genius

John Cage’s body of work is, at the very least, unconventional. Yet, because of his willingness to break musical boundaries, many musicians have attributed their success and their exploration of music to Cage’s work.26Max Blau, “33 Musicians On What John Cage Communicates,” NPR, September 05, 2012, https://www.npr.org/2012/08/30/160327305/33-musicians-on-what-john-cage-communicates. As stated by Glenn Kotche, a drummer for the band Wilco, “John Cage communicated the freedom to rethink, to ask questions, to reinvent and to trust.”27Max Blau, “33 Musicians On What John Cage Communicates,” NPR, September 05, 2012, https://www.npr.org/2012/08/30/160327305/33-musicians-on-what-john-cage-communicates. Through his experimentation with art, Cage is undoubtedly a musical genius that will go down in history, even though his music differs greatly from other musical geniuses of a traditionally classic musical canon. A large part of his philosophy was to change both what was considered music and what was considered genius, since he believed that genius in music had been far too strict and hierarchical, historically speaking.28Sara Haefeli, “The Problem with Geniuses,” The Avid Listener, July 24, 2020, https://theavidlistenerblog.com/2020/07/24/the-problem-with-geniuses/. His unique use of sounds, instrumentation, and concepts certainly achieved that goal, redefining what kinds of music can be viewed as art and genius.

Cage opened many doors from a musical perspective, but there is still an important limitation of his genius to address. Despite the fact that his compositions were widely unconventional, Cage himself falls under the same demography as the vast majority of recognized and celebrated musical geniuses throughout history: a white male. Musical genius is based upon originality, exceptional talent, and novelty, and has the power to transcend social constructs.29Paul Robertson, “What is Musical Genius?,” Clinical Medicine 8, no. 2 (2008): 181, https://www.rcpjournals.org/content/clinmedicine/8/2/178.full.pdf. Yet, those constructs largely affect the writing and remembrance of history, resulting in many musicians of great accomplishment and genius being forgotten or undervalued, because of their race, gender, or background.30Sara Haefeli, “The Problem with Geniuses,” The Avid Listener, July 24, 2020, https://theavidlistenerblog.com/2020/07/24/the-problem-with-geniuses/. Uniformity, disempowerment, and exclusion do not belong in the history of musicianship or genius. 

John Cage’s music transformed the world’s understanding of sound and freedom in composition. His work will continue to be performed, questioned, understood and misunderstood, and ultimately loved and appreciated by many. It is crucial to ensure that all musicians, now and in the future, who are innovating and changing the landscape of music in a similar way to Cage, are given an equal opportunity for respect and remembrance, just as all musical geniuses in the past. 

Bibliography

Blau, Max. “33 Musicians On What John Cage Communicates.” NPR. September 05, 2012. Accessed December 03, 2020. https://www.npr.org/2012/08/30/160327305/33-musicians-on-what-john-cage-communicates.

Ferreira, Inara. “John Cage – Sonata II (from Sonatas and Interludes) – Inara Ferreira, prepared piano.” Youtube Video. 2:18. August 31, 2012. Accessed December 05, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xObkMpQqUyU&ab_channel=InaraFerreira.

Gann, Kyle. “No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage’s 4’33”.” New Music Box. April 01, 2010. Accessed December 03, 2020. https://nmbx.newmusicusa.org/from-no-such-thing-as-silence-john-cages-433/.

Haefeli, Sara. “The Problem with Geniuses.” The Avid Listener. July 24, 2020. Accessed November 30, 2020. https://theavidlistenerblog.com/2020/07/24/the-problem-with-geniuses/. 

Hermes, Will. “The Story of 4’33”.” NPR. May 08, 2000. Accessed December 03, 2020. https://www.npr.org/2000/05/08/1073885/4-33. 

Hochberg, Joel. “John Cage’s 4’33”.” Youtube Video. 7:44. December 15, 2010. Accessed December 05, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JTEFKFiXSx4&t=1s&ab_channel=JoelHochberg. 

Molloy, Maggie. “Inside John Cage’s Prepared Piano: Q&A with Jesse Myers.” Second Inversion: Rethink Classical. May 11, 2016. Accessed November 15, 2020. https://www.secondinversion.org/2016/05/11/concert-preview-john-cage-sonatas-and-interludes-qa-with-jesse-myers/. 

New England Conservatory. “How to Prepare a Piano with Stephen Drury.” Youtube Video. 5:09. December 23, 2011. Accessed December 07, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=myXAUEuECqQ&ab_channel=NewEnglandConservatory. 

Perry, Jeffrey. “Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano: Performance, Hearing and Analysis.” Music Theory Spectrum 27, no. 1 (2005): 35-66. Accessed November 15, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/mts.2005.27.1.35. 

Prim, Sidney. “What is Sonata Form?.” Liberty Park Music. May, 2018. Accessed December 05, 2020. https://www.libertyparkmusic.com/sonata-form/. 

Robertson, Paul. “What is Musical Genius?.” Clinical Medicine 8, no. 2 (2008): 178-181. Accessed December 03, 2020. https://www.rcpjournals.org/content/clinmedicine/8/2/178.full.pdf. 

Schwarm, Betsy. “Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano.” Encyclopædia Britannica. July 21, 2014. Accessed November 15, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Sonatas-and-Interludes-for-Prepared-Piano. 

“John Cage.” Encyclopædia Britannica. September 01, 2020. Accessed November 15, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/biography/John-Cage.

 

References   [ + ]

1. “John Cage,” Encyclopædia Britannica, September 01, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/biography/John-Cage.
2, 4, 7, 10. Kyle Gann, “No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage’s 4’33”,” New Music Box, April 01, 2010, https://nmbx.newmusicusa.org/from-no-such-thing-as-silence-john-cages-433/.
3, 5, 6. Will Hermes, “The Story of 4’33”,” NPR, May 08, 2000, https://www.npr.org/2000/05/08/1073885/4-33.
8. Joel Hochberg, “John Cage’s 4’33”,” Youtube Video, 7:44, December 15, 2010, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JTEFKFiXSx4&t=1s&ab_channel=JoelHochberg.
9, 29. Paul Robertson, “What is Musical Genius?,” Clinical Medicine 8, no. 2 (2008): 181, https://www.rcpjournals.org/content/clinmedicine/8/2/178.full.pdf.
11, 12. Maggie Molloy, “Inside John Cage’s Prepared Piano: Q&A with Jesse Myers,” Second Inversion: Rethink Classical, May 11, 2016, https://www.secondinversion.org/2016/05/11/concert-preview-john-cage-sonatas-and-interludes-qa-with-jesse-myers/.
13. Jeffrey Perry, “Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano: Performance, Hearing and Analysis,” Music Theory Spectrum 27, no. 1, (2005): 37, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/mts.2005.27.1.35.
14. Maggie Molloy, “Inside John Cage’s Prepared Piano: Q&A with Jesse Myers,” Second Inversion: Rethink Classical, May 11, 2016, https://www.secondinversion.org/2016/05/11/concert-preview-john-cage-sonatas-and-interludes-qa-with-jesse-myers/.
15, 16, 20. Betsy Schwarm, “Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano,” Encyclopædia Britannica, July 21, 2014, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Sonatas-and-Interludes-for-Prepared-Piano.
17, 18, 19. Sidney Prim, “What is Sonata Form?,” Liberty Park Music, May 2018, https://www.libertyparkmusic.com/sonata-form/.
21. New England Conservatory, “How to Prepare a Piano with Stephen Drury,” Youtube Video, 5:09, December 23, 2011, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=myXAUEuECqQ&ab_channel=NewEnglandConservatory.
22. Jeffrey Perry, “Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano: Performance, Hearing and Analysis,” Music Theory Spectrum 27, no. 1, (2005): 36, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/mts.2005.27.1.35.
23, 24. Jeffrey Perry, “Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano: Performance, Hearing and Analysis,” Music Theory Spectrum 27, no. 1, (2005): 48, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/mts.2005.27.1.35.
25. Inara Ferreira, “John Cage – Sonata II (from Sonatas and Interludes) – Inara Ferreira, prepared piano,” Youtube Video, 2:18, August 31, 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xObkMpQqUyU&ab_channel=InaraFerreira.
26, 27. Max Blau, “33 Musicians On What John Cage Communicates,” NPR, September 05, 2012, https://www.npr.org/2012/08/30/160327305/33-musicians-on-what-john-cage-communicates.
28. Sara Haefeli, “The Problem with Geniuses,” The Avid Listener, July 24, 2020, https://theavidlistenerblog.com/2020/07/24/the-problem-with-geniuses/.
30. Sara Haefeli, “The Problem with Geniuses,” The Avid Listener, July 24, 2020, https://theavidlistenerblog.com/2020/07/24/the-problem-with-geniuses/.