John Cage Would be 100 if he weren’t Dead

John Cage died in 1992.

One hundred years ago on September 5th avant garde composer John Cage was born, and he’d leave a mark on music that we may never remove. Read about him on Wikipedia or take a look at the article they ran in San Diego’s local paper, because I don’t want to go into a long biography.

Just let me say he was the Andy Warhol of music. Warhol once said the most beautiful thing in Florence is MacDonald’s. In much the same way, Cage claimed that any sound is music. There is no noise and there is no silence.

Cage’s most (in)famous piece is called 4’33”. It’s a piano concerto, during which the performer walks to a piano in a concert hall, sits on the bench and doesn’t play a note; in fact does nothing. The hum of the air conditioning system, the coughing of concert hall patrons and inevitable jeers of people who think the piece is a bunch of crap are the only “music.”

In the world of music, John Cage is impossible to ignore. I don’t think it’s because he was a great artist. He was a great intellectual, and his intellect took a definite point of view. Here are a couple of well-known quotes from Cage

“There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time. There is always something to see, something to hear. In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot.”

That’s true and profound. But is all that non-silence music? Here’s another.

“The highest purpose is to have no purpose at all. This puts one in accord with nature, in her manner of operation.”

I’m guessing Cage was an atheist, though he apparently thought nature was a woman.

Cage was not an anomaly of the 20th century. In fact, he was one part of a movement in the arts that rejected the rules that sought to define art and beauty. Cage was only different because he took the movement to its logical conclusion, telling us that beauty and art don’t really exist. Why? Because we can’t define them. Here’s another quote:

“The first question I ask myself, when something doesn’t seem to be beautiful, is why do I think it’s not beautiful. And very shortly you discover that there is no reason.”

Here’s a story I once heard about art. It might be urban myth, but what the hell.

I was living in Minneapolis when a local museum got a traveling Picasso exhibition to come to town. Two women went to see it, and they were raving to each other about a Picasso art piece that stood before them. It looked like a janitor’s cart. But what amazing attention to detail! What irony! What an artist it took to find beauty in such ordinary things!

As they were speaking, the janitor walked up and pushed his cart to the elevator so he could continue his work.

It’s a story that sums up the John Cage theory of art appreciation. All things are art, just as all sounds are music. We only define things as art because we choose to perceive them in that way. A janitor’s cart may be just a janitor’s cart. But if you want it to be art, that’s cool. Or is it?

The joke in the Picasso story is told on the modern art crowd and on their notion that beauty has no rules. Cage’s quote about not being able to define beauty makes me think of the U.S. Supreme Court justice, who once said he couldn’t define pornography but he knew it when he saw it.

I think we know art when we see it. And ultimately there is some way to measure the success of, for instance, a piece of music. Maybe it’s the number of records sold (pick your favorite pop star) or the length of time a piece remains popular (Bach’s Goldberg Variations).

John Cage’s reasoning makes perfect sense, but only in the purely intellectual realm. Once you leave that world and start to rely on your emotional senses, things become much different.

Even so, let me thank John Cage on his 100th birthday for giving us the freedom to think about music in a different way. Just don’t take everything he said too seriously.

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