Listening with Cage

It's the centenary of John Cage's birth. But are we really hearing him?
By Paul Griffiths

Listen. The word appears several times in John Cage's first collection of lectures and essays. The almost anagrammatically titled Silence, published in 1961, is the volume of his writing that has the most to say directly on the topic of music, or perhaps the most to ask, for Silence is in large measure a book of questions. In it, the composer invites us to consider both what listening is and what our attitude as listeners implies about our approach to the object of our attention. "Did you ever listen to a symphony orchestra?" Cage asks at an early point. Later, his curiosity leads him further: "Even if I get away from people, do I still have to listen to something?" "If, as we have, we have dropped music, does that mean we have nothing to listen to?" "Why is it so difficult for so many people to listen?" "Does being musical make one automatically stupid and unable to listen?"

This line of questioning, woven throughout the book, builds a case that music and listening are not as intimately connected as we might like to think - that music can even be an obstacle to listening, if by "music" we mean the abundant and diverse stuff of Western musical culture that dominates our concert halls and classical radio stations (and remains much the same now as it did when Cage was writing, given how little has been added to the standard repertory). That music, by its nature, directs our listening in certain ways. To listen, say, to the changing dynamics and timbre of just the cellos' middle C through a performance of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony would be contrary to the history and tradition of listening to this repertory. What Cage wanted was to remove such prescriptiveness, but to encourage the most attentive listening. The ear was not to be guided, but it was to stay tuned.

This philosophy seemed to develop for Cage with the advent of broadcast radio. When broadcasting began in Los Angeles, he was seven or eight years old - just the age to be captivated by a new technology that brought speaking voices and music of many different sorts into the former quiet of the home. At twelve, he was giving talks and playing the piano on the radio himself. In his late twenties, he created a few compositions in and for radio studios, including Imaginary Landscape No. 2 (1940), scored for four performers, two of whom manipulate test-tone recordings on phonographs. Later still, Cage used radio receivers as musical instruments, notably in Imaginary Landscape No. 4 for twelve performers (1951) and the solo work Water Walk (1959), which can be seen on YouTube in a performance by the composer. But the introduction of radio during Cage's boyhood may have left a deeper impression, particularly on how he felt about listening. Radio demanded attention. It made you realize there was a difference between the way you listened to a comedy show or a dance band and the way you listened, say, to Mom washing dishes. And it may, perhaps, have made a boy with an inquiring mind think about listening to that kitchen work as closely as he listened to the radio.

Most of us probably go through the day with our aural attention at a fairly dormant level. That level may rise suddenly when the phone rings, or when someone knocks on the door, or when the dog barks, but even then we do not listen to these things as sounds; we respond to them as signals. To really listen, to absorb and analyze the qualities of a sound, requires a mental adjustment we can almost feel. We even have a term for it: we "prick up our ears." There is no analogous term in the visual domain, because although the difference between seeing something and looking at it is not so different from that of hearing something and listening to it, the extra visual attention we apply is more like focusing on a point within the field - one person in a group, a storefront across the street, a distant feature of the landscape - whereas intent listening requires us to step up the whole aural apparatus.

This is partly because of differences in the nature of visual and aural perception. For one thing, we absorb aural information from all around us, including that part of our surroundings - more than half - that we cannot see. For another, much that we see remains the same, whereas steady sounds are unusual. Aside from the sounds of machinery, or a waterfall, or a multitude of insects, noises generally shift and vanish. We prick up our ears to catch them while we can, which is why sound can teach us much about time. A further difference is that we will often take a while, after hearing a sound, to ascertain its origin - is that low drone coming from a car or an airplane? is that gentle susurration caused by a breeze or light rain? - whereas the experience of seeing something without being able to identify it is quite rare. Sounds, unlike sights, frequently come to us first as abstract entities; perhaps that's why they lend themselves to an abstract art.

Through the centuries, music - music of the standard repertory, that is - has developed lots of ingenious ways to keep us aurally alert; primarily, it has maintained a sophisticated interplay of consistency and change. If we listen to that Beethoven symphony in the "usual" way - the way its construction almost forces us to listen - we hear a continuous, flowing narrative of statement and restatement, tension and release, challenge and response, anticipation and arrival. The principal mechanism, of course, is harmony, and it is a mechanism we can trace back to the Renaissance - to, for example, the masses of Guillaume Dufay, where a movement of several minutes' duration would go forward in orderly fashion, almost independently of the words, to reach a satisfying conclusion. The price of this is that we listen not so much to the sounds as to their continuity. Such music tells us stories in time, and about time, and these are stories we love to hear: how time, to which we are irrevocably subject, moves forward more or less evenly, and to some purpose.

The early twentieth century, with its scientific advances and social disasters, made it harder to believe in that sense of purpose. Cage was not, of course, the first Modernist composer. He was eight weeks from being born when Arnold Schoenberg finished Pierrot lunaire and was less than a year old when Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring had its noisy premiere. But he followed the logic of musical Modernism much further than did his great elders and contemporaries.

It's unclear what he learned from his time as a student of the Modernist master Schoenberg. The earliest of Cage's compositions to be published, a set of three songs from 1932-33, shows that he was already, at the age of twenty, set on a path at right angles to the listening tradition of Western music - well before he started attending Schoenberg's classes at USC and UCLA. The extremely limited means and constant repetition in these songs frustrate any sense of onward flow, as they do in a lot of the work Cage produced in the nearly six ensuing decades. In these songs, one thing does not lead to another; we have one thing, and the same thing, and the same thing, and the same thing. Erik Satie may have been the inspiration for this style, but Cage might also have been striving to emulate the author of the texts, Gertrude Stein. After all, through his companion Don Sample, Cage was just as familiar with the literary avant-garde of the time as he was with its musicians, and he had only recently made the choice to devote himself to the art of music, in lieu of architecture, poetry, or painting.

In some ways, that choice remained open. Cage never built any houses (undirected architecture, if imaginable at all, would likely be hazardous), but he made plenty of poems and, in his later years, prints. His writings often felt musical - especially in his vocal performance of them (Empty Words, which he recorded, is an example) - and his visual creations, with their spareness, their light colors and fugitive traces like smoke-blackened paper, look a little like diagrams of his musical pieces. Nor should one forget the poems that are often written into his scores as instructions and titles, or the visual appeal of many of those scores in terms of calligraphy and design.

Thus for all the elegance he showed as a poet and draftsman, music - or, rather, sound - was always at Cage's center, and from those first songs right up to the end of his life, he explored many ways to expand the art of listening and free it from expectation. The first essay in Silence, a short talk he gave in Seattle in 1937, addresses the topic right away: "Wherever we are," Cage observes, "what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating." He goes on to look forward to an art of noises, of sounds recorded on film and whose amplitudes, frequencies and rhythmic profiles are altered at will by the composer to create maybe "a quartet for explosive motor, wind, heartbeat and landslide." Not only is Cage close here to inventing musique concréte a decade ahead of its time, he is close, also, to the lesson he would offer with his work 4' 33": that music is an art of listening before it is an art of composition, and that the principal function of the composer is to create occasions for attentive listening. Written in 1952, 4' 33" instructs the lone instrumentalist not to play his instrument for the entire four-minute-and-thirty-three-second duration of the piece. With 4' 33", Cage offered the audience the opportunity to listen to nothing, ears fully pricked.

It took him twenty years, however, to reach that point - or fifteen if we take into account a 1947 lecture in which he raised the possibility of a completely silent piece. Before that came various try-outs with serial composition, a few years working with percussion ensembles, and the invention of the prepared piano.

Percussion music was important to Cage in widening the range of sounds that could be listened to as musical (that mainly meant unpitched sounds, but also included the sounds of everyday objects, as in the 1940 piece Living Room Music). Working with percussion also led Cage to absorb musicologist and composer Colin McPhee's reports about percussion orchestras in Bali. By adopting Balinese elements - ostinato, layers moving at different speeds - he could unhitch his music from Western progression.

With the prepared piano, Cage may have discovered more than he expected. Introduced as a one-person percussion ensemble, the instrument was "prepared" by inserting various materials - pieces of rubber or roofing felt, screws or bolts -between the strings, which led to the keys delivering various knocks, thuds and clangs. The prepared piano provided two great lessons. One was that musical instruments are endlessly adaptable, as Cage was to show again and again - particularly in his performances with David Tudor, who found all kinds of ways to get non-standard sounds out of the piano, prepared or not. More fundamentally, preparing the piano changed the nature of the musical score. Music for prepared piano looks exactly like ordinary piano music: it tells the performer what keys to depress, with what force and for how long. The notes, however, will not sound as they appear. The score is a program for action, not a representation of the sounding music, and the precise qualities of the sounds will depend on the make of the piano, as well as on the nature and exact positioning of the inserted objects.

Freeing sounds from the composer's determination, the prepared piano liberated in Cage a creative joy that can be felt in the many works he wrote for the instrument in the 1940s and carried through into everything he wrote thereafter. He did sense a danger in these twangs and clunks, however, worrying that they would become exactly what he wanted to avoid - a personal signature, even an expressive language. After creating his masterpiece for prepared piano, Sonatas and Interludes (1946-48), he virtually abandoned the instrument to move in another direction: toward an open art of listening, free of a prescribed message.

He had been making music with relatively small repertories of sounds; the prepared-piano piece Music for Marcel Duchamp (1947), for instance, ends with seven repetitions of a winding four-measure unit that contains only eight different sounds, not to mention more than a full measure of silence. In the next phase of his output, after a decade of devoting himself almost exclusively to percussion (including the prepared piano), he applied this principle of the restricted range of sounds to a completely different medium, writing his String Quartet in Four Parts (1949-50). In this piece the sounds very often do not follow one another in any logical succession, and a gentle stasis settles on the music through the many recurrences of the same sounds. Continuity - the great ideal of composition, performance and listening in the Western tradition - lapses. Presented with the work’s delicate sounds again and again, we begin to relish their separate identities - their presence - much more than what they have to say about the past or the future.

This goes against the grain of composing, of "placing together," and Cage evidently found it hard to avoid making sense in how one sound came after another. Rules were helpful, as was writing the sounds down in a chart and then making moves around the chart according to some system. But then came the double breakthrough: into silence with 4' 33" and, just before, into chance composition with Music of Changes for piano (1951). The choice and succession of sounds in Music of Changes are directed by chance (literally by the toss of a coin). Continuity is virtually excluded. Listening becomes a matter not of following some line placed in the music by the composer but of finding one's own line - for though Cage often declared he had nothing to say, that does not mean the listener has nothing to receive (even in the extreme case of 4' 33"). It only means that what the listener receives is not foreordained. Removing continuity allows the sounds to "be themselves" (to quote another of Cage's favorite sayings), but one could equally say that Cage's music allows listeners to be themselves, to find their own way through the multifarious soundscapes of his music: airy or tumultuous, virtuoso or modest, pure in tone or grating, strange or strangely familiar.

Time, this music says, is not orderly, nor is it purposeful. It is an uncomfortable lesson, and yet if we can listen, even in the chaos of the world we may find calm.

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