THE BLOG

Final Response on 'The Put On of the Century, or the Cage Centenary'

01/28/2013 11:19 am 11:19:08 | Updated Mar 30, 2013

I didn't expect my article on Stravinsky/Cage to create such a firestorm. I have tried to keep up with most of the responses, both positive and negative (the latter designation is a bit of an understatement). Since I can't respond to all of the comments individually, I will respond in more general terms and try to provide a sense of modest closure, if only for the present round.

I would like to first respond to general misgivings some writers seem to have about my knowledge of the field, and thus my right to weigh in on this subject or to even "judge."
As co-music director of the highly regarded New York-based contemporary ensemble Musical Elements, I programmed and conducted works representative of the widest musical aesthetic, from Berio to Lang, Carter to Brown, and Gruber to Feldman. My understanding and knowledge of the repertoire is thus wide and deep. After Musical Elements ceased functioning, I have managed to stay pretty current with the scene. I am a fairly well regarded composer (at least in some circles), having written a pretty extensive catalogue of works, which I will put up against just about any other (Isn't this a necessary attitude of any composer?).

On the matter of Cage, I have read most of his writings, conducted numerous works, studied his scores, and also performed the work of his compatriots and fellow travelers. So my comments are well considered, if a tad polemical. For the record, I happen to enjoy some early works, particularly a few early songs and the "Third Construction in Metal." However, I will continue to maintain that works that rely on his well-known use of chance procedures are not worth the time of any listener, and this includes a large amount of his output.

Some questioned my phrase the "tonal enterprise." In retrospect this should have been defined more clearly. I use this to mean music that has a sense of departure, journey, and arrival or conclusion. It would seem this broad definition can apply to music based on tonal materials, set-based materials, even serial music. (Is this not why Schoenberg used classical forms?).

I was chided for opening up a conservation that had been apparently "settled" a while ago. In response, let me say that in the Jewish Talmud both majority opinions and minority opinions are represented. This 1,500-year-old text (give or take a few hundred -- my apologies for rounding up the 800 years from Leonin/Perotin to 1,000 for argument's sake) is still studied today; so the conversation goes on, the argument and truth-seeking are the important concept and the answer less crucial. Both opinions are registered because it might well be that in the future the minority opinion will be found more useful. Similarly, whereas Cage's music might have had a salutary effect during its time, I don't think this is presently the case. Thus, I will agree with Schoenberg's assessment -- Cage was brilliant and inventive, but not a particularly good composer. In my view, perhaps a very small part of his vision should inspire, but most of his music simply can't or, maybe even, shouldn't. In the final accounting, philosophy, intent, process, talking, writing, all count for very little in the realm of music. The music must ultimately speak and sound for itself. There is obviously pretty strong disagreement as to how Cage's music can, or does, speak to us. I do believe my position on this is clear, reasonable, and worth consideration, and that responses should not include ad hominem, silly, and ignorant attacks, like those that have already been catalogued elsewhere (see here, for instance).

Allow me a metaphor borrowed from a well-known composer. Let us assume that the world of music is a very large house with many rooms. Each room contains the mysteries of a composer. Some are larger than others and some are more easily accessed than others. I would put Cage's music at the top of the house, the room would be quite small and entered by only a few, and only after the contents of many other rooms had been savored.

And finally, this entire matter will be answered by Hume's "Test of Time." While composers can't be involved in trying to write masterpieces, they do exist, and God-willing, will continue to be created. Composers must be devoted to beauty and/or truth, and that we know it when we hear those qualities is self-evident. I know of no area of the arts where we don't talk this way. Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis are better than Don Ellis. The Beatles are better than the Dave Clark Five. Picasso is better than Klimt and Roth is better than Mailer. I happen to like them all, but that isn't the point. We may wish to belittle, deny, evade, deprecate, bury, or run away from the delineation of best/better/bad/awful, in that it involves making judgments of quality. But we must sooner or latter come to grips with this hard reality, or else our lives and commitment to Music cease to be serious.