In Memoriam: John Cage

Tomorrow will be the 20th anniversary of John Cage’s death, and for some reason, I feel an obligation to share a few words.

John Cage and I only lived on this earth together for about 16 months, obviously too young for me to have known, but his life has had a profound impact on mine.

I can remember, when I was probably 14 or so and first starting to use the Internet to learn about music, reading about this seemingly crazy guy named John Cage. The cool Internet-music-forum thing to do was to make a joke about 4’33” or, if you happened to be on a piano forum, to express outrage that anybody would ever want to change the sound of a piano. So, for a long while, I believed them. How on earth could a person write ‘tacet’ on a page and claim that it was music? How crazy do you have to be to want to stick screws and bolts and felt in a piano? Do you not realize how much a Steinway costs?! What the heck is an I Ching and why didn’t my Sunday School teacher warn me about this?

Until, when I was probably 18 or so, about to enter college. One day, somehow, I heard ‘Dream’ for the first time. It was actually the first Cage piece I had ever listened to. I was completely overwhelmed. How could such a crazy man write such gorgeous, affecting music? I had to know more, so I went and bought all the best known works. I sat for an entire afternoon and listened to the Sonatas and Interludes twice. I burned a CD with the Constructions and listened to them on the way to and from school. I even checked out the score to Music of Changes from the library one time, but I quickly realized that was way too much for me to handle at that point. Here was a John Cage I could understand. There were actual notes on the page, conventional notations, even a chord now and then. I could just ignore the crazy star-map pieces and such- this, this was music.

Earlier this year, when all the talk and planning was starting for the Cage centenary, I thought about how much fun it would be to do a concert. After all, I had just played Dream on a recital, and surely it wouldn’t be hard to find some pieces to go with it. But the more I thought and planned, the more I realized that I couldn’t just put Dream and In a Landscape on a recital and pretend I was honoring Cage; if I was going to do this, I would have to do it the right way. Which meant I would have to confront the Krazy Works.

For all his “conventional” pieces (he never wrote a conventional piece in his life, but that’s another blog post), there’s another piece out there that involves choosing notes based on notches in wood, or a score that tells you what notes you are supposed to play within a given length of time. How on earth was I going to serve up a piece like One to an audience without them laughing at me? I devoured every book I could find about Cage. I read almost all of his own books, 2 or 3 biographies and a few books of interviews and articles. The more I read about his ideas and philosophy, the more I realized that pieces like Dream or the Suite for Toy Piano weren’t outliers in his oeuvre. Every piece he wrote, even/especially 4’33”, stemmed from one central place. His whole life was dedicated to making you see art and music in a different way. Gone was the need to feel uplifted and overjoyed at the end of Beethoven’s 9th; if two friends were listening to Song Books and one laughs the whole time and the other cries the whole time, they both are having the correct experience because each person’s perception of the piece is different and true.

As I have delved into his work list this summer, both listening and practicing, I’ve been continuously humbled by the connection I have felt with this genius man. When practicing Beethoven, it’s easy to feel as if the Master is standing over you, preparing the thunderbolts every time you miss a note; but with Cage, it feels like he’s sitting on the bench next to you saying, “Oh, that note is much more interesting than the one I wrote. Isn’t this lovely rain we are having? Have I told you lately about my mushrooms?”

Most of all, he has taught me patience. When everything is beautiful and true, it is much harder to get annoyed by it. The ticking of a watch now becomes the metronome for the suite in my office. The computer fan, a drone which the birds outside sing over.

So, rest in peace, John. May you still find joys in the cacophonies of this crazy world.



“The first question I ask myself when something doesn’t seem to be beautiful is why do I think it’s not beautiful. And very shortly you discover that there is no reason.” 

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