John Cage At 100: Remembering A Revolutionary Composer September marked the centennial of the birth of composer John Cage and celebrations are being held around the world in his honor. His compositions include spoken texts, radios, toys and the sounds of vegetables being chopped. Cage died in 1992. Fresh Air listens back to an interview with Cage from 1982.

John Cage At 100: Remembering A Revolutionary Composer

John Cage At 100: Remembering A Revolutionary Composer

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September marked the centennial of the birth of composer John Cage and celebrations are being held around the world in his honor. His compositions include spoken texts, radios, toys and the sounds of vegetables being chopped. Cage died in 1992. Fresh Air listens back to an interview with Cage from 1982.

Composer John Cage was born in 1912 and died in 1992. He's show above in May 1972. Erich Auerbach/Getty Images hide caption

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Erich Auerbach/Getty Images

Composer John Cage was born in 1912 and died in 1992. He's show above in May 1972.

Erich Auerbach/Getty Images


This fall, arts organizations around the world are celebrating what would have been the 100th birthday of composer John Cage, who was born on September 5th, 1912.

John Cage began serious music studies in the 1930s, and quickly gravitated to the avant-garde and the idea of composing music through chance. He wanted to release his music from the limits of his own taste, memory and emotion. His radical ideas about composition led to equally radical experiments with instruments. By 1937, Cage created what he called the prepared piano, a method of altering the piano's tonal and percussive qualities by placing wood, metal or rubber objects on the piano strings. He later became one of first composers to use synthesizers and computers. Sometimes Cage didn't use instruments at all but used recorded voices and even radio static to help build his chance compositions.

Here's a excerpt from his 1959 work "Indeterminacy," in which Cage tells 90 stories in 90 minutes taking about one minute for each story. The piano and electronic music score was composed and realized by David Tudor. The collision of dialogue and music, like the collision of ideas, is purely intentional.

JOHN CAGE: This summer I'm going to going to...


CAGE: ...give a class in mushroom identification at the New School for Social Research. Actually, it's five field trips, not really a class at all. However, when I proposed it to Dean Clara Mayer, though she was delighted by with the idea, she said, I'll have to let you know later whether or not we'll give it. So she spoke to the president who couldn't see why there should be a class in mushrooms...


CAGE: the New School. Next she spoke to Professor MacIvor, who lives in Piermont. She said: What do you think about our having a mushroom class at the New School? He said: Fine idea. Nothing more than mushroom identification develops the powers of observation.


CAGE: This remark was relayed...


CAGE: ...both to the president and to me. It served to get the class into the catalogue and to verbalize for me my present attitude towards music: It isn't useful, music isn't, unless it develops our powers of audition. But most musicians can't hear a single sound. They listen only to the relationship between two or more sounds. Music for them has nothing to do with their powers of audition, but only to do with their powers of observing relationships. In order to do this, they have to ignore all the crying babies...


CAGE: engines, telephone bells, coughs, that happen to occur during their auditions. Actually, if you run into people who are really interested in hearing sounds, you're apt...


CAGE: find them fascinated by the quiet ones. Did you hear that? They will say.


CAGE: In 1954, when I went to Europe, I no sooner arrived in Paris then I noticed that the city was covered with posters publicizing a mushroom exhibition that was being held in the Botanical Gardens. That was all I needed.


CAGE: Off I went. When I arrived, I found myself in a large room filled with many tables upon which were displayed many species of fungi. On the hour from a large centrally-placed loudspeaker a recorded lecture on the deadly, poisonous...


CAGE: ...amanitas was delivered. During this lecture, nobody in the hall moved or spoke. Each person's attention was...


CAGE: to speak, riveted to the information being given. A week later, I was in Cologne...


CAGE: Germany attending a concert of electronic...


CAGE: There was also an audience and a large loudspeaker. However, many in the audience were dozing off, and some were talking to their neighbors.


CAGE: I went to a concert upstairs in Town Hall.


CAGE: The composer whose works were being performed had provided program notes. One of these notes was to the effect that there is too much pain in the world.


CAGE: After the concert I was walking along with the composer and he was telling me how...


CAGE: ...the performances had not been quite up to snuff.


CAGE: So I said, Well, I...


CAGE: ...enjoyed the music, but I don't agree with that program note...


CAGE: ...about there being too much pain in the world. He said, what? Don't you think there's enough?


CAGE: I said...


CAGE: I think there's just...


CAGE: ...the right amount.

BIANCULLI: Terry Gross spoke to John Cage in 1982 when he was 70 years old. He explained that he really wasn't drawn to music the way most composers where.

CAGE: My father was an inventor, and I've never thought that, as many people do, that music should be in my head and that I should learn how to write down what I already hear. I really can't hold a tune and I don't know solfege at all - so that I found ways of writing music to produce sounds that I haven't heard, and that other people haven't heard. If I'd study solfege, if I had a feeling for harmony, which I don't, I think I would simply write what people have already heard or what I would've thought - thought I heard. The result is I have a curious feeling every time I write a new piece, particularly one for an orchestra that involves so many people and so much trouble you know to bring into existence. I think up until the last minute that maybe it's just going to be...


CAGE: ...a great mistake, or that we won't discover anything with it.


A lot of your work hasn't been about that relationship with sounds to other sounds but of sounds in and of themselves, individual sound, a sound for itself. Is that too, do you think, from not wanting to work with harmony?

CAGE: I had an interest in each single sound from the beginning. At first I began putting the sounds together into - as I'd been taught - into motives and repeating them and varying them. But gradually, and through a study of oriental philosophy and through the use of chance operations, I have found ways, I think, of letting sounds move from their own centers rather than centers in my mind.

GROSS: What's your attitude towards random sounds in your home? I'm thinking now about...

CAGE: I just love them.

GROSS: Uh-huh. Like apartments in Manhattan, which is probably the noisiest city in the world.

CAGE: I live on - and 6th Avenue is very, very noisy. And sometimes there's burglar alarms...

GROSS: Oh yeah.

CAGE: ...and they may last three of four hours. It's quite, that's quite a problem. I think that our, we almost have an instinct to be annoyed by a burglar alarm. But as I pay attention to them they're curiously slightly varying.

GROSS: What if you're paying attention to something else at the same time?

CAGE: Well, I think that one of our most accessible disciplines now is paying attention to more than one thing at a time. And if we can do that with equanimity, then I would suggest paying attention to three things at the same time. And you can practice that as a discipline. I think it's more effective than sitting cross-legged. I mean to say cross-legged in relation to...

GROSS: In meditation.

CAGE: Yes. It opens the - I think the meaning of meditation is to open the doors of the ego from a concentration on itself to a flow with all of creation, wouldn't you say? And if we can do this through the sense perceptions, through multiplying the things to which we're able at one in the same time to pay attention, I think we accomplish much of the same thing. At least that's my faith.

GROSS: You've rejected taste and memory in the chance processes work. What's restricting about taste and memory for you?

CAGE: There's a beautiful remark of Marcel Duchamp: To reach the impossibility of transferring from one like object to another the memory imprint. And I think the trouble with memory, both from a poetic point of view, is made clear too by the remark of René Char, the French poet, that each act is virgin, even the repeated one. To see things as being new rather than things that we already know before we are experiencing them.

I think this is one of the things that leads to trouble between two people when someone says of another person, I knew what she would say or I knew what he would say. I would hope that we don't get into that frame of mind with respect to one another, hmm?

GROSS: You know, it's interesting to me because you have such a really rich and detailed memory and use it so beautifully in your storytelling and in your writings, which become your pieces also.

CAGE: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: I know that that memory does come into play.

CAGE: There's another remark I've come across in the last year or so that I like and it's by the composer Erik Satie and it's related to that remark that I just quoted from Char - he checked his version. Satie says experience is a form of paralysis.

Do you see the relation? If we think we know what the other person is going to say, hmm, and if we don't approach things as virgin, hmm, then our minds and our attitudes turn out - become paralyzed and that's why we want to have each thing new, hmm?

To have - to realize that two Coca-Cola bottles are not identical and what makes them not identical is that they're not at the same point. They can't be at the same point in space. Since they're not at the same point in space they automatically receive - each one receives light differently than the other.

So that it can be as fascinating as going to a museum to look carefully, attentively at two Coca-Cola bottles, hmm? And something of that is implicit in a great deal of 20th century art.

GROSS: I like to think of you and Marcel Duchamp playing chess together because here...

CAGE: Well we actually didn't play much.

GROSS: You didn't play?

CAGE: No. No.

GROSS: Oh. Oh.

CAGE: I played with Teeny Duchamp, his wife and he would criticize our game.


CAGE: And he said to me once, he said, don't you ever want to win?

GROSS: Did you play to win when you played chess?

CAGE: I didn't then. I played chess in order to be with him. I wanted to be with him as much as possible. Now that he's dead, my game has improved.

GROSS: Did you talk much during those chess games with Teeny, talk with Duchamp?

CAGE: No, I had a kind of confidence that if I was just near Duchamp that that would be enough, that I didn't have to ask him questions or converse. Once I remember he said let's sit down and have a conversation. We sat down. I don't remember what we talked about.


GROSS: Well, that's...

CAGE: I just liked being with him.

GROSS: Was that so, that being with him and not talking got for you some of what you wanted to be around him for?

CAGE: Yes, I think his presence, his being, was both question and answer, hmm?

BIANCULLI: John Cage, speaking to Terry Gross in 1982. He died a decade later at the age of 79. September 5th marked the 100th anniversary of his birth and celebratory events are scheduled throughout the fall season. Coming up, "Cloud Atlas." Film critic David Edelstein reviews the new movie starring Tom Hanks. This is FRESH AIR.

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