Feed Your Ears: John Cage


My tinkering with the nail violin has led me into the world of the late modernists or the proto-postmodernists or however you want to style them: those composers who let go of the tight control the modernists had insisted on and let sounds just be sounds. Of course, the most famous of them was John Cage. Here are some Cage pieces I like, or that mean something to me.

First off, here's "In a Landscape", the Cage piece people who don't think they're going to like Cage are surprised to find they like. It's gentle and consonant (so is a lot of his music, in fact) and it only sounds weird because you know it's Cage:

The trouble with this is that the floaty airiness of it has been appropriated by all kinds of people looking for New Age wallpaper music and it's hard to get at what Cage was after in this piece, if anything; it was written to accompany choreography and maybe it was nothing more than that.

A bit similar is "Litany for the Whale", which is one of Cage's great long pieces for a single melodic line. It is gorgeous and weird -- it's weird because it's so sumptuously Gregorian -- and while it could certainly function as coffe table music it will always have a place in my heart:

The first Cage piece I ever heard was "The Wonderful Widow of 18 Springs". Again, it's a stark, modal melody, extremely exposed and sung without vibrato or other Romantic nonsense, so that it sounds not a little like Maddy Prior with Steeleye Span:

So, are you feeling relaxed? Comfortable? Good. Let's go into the back room there the real stuff is. Since this is a bit of a personal selection, let's start with the "Sonatas and Interludes" for prepared piano, which I already knew from recordings when I heard it performed at the University of Cardiff in the mid-90s. I attended a session in the afternoon by the pianist who set up the preparations for the performance in the evening and talked us through the process, which was fun and very enlightening:

I grew up with the portable tape deck and the (by that point, rather aging) Dansette record player, so of course I messed around with them. I liked playing two things at the same time, or at the wrong speed or backwards or whatever. And I remember lying in bed late at night scrolling through short wave radio stations looking for something other than static or morse code. That means things like "Williams Mix" have a kind of resonance for me that maybe they don't deserve. At least, I'm not sure how much else is going on here:

I admit to not finding noisy random Cage entirely convincing -- I think the aleatoric approach works best in long pieces whose local chance elements have time to reveal their inner structures a bit. Check out Eberhard Blum's great overdubbed performance of "Atlas Eclipticalis", generously uploaded by the composer himself (the other parts are available on the same channel):

Similar is the more famous "Music of Changes":

In the 90s Cage was still going strong and writing minimal-but-not-minimal music in another new way. I'm a sucker for this period. Here's "Fifty Eight", which somehow reminds me a bit of Anthony Braxton's "Ghost Trance Music":

I'll end on something that just makes me smile -- shades of Charles Ives here, another composer who needs his own Feed Your Ears before too long, since I've spent some of the past month blatantly stealing chords from the "Concord" sonata:

Cage was often a gentle and even sentimental composer and always had a fine sense of the absurdity of what he was doing. And he is irreducibly American, like Jasper Johns, a kind of American that's disrespectful but deep-rooted, serious and daft, risk-taking and homey. It can be hard to see that American through the poisonous cloud that currently sits over the New World, but it's there. If all you know is 4'33" it's time to take a proper look around Cage's catalogue. Laughter, after all, is preferable to tears.