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December 18, 2010 / The Frogweb


John Cage

Writer and composer James Nye met John Cage at the Musica Nova festival in Glasgow in 1990. The meeting had a profound effect on him, and is one of his most treasured memories. He corresponded with Cage in the remaining two years of Cage’s life, and decided to write an article to celebrate his forthcoming 80th birthday for The Wire magazine in 1992. Whilst writing the article, a friend told him that Cage had died. He immediately turned the celebratory piece into a kind of eulogy for Cage. The main body of the text is interspersed with quotations. Those that are unidentified are from Cage’s own writings, largely from his book Silence. The piece was published in October 1992 in issue 104 of The Wire (pp20-21 and 73).

John Cage is almost legendary for having written the three movement piece called 4’33” in which the performer is asked to remain silent for the specified length of time and the listener to experience the ambience of the room and their own interior state. He is also famous for the invention of the prepared piano in which the pitch and timbre of individual piano strings are altered by the insertion of various objects (such as coins, nuts and bolts, erasers etc) producing a kaleidoscopic percussion instrument with qualities reminiscent of Indonesian gamelan. Cage explored the use of chance elements in his music, including use of the I Ching, and was an enthusiastic amateur mycologist and a student of various eastern philosophical traditions which profoundly influenced his philosophy of life and music. The piece includes extracts from Cage’s letters to the author, published here for the very first time.


In Memoriam John Cage 1912-1992

Is there always something to hear, never any peace and quiet? (Cough)

On the 20th August I received a postcard from my friend the poet David Gascoyne, informing me of the death of John Cage. (I’m glad to have heard this from a poet.)

No beginning no ending. (Blow nose) Our intention is to affirm this life.

At the time I was writing an article to celebrate Cage’s birthday for The Wire and had hermetically sealed myself from the distractions of the media, sick of experiencing the world’s events edited and processed through the atrophied nervous systems of battle-weary hacks.

Do you think serious music is serious enough? (Bang fist)

Not that Cage’s death gained much media attention – except in the “quality” press, where letters of protest were soon received, suggesting that the author of 4’33”could not be taken seriously, and did not warrant the full page obituary he’d been given. I met John Cage at the Glasgow Music Nova festival in 1990. At the time we met, I was recovering from clinical depression, and the enormous sympathy and kindness he generated were therapy indeed.

The subject certainly suggests my telling something irrelevant. (Light match)

In common, we had a love of Erik Satie and cats, and were soon talking like old friends; he had a gift of making you feel you had known him all your life within just minutes. I was starving and tired (Glasgow is not a world capital for vegetarian food) – Cage offered to share his macrobiotic lunch with me.

We have nothing to say and we are saying it – and that is poetry. (Lean on elbow)

From the shadow play Les aventures de Monsieur Satie (1992)

We ate in the university staff club bar. The door bore the legend: MEMBERS ONLY. “D’you think they’ll let us in?” I asked Cage; “D’you think they shouldn’t?!” he responded, laughing.

He who is in harmony with the Tao is like a newborn child (Lao-Tzu)

Laughing and smiling all the time, his gentle presence was that of a benign octogenarian child, prompting one acquaintance to speculate about “senility”. But behind the childlike demeanour were eyes that flashed intelligence – he was as quick-witted as ever. Lunch was fished from a plastic bag: corn-on-the-cob, Scottish oat biscuits, sweet potato, and a green thing which turned out to be a stalk of broccoli: “I nibbled off the florets earlier,” he explained. All was carefully divided into two and eaten with contentment and solemnity. It was a kind of communion.

As in those silences that occur when two people are confident of each other’s friendship, there is no nervousness, only a sense of at-one-ness.

We spoke only a little, there was nothing to say, so we said it. On the Gulf War (then raging): “Why can’t we learn to share the Earth’s resources?” I said; “We should shoot our ‘leaders’ into space and – .” He interrupted: “-and spank their bottoms!” and broke into laughter. I’d been going to say (perhaps a little pompously) that in space they might get a more global perspective on things – a sense of our place in the cosmos. But spanking their bottoms would do just as well. It’s always liberating to see people in authority as naughty children. We spoke of Satie, my first musical hero. “Mine too, David Tudor played the Messe des Pauvres at my father’s funeral.” It was Varèse’s favourite Satie composition.

The greatest art seems unsophisticated, the greatest wisdom seems childish (Lao-Tzu)

Picasso said that every child is an artist, that the problem is how to remain one when grown up.

Right now, perhaps again, the children are teaching us.

The solution is not to grow up, to remain uncontaminated with consensus reality – free to experience uniquely. Like Satie, Cage achieved this.

First letter from John Cage to James Nye (excerpt)

You only have one song to sing, you sing it till you die (Carla Bley)

He brought to our attention the fact that there is no “silence”, that we are accompanied by sounds everywhere.

Sixty people all singing in chorus like angels only make us pray that once in Heaven, God let us anarchistic be!

4’33” may have been inspired by the blank canvases (“A canvas is never blank”) of Cage’s friend the painter Robert Rauschenberg. No blank canvas, no empty space – no silence.

This is not a composition. It is a place where things are.

Cage felt that sounds are sounds, and as such are not to be pushed around as men incline to push other men around; they should be free to be themselves.

And so the future lies with philophony (Satie)

We’re so used to pretending that words mean things that we forget that they mean only what we choose to pretend that they mean. Likewise with sounds; they express only themselves. No purposes, sounds. Cage wanted to eliminate his personal tastes from composition in order to free sounds, experience them raw.

Well, if it isn’t art, then I like it. (Cough)

Third letter from John Cage to James Nye (excerpt)

Desires wither the heart. Free from desire, you realize the mystery (Lao-Tzu)

He did not want to be emotionally manipulated by composers who exploit conventional musical language.

There is not enough of nothing in it. (Brush hair)

He wanted to feel his own feelings and not those provoked artificially by others. He was obtrusive by his very unobtrusiveness. Likewise with his music. It doesn’t need to shout and swear. The Musica Nova festival offered the chance to hear Cage’s works in juxtaposition with those of Nigel Osborne, Wolfgang Rihm and James MacMillan – a cross-section of contemporary composers. The Cage pieces sounded like holes in the fabric of the concert. The other music began to sound disturbingly ordinary. Cage’s music is immediately subversive without intending to be so. But paradoxically, despite its universality and its “impersonality” – the distance between the composer and the final result achieved by the use of chance techniques – this music is always distinctly identifiable with its composer.

What’s necessary is to be uncompromising to the end (Satie)

At Musica Nova, James MacMillan (all designer stubble and praise for Madonna) spoke of “socialist realism”, the need for approachable music (nice tunes) and his belief that the old avant garde (in sticking to their principles) were being reactionary. Undaunted by this implied criticism, Cage said he had no interest in politics: “but if I must be called anything, I’m an anarchist.”

Here we are. Let us say Yes to our presence together in Chaos. (Rub eyes)

I don’t think he ever sought to please anyone but himself, though he was always happy if someone enjoyed his music.

Express yourself completely, and then keep quiet (Lao-Tzu)

He was the only one of the four professional composers who insisted on attending all the Society for the Promotion of New Music’s workshops. Perhaps at his age it was more interesting to hear what young people are composing than to listen to rehearsals of your own music – even if your pieces are very different every time. The performances of Cage’s music at Musica Nova were rather disinterested. At the last one I attended, Five, his five minute piece for five players was “performed”.

Every something is an echo of nothing. (Cough)

Each player had one note to play once within a specified time span.

If anybody is sleepy let him go to sleep. (Snore)

Perhaps incredulous at being asked to play so little, the players sustained their notes, not leaving the required ‘silences’. Cage was disappointed. “They weren’t supposed to improvise! It was like – like a barbershop!”

Let the Tao be present in the Universe and the Universe will sing (Lao-Tzu)

Someone praised Cage’s witty afternoon asides. “Was I funny?” he asked innocently.

We won’t go unless there is no alternative.

Once he said something he hadn’t meant to. But I’m glad he did: “I don’t expect anyone to be persuaded by my ideas in my lifetime. But I think my music’s beautiful now. No. No! I shouldn’t have said that!”

Our ears are now in excellent condition. (Hold up hand, gargle)

Third letter from John Cage to James Nye (excerpt)

The World may not much notice his passing, but thanks to him, now we know that it is a world full of music we never even suspected was there – a concerto for universe and people – people with a mind to hear such things.

This time the Cat vanished quite slowly, beginning with its tail and ending with the grin, which remained some time after the rest of it had gone (Lewis Carroll)

He has left us a rich legacy, a unique vision of the Universe.

To those who have looked inside themselves, this nonsense makes perfect sense (Lao-Tzu)

I don’t know where he is now, but you can be sure that he is happy there.

Death’s inevitable, but does not sting.

Asked if he minded being taken away from his composing to attend such festivals, he said: “I’m composing all the time. And I like to be where I am.”

(c) James Nye 1992.

First published in The Wire, Issue 104, October 1992.



Leave a Comment
  1. James MacMillan / Dec 19 2010 2:07 pm

    James MacMillan? Socialist realism? Shurely Shome mishtake….

  2. thefrogweb / Dec 20 2010 9:18 am

    Quite possibly, but this is an article written 18 years ago, two years after the event it describes, and reflects my impressions at the time. The stubble, praise for Madonna, and criticism of Cage as being reactionary strike me as genuine reflections of what occurred.

    I think there is much to criticize Cage for, but still think calling him a reactionary was strange. Anarchism is a form of naive idealism as far as I’m concerned, and Cage always seemed to me to be trapped by his own commitment to compositional strategies that stifled perfectly acceptable creative impulses that would have allowed him to create some of the enduringly beautiful pieces (like In a Landscape) that he wrote early in his career. He was a lovely man, and I thought the criticisms offered at the time were facile, and, frankly, impertinent in all senses of the word.

    At the time, and even more so now, I think Madonna is a contemptible narcissist, her persona and music a travesty of good taste and genuine creativity, and that praise for her was bizarre coming from a serious composer. But again, that was 20 years ago and I have no idea how James MacMillan would assess her contribution to human culture now, nor whether, as a role model for composers, he has discovered the benefits of a regular shave.

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