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.”

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).