John Cage is not a household name, though his music influenced Frank Zappa, Yoko Ono, Laurie Anderson, David Bowie, Sonic Youth, Radiohead, Stereolab, the Kronos Quartet and reached well into the visual arts.
If you are a fan of Sonic Youth, then we might ask, what does Sonic Youth value in the music philosophies of John Cage?
A fabulous quote from Lee Renaldo, guitar player and co-founder of Sonic Youth, on his first impression of hearing John Cage.
“I would liken it to the one I first had when I encountered mid-century avant-garde American film: at first you don’t know what to make of it, and then you realize it’s an entirely new language that you’re trying to understand. In a sense, you have to work your way into a language, or into a new art form; it’s like coming to an understanding of abstract painting. If you’re coming from the history of popular and classical music, you’re confronted with a group of people working with a completely new set of concerns and tools. It takes a while to find your way in from the outside, and to understand the motivations and reasons why this music is being made, and how they got to this point.”
The following six musicians were asked in 2012 to respond to the question: “John Cage, What does he communicate?” See their full remarks here at NPR’s article.
Glenn Kotche, drummer, Wilco
“John Cage communicated the freedom to rethink, to ask questions, to reinvent and to trust. He showed how to trust and learn from the world that we live in: how to trust chance and the subtle cues that surround us every day.”
Robert Spano, symphony conductor
“He called us to question our own perception before too quickly classifying a sound as beautiful or ugly, and to find beauty in the meeting of perceiver and perceived.”
Colin Stetson, plays with Bon Iver, Arcade Fire
“That music (and all art for that matter) is at its core experiential. That it is the interaction with and manipulation of consciousness.”
Chris Carter, Cosey Fanni Tutti, founding members of Throbbing Gristle
“It’s that freedom, the breaking down, embracing and conflating of visual and audio structures, and the notion of democratizing presentation by also removing the barrier between audience and performer.”
Ryan Seaton, founding member of Callers
“Through a lifetime of wrenching people away from their assumptions and into the present moments [that] exist within performances, John Cage consistently provided occasions for listeners to shed their preconceptions.”
The Recording Academy, the Grammys, recognized Cage’s oeuvre with a special merit Trustee Award in 2016.
John Cage and Sun Ra meeting for the first time in 1986 New York City. Photo courtesy of The Vinyl Factory, London.
The “spiritual leader of chance music” Cage is known for his “prepared piano,” (see the free apps iPhone, iPad, Android), the notorious composition 4’33” (iPhone); his early use of electronics in music, and his innovations in graphic music scores, and aleatory procedures.
Cage’s most notorious (and well-respected) composition is known as 4’33” or Silence. It is four minutes and thirty-three seconds in duration or “performance.” I say performance because in it, the piano player sits at the piano and does not play for four minutes and 33 seconds. The point? To refocus our listening powers to what’s happening in the performance hall around us. To listen closely, and perhaps appreciate, the ambient murmurs, rustles, clamors that form the “soundtracks” of our lives. To regard noises in a new way. To see in a new way.
This refocus is not any different from when your mom told you to go outside and play. To play outside is merely to investigate what’s out there and discover what’s interesting. Close listening is “going outside.”
Cage’s refocus takes on a profound dimension in Zen Buddhism where close listening to the world, a kind of mindfulness, becomes revered practice. 4’33” is about mindful listening.
Cage was interested in expression, but not self-expression. His approach follows a Zen Buddhist concept that acceptance, rather than control, makes it possible to open the self to the surrounding world. With Zen practice, Cage had come to believe that to truly experience the world, one needed to free the mind and self from control by the ego. Chance and indeterminacy were his methodologies.
However, use of “chance” for Cage does have its rules; he does not intend for it to mean anything goes. Cage sees the potential to explore as a vast terrain, and in order to not keep returning to the same old points, Cage urges chance operations to determine new places to explore.
Chance offered a way to rise above control by the ego and proceed into new and unexplored territory. For Cage, chance was a discipline, not a way of giving up choice. “My choices,” he often said, “consist in choosing what questions to ask.”
Cage’s offbeat definition of music: it “should not be concerned primarily with entertainment… or the symbolic expression of the artist’s ideas,… but should rather perform the specifically useful function of helping men and women to attain a more intense awareness of their own life, not only in the concert hall but during every waking moment.”
Cage’s philosophy of life and for making art stood for “an affirmation of life—not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply to wake up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and one’s desires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord.”
A John Cage tune, “Six (3rd take)” performed by Sonic Youth members Thurston Moore, Lee Renaldo, Steve Shelly with musicians Jim O’Rourke, Takehisa Kosugi, William Winant from the Sonic Youth album Goodbye 20th Century, 1999. Sample courtesy of Sonic Youth.