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.

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.

Liner Notes for John Cage, Two3; Inlets; Two4 (OgreOgress, 2004)

The role (or non-role) of emotion in John Cage’s music seems to me a particularly crucial question in the ongoing critical reception of the singular American composer, and indeed of much American music after 1945. Cage’s own remarks on this subject were characteristically ambivalent. He discovered early on that listeners did not always understand the emotions he was trying to express in his composition and gradually decided to avoid expressing them altogether: he felt that this decision allowed sounds to be themselves and left any emotions to be felt where they properly belonged, within the listeners themselves.

Some of Cage’s performers and critical admirers have understood this decision as a rejection of emotion altogether. There is some evidence that they are correct. Too often, however, they make their conclusion into a prescription for listening. But Cage never allowed his own convictions to devolve into a draconian manifesto that obligated listeners to hear his music in a certain way.

Still, it is evident that the experimental impulse to suppress emotion was widely felt by composers both within and without the Cage circle. Philip Glass hoped that audiences would experience his Music in Twelve Parts (1971–74) as a “‘presence,’ freed of dramatic structure, a pure medium of sound.[1]” His recent work has retreated quite far from that pronouncement and indeed has made it possible for listeners to savor the drama and emotional excitement of his earlier works as well.

Glass’s notion of a pure medium of sound without dramatic structure applies more readily to Cage’s work; it is particularly applicable to the series of late works which James Pritchett dubbed the Number Pieces. These works bear titles that consist only of the number of performers involved, often including a superscript number to distinguish, say, one duet in the series from another. Cage likened the titles to the simple clothes that he wore each day. But Cage took care to introduce subtle variation in the individual compositions so that each one retained some individuality even as they displayed similarities to other works in the series.

The instrumentation of Two3 (1991)—shō and conch shells—recalls two rather different groups of pieces from Cage’s career. Conch shells appeared most prominently in Inlets (1977), one of several improvisational pieces (another is Branches [1976] including amplified cactus) in which the performers play “instruments” that are unfamiliar and unpredictable. In an interview from 1980, Cage described the experience of performing these works:

In the case of the plant materials, you don’t know them; you’re discovering them. So the instrument is unfamiliar. If you become very familiar with a piece of cactus, it very shortly disintegrates, and you have to replace it with another one which you don’t know. . . . In the case of Inlets, you have no control whatsoever over the conch shell when it’s filled with water. You tip it and you get a gurgle, sometimes; not always. So the rhythm belongs to the instruments, and not to you.[2]

Both works are examples of what Cage called “music of contingency,” an approach to improvisation with unpredictable results that concerned the composer during this period.[3]

The full impact of these works has yet to be felt. That is because most musicians and music-lovers expect each of the instruments and voice types to possess a fundamental identity, a predictable idiom and technique. Some performers, such as Joan LaBarbara and Robert Dick, have pioneered extended techniques (for voice and flute, respectively). But even they have done so through the application of their own personalities and ingenuity. Inlets, on the other hand, represents a quite different proposition, one in which the performers cannot control their instruments fully. As a result, they continually discover the potential of their instruments and remain continually fascinated by its identity. From this example, it is easy for me to imagine a future musician who discovers a traditional instrument in the same manner and remains, in effect, marvelously ignorant of its characteristic technique.

On the other hand, Cage’s choice of the shō, a mouth organ with bamboo pipes that acts as one of the harmony-producing instruments in Japanese gagaku, represented a more recent interest. Mayumi Miyata had pioneered the shō as a contemporary concert instrument. Cage first met her during his historic return to the 1990 Darmstadt summer course; he was attracted to her artistry and to the sound of her instrument. Four Number Pieces from 1991 include her instrument: One9 is identical to the shō part for Two3 and can also be performed with the orchestral work 108; Two4 combines the shō with solo violin.

Cage approached composition by determining a number of possibilities for an instrument and then using chance to select which of these possibilities would appear and at what point during the composition. Among his musical sketches archived at the New York Public Library are copious notes indicating all of the single tones and clusters (aitake) that the shō could play, both familiar and unfamiliar. Audiences and performers of his music who are intimate with the shō would surely recognize some of the combinations, but the unusual ones would defamiliarize the familiar ones and allow them to be experienced as fresh and novel sounds on their own.

Throughout the Number Piece series, Cage repeatedly considered the perennial tension between process and object that had characterized his entire compositional output. His earlier compositions (up to the Concerto for Prepared Piano and Chamber Orchestra of 1950–51) resembled, more or less, musical works with their unchanging disposition of movements and completely notated musical material. With his work on the Music for Piano series (1952–1956), Cage began to envision another kind of music in which performers could choose the order and quantity of material to be played, the speed for performance, and many other aspects that give music a certain sonic and gestural profile. Even later works, such as those in the Variations series of the 1960s and ’70s, extend this idea still further, by obligating performers to create the piece they are to play by using tools and measuring devices that Cage created.

These and other works led Cage to think more in terms of process rather than in terms of an object, or a final rarefied artistic product. He sometimes disliked the polish of a finished art object, and on more than one occasion bemoaned dada works that had become simply beautiful art objects to be enshrined in museums. By embracing process, Cage felt he created through art a situation that was more like everyday life with its unpredictable qualities and its unabashed triviality.

However, Cage’s work after 1969 took a most unexpected turn back toward the musical object in a number of compositions using chance operations that resembled the more traditional musical works of his earlier years. Cheap Imitation (1969), Hymns and Variations (1979), the Freeman Etudes (1977–1980/1989–1990), Chorals (1978), and several others all have definite endings and beginnings, definite indications for tempo, articulation, and dynamics—in short, performers learn them as they might a Beethoven sonata. Cage continued to write more indeterminate music, of course, but seemed aware of this shift in his thinking. By the time he commenced work on the Number Pieces, Cage elevated this awareness into a guiding principle for the entire series. A program note for the first one, Two, describes the work as follows:

There are two parts which have no fixed relation, no score. They are written in a series of time-brackets (the same for each part), nine of which are flexible with respect to their beginnings and endings, one of which is shorter and fixed. This is the first of a series of works that bring aspects of process (weather) together with aspects of structure (object). Each piece will have as its title the written-out number of players.[4]

Although the reconciliation of process and object represented in the Number Pieces was the most elegant Cage achieved, he probably did not intend it as his final solution to the ongoing problem. Other works he was contemplating at the time of his death have nothing whatever to do with the premises of the Number Pieces. For example, in July 1992 he referred briefly to an unrealized new work for radios and television. His more extensive descriptions of a “Noh-opera” from the same time suggest something quite different: a major music-theater piece involving an extensive set whose construction would form much of the work’s sound.[5]

In Two3 and Two4, Cage addressed the tension between process and object in an interesting way, by creating suites of separate pieces. The shō part for Two3 consists of ten separate movements from which the performer makes choices when it is performed with 108; in addition, as mentioned above, it can be performed separately (as One9) or with a separate group of pieces for conch shells that constitutes the second part of Two3. The violin part for Two4 is divided into four connected movements, one for each of the violin’s strings. The shō part is divided into three movements: the division may address the need for the shō player to change instruments every ten to fifteen minutes and thus prevent moisture from collecting on the reeds, but Miyata has recalled that Cage determined the divisions into movements by using chance operations.[6]

With these two compositions, Cage crosses the boundaries between process and object in a number of ways. The three works—One9, 108, Two3—were all conceived separately but can be performed as if they are single works. In addition, the modular design of One9 guarantees a kind of indeterminacy when it is performed, for instance, with 108, since the soloist can choose which modules she plays and when she plays them. And the different dispositions of movements between violin and shō help the performers to maintain their own individuality in the work even though they perform at the same time.

All this background information scarcely prepares the listener for actually experience these pieces. Hearing them, I come as close as I think I can to becoming Glass’s ideal listener for Music in Twelve Parts, one who experiences the music as a presence freed of dramatic structure. Nevertheless, I don’t believe this music lacks expressive impact. The vast history of the shō or violin, the rich evocations of nature through the sight and the sound of conch shells—these things alone carry associations that have accumulated for the lifetimes of some listeners, and they cannot be ignored. Even those listeners who have never heard a shō before will, I imagine, quickly grow spellbound with the delicate, treble-only sounds of the instrument and its dependence on the human breath for its life and its phrasing. The stillness of Cage’s Number Pieces can always evoke a sense of tranquility and serenity to receptive listeners.

But there is something else. Cage’s music depends on a slow unfolding and a leisurely approach to time in order to make its full impact. That slow unfolding introduces a graininess or raggedness to the beauty of the sounds. There is no contrast, no epiphany, no drama, no point. The music simply continues with almost annoying steadfastness until its end. That steadfastness, stretched out to extraordinary lengths (seventy minutes or more), allows the music to avoid the trap of merely sounding beautiful. More and more I find the music taking equal precedence with the other events around me, gently enveloping me until I see and hear minute details of everyday life with a fresh, uncluttered clarity. Perhaps this experience transcends any emotional reaction I could have. Yet I do not feel it shares much with another musical tradition after 1945, an ultra-rational music that also viewed emotion askance. Cage’s music represents something altogether different, and I still find all my words absolutely ineffectual to describe it.

Rob Haskins
Durham, New Hampshire
October 2004


[1] Philip Glass, “Liner Notes, Music in 12 Parts: Parts 1 and 2” (London: Virgin Records, CA2010, 1977), n.p.

[2] Cole Gagne and Tracy Caras, Soundpieces: Interviews with American Composers (Metuchen: Scarecrow Press, 1981), 76–77.

[3] See “John Cage and Roger Reynolds: A Conversation.” Musical Quarterly 65 (1979): 580–84 (the interview took place in 1977); and Stuart Saunders Smith, “Having Words with John Cage,” Percussive Notes 30, no. 3 (February 1992): 52.

[4] Typescript in the Cage Correspondence Files at Northwestern University (C417–2.17). The description does not appear in the published version of the work, but might have been used as a program note at its first performance.

[5] See John Cage and Joan Retallack, Musicage: Cage Muses on Words, Art, Music. John Cage in Conversation with Joan Retallack, ed. Joan Retallack (Hanover, New Hampshire: University Press of New England [Wesleyan University Press], 1996), 227–34 and 341.

[6] See Stephen Drury, “Variation Pitch Structure Time: Two4 for Violin or Piano and Shō,” at <> (accessed 12 October 2004).

The Great Cage Recordings: Introduction

Having written an essay on Cage discography, included a list of recommended recordings in my book on Cage and reviewed a number of Cage CDs for the American Record Guide, I thought it might be useful to include on my blog a number of posts on some indispensable Cage recordings. My choices would not only identify what I think are his finest works, but also comment on which performances are better than others.

For those who haven’t read my Cage reviews, you might wonder how one could speak about superior (or inferior) Cage performances. What could possibly make for a bad performance of 4′33″, for instance? Visual shenanigans aside—as in this ridiculous video by the Music Group of EBU Radio—how could I possibly fault the sounds of any performance or recording?

4′33″—a piece whose sounds consist entirely of whatever sounds occur in or near the space where a performance occurs—is an extreme case, of course, but even when I get to that piece I think you’ll agree that not all performances are uniformly good. To introduce this series of posts, I thought I’d begin by discussing the aspects I consider when I review recordings of his music. Since Cage’s music was so diverse, some of the considerations below will not apply to every single piece, but many of them will. As I went about writing this list, I came to see that Cage’s music is, in many ways, not much different from the music of other composers.

  1. Fidelity to the text. Obviously this applies more to the works that are strictly notated, like the Sonatas and Interludes or the Freeman Etudes. In these works, while one make certain choices about tempo or phrasing, about shading of dynamics, the score carries the expectation that the music will unfold in the given order with the given pitches (sometimes sounding differently than they look because of preparations) and more or less at the speed that the notation suggests. The notation of the Sonatas is very conventional and fairly easy to understand; the notation in the Etudes, by contrast, is proportional (events at the left-hand side of the staff occur before the ones further right, and the closer the events are to each other, the faster they will occur). In the works with conventional notation, I’d expect the player to do more than simply play the notes with metronomically correct rhythms; I’d want the rhythms inflected, the phrases shaped, as with most music. In the proportional notation ones, I’ve found that quite literal performances can be quite effective but are by no means necessary or even preferable.
  2. Where the notation allows for a greater degree of choice, the performer should make novel choices. A colleague who shall remain nameless once introduced a burp in his or her performance of one of the solos from the Concert for Piano and Orchestra. That choice was deliberate. I observed that, in reading Cage, it seemed one of his interests concerned introducing sounds that had never been heard before; a burp seemed, somehow, too obvious. There might have been a time when a burp was a novel sound (or, to employ Cage’s term, a useful sound) and hence served an important purpose, for instance to remind us that any sound we make is music and that no one sound is better (or worse) than another. But just as Cage lamented, in performances of Winter Music, that everything became a melody—sounds formerly giving the impression of self-sufficiency seemed more connected to other sounds as the performer and audience heard the piece again and again—certain sounds become clichéd through overuse. Bodily sounds fall into this category, at least for me.
  3. Glenn Gould famously observed that the only reason to record a work is to record it differently. I’ve always thought that practice is more likely to lead to a worthwhile result, if for no other reason that it reveals the limits of what a composition can sustain interpretatively. Many Cage pieces invite radically different approaches. Even so, a radically different approach that violates the instructions of the score can often end up merely sounding stupid—this is particularly the case when performers know very little of Cage’s music or haven’t bothered to acquaint themselves fully with his ideas.
  4. This one has more to do with performances than recordings, but I think it’s appropriate to mention it here. Does the performance allow you to pay attention to other sounds in your environment as you listen? Another way of saying the same thing: do the ambient sounds around you seem, after a while, to contribute to what you’re hearing on the recording, even seem as important? If so, this is a performance of Cage that is in keeping with his post-1950 aesthetics. Naturally this applies only to the music composed after around 1952; the music of the ’30s and ’40s were not intended to point out the importance of all sounds within earshot, but rather to be enjoyed as most music was: by giving it our attention. At the same time, the principle applies in different ways to different pieces: think, say, of Sixteen Dances, one of the Number Pieces, and Europera 3.
  5. Cage’s music often suggests devotion more than emotion. But that doesn’t mean that the music must be played coldly or without expression. I’ll go farther: that doesn’t mean it should be played that way. The trick is to find an emotional approach that isn’t too overtly manipulative; that’s probably why so many people default to a senza espressione approach; it works, but it’s not very imaginative, especially in 2014.
  6. The music seems to demand an approach in which one does not become too wedded to habits. This is easier to gauge, perhaps, in a performance than a recording. Take a piece like Cheap Imitation, the content of which derives from Satie’s Socrate—when I played this piece a couple of years ago, I tried to shape the phrases in as many different ways as I could imagine; I think all of his music benefits from a variety of approaches applied, insofar as possible, without too much advance planning (and without falling back on habits).
  7. The performance should not be an excuse for the exploration of a concept or a gimmick, but at all times should aim for a simple, straightforward connection between musicians and an audience. (This observation applies, in particular, to performances of 4′33″ and several of the extreme indeterminate works of the 1960s.)
  8. If the work has been recorded before, do I want to hear the older recording instead of the one I’m currently listening to? And a corollary: am I too attached to an older favorite recording and not giving the newer one the attention it needs?
  9. Once I’ve heard the recording for the first time, I should want to listen to it again—sometimes as soon as it’s over. Once heard again, the recording should continue to surprise, move, give pleasure, etc.