“Of course he’s not a composer, but he’s an inventor — of genius.” – Arnold Schoenberg on John Cage
To categorize him as simply “a composer” would certainly be failure to adequately describe all that John Cage was, nor would it serve to encompass the vastness of his influence on the arts as a whole. Include musician, artist, author, inventor, teacher, student, philosopher, visionary, pioneer… and we’re NOW beginning to scratch the surface of all of the facets of this man’s legacy. As the musical world celebrates what would have been Cage’s 100th birthday (September 5), we reflect on some of the contributions and influences brought forth from his work.
While not the inventor of the concept, John Cage coined the term “prepared piano” to describe a piano that has been altered by placing miscellaneous objects between on or on top of the strings, hammers, or dampers. Cage first utilized a prepared piano out of necessity, when he was commissioned to write music for a modern dance production, called Bacchanale, by Syvilla Fort in 1938. He had only been writing percussion music for several years when he found himself challenged by the fact that Fort’s dance was to be performed on a stage with no room for a percussion group. So, he opted to alter the only instrument that was in the room – a single grand piano – and created “the equivalent of an entire percussion orchestra… with just one musician.” Prepared pianos have since been used by modern artists such as Denman Maroney, The Velvet Underground and Tori Amos.
In watching a video of Cage’s performance of Water Walk on the popular TV show from the 1960s, I’ve Got a Secret, it’s easy to quickly identify a whole list of performance groups that his work most certainly inspired and influenced. To name just some of the objects and instruments used: iron pipe, water pitcher, bath tub, blender, ice cubes, a rubber duck, cymbals, and a grand piano. “Extended techniques,” as they are called, are key components to performances from the likes of Blue Man Group, Stomp, several bluegrass and industrial bands, and even school and community groups performing certain Row-Loff publications, such as Bashin’.
Even before the 1952 premiere of what is probably John Cage’s most well-known work, 4’33”, critics and audiences alike have debated the reasons and purpose behind his unconventional approach to composition. Some have described it as “nonsense” while others proclaim “genius.” And then there are those who have accused him of simply being a vainglorious artist, with a flair for the avant-garde and the ostentatious. However, in reading Cage’s autobiographical summary on his website, www.johncage.org, you begin to understand that here was a man who truly saw the world around him in different hues than most of us. Cage recounts a conversation with his former mentor, Arnold Schoenberg:
“After I had been studying with him for two years, Schoenberg said, ‘In order to write music, you must have a feeling for harmony.’ I explained to him that I had no feeling for harmony. He then said that I would always encounter an obstacle, that it would be as though I came to a wall through which I could not pass. I said, ‘In that case I will devote my life to beating my head against that wall.’”
In a 1991 interview with Miroslav Sebestik, he explains “When I hear what we call ‘music,’ it seems to me that someone is talking. And talking about his feelings, or about his ideas of relationships. But when I hear traffic, the sound of traffic — here on Sixth Avenue, for instance — I don’t have the feeling that anyone is talking. I have the feeling that sound is acting. And I love the activity of sound… I don’t need sound to talk to me.”
Even though he is no longer here with us, the essence of Cage’s unique relationship with sound and silence is evident in our everyday lives. How many of us, as toddlers, pulled the pots and pans out of the cupboard to clang them together every chance we got? How often have you smiled when you noted that the click of your turn signal was suddenly in perfect meter with a song on the radio? How many times have you laid back and enjoyed the smooth, hypnotic rhythm of water waves rushing to a shoreline? In truth, there is a bit of John Cage in us all.