Articles on John Cage

21 Oct

John Cage accepted an invitation from Canadian artists to visit them at Emma Lake, Saskatchewan in 1965. My percussion ensemble was asked to play a concert of music that represented Cage’s philosophies and might have influenced the artists at Emma Lake. Following are my two articles, the sources for them, the program of music and my program notes for that concert.

<Soundtracks> See Hear! The University of Toronto Arts Centre Exhibition and Concert with the Faculty of Music Percussion Ensemble. October 21, 2003

Some Influences on John Cage

“Percussion music is a contemporary transition from keyboard-influenced music to the all-sound music of the future. Any sound is acceptable to the composer of percussion music” John Cage, The Future of Music: Credo (1937)

The first third of the 20th century was a turning point in contemporary western art music. Composers discovered percussion instruments to be almost limitless in number and to possess qualities far more intriguing and provocative than suggested by their traditional roles as dynamic enforcers, timekeepers and exotic colorists. Composer Henry Cowell directed his students to junk – yards and kitchens for new instruments and he and Colin McPhee further enlarged music’s “soundscape” by espousing the percussion-dominated music of the “Pacific Rim” countries. (Cowell, it could be said, began the World- Music movement forty years before it was embraced by academia and pop musicians.)

California born John Cage took Cowell’s course in Non – Western music at the New School for Social Research in New York City. After one year with Cowell, Cage returned to California and took up studies with Arnold Schoenberg in autumn 1934. Cage said of his studies with Schoenberg, “It became clear to both of us that I had no feeling for harmony(counterpoint). Therefore, Schoenberg said, I’d never be able to write music.”

In 1935 the abstract film – maker Oscar Fischinger told Cage, “Every thing in the world has its own spirit. All we need to do to liberate that spirit is to brush past the object, and to draw forth its sound”. According to Cage, that was the comment that led him to percussion. Now bereft of pitch, Cage structured his new compositions with rhythm and he took a fresh look at the remaining elements of music – amplitude, duration and timbre.

The discoveries made while working with percussion influenced all of Cage’s later works. With the exception of his piano and prepared piano pieces, John Cage did not write a work for percussion instruments between 1943 and 1985, but as he explained, “I remain a composer of percussion because my music is always based on duration, timbre, sound and silence”.

I’ve performed Cage’s music for forty years, occasionally under his direction and I believe two ideals guided him. First, to free composers, performers and audiences from the inflexible rules of traditional music and second, to have them contemplate seriously the question, What is Music?

These ideals are exemplified by Cage’s use of the Chinese Book of Changes to direct some of his compositional processes and his unswerving opinion that 4′ 33″ “ the “silent” piece – was his best work. Book of Changes and 4′ 33″ made him famous “ and infamous – ten years before Emma Lake.

No one but Cage and the participants at Emma Lake could speak definitively about things that influenced their art. Therefore, the repertoire for this concert was selected because it represents Cage’s artistic ideals and that he was invited to Emma Lake because of those ideals and that the influence of those ideals would have been enhanced by Cage’s presence.

Copyright © 2003, Robin Engelman

An Appreciation for the Percussion Music of John Cage

The Western percussion ensemble began about seventy years ago and although John Cage did not invent it, “it was already in the air ” he said, Cage was the first person to form an ensemble that rehearsed regularly. Its raison d’être was to explore through percussion, Cage’s ideas about music. This ensemble and the music Cage wrote for it was the beginning of a new world for percussionists. The ensemble consisted of Cage and his friends bookbinders, dancers, and artists, whoever was available at the time. None of them were trained percussionists so they couldn’t play rolls, a fundamental percussion technique for sustaining a sound with two sticks. Therefore Cage’s music consisted of single strokes only, thus making it accessible to anyone with a fair degree of manual dexterity and an ability to read music. It is ironic that from this ensemble came the most important percussion music of the 20th century. Because Cage was financially strapped at the time, his instrumentations were affordable, small, and portable. Cage accepted the sound of anything as musical, as long as it was not a cliché. In Trio for Seven Wood Blocks, Not Chinese, Cage turned the negative – not Chinese – into a positive by condoning the use of any other blocks of wood whilst simultaneously suggesting a comprehensive exploration of wood sounds.Cage’s music is about exploration. One cannot examine a score by Cage without reassessing one’s musical craft and concepts. A percussionist’s technique honed on instruments built for war with exercises developed centuries ago, are helpful in Cage’s music, but not entirely necessary and anyway, his music is not a technical display for performers. It is music for virtuosos, but virtuosos of sound.John Cage understood the fact that percussion sounds were ambiguous, that no two instruments sound alike. Therefore, a successful performance depends upon the orchestration skills of the performers more than their technical abilities.

Cage took simple, tuneless instruments and with imagination and some elaboration, achieved for percussion an important independent position in western art music. Of course Cage was not alone. Berlioz, Ravel, Debussy, Stravinsky, Milhaud and Varèse also played important roles in our awakening, but Cage and Takemitsu, who wrote important works for percussion, say to us in a very special way, “Listen, to everything”.

In my opinion, John Cage’s percussion music and the ideas that shaped it helped transform percussionists from utilitarian time “ keepers into artists. To be old enough to have known him and to have experienced that transformation is one of the most gratifying aspects of my musical career.

In 1972 there were three professional percussion ensembles in the western world, one each in Canada the United States and France. Today (2004) there are approximately forty worldwide.

Cage commissioned Carlos Chavez to write what became a classic of percussion ensemble repertoire, Toccata for Percussion. When the work arrived, Cage’s ensemble could not play it because it relied heavily on rolls. Cage had to premiere the work with professional percussionists.

 In 1982 The Percussive Arts Society, an international organization of performers, educators and students, elected John Cage to their Hall of Fame. He was the third composer, after Harry Partch (1974) and Edgard Varèse (1980) to be so honored. Subsequent inductees were Lou Harrison (1985) Michael Colgrass (1987) William Kraft (1990) and Warren Benson (2003)

Copyright © Robin Engelman, 2003


The information in the preceding texts is based on the author’s conversations and experiences with John Cage and from the following publications.

> American Pioneers: Ives to Cage and Beyond, 20th Century Composers, Rich, Alan, Phaidon Press Ltd. London, 1995.

> A Year From Monday, New Lectures and Writings by John Cage, Wesleyan University Press, Connecticut, 1969.

> Conversations with Cage, Kostelanetz, Richard, Limelight Editions, New York, 1988.

> The Early Percussion Music of John Cage, 1935-1943, Williams, Barry Michael, Ph.D. Michigan State University, 1990.

> For The Birds, John Cage in Conversation with Daniel Charles, Marion Boyars Ltd., Salem, New Hampshire, 1981.

> John Cage Writer, Previously Uncollected Pieces, Kostelanetz, Richard, John Cage, Limelight Editions, 1993.

> Musicage, Cage Muses on Words, Art and Music, Retallack, Joan, Wesleyan University Press, 1996.

> The Music of John Cage, Pritchett, James, Cambridge University Press, 1993.

> Silence, lectures and writings by John Cage, The M.I.T. Press, Massachusetts, 1966.

> A Special John Cage Issue, articles by Swed, Arditti and La Barbara, Schwann Opus, New Mexico, winter 1995/96

<Soundtracks > See Hear!
Music by John Cage
The University Arts Centre,
October 21, 03. 12:00 noon
The Percussion Ensemble of the University of Toronto Faculty of Music, Robin Engelman, Director


0′ 00″ (1962)
Daniel Cameron, Partridge sculpture

Excerpts from “Diary: Emma Lake Music Workshop 1965”
Robin Engelman, reader

Trio for Seven Wood Blocks, not Chinese from Trio (1936)
Laura Savage, Mandy Lau and Daniel Morphy

A Flower (1950)
Mandy Lau, voice – Kyoko Ogoda, piano

A Demonstration of the I Ching or Book of Changes used to determine the structures of Child of Tree.
Mandy Lau

Child of Tree* (1975)
Daniel Cameron, Mandy Lau, Daniel Morphy, Kyoko Ogoda and Laura Savage,
Cacti, Dried Leaves, Pod Rattle and Twigs
* Sound amplification by Peter Olsen
Cacti courtesy of Reeve’s Garden centre, Woodbridge, Ontario

4′ 33″ (1952)
Daniel Morphy, piano

Program Notes for <Sound Tracks> See Hear!

I. > 0′ 00″ – John Cage visited Japan in 1962 at the invitation of composer Toshi Ichiyanagi, (1933-). While in Japan, Cage wrote 0′ 00″ and dedicated it to Ichiyanagi and his wife Yoko Ono. Unlike 4′ 33″, which involved one or more musicians who made no sound, 0′ 00″ stipulates an obligation towards others must be fulfilled, in a partial or complete manner, by a single person.

II. > Cage published Diary: Emma Lake Music Workshop 1965 in his book A Year From Monday (1969) and I think in relation to this art exhibit, his immediate daily impressions will be of interest.

III. > Some historians date Cage’s debut as an experimental composer with Trio, (1936) although Quartet for Percussion, Instruments Unspecified written a year earlier would seem a more logical choice because Cage wrote that work for instruments he had not yet heard.

In 1943 Cage included Trio for Seven Wood Blocks, Not Chinese from Trio in Amores, a work for prepared piano and percussion. Amores is an important work because, as suggested by the title and stated by Cage, “it is the quietness between lovers”; an idea not often associated with Cage’s music. Gentle and thoroughly unlike the powerful and mathematically conceived Constructions I, II, and III that preceded it, Amores is also the first concert work to include prepared piano, an instrument invented by Cage that ‘released him from the sonic predictability of traditional notation’.

IV. > Cage said, “A Flower for Voice and Closed Piano (1950) is in the rhythmic structure of the dance by Louise Lippold for whom it was written. The dance being suggestive of Flora, an attempt was made to suggest Fauna”.

V. > In 1951 the French born composer Christian Wolff introduced Cage to I Ching or Book of Changes, the ancient Chinese oracle which his father had just published in English. Like the Oracle of Delphi, I Ching communicates through indirection and purposive obfuscation, leading the questioner to seek out inner resources for dealing with specific problems: for example, ‘Grace has success. /In small matters/It is favorable to undertake something.’ Soon after being presented with this book, Cage began writing Music of Changes for Piano and Imaginary Landscape #4 for Twelve Radios.
Mandy Lau will demonstrate the techniques of I Ching and discuss Cage’s instructions on preparing a performance of Child of Tree.

VI. > (In Child of Tree)(1975)” Cage gives directions for improvisation because; “the improvisation can’t be based on taste and memory since one doesn’t know the instruments. The pitch relations between the spines of a single piece of cactus often will be very interesting; microtonal. It’s an improvisation within a structure determined by chance operations.” Each performer consults I Ching to determine when and what they play.

VII. > Robert Rauchenberg’s White Paintings that reacted to changing light and people coming and going in the rooms where they were hung inspired 4′ 33″. Cage thought of 4′ 33″ as a piece of music constantly in flux, subject to the ambient sounds surrounding each performance. Many people thought it ironic or a game. It was neither to Cage. Cage said, “Our inflexible attitude towards change must cease. My own experience proved to me that all I need to do is to listen to the sounds around me. They change. I always and everywhere listen to the sounds surrounding me, but if I were to feel that one of them didn’t please me or wasn’t suitable for me “ if I would have preferred that it didn’t exist or hadn’t happened “ then you could immediately see why such a notion of preference is in a way illegitimate, since in fact the sound did occur”. Cage was forty years old when 4′ 33″ was premiered in Woodstock, New York. ‘Good people of Woodstock’, an artist in the audience stood and proclaimed, ‘let’s drive these people out of town’.

Copyright © 2003, Robin Engelman


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