Complicated Noise

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The Layered Compositions of John Cage

Text of Complicated Noise




  • 2011 Shanleigh Sanford

    All rights reserved. Except as permitted under U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or permitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

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    First Edition: February 20121 0 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1









    One can think of John Cage in many ways. More than a composer, he has been philosopher, poet, inventor, teacher, prophet (true or false, depending on ones viewpoint). Given his wide range of activity, the idea of John Cage as a visual artist does not seem so strange. Rather it seems merely another extension of a multidi-mensional personality defying the limitations of a one-dimensional world. One is not surprised to find Cage making graphics; the odd thing perhaps is to find him the last to use his own discoveries in creating an object. Since much of his activity has been directed toward breaking the hold of any elite, it is also logical that his first art objects should be multiples, editions available to the many as opposed so the happy few.

    That Cage has created revolution, not only in music, but in all the arts cannot be denied. He has formulated a new attitude toward the subject matter, content, composition, and function of art. When he advised artists to leave their ivory towers and look at the world around them again, he attacked the century-long alienation of the artist from society. When he refused to impose a set meaning to content, but left interpretation open to the psychology of experiences of the individual viewer,




    John Cage is born on September 5th in Los Angeles, California. His father is an inventor, and his mother is a housewife.


    Disillusioned with college, Cage drops out and spends the next 18 months in Europe, working as an architects apprentice and dabbling in music.



    After reading Walt Whitmans Leaves of Grass, Cage is inspired to return to the United States and devote himself to learning music composition.


    Cage begins sitting in on classes taught by Arnold Schoenberg. He forms a percussion ensemble and invites Schoenberg to one of his performances.

    he destroyed the symbolic and metaphoric basis on which art since the Renaissance has rested. When he used chance as a means of composing, he undermined the traditional method by which Western art was structured. When he proposed that radical function was of greater significance today than a given radical form, he exposed the rhetoric of formalism as merely a revolutionary posture.

    Of course, Cage would be the first to admit that he is not alone in making the revolu-tion. But he has been especially effective in communicating his radical ideas through his music, lectures, and writing. Now he has begun to explore some of his own principles in a visual medium. Characteristically, he enlarges the occasion of making something beyond the object to extend his thinking about art and life in general.

  • There is no noise, only sound. I havent heard any sounds that I consider something I dont want to hear again, with the exception of sounds that frighten us or make us aware of pain. I dont like meaningful sound. If sound is meaningless, Im all for it.


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    Cage marries Xenia Andreyevna Kashevaroff.


    Cage becomes an assistant to film director Oskar Fischinger (and later composes the music for one of Fischingers films). Cage begins experimenting with new sounds, vibrations, and textures.

    When I first met John Cage about 1932, he was writing strange little piano pieces with an unusual sense of the sound interest created by odd tonal combinations. Then, as now, the music showed little desire to move about actively; it rather depended on very slight and subtle changes for its elaboration. Influences to which he subjected himself in the mid-1930s enlarged and enriched, without changing, this orientation. He studied dissonant counterpoint and composition with me for a season in California, and, when he went to New York to prepare with Adolph Weiss for lesson with Schoenberg, he continued intensive explorations of his own into rhythmic percussion music, and the musical systems of other peoples, particularly in the Orient, in my classes at the New School. Later, he studied with Schoenberg, who felt that Cage was more interested in his philosophy than in acquiring his techniques. Since then, Cage has written a great deal for the dance, and he has organized percussion orchestras to play music especially composed by himself and other people. Some of his more recent music uses conventional instruments for string quartet and for small orchestra. Concerts of his music are a regular feature of the season in New York and, for the past several years, in Paris also, where his music has been extravagantly admired.


  • To John Cage, a brief series of sounds, or even a single combination of them, has come to seem complete in itself, and to constitute an audible event. But he does not use the conventional organization of music, in which such events are related through planned rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic succession to produce what we are accustomed to consider and organic musical development. Instead, since Cage conceives each musical event to be an entity in itself that does not require completion, he simply places them one after another and sees them as being related through their coexistence in space, where they are set in a planned order of time. Each event is an aggregate of materials of sound that cohere, making a tiny world of their own, much as physical elements find themselves joined together in a meteorite. A work of Cages, therefore, might well be likened to a shower of meteors of sound.

    Cages pieces for what he called the prepared piano offer an array of tightly organized little sounds of many colors. They are played on an ordinary grand piano whose strings have been muted at various specified points with bits of wood, rubber, metal, or glass. These mutes produce a variety of timbres, whose pitch and tone quality are entirely altered from those of the unmuted strings. Each piece may have its own recipe for the arrangement of the altered sounds, a kind of tone-row of timbres. They suggest the sound of the gamelan or the jalatarang, with some delicate buzzes, clacks, hums, and sometime an unaltered tone as well. The player is guided by a piano score that is read and played entirely conventionally but produces, of course, sounds entirely different from those suggested to the eye, in accordance with the mechanical preparation for the particular piece.



    Cage finds a job the Cornish School Arts in Seattle, Washing-ton. In addition to discovering the profound impact of silence, he learns the ways of Zen Buddhism.


  • 9They say, You mean its just sounds? thinking that for something to be just a sound is to be useless, whereas I love sounds just as they are, and I have no need for them to be anything more than what they are. I dont want them to be psychological. I dont want a sound to pretend that its present or that its in love with another sound. I just want it to be a sound.



    When asked to write a piece for a dance by Syvilla Fort, Cage invents the prepared piano.


    Cage composes Living Room Music for percussion and speech quartet. It was written for com-mon objects one would find in his or her living room.

    In spite of his idea of the separateness of musical events, Cage has always had an intense interest in rhythmic structure, in absolute time values, and in the dynamics of sound and silence. His wide palette of miniscule timbres, used in what may be thought of as melodic succession, is made rhythmical by the recurrence of such successions, This is the most noticeable aspect of Cages music on first hearing. What is less obvious is that for many years his works larger rhythmical forms have been based on one or another set division of absolute time, such as a unit of sixty seconds. For example, a tive-minute work may be divided into five sections of one minute each, and each of these one-minute sections may then be divided into five phrases of twelve seconds each. The tempo may be varied by the performer in accordance with any scheme of his own, just so the large units of the work take exactly the specified number of seconds, no more and no less. This basis for establishing form can be found in Cages prepared piano music, in the piece for twelve radios, and in much of his other music as well.

    Enough amused curiosity to overflow McMillan Theater at Columbia University was aroused when the first performance of John Cages Imaginary Landscape, a composition for twelve radios, took place last spring. This was not a broadcast of Cages music played at and transmitted from one, or from twelve, radio stations. Twelve radios were, instead, to be treated like musical instruments and played in concert. How does one turn a radio into a musical instrument? This was not entirely clea