Sounds of Silence

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There was always the whiff of the charlatan about John Cage. The puckish composer, audacious theoretician, stylish writer, subtle graphic artist, macrobiotic guru and fearless mushroom hunter was the impish personification of the 20th century avant-garde. Arch, soft-spoken and witty, Cage was passionately adored by his acolytes right up to his death at age 79 in 1992, and continues to be regarded by some as a kind of contemporary Beethoven, his influence ranging as far afield as Germany and Japan (where he is a demigod). And yet: Was there ever a composer of whom it can be said that his most representative and perhaps best work is one that consists of four minutes and 33 seconds of silence?

Not exactly silence. During the course of 4'33", which Cage composed (conceived?) in 1952, the pianist sits quietly at the keyboard, but nature -- in the form of coughs, whispers, rustles, the 60-cycle hum of electric lights and the rush of traffic outside the concert hall -- provides the sonic material. "When I was setting out to devote my life to music," Cage wrote in 1974, "people distinguished between musical sounds and noises. I . . . fought for noises." So defined, Cage found "music" everywhere: in the kitchen, in technology (HPSCHD, a seminal electronic collaboration with composer Lejaren Hiller), in numerology and, most important, in the 3,000-year-old Chinese Book of Changes called the I Ching, whose random, coin-tossed hexagrams formed the basis of the aleatoric, or chance, music he so loved.

In writings that spanned the most important creative years of his life -- his books include Silence, M, Empty Words and X -- Cage extended his compositional processes to include other media. To satisfy his love of words, he invented "mesostics," in which a given piece of writing (Finnegans Wake was a favorite) serves as the raw material for a poem derived by finding and capitalizing the letters of the subject's name (James Joyce) according to strict rules, arranging the results and reading down. Thus:

he Just slumped to throne

so sAiled the stout ship nansy hans.

FroM liff away.

For nattEnlaender.

aS who has come returns.

But are arbitrary randomness, programmed chance operations and a nearly value-free definition of what constitutes music a satisfactory basis for an aesthetic? Was Cage the great artist his admirers proclaim, or was he merely an ersatz Dadaist, proudly parading around in his emperor's new clothes as he pursued a whole-grain, crackpot anarchism? "Rolywholyover A Circus," on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles through Nov. 28 and due to travel to Houston, New York City, Japan and Philadelphia over the next two years, provides some answers.

Planned by Cage before his death, this "circus for museum" consists of three galleries. Two of them are devoted to Cage and his milieu: his writings, scores (Cage was a calligrapher of almost Japanese delicacy) and etchings, as well as the works of authors and artists (William S. Burroughs, Marcel Duchamp) whom Cage especially prized. The third gallery is Cagian theory in action: Cage and show curator Julie Lazar wrote letters to 130 L.A.-area museums and private collectors, inviting them to contribute works. Twenty-two responded, and the pool of works was then processed through chance operations to determine not only the contents of the gallery at any given moment, but also the selection and positioning of the artworks on the walls. The result is a kind of perpetual-motion installation as workers scurry about, consulting the computer printouts and relocating Ellsworth Kelly or William Anastasi accordingly.

Daringly conceptual? Yes. Worth the trouble? Only in theory. And therein lies the conundrum of John Cage.

There is little doubt that Cage was a bold, original thinker and a gifted writer. Indeed, the show's biggest revelation may be Cage's graceful command of the language; his essay "Where Are We Eating? and What Are We Eating?", a gastronomic account from 1975 of his barnstorming days with the Merce Cunningham dance troupe (this was in Cage's pre-tofu days), is a minor classic. His etchings and watercolors too reveal a similarly refined craftsmanship. Even his doodles aspire to art: "Plant Watering Instructions," salvaged by his longtime friend Cunningham from the back of an orchestral manuscript, evokes Miro (another Cage favorite) in its use of shapes even as it sensibly provides a bird's-eye layout of Cunningham's flat.

Still, there is in all of Cage's work a monochromaticism that eventually dulls its intellectual edge. Whether by chance or design, the rotating art works in "Rolywholyover" -- the title, naturally, comes from Finnegans Wake -- are largely done up in shades of gray, and against the gallery's white walls they are as camouflaged as white rabbits in the snow. The mesostics too become increasingly gnomic and impenetrable, until they turn into downright psychobabble: "rufthandlingconsummation tinyRuddyNewpermienting hi himself then pass ahs . . ." begins Muoyce (Music-Joyce), Cage's fifth "write- through" of Wake. Joyce did this sort of non-sense first, and better.

Which, in essence, is the problem. Almost everybody did or does what Cage did better than Cage did it himself. In Cage's principal field of music, Henry Cowell, one of his mentors, was tougher and more original; Harry Partch created a wider world of nontraditional sound with his microtonal compositions and homemade instruments; Toru Takemitsu, Japan's leading contemporary composer, has more successfully synthesized Joyce, Japanese traditional music and Western forms. Virgil Thomson was a better memoirist, and Arnold Schoenberg a better painter.

Finally there is the not at all negligible matter of how the music sounds. A common, philistine criticism of avant-garde art used to be that small children banging on pots and pans or flinging paint at a canvas could have produced exactly the same effect. In Cage's case, at least, this is very probably true (and he probably would have delighted in it). A concert of Cage's noises is, by and large, as much of a room emptier as it was when the work was new; Cage may be the first important artist whose work one wants neither to hear nor see.

Popular acceptance, or the lack thereof, does not prove or disprove an artist's worth. Surely, though, the irony has not escaped his vocal band of adherents that for all its devotion to "chance," to musique trouve, to the music of the streets and the spheres, Cage's compositions sound as tightly / scripted and totalitarian as anything by Pierre Boulez or Luigi Nono. It is chance music in which nothing is left to chance -- as Cage eventually realized. In Peter Greenaway's 1983 television documentary on him, Cage complains that he has had trouble getting performers to take him seriously. "I must find a way to let people be free without their being foolish," Cage says, "so that their freedom will make them noble." Lenin might have felt the same way.

In the end, Cage's failure was occasioned by his own audacity and the intractability of human nature. Confucius, who analyzed and annotated the I Ching more than two millenniums ago, summed it up in the book's appendix: "Change has an absolute limit." Cage's fate was that, by chance, he found it.