Anarchism and the Everyday: John Cage‘s Number Pieces

Originally published as liner notes for Four4, performed by Glenn Freeman (Ogre/Ogress, 2000).

Buy the recording here.

As he approached his eightieth birthday, John Cage (1912–1992) found himself the grand old man of the avant-garde, a composer, writer, and artist who had attained notoriety and visibility on a worldwide scale. Once only a small circle of brilliant performers had been associated with his work; now ensembles and soloists awarded him commission after commission for new compositions. In order to keep up with the demand for new pieces, Cage turned once more to his long–time assistant Andrew Culver, who developed new software that enabled Cage to write music very quickly.

These new works, which occupied almost all of Cage’s compositional attention between 1987 and 1992, came to be known as the Number Pieces. Each work’s title consists only of a number written out as a word (One, Two, Fourteen, etc.) that indicates the number of performers for which the piece was composed. If Cage wrote several works for the same number of performers, he would make a further distinction in the title by adding a superscript numeral; for instance, Four (1989) is for string quartet, while Four4 (1991) is for a quartet of percussion.

As in many of Cage’s works, there is a rich network of ideas underlying the 48 completed Number Pieces. One of the most important of these is the composer’s concern for the place of the artist within society and his concern for society in general. This idea occupied his mind since his decisive adoption of indeterminacy in the 1950s. We certainly recall Cage’s famous statement about musicians in the Concert for Piano and Orchestra (1958):

I must find a way to let people be free without their becoming foolish. So that their freedom will make them noble. . . . My problems have become social rather than musical. Was that what Sri Ramakrishna meant when he said to the disciple who asked him whether he should give up music and follow him? “By no means. Remain a musician. Music is a means of rapid transportation to life everlasting.” And in a lecture I gave at Illinois, I added, “To life, period.” [John Cage, A Year from Monday: New Lectures and Writings (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1967), 136.]

In the Number Pieces Cage made his final statement on this social problem: how to create a musical metaphor for an “enlightened” anarchy, a society of individuals who live together in harmony without having to sacrifice their freedom as individuals to a central governing authority. He had attacked the problem earlier from a variety of angles; in his most radical works like 0¢00² (1962) and Variations III (1963), for example, the performer realizes actions that may or may not be “musical” in the traditional sense, and she may do these actions for any length of time. Without traditional musical sounds or the “frame” that a time span provides, Cage challenged the very notions of the musical work.

For most of the Number Pieces, however, Cage decided to specify the length of time that each piece would last, perhaps because he wrote so many of them for musicians that he did not personally know. But in order to introduce an element of unpredictability and flexibility within a stable total duration (thus bringing the music closer to his ideal of an anarchistic environment), Cage turned to elastic “measures” that he called time brackets. He describes the time brackets in his late autobiographical mesostic, Composition in Retrospect (1981/1988):

for some time now i haVe been using / time-brAckets / sometimes they aRe / fIxed / And sometimes not / By fixed / i mean they begin and end at particuLar / points in timE

when there are not pointS / Time / foR both beginnings and end is in space / the sitUation / is muCh more flexible / These time-brackets / are Used / in paRts / parts for which thEre is no score no fixed relationship

it was part I thought of a moVement in composition / Away / fRom structure / Into process / Away / from an oBject having parts / into what you might caLl / wEather

now i_See / That / the time bRackets / took_Us / baCk from / weaTher which had been reached to object / they made an earthqUake / pRoof music / so to spEak

[John Cage, Composition in Retrospect (Cambridge: Exact Change Books, 1993), 34–35.]

Cage had used time brackets for a long time, for instance in the 1952 Untitled Event at Black Mountain College. In the Number Pieces, however, the time brackets are smaller and more subtle. In Four4, as an example, the music in Player I’s first time bracket can begin any time between 0¢00² and 1¢00²; it must end sometime between 0¢40² and 1¢40². On the other hand, Player IV can begin the music in his first time bracket any time between 0¢00² and 0¢15² and must end it between 0¢10² and 0¢25². None of the time brackets for any of the four players has an exact correspondence with any other, though there is always the possibility that the sounds might overlap. In this way, the performers in Cage’s Number Pieces can participate in a unique kind of ensemble and yet retain their own sense of musical identity and individuality. In conversations with Joan Retallack near the end of his life, Cage described this situation beautifully:

JC [John Cage]: You would go to a concert and you would hear these people playing without a conductor, hmm? And you would see this group of individuals and you would wonder how in hell are they able to stay together? And then you would gradually realize that they were really together, rather than because of music made to be together. In other words, they were not going one two three four, one two three four, hmm? But that all the things that they were sounding were together, and that each one was coming from each one separately, and they were not following a conductor, nor were they following an agreed-upon metrics. Nor were they following an agreed-upon . . . may I say poetry?—meaning feeling in quite a different way at the same time that they were being together.

JR [Joan Retallack]: So that really is a kind of microcosm of an—

JC: Of an anarchist society, yes. That they would have no common idea, they would be following no common law. The one thing that they would be in agreement about would be something that everyone is in agreement about . . . and that is, what time it is.

[John Cage and Joan Retallack, Musicage: Cage Muses on Words, Art, Music; John Cage in Conversation with Joan Retallack (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1996), 50–51.]

Now the actual sound content of Cage’s time brackets in the Number Pieces is equally subtle: usually each time bracket contains only a single pitch (as in Four4); or perhaps two or three pitches connected by a slur; or more exceptionally, for instance in Thirteen (1992), a longer string of pitches. The percussion parts in most of these works, and in Four4, are for instruments that Cage never specifies but simply refers to by number. By leaving the choice of instruments up to the performers, I believe Cage was expressing not a disinterest in the choice but rather a Zen-like absence from choice, the ultimate certainty that his ego need not influence the sounds that would appear in his percussion music. This absence and the extreme economy of content gives Cage’s Number Pieces a transparency that is always a surprise for those who know the composer’s more extravagant or virtuosic works—27¢10.554² for a Percussionist (1956), the Concert, HPSCHD (1969), Roaratorio (1979), or the Freeman Etudes for violin (1977–80/1989–90). And most of the works are longer than twenty minutes, some much longer than that: Four4 lasts 72 minutes in performance.

Hearing a piece for such a length of time that consists of very few sounds is a very unusual adventure. In my own experiences, I have a sensation of being neither awake nor asleep, present and centered but experiencing the passage of time and listening in a manner totally unfamiliar to me. Another friend of mine described it as being compelled to be with yourself for a very long time. Whatever the impression one has, it is clear that the Number Pieces give a memorable impression of spaciousness and tranquility.

Yet it is a misconception to see these works as the unique and crystalline final monuments of a master composer who expected death at any moment. Many of Cage’s earlier works are just as transparent, from the famous 4¢33² (1952) to Inlets (1977), for four conch shells filled with water. One quality that unites all of these pieces is their amazing emphasis on “ordinary life”—all that performers need to have is devotion both to the act of producing a sound and to hearing the sounds around them. Overly dramatic display has no place in these late works, but curiosity and awareness do. This exuberance for everyday life and for discovery is at the very heart of Cage’s artistic legacy. It is no surprise, then, that one of the artist’s favorite sayings was “Nichi nichi kore ko nichi”—“Every day is a beautiful day.”

CD Review: Tristan Perich: Parallels, for tuned triangles, hi-hats & 4-channel 1-bit electronics (2013)—Meehan/Perkins Duo (Physical Editions 5, 2015, 46 minutes)

Tristan Perich 2016

I first heard of Tristan Perich from NPR, hardly the bastion of cutting-edge arts journalism. But every now and then they report on someone vital and interesting (whether by accident or knowledge, it’s impossible to tell)—that’s how I also became aware of Guillermo Klein. The Perich spot concerned his 1-Bit Symphony (2010), which had just been released by Cantaloupe. Perich, who studied math, music, and computer science, has devoted much of his work to the exploration of 1-bit electronics, which Piero Scaruffi describes as “a form of digital soundscaping in which each sound can be represented with just one bit of information, the lowest possible digital representation of audio.” The sound world thus produced is deceptively simple, since the combination of the humble electronic sounds can create various acoustic phenomena that give unexpected richness to the timbres. Aesthetically the music explores repetition and slow transformation; in a word, minimalism. While it is clearly related to the early work of Glass and Reich, Perich’s music offers a strong continuation of that aesthetic as a result of his compelling choices for harmony and, above all, the dramatic effects that result from the varying rate at which different patterns change.

Parallels is part of a series called Compositions released on his own imprint, Physical Editions—the others are Telescope, for two bass clarinets, two baritone saxophones, and 4-channel 1-bit electronics; Dual Synthesis, for harpsichord and 4-channel 1-bit electronics; and Active Field, for 10 violins and 10-channel 1-bit electronics (this piece performed with Ensemble Signal conducted by Brad Lubman.) The packaging includes a poster-sized print of the score, and artist editions of 100 will continue the tradition he established in earlier works: furnishing a custom-made player and an archival-quality print of the score. (Perich’s considerable background and acclaim as a visual artist always informs the approach he takes in the release of his music.)

I’ve not heard the other pieces (except for sizeable excerpts from Dual Synthesis), but I can confidently report that Parallels is a major work in Perich’s growing catalogue. Lasting 46 minutes, the 4 separate 1-bit voices supply the pitch material. Each voice in the opening figuration presents a string of four pitches (A5, C6, D6, E6), but each begins on a different note of the string. (Thus it resembles Steve Reich’s early phase pieces.) As the piece continues, the pitches change as do the number notes in a given string. so that the music takes on some of the characteristics of Ligeti’s micropolyphony: although the constant four-voice texture is less complex than Ligeti, it shimmers like his music but also creates regular, constantly changing, dance-like pulsations. And as I remarked earlier, Perich’s deft choices for the pitches create a compelling, dramatic arc for the work.

The percussion parts (tuned triangles and hi-hat cymbals) double selected pitches of the electronics in close, interlocking patterns that I think would be extremely difficult to play accurately. For the recording, the timbre of the percussion instruments tends to add an additional coloration to the electronic sounds, but I’d suppose the act of seeing the musicians playing in real time would make a great contribution to the extraordinary sense of ecstasy that the music generates. Here’s a video trailer that gives a sense of what the piece feels like in concert.

The Meehan/Perkins Duo handle this music expertly—their precision is almost scary—and the sound is fantastic (no surprise, because Michael Riesman mixed and mastered the recording).

So much for a basic description. What is it like to hear such music? The middle to late twentieth century offered many opportunities to contemplate what happens over the course of a long piece that lacks some of the usual formal markers of, say, symphonies or operas: Reich, Glass, Feldman, and Cage all posed very different, compelling possibilities. It turns out that a listener can, if she chooses, find local- and long-range formal shapes in such music—but they are rather fluid and unpredictable. In the early minimalist works of Reich, they’re a bit less ambiguous (because his process works are very systematic and easy to hear). When the patterns of change are sometimes less systematic (as in many early works of Glass), the mind has more space to explore different alternatives.

Perich carries that marvelous ambiguity further in Patterns: one might perceive an important formal juncture around 22 minutes, when (I think) one of the percussionists switches to closed hi-hats. Around 26 minutes, both percussionists are playing hi-hats, now open and closed, and another similar change happens at 35 minutes. Otherwise there are no changes quite as dramatic, and the intervening music (not to mention the asymmetry of the junctures) tends to soften their force as defining moments in the overall form.

A sensation results, then, of not knowing quite where I am—as in the Number Pieces of Cage, Robert Morris’s electronic piece MA, or to a lesser extent, pieces like Michael Nyman’s Vertov Sounds—but as I listen to these pieces again and again, they come to resemble an environment with many different landmarks; some of them attract my attention, but I can never grasp them all at once. Morris expresses the effect in Buddhist terms: as the contemplation of Indra’s Net, a celestial network of jewels each of which reflects the totality of the network. But it’s also like real life: a constant surprise, and a wonderful one, if you take the time and you’re paying attention.

CD Review: Dan Trueman: Nostalgic Synchronic, Etudes for Prepared Digital Piano—Adam Sliwinski (New Amsterdam 70, 2015, 44 minutes)

Dan Trueman, who works as a professor of composition at Princeton University, lightly wears the trappings of his prestigious appointment. He describes himself—almost everywhere I can find—as a “composer, fiddler, and electronic musician.” Digging a little deeper, I found his Ph.D. dissertation (“Reinventing the Violin,” 1999, also from Princeton): a refreshing, erudite but unpretentious document and exactly the kind of thing I’d expect a composer to write. His promotional biography includes, almost as an afterthought, the notice that he’s been awarded prizes from the Guggenheim and MacArthur Foundations. In short, my kind of guy. (You can read a nice interview with him, written by my friend Tom Moore, here.)

In Nostalgic Synchronic, Trueman offers an ingratiating set of eight etudes for the bitKlavier, software that creates what he calls “a prepared digital piano” when harnessed by MIDI devices. Some explanation is in order. Both Henry Cowell and John Cage famously experimented with the traditional grand, altering its sound with various objects—Cage’s extensive work formalized the idea as the prepared piano, and his own joy in discovering new kinds of sounds helped him to create with it an unexpectedly vast array of different timbres for his music from the late 1930s through the mid ’50s. The bitKlavier, by contrast, alters a digital piano sample through algorithms that modify the piano sound in several ingenious ways: (1) the Nostalgic virtual preparation creates for certain notes a backward piano sound (one that begins in near silence and becomes louder)—a keyboardist’s touch can influence both the timbre and the tuning; (2) Synchronic preparations create an unpredictable repetition of the note or chord that may or may not match the rhythms of the notated music; (3) Tuning preparations allow for any imaginable temperament and include the familiar equal temperament as well as just intonation and an invented partial temperament inspired by the Norwegian Hardanger fiddle that Trueman plays. Certain notes can themselves act as controllers. (As Adam Sliwinski explained to me today, a low A in the fourth etude “toggles between two different rhythmic treatments.”) The preparations can be mobile (for instance, does the Nostalgic preparation can modify any notes desired). Touch can vary certain aspects ofthe preparations, like the reverse effect, but not others. Nevertheless, the software strikes me as very adaptable, and I’ll take some time later to explore it fully.

As a keyboard player myself, and as a writer engaged in writing a short cultural history of the piano, I’m thrilled to discover these compositions and eager to write more about them, in particular for what it tells us about the idea of the piano today. Stylistically, they traverse a wide cross-section but are often driven by a kind of post-minimalist preoccupation with pattern as well as straightforward melody with somewhat familiar-sounding harmonies. Naturally, these two fundamental aspects are often much obscured by the virtual preparations, but never so much that the whole evokes a complex terrain with few if any traditional markers. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, as Jerry Seinfeld would say.) The expressive spectrum is wide, too, ranging from the playful No. 6, “Points among Lines (with Occasional Tantrum)” to the almost naively simple No. 3, “Song.”

I’m drawn to the pieces between these two extremes because I personally find they repay repeated hearings. No. 1, “Prelude,” unfurls from a single note through a series of harmonies and patterns made more engaging by the tuning, which seems to be just intonation. No. 2, “Undertow,” is one of the slowest, most meditative works in the set, and the various reverse sounds combine with the tuning to evoke a slowly undulating environment. I find No. 4, “Marbles,” the most attractive of all. A kind of updated version of the many Elliott Carter passages marked scorrevole, its repetitive patterns are delightfully mucked up by the Synchronic preparations and the tuning gives to the whole a sparkling, crystalline quality further heightened by frequent passages in the upper registers.

As for some others, Trueman explains that No. 5, “Wallumrød,” owes something to two sonorities from a record by the Norwegian “jazz” (his scare quotes) composer and pianist Christian Wallumrød. This one is interesting because the form is more elusive, meandering back and forth among various sonorities and textures. The eighth and final etude (“It is Enough!”) treats the evergreen Bach chorale harmonization—famously used in Berg’s Violin Concerto. The spare textures and focus on just a few recurring and relatively consonant intervals bring the set to a powerful and poignant close.

As for the performance, I previously knew Adam Sliwinski only as a percussionist with the marvelous Sō Percussion. I’m very happy to report that his keyboard chops are equally nuanced and expressive. Electronic keyboards are notoriously difficult to play with the kind of touch sensitivity one can have with an acoustic piano (a major exception is the Yamaha hybrid pianos, but these use a traditional action married with the digital samples in any case), but Sliwinski succeeds brilliantly: in my experience, only Michael Riesman (of Philip Glass’s ensemble) has been on recordings as precise but also as musical with electronic instruments.

You can learn more about the work and even obtain the software here.

CD Review: John Cage: Variations IV—Avant Media (Avant-Media [Bandcamp], 2014, 54 minutes)

I’ve often referred to a number of John Cage’s works from the 1960s as examples of radical indeterminacy, a term that not everyone has agreed with. But I think the term applies to works like 0’00” and the individual items in the Variations from the third onward (1963–1978). All these works have in common an extreme rethinking of the content for a musical composition, the venue in which it is performed and heard, its total duration, and an ongoing concern with widening the possibilities for performers’ contribution to the work itself.

For example, Cage’s 0′00 (1962) called for the amplification of any activity, usually one that fulfilled a social obligation to others. Variations III (1963) included an apparatus by which one could construct a blueprint of sorts indicating how many sounds appeared during a performance along with aspects of the sounds or their interactions with each other. I continue to be astonished that the instructions also contain what, for me, is the line drawn in the sand marking Cage’s acknowledgment of radical indeterminacy’s implications: “Any other activities are going on at the same time.”

Variations IV (1963) places increased emphasis on the location of sounds inside and outside of the venue in which it is performed. Cage offers a number of possibilities (one of them, a cave, strikes me as an eerie presentiment of the Deep Listening work of Pauline Oliveros and others). Performers use several transparencies, overlaid on a map of a space, which allows them to identify where sounds exist with respect to the space. The process can be repeated any number of times to determine a temporal length for the performance. And in keeping with other similar remarks Cage made over the course of this series, he remarks that “A performer need not confine himself to a performance of this piece. At any time he may do something else. And others, performing something else at the same time and place, may, when free to do so, enter into the performance of this.”

The recording offers an aural snapshot (again assembled by chance operations) of an eight-hour performance on February 22, 2014 by Avant Media at Wild Project during the fifth annual Avant Music Festival. I corresponded with Avant’s artistic director, Randy Gibson, who explained that he created for the actual performance iterations of two simultaneous readings, using chance operations to determine the durations for these readings from noon until around 8 p.m. Performers who signed up would arrive, go to their designated spot in the space, and perform for the chance-determined time—some performed multiple times over the course of the event.

To accomplish the “sound from outside” aspect of the piece, Gibson created sound feeds from the lobby and from radio stations around the world. Other sounds included recordings of Cage reading from I–VI, readings of “Lecture on Nothing,” and much else. (I kept hearing snippets from some of the “Indeterminacy” stories, one including Cage’s recollection of his grandmother saying “John, are you ready for the second coming of the Lord?”)

Needless to say, it’s not very easy to give a conventional review of this performance, since the material can contain so much variety. Comparing this recording to the one by John Cage and David Tudor on Everest, however, I’m inclined to say that its palette of sound is much more diverse. The earlier recording used a great many recordings of classical music, inspiring Eric Salzman to remark that “One of the parlor games of the future will be ‘Catch that Quote’ in the John Cage Variations IV.” Some of the Avant Media performance reminds me of the original: I caught the minuet from a Haydn Sonata in A Major (the one where the second half is the mirror image of the first) and the first movement from Schumann’s Kinderszenen—both toward the end. And their appearance makes for an unepxected bit of poetry not unlike the appearance of Wagner’s “O, du mein holder Abendstern” from Tannhaüser at the end of Cage’s Europeras 3 & 4. The pianist (or pianists) plays beautifully, and overall I like the sound quality and the separation of the various components. I’d say this performance of Variations IV is superior to the Everest release, and I hope it stimulates more interest in these works.

The recording is available from Bandcamp. Read more—and buy!—at

A New and Consistent World Entirely His Own

Alen Profile

The twentieth and twenty-first centuries have witnessed an extraordinary and almost indefinable cross-fertilization among artistic disciplines and styles. New technologies have facilitated new ways of creation and new ways to present works to audiences. Much of this activity has occurred in the theater, and some of the most impressive achievements have included a significant role for music, for instance Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Licht cycle (1977–2003), John Cage’s Roaratorio (1979/1983), and the so-called video opera of Steve Reich and Beryl Korot, Three Tales (2002). The creative activity of the Serbian composer and artist Alen Ilijić—and in particular his most recent project Ongevarfen (“Disordered”), which takes as its departure point homage to Arnold Schoenberg—belongs to this tradition but extends it into altogether new terrain with respect to both theater and technology.

Indeed, Schoenberg’s life and work present a congenial, albeit preliminary, introduction to Ilijić. Schoenberg engaged deeply in the artistic movements of his time—he was for a time equally committed to both painting and music—but he never turned his back on the world he lived in. He was a Jew living in the twentieth century, and he lived through the horror of the rise of fascism and World War II. He was also wholly committed to the establishment and safety of the Jewish state, and his return to Judaism was borne out of a genuine revulsion for the evils of the world around him and a feeling of certainty that he needed to make a profound connection with his heritage.

Ilijić, too, engages deeply with the artistic movements of his time, but in ways that Schoenberg could scarcely have imagined. After studies in as well as composition (including film music), orchestration, electronic music, and sound engineering, he worked in London as a singer–songwriter and guitarist. His band Zealot greatly affected artists involved in experimental rock and noise of the 1990s. In the music that followed, he has continued to make use of the techniques and gestures of his work with Zealot, but integrated these with more varied post-tonal materials. Like Schoenberg, Ilijić also works in visual art; whereas Schoenberg felt he had to make a decision between art and music, however, Ilijić’s work includes extensive and ongoing activity in visual art, which in turn informs and is informed by his music and his performance. And Ilijić’s profound Jewish faith, as expressed in his work, speaks out against new and almost unthinkable acts of destruction and bloodshed as new forces of extremism stand poised to threaten world peace again.

Indeed, it is in performance that the various strands of Ilijić’s work coalesce, and through which a most important connection with the artistic present can be made. The forcefulness and extraordinary range of his work emerges most clearly when one sees him perform, as in the recent work Red Faces, most recently staged in January 2016 in Tel Aviv. He makes use of his entire body during the course of the twenty-minute work. At first, he stands silently, sometimes moving his arms in wide, elegant gestures; his hands execute complex rhythms on the piano case; the music alternates sweeping glissandi, slower and lyric melody—often doubled by his voice in the extreme upper register—and violent, often disturbing stabs of sound and tortured passagework. In involving so much the visual element of performance with his body and stage lighting, Ilijić suggests parallels with classic and recent work in performance art, but his expertise in music and visual art creates a more holistic union of the various components.

Audiences may find some of the work troubling, but can respond to this music because the force and ineffable authority of his artistic personality demands complete attention; like Schoenberg’s free atonal compositions, Ilijić’s music is guided by an unerring intuition, revealing unexpected connections among the wide variety of utterances that mark the extraordinary richness of the total musical world available today. But, like Schoenberg, Ilijić has forged from the materials around him a new and consistent world entirely his own—what’s more, his engagement in visual art, performance, and theater promises a renewal worthy of the great multidisciplinary works I mentioned above, but one that exceeds the sum of its parts because they all originate the single source of his inspiration.


On Variations V—Mode 258, 2013

John Cage’s work took a profound turn in the 1960s. Having discovered, in the previous decade, the promise of composing with the assistance of chance, and even creating strategies that rendered music indeterminate and thus incapable of replication from one performance to another, he began to pursue the implications of his discovery to their logical conclusion. Throughout the decade, he made a number of works that, with only a few exceptions, violated the notion of what music was in every detail. The extreme works 0′00″ (1962) and Variations III (1963) are emblematic. In the earlier work, the score requires the performer simply to execute a disciplined action with extreme amplification that verges upon creating feedback. (Only later did Cage add a series of codicils that clarified the action to be performed—for instance, that it should not instantiate a musical performance and that it should fulfill a social obligation to others.) And while Variations III requires the use of circles inscribed on transparent plastic to create a particular design that represents the barest outlines of a performance score, nothing explains how to interpret definitively the resulting design, what sounds will populate it, or even how long the work should last—indeed, he includes a remark that a performer can fulfill her obligation simply by paying attention to events as they occur—as he remarked to Richard Kostelanetz, “We could be performing Variations III right now, if we decided to do so” (quoted in Kostelanetz 1991, 195–96).

Cage did not make these extraordinary compositions out of a need to enact a game of avant-garde one-upmanship, but rather from the sense that then-current technological and social conditions demanded a radically new approach to art and artworks. Following Marshall McLuhan, he believed that fundamental changes in electronic media had created a heightened awareness of the world and of its impermanency; art now needed to reflect this so that it better served the flexible and volatile nature of reality that technology had brokered. It also served to change the minds of people in the way Cage believed accorded with Zen Buddhism.

The aim of musical art had moved away from finished objects—symphonies and concertos and so on—to more open environments where audiences could observe ongoing processes whose individual components interacted with each other in countless ways, whose resulting impressions could never satisfactorily be explained by a single observer. For that matter, Cage seemed to doubt that such a goal could even be accomplished by a musical composition alone, as when he observed of serial composers that “The question of the relation of this music to themselves and to society never enters their minds” (Kostelanetz 1991, 10). That’s why, among all his works from the 1960s, Variations V most closely realized his hope for art that used technology to respond creatively to the society around him.

For the premiere on July 23, 1965—which took place during the ninth concert that was part of the French-American Festival at New York’s Lincoln Center—the dancers (Merce Cunningham, Carolyn Brown, Barbara Dilley Lloyd, Sandra Neels, Albert Reid, Peter Saul, and Gus Solomons) performed on stage, their movements interacting with twelve antennas built by Robert Moog and a set of photocells designed by Bell Labs research scientist Billy Klüver in such a way as to trigger the transmission of sounds to a 50-channel mixer whose output was heard from six speakers around the hall. The actual sound sources—a battery of tape recorders and radios—were supervised by Cage and the composers James Tenney, Malcolm Goldstein, and Fredric Lieberman; Cage and David Tudor operated the mixer. The mise-en-scène was supplemented by a film collage by Stan VanDerBeek that included processed television images by Nam June Paik and footage of the dancers shot by VanDerBeek during rehearsals. Brown recalls that the equipment never functioned as intended, singling out Cage and Tudor for their lack of preparation:

I wrote at the time: “[Lewis Lloyd, then manager of the Cunningham Company] is absolutely FURIOUS with John and David’s ineptness. He said they should have figured out all the wiring on paper before coming into the hall . . . but no, they were doing it there—like high-school physics kids.” (Brown 2007, 459)

Leta E. Miller, who has documented the collaboration in great detail (2001), assigns the blame more widely, agreeing that all the technology needed careful testing well before the final rehearsals in the hall.

The score for Variations V also gives the impression of a series of possibilities colliding with each other to suggest an ongoing experience rather than a fixed series of instructions, for it consists of a series of 37 remarks that not only document the work’s premiere and offer guidance on how others might realize it, but cannily allude to Cage’s immediate milieu of the 1960s and his perception of his place within it. Examples of the former include his description of the sound system, its components and designers, and the important remark that dancers influence the audibility of the sound system as they move through the space and activate the technology around them. Other remarks suggest the attitude of performers to their work, for instance “Perform at control panels in the role of research worker,” “Variations III,” “Lighting . . . as the solution of a problem,” and “Conversation, consultations (not as sound-sources).” Still others seem more personal and range from the ridiculous to the sublime: “E.g., kitchen sink (‘bad plumbing’)” and “‘Breakthrough’ by means of collaboration into the ‘unorganized areas in the rear’ of the unknown.” Taken together, the remarks constituting the Variations V score suggest a creative act itself, one that actually exemplifies Cage’s approach to his new conception of composition and music as a continuing process (just as his famous “Lecture on Nothing” demonstrates a micro-macrocosmic piece of music where words function as the sole sonic content).

A year after the first performances, the company brought Variations V along for its European tour and filmed it in Hamburg; with the assistance of Gordon Mumma, much (but not all) of the original technology was packed up, and he joined Tudor and Cage at the controls for the film (Miller 2001, 558–59). On that occasion—as Mumma recalls in his reminiscence printed elsewhere in this booklet—the company’s lighting designer, Beverly Emmons, supervised the stage direction, all the décor, and the balance of the film collage with the onstage activity. Thus, her role in the visual component of Variations V should not be underestimated, just as her later work with the American director Robert Wilson was instrumental in establishing the full realization of Wilson’s painterly approach to the theater.

Variations V reveals its potential only when—as here—one sees and hears at least a portion of what an audience would have. Indeed, Elizabeth Hoover has persuasively invoked Derrida’s concept of différance to interpret the fluid play of meanings conjured by the overlapping sounds and images in the work; she offers a close reading of Cunningham’s choreography for the final two minutes in order to destabilize a sense that Cage’s authority was primary and to exemplify the Derridean reading of signification within the piece (Hoover 2010). But this interplay of meaning is further fragmented by the filmed production, which frequently superimposes images from the film collage over the dancers and inserts many close-ups of the dancers’ bodies and faces as well as the décor; it includes several cutaways to Cage, Tudor, and Mumma manning the tape recorders and other technology. The effect of seeing Brown or Solomons in extreme close-up as they concentrate on the difficult movements both humanizes the inscrutable character of Cunningham’s choreography and reminds the viewer of the enduring impact of Zen on the work’s aesthetic. (Brown herself attended Suzuki’s lectures and read, on Cage’s recommendation, The Huang Po Doctrine of Universal Mind.) In particular, the performers of Variations V exist within an environment of competing, contradictory content; people are not the only actors of import here, but take their place as equals beside light, film images, bicycles, and flower pots: the infinitude of the Dharmadhatu.


Reference List

Brown, Carolyn. 2007. Chance and circumstance: Twenty years with Cage and Cunningham. New York: Knopf.

Hoover, Elizabeth. 2010. Variations V: “Escaping stagnation” through movement of signification. Current Musicology 90 (Fall): 57–75.

Kostelanetz, Richard, ed. 1991. John Cage: An anthology. New York: Da Capo.

Miller, Leta E. 2001. Cage, Cunningham, and collaborators: The odyssey of Variations V. Musical Quarterly 85, no. 3 (Fall): 545–67.

John Cage’s Organ Music (Mode 253–54, 2013)

I sometimes find myself wondering why John Cage produced, comparatively speaking, so little organ music. He fondly recalled that David Tudor, having learned all of the organ repertoire by the time he was in his teens, decided to turn all his attention to the piano. Knowing how much Cage esteemed Tudor, I might suppose that he took Tudor’s rejection of the organ as evidence that the instrument couldn’t offer anything truly modern—that it wasn’t, as Cage was fond of saying, useful. Perhaps, too, Cage felt that churches, the usual venues for organ recitals, suggest a certain sense of mystery and ritual that make performances of organ music dangerously beautiful by remaining too separate from everyday life. Or perhaps Cage, ever mindful to ensure a performance for any music he made, simply lacked for organists willing and able to champion his music and commission new works. The four organ pieces he made—Some of “The Harmony of Maine” (Supply Belcher) (1978), Souvenir (1983), ASLSP (1985), and Organ2/ASLSP (1987)—all date from a time when he fulfilled many commissions for musicians and organizations that often lacked the familiarity with his music Cage could expect from Tudor and other close friends and colleagues. Of these, the 1978 and 1987 works were made for the German organist Gerd Zacher, an important and very sympathetic champion of new music.

It’s a pity, though, that Cage hadn’t been asked for new organ works sooner. The King of Instruments seems to me an instrument ideally suited to Cage’s aesthetic. With all its various stops (found in countless dispositions on as many organs), one can think of it as the ultimate prepared instrument. Also, the very fact that sound emanates from a number of pipes all placed at discrete locations in space nicely accords with Cage’s idea that the separation of sounds in space proved desirable for new music. It surely represented a vast multiplicity of possibilities that could be released into sound through the use of chance operations. For this reason, I believe that Cage’s organ music occupies a small but quite important place within his output.

Some of “The Harmony of Maine” forms part of a family of pieces that Cage made beginning with Apartment House 1776 (1976). In the earlier work, one element consisted of a series of pieces Cage dubbed “harmonies”; he selected eighteenth-century hymns by William Billings, Andrew Law, and Supply Belcher and altered them by extending certain tones and removing others through chance operations so as to attenuate the functional harmony underlying them. The process fixes a listener’s attention on the individual pitches so that they become self-sufficient, each—as in Buddhist thought—the most honored of all, and likewise the heightened presence of silence in the music reaffirms the important role of ambience in Cage’s work: not so much a lack of sound that articulates or makes more dramatic the sounds around it, but rather (again, borrowing from Buddhism) a nosound that forms, alongside sound, an eternal unity: perceiving the Śūnyatā (emptiness) in the world facilitates the awareness of the world’s Tathatā (suchness). Here and there, melodic fragments from the original hymns remain; these further underscore the fact that, in Cage, the sounding music continues to present the unpredictable, no matter how it is made.

Each of the thirteen separate pieces in Cage’s organ work draws exclusively from the 1794 collection The Harmony of Maine by the American composer Supply Belcher (1751–1836). The titles in the original, which Cage retains, include in most instances an abbreviation that refers to the metrical structure of the words (useful when one wants to use the musical setting of one hymn for the text of another): thus, C.M. (common meter) refers to a quatrain with a syllable count of 8–6–8–6; L.M. (long meter), to one of 8–8–8–8; S.M. (short meter), to one of 6–6–8–6; and the especially Cagean P.M. (peculiar meter), to one that is irregular. An awareness of meter (interpreted as phrase length) is helpful in this work since Cage tended to respect the phrase boundaries of his source material in his compositional process and probably does so in the organ work as well.

In order to capitalize on the organ’s innate ability to create an extraordinary variety of timbres, Cage also employed chance operations in Some of “The Harmony of Maine” to make a complex series of registration changes, which must be effected by no fewer than six registrants. (However, Gary Verkade recalls that he performed as one of only three registrants in the first German performance, noting that the number of registrants depends on such factors as the size of instrument and the amount of space found in the organ loft.) Stops are referred to only by number, allowing the work to be performed on a great number of instruments. This aspect is very much in keeping with Cage’s approach to composition: to learn all the possibilities of an instrument (or device, in the case of, say, the film One11) and then use chance to select new and previously unimagined combinations of those possibilities.

Cage made Souvenir (1983) in response to a commission by the American Guild of Organists. After receiving half of the commission fee, he learned that the organist who would premiere the work wanted him to make a piece that was similar to the 1948 piano composition Dream. Never one to repeat himself literally, he returned the commission fee, but it was remailed to him with assurances that he could make whatever kind of piece he wished. Thus liberated, he decided to comply with the original request, which he later claimed (in an interview with the English composer and pianist Peter Dickinson) resulted in “a rather poor piece.” Cage was too hard on himself; although Souvenir does indeed resemble many of his earlier works, other factors—among them the threefold repetition of the entire piece and the unexpected intrusion of harsh tone clusters—make the piece sound new, rather as if Cage treats the material of his earlier work as he might a found object, calling attention to its anachronisms in order to reveal an unexpected freshness in the material.

An aside: Some viewers of the DVD following the recording with score in hand might notice that Professor Verkade plays one pedal passage on the manuals instead. As he explains, “The short, and only, reason is range: the pedals in many parts of Europe only go up to high f, most American organs include the f-sharp and g above that f and Cage uses that more-American (also French) range. In order to render the passage as a whole (not just looking for a solution to that single high g), I made the decision to register the main manual as I might have registered the pedals and to play the entire passage on that sound.”

The title of ASLSP (1985)—originally written as the twentieth-century test piece for the University of Maryland’s William Kapell International Piano Competition in that year—refers to a passage from the last paragraph in James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (“Soft morning, city! Lsp!”) and also the tempo designation for the work, “as slow as possible.” It contains eight pieces that must be performed in the order given, with the caveat that one of these must be omitted and that another must be repeated at any point in the series of seven remaining ones (possibly even before its numbered appearance in the series). The notation follows that of Cage’s masterpiece for solo piano, Etudes Australes (1974–75); as in that work, Cage treats right and left hands as separate from each other and disallows one from assisting the other to simplify the separate musical parts that he creates for them. In the one new refinement to Cage’s notation, the precise length of a sound is indicated by extending a straight line from the notehead; the performer reads his score as a succession of proportionate time points (“just as maps give proportional distances,” Cage observes). Since the organ can sustain a tone as long as an organist’s finger remains on the key, Cage’s refinement concerning note length has an important effect on the way the piece sounds when played on this instrument. The sounds for each hand—single tones and chords containing as many as five notes in total—range widely in character: highly dissonant sonorities co-exist with very traditionally consonant ones, demonstrating, once again, Cage’s wish to include and honor every kind of sound in his music.

Cage returned to the compositional method of ASLSP to make his final organ work, Organ2/ASLSP (1987). This piece is not simply a variation or arrangement of the old one, but rather a completely new work that retains many elements from ASLSP. As before, the work comprises eight movements, but now all eight must be played and the performer has the option to repeat one of them anywhere within the series of eight. On the whole, sustained sounds appear more frequently (and last longer), and Cage treats right and left feet as separate performers in the same way he treats the right and left hands. As in ASLSP, dynamics and registrations are not indicated, which allows for any number of possibilities (particularly if an organist wishes to avail himself of many registrants as in Some of “The Harmony of Maine”).

Naturally, duration isn’t indicated, either; indeed, Organ2/ASLSP has become one of Cage’s best-known works in recent years because of a provocative performance in the German city of Halberstadt that began on September 5, 2001 and is scheduled to conclude in the year 2640: a performance, in other words, lasting 639 years and involving human beings only to the extent that they are required to add and remove weights for the organ keys that activate the sounds. I have written elsewhere about this event (see my John Cage [London: Reaktion Books, 2012]), criticizing it as an exasperating instance of the mantra “Cage would have approved” and reminding readers that Cage always intended his music to be performed by human beings; but if, as he hoped, the world becomes a very different place in 2640—one in which people finally have what they need to live and are no longer afraid of the oppression created by economic want or harsh political systems—then perhaps a 639-year performance would be the best possible way to celebrate its advent.

John Cage, One9 and 108

The history of Western music shows us that a few composers distinguished themselves in other fields of creative endeavor: Guillaume de Machaut’s poetry is as famous as his music, for instance, and Carl Ruggles supported himself during his final years as a painter. John Cage (1912-1992) wrote poems and prose every bit as distinguished as his music for most of his career.  After producing isolated examples of visual art (notably the plexigram/lithograph series Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel of 1969), he turned decisively to printmaking and watercolor in 1978 thanks to invitations from Kathan Brown of Crown Point Press and Ray Kass of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.  As the distinguished appointee of Harvard’s Norton Professorship in the 1988-89 academic year, Cage produced the imposing and diverse poems of I-VI, the crowning achievement in a series of literary works that exemplified “a way of writing which comes from ideas, is not about them, but which produces them.”[1]

There certainly are examples in which Cage’s compositional procedures carry over from music to painting or vice versa—for instance, the series of works inspired by the Ryoanji garden in Kyoto.  But more generally, both the writings and prints from his late years offer a helpful context for his final musical compositions—above all, the forty-seven completed works known collectively as the Number Pieces.

From 1985 until 1992, the date of his last session at Crown Point, Cage used smoked paper for his prints—a fire was built on the bed of the press and damp paper ran through it, which extinguished the fire and left elegant, swirling patterns on the paper. The images then added to this paper came from a variety of sources. For instance, teapots were used to brand circular shapes onto the paper in the series called Fire (1985), while the 1991 group called Smoke Weather Stone Weather shows tracings of stones. In these works particularly, we can see a striking continuity between the gestural quality of the tracings and the more neutral environment of the smoked paper. Cage admired this continuity very much:

I wanted to have an ambiguity between the smoke and the images. I was afraid at the beginning some of the marks were going to be too strong. But as we continue . . . even the strong marks lose anything that you could compare with impact.[2]

The twenty-second print from the series shows this ambiguity very clearly. Cage’s tracings, while they show the degree of his skill and keen visual sense, has a certain muted quality that asserts itself as surely as time’s passing. The gentle swirls of the paper, though unobtrusive, make an unforgettable impression.

Turning to Cage’s late poetry, we see that the incredible heterogeneity of I-VI echoes another important theme in his work: the bringing together of elements conventionally considered incompatible. Compare this remark from Silence: “It goes without saying that dissonances and noises are welcome in this new music. But so is the dominant seventh chord if it happens to put in an appearance.”[3] The presence of so much variety helped Cage to guarantee that no one component of his work could dominate and overshadow the importance of the rest. His art is like a map in which every path taken leads to a marvelous destination.

Cage realized variety in I-VI with a library of found sources including newspapers and writings by Wittgenstein, Emerson, Thoreau, and himself, among others. A combination of chance operations and his own choices determined the final content of the work. Although there are moments that approach the pattern and gesture of conventional poetry–notably the final section of Part IV with its repetition of the words “equally loud and in the same tempo”–the majority of I-VI has an unusual mixture of the prosaic and the profound, an almost disconcerting blankness:

           alwayS ’
               iT is
        not pullEd
        philippiNes would ’
          talks Convert
  something alwaYs
      all ’ prevIous
        circle aNother
        from whiCh
  bullfighting tO
               iN nature ’

Analogies with Cage’s Number Pieces show themselves readily. The sounds emerge from and recede into a silence as neutral and as elegant as the swirls of smoked paper in the final prints. Indeed, silence does not so much articulate the musical material of the Number Pieces as it offers another kind of sound to listen to—or put another way, the sounds of Cage’s music are only something considerably easier to hear than the silence which surrounds them. And just as I-VI alternates between the evocative and the everyday, so too the Number Pieces generally alternate simple pitches and even conventional chords with inexplicable noises and dissonances. The transparency that characterizes most of the works in the series even allows us to pay attention—with an unusual level of awareness—to the attacks of sounds, their tunings, or their particular timbre. All in all, they demonstrate Cage’s quiet reconciliation with harmony, which he now defined as “several sounds . . . being noticed at the same time.”[5]

Of course, the Number Pieces differ from Cage’s printed poetry and his visual pieces in the amount of variability that can occur from performance to performance—variability made possible by the composer’s use of time brackets specifying ranges of start- and end-times for every sound in one of the works. So long as the performer observes these ranges, she can make a sound as short, long, loud, or soft as she wants. The unchanging durations of the time brackets ensure that the playing time of the composition remain the same and that the events of those pieces occur in more or less the same order.

Short, loud sounds in performances of Cage’s Number Pieces always remind me of the brandings or tracings in Cage’s prints—they are more gestural, more demonstrative than the longer sounds and silences. Sometimes I find the loud sounds annoy me—they remind me too much of another kind of modern music that seems at odds with the Number Pieces. But their presence helps to keep the music unpredictable and astonishing, qualities Cage surely sought in his composition. And in the best performances of these works—almost magically—they somehow join with everything else to create a continuity, an environment in which every type of sound has its place.

Cage scored 108 (1991) for the largest number of players in any of the Number Pieces. Its duration of 43’30” makes an oblique reference to his groundbreaking 4’33” (1952). And the work can be played on its own or with either of two solo works from the same year, One8 (for cello) and One9 for the sho, a mouth organ with bamboo pipes that acts as one of the harmony-producing instruments in Japanese gagaku. Both solo works were composed for artists very important in Cage’s final years. The cellist Michael Bach had invented a curved bow that permitted him to play sustained chords, while Mayumi Miyata had pioneered the sho as a contemporary concert instrument. Cage first met Miyata during his historic return to the 1990 Darmstadt summer course; the composer was enchanted with the sound of her instrument and produced in all three works for her. (The second of these works, Two4, has been released on Mode 88.)

As was his habit, Cage wanted to learn as many possibilities for a new instrument or medium as he could before composing a work, and among his papers are copious notes indicating all of the single tones and clusters (aitake) that the sho could play, both familiar and unfamiliar. Once this material was in place, he could then use chance operations to choose which of all these possibilities would become the sounds for his new pieces, thus producing results that he hoped would surprise and interest him when he finally heard them performed.

As I mentioned, when either One8 or One9 are performed with 108, they become concertos much in the same manner as Fourteen (1990), for bowed piano and instruments. Even so, the concerto formed by One9 and 108 is a very unusual one indeed, and a fine example of Cage’s aesthetic. The delicate sounds of the sho enter almost imperceptibly, reminding me of Cage’s suggestion (in the performance notes for 101) that tones be “brushed into existence as in oriental calligraphy where the ink (the sound) is not always seen, or if so, is streaked with white (silence).”[6] Both orchestra and soloist remain completely silent for the first minute and a half of the piece.  The orchestra disappears again in other two sections, but not to herald a grand cadenza: the sho music continues much as it had before, a quiet, serene, almost timeless utterance. Indeed, the regal simplicity of the sho makes it an ideal instrument for Cage, who tried to make his final work like writing on water—an action, incomparably graceful, that would leave no traces.[7]

Reprinted from the Mode Records CD: John Cage: One9 and 108. Mode 108 (

[1]Cage records this idea for the first time as part of the “Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse) Continued 1973-1982, published in X: Writings ’79-’82 (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1983), 163.

[2]Quoted in Kathan Brown, John Cage Visual Art: To Sober and Quiet the Mind (San Francisco: Crown Point Pres, 2000), 117. For more on the technique of smoking paper and Cage’s visual works from 1985 onward, see pp. 97–124. Cage probably would have disagreed with my characterization of the tracings as gestural. He thought of them as something neither non-gestural nor gestural, but rather “something else.” See Joan Retallack, ed., Musicage: Cage Muses on Words, Art, Music. John Cage in Conversation with Joan Retallack (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1996), 127–28.

[3]From “Experimental Music,” in Silence: Lectures and Writings (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1961), 11.

[4]John Cage, I-VI (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1990), 73.

[5]Musicage, 108.

[6]Reproduced in Richard Kostelanetz, ed., John Cage: Writer (New York: Limelight Editions, 1993), 198.

[7]This principle is one of the “whispered truths” in Tibetan Buddhism. Cage discusses the idea with Joan Retallack in Musicage, 163 and 189–91. Read more

The Harmony of Emptiness: John Cage’s Two2 (Mode Records 193, 2008)

In most of Cage’s Number Pieces, a series of works that occupied the composer’s attention between 1987 and his death in 1992, pitch—even harmony—takes pride of place.  This fact poses a paradox, even a contradiction, because harmony as such had hardly ever been central to his concerns.  In fact, while Cage’s early studies of harmony and counterpoint with Adolph Weiss and Arnold Schoenberg between 1933 and 1936 proceeded satisfactorily enough, there came a time when his development as a composer reached a point of crisis.  One of his anecdotes about his work with Schoenberg stands, probably, as his most famous expression of that crisis:

After I had been studying with him for two years, Schoenberg said, “In order to write music, you must have a feeling for harmony.”  I explained to him that I had no feeling for harmony.  He then said that I would always encounter an obstacle, that it would be as though I came to a wall through which I could not pass.  I said, “In that case I shall devote my life to beating my head against that wall.[1]

To understand what harmony meant to Cage in his final years, one needs to understand what it meant to him earlier.  I have spent some time locating all of the remarks Cage made about harmony in his published writings and some of his interviews.  Taken in toto, these remarks show a richer—and what at first seems contradictory—viewpoint than has been generally assumed.  First and foremost, Cage saw himself in opposition to tonal harmony, with its predictable (and arbitrary) rules of voice-leading and harmonic progressions.  By learning these rules, listeners condition themselves to expect the harmonic progressions that establish tonality; any deviations from those progressions—for instance, an unexpected modulation or a deceptive cadence—would be understood in terms of the “expected” norms.[2]  To Cage, listeners so conditioned would never hear sounds as sufficient in themselves—would not, in other words, be able to hear with the kind of open mind that he felt was essential.  What’s more, as Cage wrote, the rules of tonal harmony foster “old-style” European thinking which stresses understanding all single events as the causes or consequences of other single events: Cage called the succession of musical events in a composition a “continuity,” and this old-fashioned way of thinking simply “making that particular continuity that excludes all others.”[3]

In the 1940s, in particular, Cage began to criticize harmony on other counts too, especially for its capacity to move music away from the ideal of tranquility to which he thought music should aspire: “I now saw harmony, for which I had never had any natural feeling, as a device to make music impressive, loud and big, in order to enlarge audiences and increase box-office returns.”[4]  For Cage, harmony was a device that composers used to manipulate the audience, to make them feel certain emotions instead of others; for that reason it served the personality of the composer more than it did the sounds themselves.

Cage proposed replacing this type of thinking with the Oriental concept of interpenetration.  He explained the idea in his lecture “Composition as Process” by recalling one of Daisetz Suzuki’s references to it in his lectures at Columbia, which he attended:

Interpenetration means that each [idea] is moving out in all directions penetrating and being penetrated by every other one no matter what the time or what the space.  So that when one says that there is no cause and effect, what is meant is that there are an incalculable infinity of causes and effects, that in fact each and every thing in all of time and space is related to each and every other thing in all of time and space.[5]

Each sound, pitched or otherwise, carries with it the same amount of significance as all other sounds.  When we hear them, we are overwhelmed by the infinite complexity of their interrelatedness; our awareness might focus on a fractional part of this complexity but never apprehend it entirely.  In another hearing, we might choose to focus our attention on something else yet again.  Cage pursued these ideas with far-reaching implications in the late 1950s and ’60s—for example, by separating instruments spatially so as to help ensure their sounds would be perceived as “sounds in themselves” and, in several works from the Variations series, by leaving undefined the types of sound chosen for a given performance.

Too often, I feel, we have been admonished that paying attention is beyond the point in Cage’s music—that because all events cause all other events, it’s unnecessary to focus our attention too specifically.  But if we don’t pay attention, surely we run the risk of coming to the superficial conclusion that all of Cage’s chance music sounds alike. Furthermore, it’s worth recalling that Cage occasionally admitted the possibility of finding relationships or continuity in his music, an activity that can only take place when we pay attention:

I would assume that relations would exist between sounds as they would exist between people and these relationships are more complex than any I would be able to prescribe.  So by simply dropping that responsibility of making relationships I don’t lose the relationship.  I keep the situation in what you might call a natural complexity that can be observed in one way or another.[6]

The awesome complexity of interpenetrating sounds set in motion can never be comprehended in its entirety.  But by observing that complexity “in one way or another,” we experience what we can; we might even share that experience with others, without suggesting that our experience is superior to anyone else’s.[7]  What pleased Cage was the way in which his chance operations prevented him from imposing a single continuity of his own design in the music, and thus opened up the possibility for any number of equally valid continuities.  A given performance would reveal different patterns to different listeners; indeed, the same listener might make different connections in a subsequent performance—further approaching, but never totally comprehending, “the incalculable infinity of causes and effects.”

In later years, Cage extended his interest in all the sounds around him to tonal harmony itself—for instance, he tried to liberate such harmony from its rigid syntax in works like Hymns and Variations (1979).  In this and similar works, Cage took traditional pieces by William Billings and other eighteenth-century American composers and subjected them to chance operations so that certain tones were prolonged and others removed altogether, replaced with silence.  In this way Cage retained the “flavor” of the original music but made it possible for listeners to hear it in a new way—to hear the individual sounds and silences as equally important, relating to each other in countless ways that could not be explained or predicted by rules and habit.

Finally, in the Number Pieces—particularly those involving the piano—Cage returned to harmonies entirely produced by chance operations and unrelated to past music.  More important, Cage discovered a way to use harmonies in such a way that they could not suggest any single pattern of coherence.  In most of the Number Pieces, all the performers have some freedom through Cage’s use of time brackets, flexible measures that show a range of possible starting and ending times.  The time bracket system of notation used in these works allows a certain amount of flexibility in the performance: individual notes or chords may always occur in the same general time frame, but their specific order and duration varies slightly and unpredictably from performance to performance.  In this way Cage could create a new kind of harmony, a harmony that, as he described in a 1991 interview, simply “means that there are several sounds . . . being noticed at the same time.”[8]

Though Cage had pursued the idea of multiple unusual and flexible connections between elements in many ways during his career, his literary works of the 1980s supply some elegant examples of the principle—examples that I believe are particularly relevant to the Number Pieces.  One form that he referred to over and over again was renga, a Japanese poetic design of five, seven, five, seven, and seven syllables expressed at least thirty-six times.  In the introduction to Themes and Variations (1978), Cage’s description of renga shows the powerful affinity that it shares with his own work:

Traditionally renga is written by a group of poets finding themselves of an evening together and having nothing better to do. Successive lines are written by different poets.  Each poet tries to make his line as distant in possible meanings from the preceding line as he can take it.  This is no doubt an attempt to open the minds of the poets and listeners or readers to other relationships than those ordinarily perceived.[9]

While Cage did not adhere to the syllabic structure of renga, he clearly embraced the idea that sequences of words which did not make conventional sense could, nevertheless, be meaningful.  To help create the illusion of the many poets characteristic to renga, he began his work by writing a “library” of source mesostic poems.  (Cage’s mesostics have a central vertical string of letters, all capitalized, which spell out a name or idea that may or may not be connected with the horizontal lines of poetry.)  Once he had written a large number of poems, Cage selected individual lines through chance operations to form new mesostics that make a fuzzy kind of sense.  His method also allowed certain lines of poetry to reappear; recurring lines from the first and second sections of Themes and Variations are underlined in the excerpt below:

path’s Just

whAt did you say

clearing the Mind of music
wE accept
if i gave up my Sense of accomplishment
and Just
of anYthing else

we are in yuCatan
out thE window
past’s Just
As unstable

bE invented
if i gave up my Sense of accomplishment
what’d you Just
anything in frOnt
without anY waiting
we are in yuCatan
and Every unpredicted thing[10]

Cage’s late poetry exploits an ineffable and arresting alchemy of the noble and the common.  Particularly fascinating in this passage is the juxtaposition of such phrases as “we are in yuCatan / and Every unpredicted thing.”

In Two2 (1989), written for the pianists Edmund Niemann and Nurit Tilles performing together as the piano duo Double Edge, Cage unites these two themes—a new kind of harmony and renga—in a marvelous way.  One finds all manner of sonorities in this work: various triads and seventh chords, triads with other added notes, dissonances with two, three, or more notes, even single tones.  More interesting, however, is the fact that so many chords—even identical successions of chords—recur in the piece.  The manner of their overall succession, of course, is determined by chance procedures and performance, which guarantee a nebulous ordering that offers a modicum of coherence without any predictability whatsoever.[11]  And so the logic of recurrence in Two2 resembles the way that our different friends and acquaintances pass in and out of our lives—a continuity that doesn’t make conventional sense but is meaningful nevertheless.

Cage expresses the renga idea in Two2 in several ways: first, each line of music is divided into five measures, just like the five lines of the poetry.  The first measure contains five separate musical events—chords or single tones, usually shared between the two pianists—which correspond to the five syllables of the first line; the second measure has seven events, and so on.  And there are a total of thirty-six such five-measure sections in the piece.  The pianists proceed one measure at a time.  They must read the music in their respective measures from left to right; and while they can take any amount of time to perform each measure, each pianist must wait until both have finished the same measure before proceeding to the next.  In this way, the order of the “syllables” composing one “line” almost always occurs in an unpredictable order.[12]  Cage also respects the analogy with renga by keeping one line of poetry—expressed as one measure—separate from another.

Of course, one can also hear the music itself as renga: dissonant chords cohabitate amicably with simple triads and ambiguous, neutral single tones: some sonorities are sublime, while others seem the product of harsh, even unformed technique.  Every time we think we settle into the mode of Cage’s discourse, some unexpected sound—a simple seventh chord or even a seemingly banal augmented triad—suddenly intrudes, throwing us off balance and disorienting our reactions.  And yet that mingling of “incompatible” elements is fundamental to Cage’s aesthetic and the very source of its magic.  This mixture of the generic and the exquisite evokes what Cage admired in Duchamp’s work, its ability to resist becoming a mere “art object,” though Cage was rarely able to achieve a Duchampian ideal.[13]

Two2 stands apart in the sequence of Number Pieces because it has no time brackets; the two pianists are directed simply to play the music in their respective measures at their own speed, taking care (as noted above) not to continue to the next measure until both have finished playing the music for that particular measure.  As Cage explained in his performance notes for the work, his decision not to incorporate time brackets owed itself to a remark made by the soviet composer Sofia Gubaidulina, whom he had met in 1988 at the Third International Festival of Contemporary Music in Leningrad: “There is an inner clock.”[14]  This gives the pianists the luxury of playing the piece at the speed that suits them best; in the finest performances, the freedom also allows them to discover surprising new relationships between the sounds—relationships unexpected even to them, no matter how much rehearsal time they spend preparing.

There is one final topic to discuss in Two2, and that is the relationship of the two performers.  I have always sensed something intimate—even erotic—in all of Cage’s Number Pieces for two musicians.  More than other works in the series, I think, they act as a metaphor for a healthy, loving relationship between two people.  In connection with this theme, we might turn to Cage’s own (few) words on the subject to deduce the nature of that relationship.  As early as 1966, Cage wrote, “The most, the best, we can do, we believe (wanting to give evidence of love), is to get out of the way, leave space around whomever or whatever it is.”[15]  He later simplified this formulation to “love = space around loved one.”[16]  The composer discussed intimate human relationships rarely, but when he did, it was clear that he had considered such relationships deeply all of his life.  In a conversation with Joan Retallack from October 1991, he described friendship using similar thoughts: “It isn’t a fixed thing that you come to and keep.  It’s something which is not dependable.  Even if you think it is, it isn’t, hmm?  And it gets richer as it encounters obstacles and surmounts them.”[17]

To leave space around loved ones, we must learn to let people live their own lives wherever that life may take them—that having or possessing the person is beside the point.  Similarly in the Number Pieces for two individuals, and perhaps Two2 above all others, our performance is a time in which we agree to come together and be in each other’s company—a time which we expect to be happy but which holds no guarantees.


[1]   John Cage, “Indeterminacy,” in Silence: Lectures and Writings (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1961), 261.  For more on Cage’s early studies, see Robert Stevenson, “John Cage on his 70th Birthday: West Coast Background,” Inter–American Music Review 5, no. 1 (Fall 1982): 3–17; Michael Hicks, “Cage’s Studies with Schoenberg,” American Music 8 (1990): 125–40; and David W. Bernstein, “John Cage, Arnold Schoenberg, and the Musical Idea,” in John Cage; Music, Philosophy, and Intention, 1933–1950, ed. David W. Patterson (New York: Routledge, 2002), 15–45.

[2]   See, for instance, Cage, “Lecture on Nothing,” in Silence, 116.

[3]   Cage, “Lecture on Something,” in Silence, 132.

[4]   Cage, “A Composer’s Confessions,” in John Cage: Writer, ed. Richard Kostelanetz (New York: Limelight Editions, 1993), 29.

[5]   Cage, “Composition as Process,” in Silence, 46–47.  David Patterson discusses historical problems in Cage’s recollections of Suzuki and his influence in “Cage and Asia: History and Sources,” in The Cambridge Companion to John Cage, ed. David Nicholls (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 53–55.

[6]   Cage quoted in Michael Nyman, Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond (New York: Schirmer Books, 1974), 25.  Nyman can no longer remember the source for this quotation, but believed he cited a printed source (e-mail to the author, 21 November 2002).

[7]   See, for example, “Where Are We Going?  And What Are We Doing,” in Silence, 250–52.

[8]   John Cage and Joan Retallack, Musicage: Cage Muses on Words, Art, Music.  John Cage in Conversation with Joan Retallack, ed. Joan Retallack (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1996), 108.

[9]   John Cage, “Introduction to Themes and Variations,” in Composition in Retrospect (Cambridge: Exact Change, 1993), 64.  My emphasis.

[10]  Cage, Themes and Variations, in Composition in Retrospect, 74 and 100.Composition in Retrospect, 133.  The mesostic string spells the name of James Joyce.

[11]  For a description of the compositional process of Two2, see Rob Haskins, “‘An Anarchic Society of Sounds’: The Number Pieces of John Cage” (Ph. D. dissertation, University of Rochester, Eastman School of Music, 2004), 119–21 and 214–19.

[12]  There are a few occasions when, probably as the result of the chance operations Cage used, one pianist has a silent measure and all the “syllables” for that “line” are performed by a single pianist.

[13]  For more on Cage’s thoughts on this aspect of Duchamp’s work, see Cage and Retallack, Musicage, 103–5.

[14]  John Cage, performance notes for Two2 (New York: Henmar Press [C. F. Peters], 1989), n.p.

[15]  In the “Diary: How To Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse) Continued 1966” in Cage, A Year from Monday: New Lectures and Writings (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1967), 52.

[16]  As part of the introduction to Themes and Variations; see Composition in Retrospect, 61.

[17]  Cage and Retallack, Musicage, 151.

Liner Notes for John Cage, One4, Four, Twenty-Nine—OgreOgress (2002)

Sources for quotations (in order of appearance): Laura Fletcher and Thomas Moore, “An Interview [John Cage],” Sonus 3, no. 2 (Spring 1983): 19; John Cage, I–VI: MethodStructureIntentionDisciplineNotationIndeterminacyInterpenetrationImita-tionDevotionCircumstancesVariableStructureNonunderstandingContingencyIncon-sistencyPerformance (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990), 177–78; John Cage, Composition in Retrospect (Cambridge: Exact Change, 1993), 6; John Cage and Joan Retallack, Musicage: Cage Muses on Words, Art, Music (Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1996), 218; Joan Retallack, “Poethics of a Complex Realism” in John Cage: Composed in America, ed. Marjorie Perloff and Charles Junkerman (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 260.

¶ Recording technology makes it possible for one person to record all the parts of a Number Piece by herself.  The question arises: is one person the best example of an anarchic society?

¶ Even the titles of the Number Pieces bespeak a quiet simplicity—a number written as a word indicates the number of performers involved; superscript Arabic numerals indicate (as necessary) the position of that particular piece with respect to all the other pieces composed for the same number of players.  Cage liked the titles because they were like the simple clothes he wore, the style of which never changed from day to day.

¶ It is in this sense that one can speak of harmony in the works—each one has an established universe of sounds that we hear at various points, but Cage doesn’t strictly order them because of the time brackets.

¶ Cage’s attitude toward the Number Pieces offers a fitting conclusion to a period that began around 1980 during which the composer’s long-famous optimism had given way to a doubt that music could do anything whatsoever to change people’s minds.  In time, however, Cage would find new musical metaphors for the overwhelming social problems of our time.  The extraordinary difficulty of the Freeman Etudes, for example, came to symbolize for the composer “the practicality of the impossible,” the courageous act of the individual in the face of desperate and seemingly insurmountable circumstances.  Similarly, the Number Pieces were a metaphor for “the type of world in which we could live.”

¶ At the end of his life, Cage wanted his music to be like writing on water—an act that left no traces.  The flexibility that the time brackets provided him helped to give this impression: no two performances of the Number Pieces will ever be exactly the same, although one can usually distinguish one Number Piece from another on the basis of its sounds alone.

¶ But the number pieces concern more than just lengths of time, however.  There are sounds, too, and almost always a group of fixed sounds that recur unpredictably throughout the piece—a nonhierarchical gamut of elements “to Each/elemenT of wHich/equal hOnor/coulD be given.”

¶ Thus, harmony occurs not as an intentional design to be followed step by step through a piece.  Rather, the listener is a “tourist,” observing the landscape around her, creating private connections or ignoring connections altogether.

¶ Joan Retallack tells the story of a person who asked Cage the initial idea he’d had for one of the Number Pieces.  As I remember it, Cage said, “I began with the idea of thirty minutes,” saying nothing further.

¶ The music of Cage’s Number Pieces generally occurs within little slices of time, each around a minute long.  Two indications at the left-hand side of these “time brackets” tell the performer the range of times during which she may begin; a similar pair of indications show her the range of times during which she must stop.