John Cage by David Nicholls

by N. A. Hayes

16 January 2008


Americans are comfortable with qualitative judgments; that movie is good, that book is bad. This dyadic understanding of the world is convenient because it allows the viewer to convey their personal decision about whether or not a particular piece of cultural product fits into acceptable conventions. When a work (like John Cages exploration of silence, 4’33”) breaks these conventions by drawing attention not only to its substance, structure and conventions but also to its failings, the work and artist are often met with frustration if not hostility.

Cage created an aura of difficulty around his work. Many people, including those hostile to his music, view Cage as a trickster. They assume that works like 4’33” are about pulling one over on the audience.  In John Cage, David Nicholls tries to paint his subject in a more sympathetic light. It succeeds. This attempt raises the question of whether or not those who are not previously sympathetic to him will read the book.

cover art

John Cage

David Nicholls

American Composers

(University of Illinois Press)

Regardless of the answer, this attempt is not an easy one to accomplish (not only because of people’s hostile prejudice, but also because of the nature of Cage’s experimental music.) Michael Nyman in his Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond helps illustrate the difficulty in discussing the work. Nyman explains that experimental music is concerned with “the uniqueness of the moment”. Perhaps this alone is what the book struggles with because how can what is meant to be a fleeting moment of experience be accurately described and made concrete? But there is an essential strength in the book as it tries to follow the history of a proverbially fallen leaf through its course down a river.

If Nicholls can only describe the shadow of the event, the echo of the song, then it is to his credit that he succeeds. The book places these experimental pieces in a context outside of the assumed joke or prank. The history, if incapable of humanizing the music, humanizes the composer.

But more than that it forces the reader to ask why he or she approaches the music with hostility. Is this response just empty form? Is the eternal repetition of rhythm and melody in Western Music really where we should remained, forever mired in an acoustic Renaissance as the rest of our world evolves and adapts? But perhaps, even as we resist these original incarnations, we accept their descendants (at least those of us who consume Electronica or anything that has been so influenced).

Nicholls presents Cage with a delicate hand. He constructs or exploits biographical pathos to succeed in his goal of presenting a sympathetic but unbiased reading of Cage and his work. But I wonder at what cost…or at least at the irony of presenting the man who wrote Empty Words in such a straightforward traditional narrative by providing Cage with exposition, rising action, falling action and redemption. Perhaps this same impulse to provide a reasonable narrative is the same impulse, which resists Cage’s work in the first place.

But Cage does not seem to be a Revolutionary or at least not for long. A teacher, an explorer, someone who thought to expand the understanding of sound but not bury, hide or destroy all that came before him. Certainly he had his skirmishes, but ultimately it seems he was chasing an unrestrained creativity, a place where all action and sound could be sacred, whether drinking a glass of water or by doing nothing. It was attention to a state of near enlightenment that dictated these “jokes”. It is so often the assumption that in life one must find the punch line, the line that gives what came before relevance. So if Cage did tell jokes or riddles, they were not pranks but perhaps Koans meant to open our mind.

John Cage


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