John Cage would be 100 years old today. That is one good reason (among quite a few others) to read Alex Ross’s 2010 piece on him. [via The New Yorker]
Did Cage love noise? Or did he merely make peace with it? Like many creative spirits, he was sensitive to intrusions of sound; years later, when he was living in the West Village, next door to John Lennon and Yoko Ono, he asked Lennon to stop using wall-mounted speakers. But he trained himself to find noise interesting rather than distracting. Once, in a radio discussion with Cage, Feldman complained about being subjected to the buzzing of radios at the beach. Never one to miss a good setup, Cage responded that in such a situation he’d say, “Well, they’re just playing my piece.” He also disliked Muzak, and in 1948 spoke of trying to sell a silent work to the Muzak company. Gann points out that in May, 1952, three months before “4’33”,” the Supreme Court took up a Muzak-related case, ruling against complainants who hoped to have piped-in music banned from public transport. There was no escaping the prosperous racket of postwar America. In a way, “4’33” ” is a tombstone for silence. Silverman, in “Begin Again,” rightly emphasizes Cage’s later obsession with Thoreau, who said, “Silence is the universal refuge.”
Zen attitudes notwithstanding, Cage had a conservative, controlling side. It is a mistake to think of him as the guru of Anything Goes. He sometimes lost patience with performers who took his chance and conceptual pieces as invitations to do whatever they pleased. Even his most earnest devotees sometimes disappointed him. Carolyn Brown recounts how puzzled she was when, after she had laboriously followed Cage’s instructions for one work, he reprimanded her for executing it “improperly.” If the idea is to free oneself from conscious will, Brown wondered, how can the composer issue decrees of right and wrong?