Brian Morton shares an awkward pause with John Cage, the man who invented silence
That there are silences at all seems perfectly appropriate, for this is the man who made a corner in silence. It's just that some of these silences tend to be awkward rather than aesthetically pleasing. An interview with John Cage provides ample occasions to gauge the delights of ambience: fly in the double glazing, piano tuner upstairs, hands whispering together like parchment, Christ, why didn't I grab a sandwich? All good solid New Journalistic staples but hardly to the point. There isn't enough in the ambient soundtrack - even of an Almeida Theatre midway through a short run of Cage pieces - on which to get by.
Mr Cage doesn't like talking about his music.
"I never see any point to music journalism; all those reviews, just to say what one person thinks about another person's work; those questions about what it all means, what your intentions are." One of the first ground rules of big-game interviewing is never to draw logic from your holster unless you intend to use it. Even upwind, it seems fair to make the point that Cage wasn't exactly sandbagged into this little encounter. "It's expected of you" counts in my book as a very palpable hit. When he is under some pressure to be "Cage", there's a certain gratification in finding him off guard enough to be honestly curmudgeonly.
The truth is that he looks tired and fractious, put-upon. There's little evidence of the legendary buoyancy and wit - who else would sport deedle-bompers to pick up an honorary doctorate - and the Zen Master flourishes sound a little shop-worn, less telling than they ought to be, like a re-run of Kung Fu.
At 76, Cage has entered what must be the uneasiest phase of his musical career. Unlike Samuel Beckett, who has quietly announced that he will write no more, Cage is as busy as ever. "I'm very involved in my opera, and I have so many commissions in hand that I would never need to sit and think what direction I might take next... even if I did think that a worthwhile question." Sadly, though, as that stockpile of commissions might well indicate, he's also having to face the same commodification of his work that is the awkward lot of the elderstatesmanly in any art.
It's not so easy, though, for Cage to retire. He can't bequeath posterity a pile of enigmatic Fabers. Though his most characteristic message to the world is similar to Beckett's - "tacet", "remain silent" - it's trapped within a piece, the notorious 4'33", that is explicitly scored for "any instrument or combination of instruments", a negative injunction that removes it entirely from Cage's posthumous orbit. His 'impersonality' will not, ironically, survive him. It is, in any case, of a very different sort from Beckett's which is a slow, almost surgical refinement of personality down to its most radically minimal essence - 'imagine'. Cage takes the irrelevance of personality - and the associated questions of authorship, 'expression' - almost as a premise. His most distinctive compositional methods, though even these are misunderstood, are the I Ching and the 'discovery' of chance configurations in what only an artist would consider nature - star maps, the grain of paper, patterns of number. The relation of Beckett to How It Is or Play is very different from that of Cage to the Etudes Australes or even Roaratorio, his most 'literary' work.
While he is diffident about earthly things like copyright - "I'm not very interested in the question of publishing my music. I consider it a kind of non-problem" - he is increasingly made aware by the proliferation of recordings, notably of the magnificent Sonatas And Interludes For Prepared Piano, that his music has become uncomfortably manipulable. There are, though, worse indignities than awkward or unfeeling performances. "I find that more and more people will come up to me with a piece of music paper and expect me to write some notes on it and then inscribe my name for them. They seem to expect me to give my music away." We're on the cusp of a paradox here, since isn't that almost the implication of apiece like 4'33", that it is given away, the twin secrets of conception and performance impossible to withhold? Wouldn't it in any case be simpler just to gaze intently at the empty paper and say, "But, my dear, I can see a piece there already. How can I possibly improve on that?" Cheap. But cheerful.
All the same, it does seem impossibly bad manners to expect benediction of that sort on even close acquaintance, much, we agree, like asking a dentist to check out a dodgy filling in the middle of a dinner party. Cage, who grew up in the doubtless rule-bound care of a mother active enough in the higher echelons of Los Angeles society to cancel out any eccentricities instilled by an inventor father, has a fine feel for fitting manners, but mostly for the irrelevance of unfitting gestures. It's not hard to get the sense that flattery would be ruthlessly rubber-eared.
One - doubtless dog-tired - anecdote makes the point, and shows how lonely Cage's offspring are out in the world. "I remember that once I was invited to a cocktail party in Beverley Hills. When we arrived, there was some music playing in the next room. It was very beautiful and I was intrigued to know what it was, so I called over to the hostess and asked her. She looked very shocked. 'You must be kidding,' she said, 'it's yours, of course'." It could be that we read too much into an anecdote of this sort for who, in the middle of a living made with pen and typewriter has never turned up an old cutting in a box and read it with bland but unimplicated interest for ten minutes before spotting the name at the foot? Out of a career of 40-odd years, and given his celebrated distrust of recorded music, is it really so surprising that a solitary by-blow, met out of context in a world buzzing with claimants, should fail to be acknowledged?
As with interviews, the injunction on recording is not absolute. Cage is currently working with the Mode label on a 'composer-supervised' series of albums. Again, by his own terms, why? "It's very simple and it has nothing to do with money or reputation. It's just that I've reached the age where it's important to document what I do." All the same, you're not that content to look back, as if your music were an unbroken journey from past to present? "There's another Zen story about two monks travelling through the countryside. They came to a deep river where the younger monk sees a woman waiting to cross. Without thinking he picks her up and carries her through the water, despite knowing that he is forbidden any contact with women. On the other side, it preys on his mind, all the more so because the older monk says nothing, which he takes to be a silent condemnation. Eventually, he breaks down and confesses his guilt in breaking the rules by touching a woman. 'What woman?' asks the older monk. 'Oh, that woman - but that was an hour ago'." The more pharisical critics have not found 36 years long enough to forgive or forget 4'33". The more monomaniacal of his supporters have been apt to forget that he wrote anything else.
Given the extraordinary range of his output and the fissiparous nature of some of the pieces, it's clear that no process of documentation - composer-supervised or not - can ever hope to be complete. A work such as Music For Piano (1953-56) exists in a potential for performance by between four and 84 pianos. It takes a Platonist of hardened conviction to state that any one version is definitive. Ironically, though, Cage's so-called 'chance' works, like the Etudes Australes, actually result in a total serialism of which only an absolutely accurate performance can be considered in any way authentic; since every tone commands its own absolute value outside any recoverable hierarchy, faking or modulation - though probably undetectable - are absolutely corrosive of the composer's 'intentions'.
Is it necessary to understand the mechanics of a Cage piece in order to appreciate it? Do we need to know the disposition of screws and bolts in one of his 'prepared' pianos or can we rest content with the recognition that some inscrutably controlled transformation has taken place? What, for instance, would anyone have got out of the previous night's 'performance' of his Lecture On Anarchy had he not explained its mesostic process beforehand? "But I didn't explain it. I merely said that was the process and then went on to read it." One of the sounds that customarily breaks the silence is the faint squeal of a hair splitting; on the other hand, the music itself proceeds by such nice distinctions.
Cage seems to me one of those paradoxical figures - Beckett again, his beloved Joyce - who are forced to use language to bring about its own final suffocation or asphyxiation. It's altogether possible that a later age will take at full face value Cage's half-meant anathema on recorded music; it might, more positively, have abandoned our rather specious distinction between composers and writers. Cage is already one of America's important writers - part of the vast sub-tradition that runs from Gertrude Stein, through Williams, Nin and Creeley, to moderns like Gilbert Sorrentino. If it's possible to think of works like Silence and Notations, hard covers and all, as a kind of music, it should be easy enough to look on Cage's music as a form of writing.
Like all virtuosos of evasion - from Warhol to Mark E Smith and Margaret H Thatcher - he's adept equally with the well-placed silence and the reverse tack. "What is it makes you do this?" That's his question of us, listeners and critics alike, and if in time he learns to find it a double-edged inquiry, it's not one that we can afford to duck with quite his vigour.
This article first appeared in issue 56 (October 88).
© 1998 The Wire.