01/03/2013 05:35 pm ET Updated Mar 05, 2013

The Put On of the Century, or the Cage Centenary

It is the John Cage Centenary and the 100th birthday of the Rite of Spring. Why is the former so unimportant, and the latter so important? In the last few weeks I heard four full concerts of Stravinsky's work as part of a festival I ran here in Tucson at the University of Arizona. And last night I heard a gorgeous performance by a gifted colleague of Cage's Sonatas and Interludes, which left me mostly frustrated, angry, and irritated. While Cage is being feted this year among my musical colleagues almost as much as Stravinsky, why should this be so, and what does it mean?

Stravinsky's place in the musical pantheon is clear. He and Schoenberg are certainly the two most important composers of the 20th century. There is of course a vast difference between the two. Stravinsky wrote much music that people actually wish to hear, and Schoenberg did not. Does this matter? I think it does.

Let me make a bold proposition in this regard. Music appeals to the mind, emotions, and body. It unites these three aspects of man in a way that perhaps no other art form does. The greatest music thus in some way taps into the listener's life experience, which is of course a journey over time, from birth to death. It is no surprise that music, and the tonal enterprise broadly interpreted, manifests a similar arc. The greatest of music provides musical experiences in the deepest and richest way possible, that provides a sense of transcendence. While I find this goal in almost all of Stravinsky's music, and while I happen to admire much of Schoenberg's output, I think the latter is less successful at uniting these three spheres on a regular basis.

So this brings us to Maestro Cage. Where in fact does he fall on this spectrum? As we know, Cage was a student of Schoenberg, who clearly intuited that Cage had no feeling for harmony, considered by Schoenberg to be a basic perquisite for a Western composer. Why did Shoenberg think this? Quite simply, harmony, and thus counter-point, has been central to Western music for over a thousand years, and it is one of the glories of Western Civilization, and is a creation of that culture. It has allowed for some of the greatest artistic achievements of mankind. So what was Cage's response. He famously said that he would knock his head against the wall of harmony and counterpoint, and see what the results were. His philosophical understanding that guided his first works was that music is to sooth the soul and calm the mind. Sonatas and Interludes is emblematic of this first period. Let's see wherein the problems lie.

The work lasts over an hour. Most works in the repertoire of this duration contain a sizeable amount of contrast, musical and emotional. They offer an architectonic form that makes sense of this time frame. Sonatas and Interludes offers many movements that add up to no perceivable aural structure. The emotional landscape is limited and proscribed, ultimately wan and shadowy.

The work is for prepared piano, a creation of Cage's. Various materials are placed between the strings to produce percussive sounds as well as pitched sounds that are outside of common Western tuning. Cage, by necessity, gives up on what is commonly called pitch relations. In his world, all sounds are equal, thus depriving the listener of any hierarchical relationship, and the sense of consonance and dissonance that is created within that environment. The pitch world created is placid and flaccid. While occasional sounds are quite beautiful, the pitches/sounds themselves never quite add up to anything; which is to say melody or motive is rarely present. If it is true that the ear and brain seek to add information up into some form of gestalt, as neuroscientists now tell us, Cage frustrates this possibility. And while music is based on the frustration and ultimate resolution of expectations, the Cageian frustration is never overcome. The materials sound random, dimensionless, adrift, like a wind chime.

The music is mostly quiet, a dynamic associated perhaps with the thoughts of introspection and quietude. Unfortunately, in this music the lack of dynamic quality acts like a gentle tranquilizer, dulling the mind's capability of perception. It does indeed sooth, but so does a nice massage, but the latter is not presented as an artistic expression. The registral range used, that space of high and low frequencies that we hear, is generally rather limited, again producing not much sense of variation. Rhythms are based on a very limited vocabulary that are used over and over ad nauseum, rarely building into any perceivable units.

The result of all of this is a music sadly lacking in any directionality, a music that is essentially rudderless. The music is emotionally bland and lackluster, its contours in this regard terribly narrow. Lastly, rather than engaging the mind, this is a music that purposely demands the mind be held at a distance, in abeyance. Ultimately, the music is simply downright sophomoric and boring. In Cage's latter and final chance period, by the way, matters only got much, much worse in regards to all of the above.

So where does this leave us? Cage argues the following, "If you think something is boring, try doing it for two minutes. If you still think it's boring, try it for four. If you still think it's boring, try it for eight, then sixteen, then thirty-two, and so on and so forth. Soon enough you'll find that it's really not boring at all." I think not, as boredom simply wears you down. And alas, life is too short to waste in boring activities. I think most of my colleagues ultimately think this too. It is not uncommon for composers and musicians to find Cage's ideas intriguing or provocative, but to find these same folks in the lobby during performances of the music, because they find it so tedious. The problem here is that the art itself should be of great interest in any medium, and what is said about it of lesser or secondary interest. This is of course the inverse with Cage.

So why is Cage lauded? I think his transgressive, stick-it-in your face approach finds resonance with those who think they hate the Western musical tradition, for its supposed patriarchal and masterwork approach. I think his oceanic view of rationality versus chance finds acceptance in a time which is profoundly anti-rational, and therefore unwilling to make serious artistic judgements regarding real quality, including those of genre. I think his trickster qualities, borrowed from the ultimate trickster, Duchamp, perfectly reflect our time's sense of profound unseriousness. Because, while art for most is not a matter of life or death, it does profoundly reflect our understanding and approach to ultimate values, and I have never heard "fun" described as an ultimate value to rival those old fogies of beauty, truth, and justice. But I fear this is where we are now in the culture.

So, if you want the real thing, forgo Cage for Stravinsky. Listen for starters to the earth-shattering Rite, the remarkably pithy Three Japanese Lyrics, the transcendent Symphony of Psalms, and In Memoriam Dylan Thomas. In a few years time, Cage will be a small footnote to all of this, remembered if at all, for his self-advertising, whimsy and smile, and love of mushrooms. But for his music, not a chance.

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