The Extraordinary Commonplace: Cage's Music for Shō, Violin, Conch Shells

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 the actual experience of 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).