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John Cage and His Experimental Approaches to Music

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John Cage and His Experimental Approaches to Music essay
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John Cage was an American music composer who influenced the 20th century with his experimental approaches and unique philosophies to music. He was mainly known for the use of music indeterminacy as a compositional device. He incorporated chance operations in his composition for solo piano “Music of Changes, ” where the tossing of coins decides the next musical phrase from a set of prepared musical choices. His groundbreaking musical invention also includes his compositions for the “prepared piano, ” in which performers place objects like screws, thumbtacks, bamboo strips on or between the piano strings intending to producing an altered timbre.

Silence did not exist in Cage’s world. He believed “there is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time. There is always something to see, something to hear. In fact, try as we may make a silence, we cannot. ” His composition, 4’33’’, reflected the philosophy in three movements of silence at the moment. It remained as his most controversial composition. In his early years, Cage sought inspirations from different schools. He acknowledged Henry Cowell as “the open sesame for new music. ” Cowell was a leading figure in aleatory music as he first introduced the concept of “string piano” –– the attempt to manipulate the strings of the piano as many ways as possible. Cowell’s openness of mind to new music was a counterforce to Arnold Schoenberg’s practice of twelve-tone harmony in post-classical compositions. It was the counterforce Cage was anticipating. In the 1950s, Cage was exploring the literature of Zen Buddhism.

Simultaneously, D. T. Suzuki, a renowned Japanese practitioner of Zen Buddhism came to the United States to lecture on “egolessness” and “freedom. ” At the core of Suzuki’s teaching was the Zen doctrine of “no-mind. ” He believed true creativity comes from true solitariness, and true solitariness means the experience of “satori” in the life of an artist –– becoming conscious of the unconscious. It was also during one of the lectures, Suzuki personally encouraged Cage to “let the sounds be themselves” and to create music that stretched the worldviews of his audience. Suzuki’s encouragement resonated with Cage’s profound love for noise. During an interview of Cage in his late years, he expressed, “I love sounds just as they are. I have no need for them to be anything more than what they are. . . I just want it to be a sound. ” The ongoing conversations between Cage and Suzuki inspired Cage’s preference of chance operations over the elements of melodies, harmonies, and textures in music since Cage perceived these elements as the working of his ego. Therefore, the use of radios in Cage’s music reflected his liberation from thoughts, egos, and will, it was also an integral part of a new musical experience that Cage wanted.

Browsing through Cage’s complete works, there are four times in total which Cage integrated the use of radios. They are Credo in Us (1942), Imaginary Landscape No. 4 (1951), Speech 1955 (1955), and the focus of this essay, Radio Music (1956). It is worth noting that only one radio is used in Credo in Us as an accompanying instrument, but radios are the main instruments among the compositions. Imaginary Landscape No. 5 is a piece written for twelve radios; Speech 1955 is a piece written for five radios and a newsreader; Radio Music is a piece written for eight radios. Cage’s growing use of radios in music and his egoless approach to music had become rather evident in the 1950s. Radio Music (1956) is a revolutionary composition by Cage. It is to be performed as a solo or an ensemble of two to eight performers each at one radio. According to John Cage’s database of works, the composer indicated that the work comprises four sections to be programmed by the player(s), with or without intervening silences. Eight players are needed to archive the most complex soundscape with each one manipulating the radio at the performance immediately.

To show how Cage’s Radio Music is different from aleatory music repertoires, I will contrast Radio Music and three other aleatory music repertoires respectively in the aspects of notation, music construction, and playability. The three aleatory music repertoires are Erratum Musical (1913) by Marchel Duchamp, Dynamic Motion (1916) by Henry Cowell, and In C (1964) by Terry Riley.

In the aspect of notation, Marchel Duchamp wrote Erratum Musical on staff papers. However, note values and measure lines are absent, clefs and accidentals are present. Therefore the score comprises noteheads in black with syllable down every notehead. Duchamp notated dividers in crosses to draw a clear distinction between the three sections. On the other hand, all elements of traditional musical notation are absent in Cage’s Radio Music. On top of every score, there is an explicit instruction for how players should manipulate the radio, and then there is a set of amplitudes expressed in numbers. Here amplitudes become noteheads, and the player gets to decide the duration of every notehead. Cage was suggesting radio frequencies can be notation. Thus anything can be notation beside noteheads. In short, the musical notation between the two pieces is visually different. In the aspect of music construction, Henry Cowell’s Dynamic Motion is full of massive tone clusters and dynamic changes just as the title suggests. The original rhythmic motif (motion) appears in bar 9 after a chordal introduction. The motif then continues to repeat in massive tone clusters throughout the piece. There is a bright design of base and climax with a recognizable motif. Radio Music, on the contrary, has no specific theme, melody, rhythm or harmony that one can investigate. Cage wanted the piece to be a musical soundscape instead of a musical composition. He was conveying the message music itself everything happening at the moment, which is the reason the piece stands out among all aleatory music. He utilized the extreme unpredictability of sounds coming out from eight radios simultaneously. Even the performers could not foresee the randomness and noises. Undoubtedly, the music construction between the two pieces is conceptually different.

In the aspect of playability, Terry Riley’s In C consists of 53 short and medium-length musical phrases. Preferably, it is performed by 35 musicians according to Riley. In the goal of creating a polyrhythmic performance on the spot, each musician has the autonomy to determine the time of entrances, dynamics, and the amount of repetition towards the assigned musical phrases. It required a certain level of self-control and mastery from every musician in search of collective flow. In contrast, anyone who knows how to control an FM/AM radio or a portable device that connects to radio stations could potentially be the performers of Cage’s Radio Music. Ideally, it is performed by eight people, which is approximately one-fifth of the desired number of performers for In C. In this case, Radio Music has higher playability than that of In C, and it might arguably be one of the most playable pieces of music.

In John Cage’s lifelong journey of music, he challenged music enthusiasts, professional musicians, and academics to embrace music in any form possible. Similar to 4’33” (1952), Radio Music (1956) is another disruptive composition that requires introspection from its audience. His philosophy of music inspired musicians worldwide to sample new sounds. Paul McCartney publicly confessed Cage’s unmistakable influence on the Beatles’ experimental track Carnival of Light (1967) and the classic album A Day in the Life (1967). Anthony Braxton recorded a tribute to John Cage in his legendary album For Alto (1969). Avant-pop band Stereolab released a single namely John Cage Bubblegum (1993).

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