The Practicality of the Impossible: John Cage and the Freeman Etudes

A prolific writer of prose, poetry, and music as well as a mycologist, teacher, visual artist, and an eloquent spokesman for the avant-garde from the late ’40s until his death in 1992, John Cage is perhaps the best known American composer of the 20th century whose music many know more by reputation than by actual experience. I remember being rather struck by my first introduction to Cage in undergraduate music studies. He was the only composer we discussed that entire semester without hearing a note of his music. I still encounter people who have (often rather strong) opinions concerning 4’33” (Cage’s famous “silent” piece, in which no sound is intentionally performed, forcing the audience to become aware of the sounds that continually occur around us and, perhaps, to experience them as music) who have never listened to a recording or attended a performance of Cage’s music. Too often Cage becomes a test case for exploring that endlessly tiresome question (“What is music?”) while the music with which he was involved is dismissed as a byproduct of his aesthetic and more broadly philosophical pursuits.

Cage is perhaps most readily recognized for two approaches to the creation of music: chance operations and indeterminacy. While these two means of producing performances (or compositions) are not wholly distinct, it is helpful to separate them here as a first step in understanding Cage’s achievements. Composing by means of chance operations involves a repudiation (or at least a limitation) of intentionality. That is, Cage devised methods by which he could compose pieces of music while relinquishing a large amount of control. Music of Changes (1951) for solo piano, his first complete work as the result of chance operations (the very first experiment with chance was the third movement of the Concerto for Prepared Piano, completed earlier that same year), involved three charts (one of pitches, one of durations, and one of dynamics) of 64 cells each. Each cell contained an element; in the case of the pitch chart this could be successive pitches, a sonority, a succession of pitches and sonorities, or silence (every other cell in the pitch chart indicated a silence). Cage then used the I Ching, the Chinese book of divination (translated as The Book of Changes, providing Cage with the title of the piece), to determine each resultant sound (the conglomeration of sonority, duration, and dynamic) as well as the actual sequence of sounds and silences (what Cage previously called “the morphology of the continuity”) that constitute the piece as a whole.

In a lecture entitled “Experimental Music”, Cage suggested that “one may give up the desire to control sound, clear his mind of music, and set about discovering means to let sounds be themselves rather than vehicles for man-made theories or expressions of human sentiments.” The resulting composition did not ask the listener to “understand” some message sent by the composer but rather to attend “to the activity of the sounds.” In this way, the composer and the listener could escape from memory (from a constrictive notion of “how things should go”) to a new and more immediate experience of individual sounds: succession instead of continuity.

Recommended Recordings

John Cage, Freeman Etudes, Books 1 and 2 and Freeman Etudes, Books 3 and 4 (Irvine Arditti, violin) (Mode)

Be forewarned: this is not what most people would consider conventionally beautiful music. (I doubt whether beauty in the sense of merely pleasing should enter into consideration here at all.) However, these recordings are beautifully executed and wonderfully realized. Arditti’s mastery of the violin seemingly knows no bounds. And the pieces themselves are worthy of serious contemplation and repeated listening. Don’t be surprised if you are somewhat put-off at first. Impossible listening requires time and patience.

The approach toward chance discussed so far pertained solely to Cage as a composer — that is, to the process of composition itself — and the end result was a fully realized musical score that the performer was to play note-for-note. In the late ’50s, Cage along with several other composers (including Morton Feldman, Christian Wolff, and Earle Brown) increasingly turned toward scores that were indeterminate of performance — that is, the score was under-specific, leaving many choices to the performers themselves. Different performers may interpret a determinate score such as Mozart’s C major piano sonata K.545 in quite different ways but you will always recognize it as that sonata. Furthermore, the score (provided you can read musical notation) will provide you with an accurate idea of what the piece sounds like. An indeterminate score, on the other hand, does not provide a score reader with an accurate anticipation of what a performance of the piece will sound like at all. Indeed, the performance is merely one of many possible realizations of the score. Thus every performance of an indeterminate piece will be radically different — far beyond mere differences of “interpretation”.

Over the course of the following decade (the 1960s), Cage came to see indeterminacy as an ethical stance. He became less interested in composing music (preparing a set of instructions for a performer to follow rigorously) and more interested in facilitating the emergence of sounds to be experienced. Cage envisioned this position to have deep and important political implications. In the preface to A Year from Monday, he wrote: “The reason I am less and less interested in music is not only that I find environmental sounds and noises more useful aesthetically than the sounds produced by the world’s musical cultures, but that, when you get right down to it, a composer is simply someone who tells other people what to do. I find this an unattractive way to get things done. I’d like our activities to be more social and anarchically so.”

Certainly, this shift in emphasis can be seen as a logical extension of earlier experiments such as 4’33” but the focus here was less a radical reconfiguration of what constituted musical experience and more an attempt to aesthetically integrate the listener as a musical being within a world (especially an urban world) that was itself inherently musical. His revised understanding of music centered on process; the resulting sounds were almost incidental. The piece 0’00” (an obvious reference to 4’33” but here collapsing the time bracket of the earlier piece to an eternal yet always vanishing now) provides an ideal example. The score contains a simple instruction: “In a situation provided with maximum amplification (no feedback), perform a disciplined action.”

Cage later qualified this instruction by insisting that the action should fulfill an obligation to others. Thus Cage establishes the medium of transmission of sound (the amplification) and facilitates a — highly variable — means of sound production (the personal action decided upon by the performer) but he seems blithely unconcerned with the sound itself. Our access to the sound resulting from the action derives from technology (the amplification), which Cage — following media theorist Marshall McLuhan — believed was an extension of our nervous systems, allowing us to feel further than we were capable of before. Instead of simply making music more social, Cage sounds out the music within social activities; the insistence that the action fulfill a social obligation (social in that it involves another person) buttresses the utopic/anarchic vision of his new aesthetic. In his effort to avoid being “someone who tells other people what to do”, Cage sought opportunities for, in his own succinct formulation, “Music (not composition)” — the parenthetical negation has the paradoxical effect of widening rather than limiting the scope of what the primary term (Music) envelopes.

However, the 1970s brought a seeming contradiction to Cage’s output. He returned to composition and indeed, in some cases, to a form of composition that not only told other people what to do but that told them what to do with demanding precision almost impossible to realize in performance. This exceedingly recondite form of composition can be found in the three sets of etudes Cage began in this decade, including the Freeman Etudes for solo violin. Betty Freeman commissioned these works in 1977 and Cage set about composing them by utilizing star charts to produce four books of eight etudes each (he had employed a similar procedure in the Etudes Australes for solo piano, completed in 1975). By tracing the star charts onto music paper, Cage arrived at the rhythms and pitches. Every note was then subjected to numerous chance operations (through the use of the I Ching) to determine such factors as the volume of the note (the dynamics), whether the note was slightly sharp or flat, the fingering, whether chords would be realized around that note, the bowing style (including plucked notes, or notes played with the wooden part of the bow), and so on. In other words, every note (every event) was wholly individual and isolated. An event was typically radically different from the event preceding and the event succeeding it. The challenge of the piece involves navigating each sound event in often-rapid succession.

During the composition of the 18th etude, the music became so dense that Cage gave up its completion until many years later when Irvine Arditti demonstrated their playability. By then Cage had to enlist the support of scholar James Pritchett in order to reconstruct his compositional approach and resume work. The resulting collection is equally baffling and impressive. Before one even begins to assess Arditti’s recordings as music, one cannot help but be overwhelmed by the sheer unmitigated virtuosity on display with every note the violinist produces. And indeed that sense of astonishment was part of the point.

As in his writings of the 1960s, Cage justified these etudes through recourse to social concerns. In an interview in the early 1980s, Cage asserted:

These are intentionally as difficult as I can make them, because I think we’re now surrounded by very serious problems in the society, and we tend to think that the situation is hopeless and that it’s just impossible to do something that will make everything turn out properly. So I think that this music, which is almost impossible, gives an instance of the practicality of the impossible.

The performances become a metaphor for the dedication to making the impossible possible that Cage felt was now required to achieve the global utopia envisioned by McLuhan in his notion of a “global village” as well as Buckminster Fuller’s utopic understanding of technology and its purported ability to fulfill 100 percent of the material needs of 100 percent of the world’s population. But if the Cage of the 1960s had held out the hope that this utopia would be anarchic, that position no longer seems tenable in relation to these etudes. In the Freeman Etudes, electronic technology (manifested in 0’00” as amplification) is replaced by the highly developed technical skill and flexibility (bordering on the perfection of the mechanism) of the performer. All of the notes are representations of the positions of the stars in the universe and all of the various inflections of those notes were realized through chance operations. The performer becomes a heroically inspired automaton executing a seemingly impossible task that transcends individual personal choice and involves the realization of a plan far beyond any person’s own conception. Anarchy gives way to rigorous obedience to a system.

Do not misunderstand me. This set of pieces (from the standpoint both of performance and of composition) is a remarkable achievement. I find it most compelling, almost compulsively engaging. Perhaps it truly manages to demonstrate the “practicality of the impossible” but that practicality seems to come at the cost of freedom.

By the mid-’70s, Cage had become increasingly disillusioned with the state of the world and the role of government. He remained committed to the possibility of (positive) anarchy as modeled by music. “By making musical situations which are analogies to desirable social circumstances which we do not yet have,” he wrote in “The Future of Music” in 1974, “we make music suggestive and relevant to the serious questions that face Mankind.” But what analogous musical situation is created in the Freeman Etudes? It is not a social piece; it is for a solo performer achieving the near impossible. It is not indeterminate of performance; every sound is hyper-precisely notated. Perhaps these etudes demonstrate another strand to Cage’s social thought of the ’70s, a strand that runs as a shadow to his more pronounced anarchic aspirations and indeed that serves as a necessary counterpart to those aspirations. Perhaps his bitterness regarding the world political situation (most caustically expressed in his 1975 piece, Lecture on the Weather) led him to consider other, less idealistic, solutions to the world’s problems.

However, we should be careful before pushing such considerations too far. Perhaps, such strict constraints are necessary to achieve the self-overcoming positive anarchy would seem to require. Nietzsche long ago warned: “It is the weak characters without power over themselves who hate the constraint of style” — style being, for Nietzsche, the sublimating of weakness into strength, limitations into possibilities.

Of course, these pieces pose another challenge aside from the rigorous demands placed on the performer. They also require a near impossible effort on the part of the listener. How are we to comprehend this music when each sound seems to exist in total isolation from the next and yet one sound follows upon another before we have had time to fully absorb what we are hearing? Listeners who bother to read program notes or the liner notes to compact discs know that this music bears some relation to star charts and yet we certainly do not hear that explicitly. In this manner, Cage’s etudes bear a similarity to many 20th-century works (including the music of one of Cage’s instructors, Arnold Schoenberg) in that the music as experienced does not directly represent for us the underlying compositional structure and/or system.

And yet there is more to it than that. Various writers (from Antiquity to the Baroque and, in some cases, beyond) have contended that music bears some direct relationship to the organization of the cosmos. Plato believed that the Demiurge ordered the cosmos through two number series: one based on two (1:2:4:6 . . . 2n) and one based on three (1:3:9:12 . . .3n). Combined, these cycles reproduced (in part) the Pythagorean proportions of the musical consonances. Boethius (highly influenced by Plato) insisted that the ultimate type of music was musica mundane, the harmony of the spheres. Music accounts for the order of the cosmos, which, by definition, is order and harmony as distinct from chaos.

Cage replaces the comforting order of the cosmos with the recalcitrant, indecipherable organization of a part of the universe. The star charts realized in sound lead to a seeming lack of order and yet we know that the music is ordered inasmuch as it adheres to a pre-existent model — the starry sky itself. We cannot experience the night sky within these etudes as some musical act of cartography. There is a rift between our experiential involvement with the music and the governing system we know to exist within it. Each sound, radically set off from the others, demands that we hear it in isolation as self-subsistent. And yet our knowledge of the compositional apparatus demands that we somehow comprehend (if only through intuition) a larger set of relationships, a grid in which each sound makes contextual sense.

Perhaps it is here, in the music’s relationship to the listener, that the social reenters in a radically anarchic manner. The music simultaneously demands and repudiates an overarching organizational construct. We cannot represent to ourselves nor can the music represent for us the complexity of the system that lies behind it and yet we are asked to navigate the discontinuous realm between the experience of each sound in its fullness, its individuality and the knowledge that each sound fits within a larger structure, that each sound belongs. Perhaps this is the truly impossible task that remains to be made possible.


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