Shh! We’re improvising! The Lepers of Melancholy, Houston TX (photo by Jonathan Jindra)

While reading Conversing With Cage at a bus stop today, I stumbled across this funny yet in the end profound exchange (circa 1980) between John Cage and John Robert with Silvey Panet Raymond:

How do you consider new popular music – punk, New Wave?

What is the New Wave? I don’t really know what it is. If you could point it out to me, I might have some reaction.

It’s very simple, three – , four-chord stuff, aggressive, fast.

There’s a good deal of dancing on the part of the performers?

Usually jumping up and down

I’ve seen something like that. It was entertaining to see but not very engaging.

But they use very dissonant sounds; I wonder how you felt about that?

I have no objection to dissonance.

I know you have no objections, but I wanted to know whether you felt any pleasure that things were coming round to your way of thinking.

But this isn’t it, is it? Isn’t it a regular beat?

Not all the time.

I think it’s part of show business.

Aren’t you?


In a marginal way?

No. I’m much more a part of music as a means of changing the mind. Perhaps if you want to say that, I wouldn’t myself.

Opening up the mind.

A means of converting the mind, turning it around, so that it moves away from itself out to the rest of the world, or as Ramakrishna said, “as a means of rapid transportation.”

So your music in itself is not that important.

The use of it is what is important.

The use rather than the result.

That’s what Wittgenstein said about anything. He said the meaning of something was in its use.

As exasperated as I get by quotes attributed to John Cage regarding jazz improvisation, so-called popular music, and well, composing in general, I have been and will continue to be educated, provoked and inspired by his writings and music. My most recent work-in-progress for five electric guitars and electric bass is in part a homage to Cage’s Imaginary Landscape No. 1 (1939) that utilizes notation borrowed from Leo Brouwer’s wonderful guitar quartet Cuban Landscape With Rain (1984) to realize various aleatoric events. How my new piece (or for that matter Brouwer’s) would sit with Cage and his desire that music realized via chance operations covert the mind of its performers and listeners is – since he’s no longer with us – open to debate.

Maybe including “…for John Cage…” in the title of my piece isn’t appropriate?

Cage also readily admitted he was “close minded…” about many things.

Does Cage present to you a similar grab bag of ideas – some valuable, some exasperating? Has your attitude and appreciation of Cage changed over time?

P.S. Have a safe and relaxing holiday!

9 thoughts on “Punky Cagey Party”
  1. Apparently the author of the Cage biography – Ken Silverman – which Adams reviewed (see one of the three links Carey posted above…) took issue with the review and posted on John Adams’ blog Hell Mouth.

    What’s funny is I posted Punky Cagey Party completely oblivious to the Adams review. And doing so has led me to read more about the man via various composer blogs.

    With 2011 looming before us, I guess Cage is in the air – which is a great thing. The debate over his work and legacy should be welcomed even if with so much disagreement among members of our community at large.

  2. Aria is wonderful. Can anyone recommend a particular recording of that piece?

    Christian – In the photo above, I was cueing and manipulating samples of John Cage’s voice using the Kaoss pad – an instrument I believe Cage would have either loved or hated.

  3. To respond to your initial query, Cage is a daily part of my life as a composer (I even have the 2010 Cage Daily Planner in pocket format). And yes, his writings are very important to me, but so is his music. My current project uses samples from the Sonatas and Interludes preparation as part of an electronics score for my wife’s current theatre project, an adaptation of the Epic of Gilgamesh.

    And while Sonatas and Interludes has long been a favorite, there are so many terrific pieces by Cage: Four, In a Landscape, Atlas, Aria, Whiskus, Rollywhollyover, Constructions, Rozart Mix – the list goes on! While I’m always glad to see Cage read, I wish he was heard more often!

  4. I’ll start by saying that I have the utmost respect for Adams the composer and conductor. But I am increasingly concerned about Adams the spokesperson.

    Figuring that the average NYT reader is not going to be aware of the nuances of this discussion – Cage the writer vs. Cage the creator – I think Adams did Cage’s music a disservice. Saying that Cage is influential but that you don’t listen to him anymore gives license to the notion that he’s an important “philosopher” or “writer” but that one doesn’t really need to deal with his music.

    And yes, if Adams doesn’t listen to the stuff, why is he writing about the bio for the New York Times? Off the top of my head I can think of 10 other composers who do listen to, study, research, and perform Cage that would have be able to discuss his music in the present tense, not as some touchstone from their past.

    Always stimulating reading your posts and comments Chris. Enjoy the holiday!

  5. Well hang on, John Adams says a lot more in that sidebar than he doesn’t listen to Cage’s music. And even Cage in the exchange I provide states that its not his music that is important but its “use.”

    Cage is a special case, and composers engage his music, ideas, and legacy in a variety of ways.

    And Gann has written some things about improvisation that I do not agree with. Should he not write about improvising if he doesn’t improvise or doesn’t like it? I dunno. He writes well about so many things I don’t see any reason he shouldn’t?

  6. John Adams wrote about the new Cage bio for the NYT last week:

    In a sidebar, he distanced himself from Cage’s music:

    Kyle Gann gave an interesting reply over at PostClassic:

    I’m certainly closer to Gann than Adams in assessing Cage’s music. I think he’s been grossly underrated as a composer. And I wonder why Adams is writing about a Cage bio if he doesn’t listen to Cage’s music?

    BTW Kyle’s new book on 4’33” is required reading! 🙂

    Happy Thanksgiving to all.

  7. I probably feel a closer sense of kinship to much of Cage’s philosophy and music than you – particularly since I work closely with improvisers.

    Yeah, I wonder WHAT “new wave” band Cage was referring to? The quote about the dancing is hilarious to me.

    Just to clarify, Conversing With Cage is a collection of several exchanges between Cage and different interviewers over the course of several years.

  8. That quote is 30 years old and I can’t say that I know what the “new wave” was. I am picturing A Flock of Seagulls, but I can’t say that their music was particularly dissonant. Hmm…

    Anyway, I appreciate Cage as a thinker, even while my own musical aesthetics are a million miles removed from his. Yes, he can be exasperating, often obtuse, but what I find him useful for (see what I did there?) is the consideration of options precisely a million miles removed from my instincts in all musical endeavors (not just compositional).

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