❉ A 3-disc dive into the composer who challenged perceptions of what ‘music’ actually can be…
“If my work is accepted, I must move on to the point where it is not” – John Cage
There are many words which can be conjured up when describing the work of John Cage, including poet, music theorist, pioneer, philosopher, artist – the list goes on. He was a pioneer of indeterminacy in music (he is known as the ‘father of indeterminism’), electro-acoustic music, and non-standard use of musical instruments. Cage was one of the leading figures of the post-war avant-garde, who was influenced by Zen-Buddhism and Indian philosophy to use aleatoric (chance-controlled) music in his compositions.
Born in 1912 and died in 1992 just short of his eightieth birthday, Cage is best known for 4’33”; a track in which not one single note of music is played. Whilst this may all seem a bit ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’, Cage believed that silence was as much as a contributory factor in a musical composition as the actual notes played.
Cage was also instrumental (no pun intended!) in his development of modern American dance, mostly through his personal and professional association with choreographer Merce Cunningham.
Lollipops is a 3CD collection of compositions by Cage encompassing a 25-year retrospective concert of his music, and Indeterminacy; New Aspect of Form in Instrumental and Electronic Music.
Discs 1 and 2 are dedicated to his twenty fifth retrospective concert and includes Sonatas and Interludes, which showcases his work played on a ‘prepared piano’. Cage was a pioneer of the ‘prepared piano’ which is a piano with its sound output altered by objects being placed on the piano strings or hammers. Cage was well-known for this forward-thinking way of adapting the instrument to achieve a noise required by a particular composition.
The concert showcases Cage’s compositions by using a wide range of orchestral instruments. The often much forgotten about percussion section seems to take centre stage in a number of his works. The concert is truly a master class in the term ‘avant garde’ and challenges the perception of music in the many differing forms that it can take. Bearing in mind that these compositions were imagined around the end of World War 2, one can only imagine how innovative and ground-breaking they must have seemed. Titles such as First Construction in Metal and The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Strings must have appeared to be extremely new and somewhat different at that time.
This edition on CDs 1 and 2 combines two important large-scale performances in Cage’s career and showcases the composer’s broad spectrum of musical interests. CD3 finds Cage reading ninety short stories, each punctuated by piano and tape interjections by his long-term musical collaborator, David Tutor.
If you are unfamiliar with the music of John Cage, then it might not appeal on first listening, but when you delve a little deeper and understand his psyche, you come to understand his thinking on challenging the perceptions of what ‘music’ actually can be. It was his belief that silences allow the actual notes played to have room to make the listener appreciate them and gives them the space to have greater resonance.
Cage’s philosophies have impacted modern pop music through his incorporation of unconventional instrumentation and the idea of ‘environmental’ almost organic music, dictated wholly by chance. Without Cage we wouldn’t have the music that we have from acts as diverse as The Creatures, Bjork, and Nick Cave, to Paul McCartney and Frank Zappa who have both stated publicly that Cage had a major influence on their composition methods. Zappa goes as far to say that “without Cage, much of what happens in modern music and art would not be possible”.
This 3CD set by Cherry Red is released on 20 March. If you’re a fan of Cage’s work or your interest is duly piqued about taking modern music back to its origins and listening to what has influenced many musical acts of today, then I’d suggest this CD set is essential listening.
❉ John Cage: ‘Lollipops’ (3CD) is released March 20, 2020 by El Records/Cherry Red Records, RRP £12.99. Click here to order from the Cherry Red store.
❉ Ange Chan is a regular contributor to We Are Cult and is a writer of novels and poetry. Her current long-standing, ongoing project is her third novel Champagne Flutes and Pixie Boots which she hopes to see published in 2020.