Musical Times

Cage & Co.

Cage & Co.

Fox, Christopher


CHRISTOPHER Fox explores the still-challenging world of the New York school of composers

The New York schools of music and visual arts Edited by Steven Johnson Routledge (London, 2002), 258pp; L. ISBN 0 8153 3364 1 / 0 415 93694 2.

The Cambridge companion to John Cage Edited by David Nicholls Cambridge UP (Cambridge, 2002); xiii, 287pp; L47.50, $70 / 17.95, $26 pbk. ISBN 0 521 78348 8 0 521 78968 0.

THE MEMBERS of the New York School are slowly but surely making their entry into the heaven of critical regard. The Cage-Feldman memorabilia trade is booming: new CDs of both composers’ work are appearing in record company catalogues every month, new articles and books are published every month, and there are internet discussion lists, even concert performances of the music, particularly in those parts of continental Europe where the notion of music as art as well as entertainment flourishes. Why is there such widespread and growing interest in composers who, even two decades ago, were still often thought of as eccentrics or charlatans? Certainly there are rich archival seams to be dug: Cage’s published catalogue is considerable, but there are many more unpublished scores, mostly written for dance performances, to research; similarly a number of early Feldman scores have only recently been rediscovered. But much more important is the aesthetic challenge that this music continues to offer, to listeners, to performers and to those composers who care to confront it.

Ten years after Cage’s death, fifteen after Feldman’s, their work refuses to be easily digested. The beguilingly beautiful surface of Feldman’s music masks a formal sophistication which the listener can perhaps never really grasp; our attention seems to slip through the music, just as in gazing at a Rothko one discovers that one is looking not at but through the painting. Cage’s work is more challenging still. Even before the silent piece there are so many works where the centre is a void – the ‘Winter’ movement of the String quartet in four parts, the dying off of material in In a landscape – and so many where linear continuity is an illusion – the Amores, the Sonatas and interludes. After the silent piece there is the paradox of Cage’s boundless creative invention, work after work celebrating the complexity of life and living but (almost) never telling us what to think, just how to think. Cage and Feldman were also masterly authors of public personae – the holy innocent, the wisecracking epicure – which offered the qualities least apparent in their music – sweetness, bite. But perhaps we need to think of the public ‘Cage’ and ‘Feldman’ like Peters or Universal Edition covers, useful for selling the work but ultimately the wrapping, not the contents. Then we can concentrate on exploring the secrets of their music, Cage’s anarchic melodies and harmonies, Feldman’s compelling rhythms.

NEITHER of these new books – one a collection of essays on Cage in particular, the other on the New York School in general – takes us much further with such an exploration, both being more concerned with history and context than analysis and aesthetics. Nonetheless both are worthy additions to the literature, although anyone buying both may be disappointed at the amount of duplication between the pair. The scholarly gene pool is weakened by the appearance of a number of the same writers in both books. John Holzaepfel and David W Bernstein cover related topics in each and also featured in last year’s Writings through John Cages music, poetry and art, edited by Bernstein & Christopher Hatch,1 while David Nicholls contributes two chapters to his own volume and another to Johnson’s, rather surprisingly using exactly the same musical example (a page of Water music) in both books. One wonders if Routledge and Cambridge University Press knew that they were engaged in quite such similar projects, or that the University of Chicago Press would beat them both to the bookshelves?

For whom are these books intended? The New York schools of music and visual arts is a book that will engage anyone interested in the interrelationships between the musicians, painters and sculptors who in the 1950s became known as the New York School and does for Abstract Expressionism, Wolpe, Cage, Rauschenberg et al. what Edward Strickland’s Minimalism: origins (Indiana University Press, 1993) did for Andre, LeWitt, Glass and Reich. A readership for The Cambridge companion to John Cage is harder to imagine. As an introduction to Cage’s work it is far too partial to be of real use; readers who know little of Cage would be much better served by David Revill’s biography, by William Fetterman’s fascinating book on John Cage’s theatre pieces: notations and performances (Amsterdam, 1996), by the Bernstein & Hatch Writings through John Cage which I mentioned earlier, or, best of all, by Cage’s own writings.

Cage devotees, on the other hand, will find that there is relatively little here which breaks new ground in Cage scholarship. Most of the writers in The Cambridge companion to John Cage offer a discussion of the received wisdom on Cage’s work from their own particular perspective: David Nicholls emphasises the young Cage’s indebtedness to Henry Cowell, Alaistair Williams locates Cage within discourses on postmodernism. Leta E. Miller’s chapter on `Cage’s collaborations’ is, however, less interesting than its title promises. The collaborations discussed are mostly with other composers – Lou Harrison on Double music, Lejaren Hiller on HPSCHD – but Andrew Culver, the composer who was Cage’s assistant throughout the last decade of his life, is not mentioned, and Cage’s pre-eminent collaboration, with Merce Cunningham, falls outside the scope of the chapter. Indeed discussion of Cage’s creative relationship with Cunningham, his companion in life as well as work, falls outside the scope of this Companion as a whole.

The chapters on ‘Cage and America’, ‘Cage and Europe’ and ‘Cage and Asia’ offer some useful insights but, frustratingly, confine themselves to familiar historical territories. David Nicholls locates Cage within the America of his earlier years, Christopher Schultis discusses the relationship between European musicians and Cage in the period leading up to Cage’s 1958 Darmstadt appearances, David W. Patterson writes on ‘Cage and Asia: history and sources’. All have interesting things to say and Schultis’s painstaking researches into the translating of Cage’s Darmstadt lectures are particularly worthwhile – the politics of translation at international new music gatherings offer a rich seam of intrigue, nowhere more so than in the history of the summer courses at Darmstadt. Nono and Cage lectured, but people read Lachenmann and Metzger’s German versions of their words, and their translators were well aware of the explosive effect each nuance of translation would cause.

There is a postlude to Schultis’s chapter where he mentions Cage’s eventual return to Darmstadt. He says that `the reaction to Cage’s Darmstadt appearance was so strong that Cage didn’t return until 1990′, and he implies that Cage’s remarks on his return, when he offered ‘an introduction for those who do not know me […] because I have not been here for thirty-two years’, are evidence that Cage still `took it personally’. This is an oversimplification. Certainly Cage was never likely to be invited back to Darmstadt during the Stockhausen-dominated 1960s, nor during the more aesthetically timid courses of the 1970s, but after Friedrich Hommel took over direction of the Ferienkurse in 1982 Cage’s work was often featured, including the world premiere in 1984 of the Thirty pieces for string quartet played by the Kronos Quartet. As someone who was there in 1990 I think it is almost certain that Cage’s introductory remarks, to an audience packed with people who admired his work enormously and after more than a decade in which his work had been more successful than ever in continental Europe, were teasingly ironic rather than regretful.

THERE are other useful chapters: authoritative introductions to Cage’s entire compositional output from Nicholls, David W Bernstein and William Brooks, and interesting contributions from David W. Patterson on ‘Cage’s writings’ and from William Brooks on ‘Music and society’. A good companion is always helpful and certainly the careful referencing of most of the chapters here will point the curious reader in the direction of texts which can answer questions not immediately answered. But there is no work-list and there are some curious omissions from the bibliography The Musik– Konzepte volume on Darmstadt is cited but not the excellent two-volume issue of the same journal on Cage himself,2 and there is no citation of James Tenney’s groundbreaking article on John Cage and the Theory of Harmony’, first published in 1984 in Peter Garland’s Soundings series.3 At a time when the received wisdom on Cage’s work, propagated by the composer himself, was that it was as it was because Schoenberg had told Cage that he ‘no ear for harmony, Tenney argued that implicit in all of Cage’s music was a new theory of harmony.

According to Tenney the concept of the ‘aggregate of pitches and timbres’, which underpins all of Cage’s prepared piano music as well as the ensemble works of the late 1940s and early 1950s, is readily extended to harmony if one thinks of ‘harmony’ as the aggregate of harmonic partials within ‘a compound tone’. Tenney’s own music convincingly demonstrates how ‘harmony’ can be `freed from its implied restriction to triadic/ tonal music’, nowhere more so than in the four pieces entitled Form, memorials to Varese, Cage, Feldman and Wolpe composed in 1993 and 1994 and recently recorded by MusikFabrik on a double CD from hatART (hat[now]ART 2-127). Cage himself acknowledged that Tenney had changed his ideas about harmony. Two years after the first publication of John Cage and the Theory of Harmony’ Cage wrote the Thirteen harmonies for violin and keyboard and many of the subsequent ensemble number pieces exhibit a new found interest in a `harmony which doesn’t have rules’. As David Revill reports, Cage said to Tenney ‘If this is harmony I take back everything I’ve ever said – I’m all for it.’4

If this is beginning to read less like a review of the book that Nicholls & Co. have written and more like a review of the book they didn’t write, my defence (and perhaps theirs too) is that Cage had so much to say. Nevertheless, the Bernstein and Hatch Writings through John Cages music, poetry and art which I mentioned earlier shows how a relatively slim volume (only twenty-four pages more than Nicholls’s Companion) can be introductory, informative and innovative. So what would be in my ideal Companion? A chapter on `Cage and his patrons’, for example, could usefully have explored the way in which his output reflected the shifting market for his work. Nicholls quotes Kostelanetz and Revill to remind us that Cage’s personal finances hit rock bottom in 1942 when he ‘found that he had not even a cent, nothing’5 and that his two-fold response was to ask people for money and to make sure that in future he got paid for everything he did. The profusion of dance commissions that followed reflected the market of the period and the same was true of the works of the 1960s that came out of American university residences and, later, the stream of commissions from European ensembles in the 1980s. Cage’s genius was in responding to changing circumstances in ways which managed to be pragmatic and extraordinary, but which in retrospect are evidently consistent with his aesthetic principles.

And there are some hard questions to ask, too: what about ‘Cage and ideology’, for example? Like many intellectuals at the end of the 1960s Cage was seduced by the apparent success with which the thought of Mao Tse-Tung (one of the Ms in Cage’s 1972 book M: writings ’67-72) was being applied to social problems in the China of the Cultural Revolution. But the Cage Companion makes only two references to Cage’s late-60s espousal of Mao’s ideas and none at all to the political critiques of Cage’s aesthetic offered at various times between 1960 and 1980 by Luigi Nono, Cornelius Cardew and Christian Wolff. Whatever one may think of the conclusions that Cardew and Nono drew, their analysis of the political content of Cage’s work seems to me to be incontrovertible. Cage’s work is predominantly utopian and ahistoric, although at the same time he often advocated intensely pragmatic means to `improve the world’ and adopted equally pragmatic means to make his music. This paradoxical blend of the practical and the unworldly lends depth and texture to his best work, but it was a volatile mix and didn’t always work. I have suggested before6 that one of the reasons why pieces like the Concert for piano and orchestra and Atlas eclipticalis received such notoriously ill– disciplined performances was that Cage had offered his orchestral musicians freedom from the usual tyranny of the conductor but replaced it with the tyranny of isolation – their only responsibility was to the identity of Cage’s compositional idea, but since their training had in no way prepared them to understand that idea they simply became ‘foolish’. The introduction of the time brackets system and ‘composed improvisation’ in the works after 1970 would seem to be Cage’s tacit acknowledgement that the organisation of the earlier large-scale ensemble works was flawed.

An account of the problems which confront anyone who chooses to perform Cage’s music is another significant absence from the Cage Companion. In Steven Johnson’s collection there is a fascinating article, `Painting by numbers’, by John Holzaepfel in which he describes David Tudor’s approach to the performance of Morton Feldman’s Intersections I, and in the Nicholls volume he offers a companion piece on Tudor’s work on Winter music. (Holzaepfel appears again in Bernstein & Hatch’s Writings through John Cages music, poetry and art with a chapter on Tudor and Cage’s Solo for piano.) But these are essentially accounts of how one musician prepared to perform Cage; the closest we get to an account of what it is like really to perform Cage comes from Kathan Brown who worked alongside Cage at her Crown Point Press in the years after 1978, enabling him to produce twenty-seven series of print-works, 667 individual pieces in all.

Brown provides a touching account of the gradual evolution of Cage’s relationship with her, with her staff and with the processes he used to create works which are not only remarkable for their delicate, elusive beauty but also for their technical virtuosity. Cage would visit the Crown Point Press for a week or two most years until the end of his life and, as in all aspects of his work, Cage’s prints confirm the power of his questioning approach. Brown’s chapter encapsulates Cage’s creative personality perhaps better than anything else in the Cage literature. Three quotations will make the point: On the unwavering seriousness with which Cage used chance operations she says,

I watched Cage at work many times over many years, and I can testify that […] I saw him occasionally modify an approach to make it more practical to a situation, and usually he would accept an honestly made mistake, but I never saw him reject a chance-derived outcome once he had settled on a sequence of chance operation and set them in motion.7

She describes how in 1978 ‘the first year of Cage’s work at Crown Point in visual art, I think he arrived at the most irrevocable aspect of his work: devotion’.8 Later, in 1986 Cage was using fire to produce marks on paper. To begin with even Cage could see nothing more than ‘a mess’ in what the process was producing, but his print assistant offered a solution which delighted Cage. ‘I couldn’t sleep all night’, he said, ‘I thought my whole life was a waste!’ As Brown observes,

He was laughing, but it made me think. Once he got started on a path, he might make adjustments but he wouldn’t set out in a different direction until the path got somewhere. Each time something seemed to be a mess did he wonder, if only briefly, if his whole life had been a waste?9

Kathan Brown presents a portrait of the older Cage; Steven Johnson offers us a survey of the cultural context from which Cage and the other musicians of the New York School emerged, placing Cage, Feldman, Tudor, Wolff and Brown alongside their painter colleagues, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Mark Rothko, and Philip Guston in particular. Especially valuable are those chapters which acknowledge the importance of Varese and Wolpe in defining the aesthetic ambience of the period around 1950. Johnson quotes Feldman’s recollection of Wolpe’s disappointment at being marginalised by his younger colleagues. ‘He once balled me out, very strongly, for never playing him in our concerts in the early fifties […] he did identify with the younger people’.10 Johnson also reminds his readers that ‘the New York School’ was much more than a geographical label. Painters like Robert Motherwell, Franz Kline, Ad Reinhardt, the de Koonings and Guston, the poet Frank O’Hara and Varese, Wolpe, Feldman, Cage and were all participants in an organisation, The Club, which met regularly in various venues in Lower Manhattan in the 1940s and 50s. They lectured to one another, debated, and finished off the night drinking at the Cedar Tavern.

THE energy generated by this extraordinary nexus of creative individuals is compellingly traced in Johnson’s book. Austin Clarkson writes on ‘Stefan Wolpe and Abstract Expressionism’; Olivia Mattis examines the relationship between Varese (painter as well as composer!), Abstract Expressionist painting, and jazz; Jonathan W Bernard offers an historical perspective on `Feldman’s painters’. This year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival presents Ensemble Recherche in the UK premiere of Feldman’s score to Hans Namuth’s 1951 documentary film about Jackson Pollock. Later Feldman scores offer tributes to Rothko and Guston, but Bernard also argues convincingly for connections between Feldman’s music and the paintings of Rauschenberg, Willem de Kooning and Kline, while Johnson’s own final chapter relates the pattern-making of late-Feldman to the repetitive gestural fields of Jasper Johns’ mesmerising paintings of the 1970s and ’80s. Without Rauschenberg’s white paintings there might never have been a 4′ 33″, and without ’70s Johns we might never have had Why patterns and the memory plays which followed. As Feldman said in Darmstadt in 1984 to a roomful of enthralled young European composers: ‘If you don’t have a friend who’s a painter, you’re in trouble’.


1. David W Bernstein & Christopher Hatch, edd.: Writings through John Cages music, poetry and art (University of Chicago Press, 2001).

2. Musik-Konzepte Sonderband John Cage (April 1990).

3. James Tenney: John Cage and the Theory of Harmony’, in Soundings 13 (Santa Fe, 1984), pp.59-69.

4. David Revill: The roaring silence, p.280.

5. David Nicholls, ed.: The Cambridge companion to John Cage, p.14.

6. Christopher Fox: `Christian Wolff: music a social process’, in Contact 2.

7. Kathan Brown: ‘Visual art’, in The Cambridge companion to John Cage, p. 111.

8. ibid, p. 115.

9. ibid, p.122.

10. Steven Johnson, ed.: The New York schools of music and visual arts, p.6.

Christopher Fox is Reader in Composition at the University of Huddersfield.

Copyright Musical Times Publications, Ltd. Winter 2002

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