Monthly Archives: February 2012

Most discussions of John Cage sight his significant influence on art and the art community of the back half of the twentieth century.  Composers such as Philip Glass, Frederic Rzewski, and Morton Feldman have cited Cage as a significant inspiration.  There is ongoing discussion about John Cage’s influence on Andy Warhol (an interesting discussion can be read here).  In my hunt for more “big names of the art world influenced by John Cage” on the internet, I ran across a lot of interesting things.  The following is an account of what I found:


The ACTAcademy UK trains young people (4 – 19 years old) in the art of acting.  They created a movie that was inspired by John Cage’s Aria.

And a performance of Aria for your comparison:


Claire Janine Satin

Music and theater were certainly not the only art form inspired by John Cage.  South Florida artist Claire Janine Satin shows us some materials derived from and inspired by writings by John Cage.



Inspired by Cage’s visual artwork entitled Eninka, a printer shows us the technique used by John Cage to create the work and, in the process, create his own art.

And the work it was inspired by, Eninka:


A Digital Prepared Piano

Cage’s prepared piano takes on an electro-acoustic flare with this work for two TENORI-ON(s):

And a sample from one of Cage’s prepared piano works, Sonatas and Interludes, which inspired the composition above:


Bassman Webcomics

Cage’s influence even popped up in a comic strip: Bassman Webcomics




Cage’s 4’33” inspired this video, which is, technically, a performance of 4’33” set in a parking garage – or is it?  4’33” requires a performer…

And a very interesting performance of 4’33” by a full symphony orchestra.  The commentator at the beginning makes a very interesting comment: “…the orchestra will remain silent — we hope — throughout the piece…” [0:24].


Other Interesting Finds

An online media aggregator, Mevio, has search results for “Artists Influenced by: John Cage” which features a few miscellaneous bands that must have been inspired by Cage’s music.

An artist plays with Google and John Cage’s philosophy of change-events to create these images.  I’m not completely sure what the process was here, but Cage was certainly an influential figure.

I ran across this invitation to “Take part in an Ambitious, John Cage-inspired art event” which discusses a little about what the plan for the work will be.

This interesting design discussion is brief, but clearly inspired by Cage.

And here’s a promotional listing for a tribute concert to John Cage, by a band called 4thirtythree who promises they won’t play 4’33”.


Get on With It!!!

At the end of this journey, it’s easy to see how Cage’s work has influenced a wide variety of art in early twenty-first century culture.  I was surprised to see how much of this inspired art is not specifically aural (or music) and how many genres of art are represented in a relatively brief search for Cage-inspired works.  Cage is alive and well in the twenty-first century.


Reading about Milton Babbitt immediately preceding John Cage presents the two extreme directions in which American music has gone in the twentieth century.  And what a refreshing change of pace it is to read about John Cage and his concept of musical creation!  Where Babbitt is intellectual and elitist, Cage is insightful and down-to-earth.  Not knowing much about Cage himself, and only knowing a little about the miscellaneous sampling of his music that I have heard, It was interesting, although logically expected, for me to learn that Cage was heavily influenced by Eastern philosophy.

The concept of chance in music, however, is startlingly contrary to this philosophy, as chance does not exist; everything is and happens as it is and happens.  Another interesting realization I had while reading about John Cage is that, despite his rejection of pre-calculated and mathematical form, his art-music, like Milton Babbitt’s, is still not easily accessible to general audiences.  Where Babbitt expects you to decipher his code, Cage expects you to be open to hearing more than the expectation of a performance; neither idea is something a general (American) audience is likely to grasp on first listen.  The difference for me, however, is that deciphering Milton Babbitt provides the listener with nothing more than knowledge about the algorithm Babbitt used for composing the piece, where expanding your perception of the world around you to truly appreciate John Cage’s later works can ultimately benefit one’s awareness of the world around them.

Reading selections of Cage’s writing on music, Silence, I was amused by the overall form of the writing as well as some of the micro-stories sprinkled in here and there.  “Saturday came.  Nothing happened” (6).  Priceless.  I couldn’t help thinking of magnetic poetry as I was reading some of the sections.  I wonder what John Cage had on his refrigerator?

Once again, like many composers before him, we see Cage’s desire to make music out of electric “instruments” without the hindrance of live performers to muck up their music.  Having lived my entire life with this technology available, I sigh at this notion, as I have yet to hear any real music come out of an automated instrument – be it car, computer, or one of those creepy looking robots that pays the trumpet.  As fascinating as this technology is, the lack of the human element (perhaps chance?) fails to make anything more than “organized sound.”  Why was everyone so obsessed with the idea of using machines to make music??  I just can’t comprehend it.  Surely in an age where the machine had been around long enough to create pollution, poverty, and war, people would already be aware that the sounds coming from these instruments is undesirable.  I am aware that the idea of flying cars is awesome, but in practice would be nearly impossible to control.  Technology on the horizon is understandable – and with it always comes a benefit (flawless performance, insane rhythmic accuracy, etc).  There are two sides to every coin, however, and one must consider what gets lost when technology takes the place of something.

The arrogance of Milton Babbitt is quite astonishing.  His ideas about music and the modern composer, as outlined in High Fidelity, VIII/2 (February, 1958), are as self-indulging and isolating as his music, which, from what it appears, is exactly what he wants.  It drives me a little nuts to think that a composer might actually want no one to hear [understand, enjoy] his music.  What’s the point, then?

I’m reminded of the age-old question “If a tree falls in the woods, and no one is around to hear it, does it make noise?”  Well, if a composer writes a masterpiece, and no one understands it, is it really a masterpiece?  On the surface I say of course it is not; not for the annals of history, anyway.  There’s a deeper issue in there, however.  The idea that music is not enjoyed by the current or general audience does not take away the quality of a piece.  There are major works, now considered masterpieces, that were not received well at their premiere, or even for years afterwards.  One such piece that comes to mind is Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, which premiered in 1913, and which Wikipedia’s entry notes as “one of the most famous classical music riots in history” [1].  Other poorly received works are listed on Wikipedia’s Classical music riot entry.  What Babbitt writes, however, is that if a piece of music is not understood or not well-received at its premiere, the general audience is simply not ready to experience his music.  This concept seems like the ultimate defense mechanism for a composer who knows his work is not well-liked by the general audience.

Mixed into all of this discussion is a chicken and the egg scenario.  Which came first: the music of Milton Babbitt or his writings to tell you that his music is probably too elite for you?  Babbitt sets an expectation, if you read his writings first, that his music may be hard to understand and thus enjoy.  This expectation can also be taken as a challenge: “Are you smart enough to like my music?”  His comparison of modern his music to an advanced field of science, in which, as he quotes the New York Times, “there are in the world only 120 mathematicians specializing in the field who could contribute” creates musical super-elitism, the likes of which haven’t quite reached this level before.

Lastly, I want to comment about Babbitt’s comparison of music with science.  For me, science is built upon theory and then, fact.  Science explores our world around us and creates speculative and definitive answers to “Why?” in the world around us.  Sound is an area of science, for sure, as the physics of sound (as well as our anatomy) dictate what we hear and why we hear things as being out of tune or too loud.  Music (and art in general) does not fit in to science, however.  Music is an expression from within, the creation of which does not prove a theory or reside within fact.  Music is individual – it is something different to everyone around us – whereas Science presents us with rules that govern each and every one of us.  To call the expression of music a science is to box us in as musicians, and in many ways, constrain our musical boundaries.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder
— Traditional

Beauty, like supreme dominion
Is but supported by opinion
— Ben Franklin

Good Lord Boyet, my beauty, though but mean,
Needs not the painted flourish of your praise:
Beauty is bought by judgement of the eye,
Not utter’d by base sale of chapmen’s tongues
— William Shakespeare

When discussing beauty, it’s hard, if not impossible, to keep your own perspective and opinion out of it.  After reading The Abuse of Beauty by Arthur C. Danto, I have little additional insight as to what the connection between art and beauty is than before I read it.  Perhaps it’s his disjunct style of writing or the assumption that his reader will know many of the names and artworks dotted throughout his essay, but I found Danto’s writing to be a long-winded exploration of art that resulted in very little insight – it was mostly an aggregation of various perspectives on art and beauty.

It was interesting to me that Danto cites art from all genres, including visual art, paintings, photography, sculpture, writing, and others, but fails to include any music in his discussion.  Does music somehow stand against a different rule?  Is music less prone to discussion about beauty?

Admittedly, I am not a philosopher, nor do I particularly enjoy writings on philosophy.  Thus, my reflections of this essay fall short of any real insight of their own.  However, two curious thoughts keep reverberating through my head throughout this reading, so I will explore those curiosities in the coming paragraphs.

Natural Beauty

It seems to be a common idea that nature is beautiful.  We see photographs of Ansel Adams or read writings by Henry David Thoreau and can appreciate the beauty of the world around us.  I can’t help but see all of this as a farce – the world is ugly.  Human beings are ugly.  One can find beauty in anything, if one looks hard or long enough.  Danto discusses the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in Washington, D.C.  He also cites Kant, “we are conscious of art while yet it looks like nature.”  But displays of sexuality or mortality are often protested and shunned by society.  Both of these concepts lie at the heart of nature; they are the essence of nature.  We are born; we breed; we die, as does the living world around us.  Depictions of blood and gore, often labeled grotesque, are pure and natural in their honesty of the world around us.  Danto quotes Freud: “the genitals themselves, the sight of which is always exciting, are hardly ever regarded as beautiful.”  Why is beauty often reserved for the “made-up” or “created” world we create?

The Evolution of Protest

This idea of beauty brings me to my other contemplation regarding two of the museum exhibits Danto mentions early in his essay: The Perfect Moment by Robert Mapplethorpe (1989) and the Brooklyn Museum’s Sensation exhibition (1999).  Danto recalls both of these exhibits as having been protested and cites controversy surrounding each of them.  Out of curiosity, I searched around the internet for samples of works at both exhibits, and frankly, after living through the age of six (!!) Saw films, the collapse of the Twin Towers, the era of motion pictures on the internet, Eyes Wide Shut, and snuff films, I just don’t see what the controversy surrounding either of these exhibits is/was.  Mapplethorpe’s pictures are explicit, but the overall quality of work exhibited within them surely can’t be compared to some of the raunch of the 1970s.  The Sensations exhibition, from what I was able to uncover, was surprisingly tame – I was reminded of the Bodies exhibit that toured the US a few years back; here, again, I was confused about where the controversy was coming from.

Things are happening across the world that infinitely outweigh the grotesqueness (for lack of a better word) of this art.  Why do people waste their time and energy quibbling over a few exhibitions?

After finishing another chapter from Kyle Gann’s American Music in the Twentieth Century, “Experimentalism,” I am starting to feel overwhelmed with names, techniques, and theories pertaining to the development of music in mid-twentieth-century America.  As is the case with music in Vienna of the late eighteenth century, the new generation of composers all are somehow directly linked with the previous or older generation of established composers – either through education, employment, mentorship, or some other relationship within the business.  Everyone continues to have a new idea about music and is attempting to inject those ideas into performance and musical art.

Harry Partch, with his insistence on turning pitch and instrumentation on its head, was on to something when it came to tuning.  The narrow-mindedness, however, of composers to look at tuning as the ‘well-tempered klavier’ makes my blood boil and I found myself stifling a yell or two while reading.  Many instruments that have enjoyed a long tradition of Western musical composition can play in the ratios uncovered by Partch.  The trombone, for example, has been around since the late fifteenth century, and it has the wonderful ability to play perfectly out of tune!  String instruments enjoy this ability as well (proven by the last orchestra rehearsal I attended).  To reinvent instruments to be able to match this new-fangled “tuning” is beyond narcissistic.  I was elated to read that composers that have followed Partch’s path, or at least experiment with semi-tonality, have written for the trombone, even if it was in excess (specifically, Wendy Mae Chambers’s Mass for seventy-seven trombones and Henry Brandt’s Orbits for eighty trombones).

Partch’s instruments can be explored in greater detail here.

Last week I ran across an interesting modern twist on a classic instrument and posted the video here.

What a shame it is that composers have become so mathematical!  Twelve-tone serialism teeters on the edge of emotionless due to its formulaic approach, but the obsessiveness of Partch with intervallic ratios and the impossibility of Nancarrow’s rhythmic oppositions blatantly disregards expression – it feels more like a “Hey, look what my machine can do!” mentality and less of a reflection of life and the world around us.  During this period in history, composers such as Bartok and Shostakovitch were writing expression while their “friends across the lake” were playing with their toys.

In the larger context of our discussion, I find it hard to pin the works of Partch and Nancarrow as “experimental,” at least by John Cage’s definition: “an experimental action is one the outcome of which is not foreseen.”[1]  The precision of tuning employed by Partch and of rhythm by Nancarrow, by definition, are precisely predictable and thus, lack experimentation.  These works, perhaps, are better labeled “proofs of musical concept” over experimental.

Lastly, Gann brings back the notion of spatial music through his discussion of Henry Brandt.  Though it seems that the concept of “spatial” was slightly different with Brandt than with Varese, I will harp on the idea that spatial music is not new!  Brandt is quoted by Gann as saying “Spatial separation is essentially a contrapuntal device….It makes counterpoint more distinct” (98).  Something tells me that  Gabrieli knew this idea to be true as well – his music is the quintessential sixteenth-century counterpoint and was heavily antiphonal, often utilizing three choirs of performers to express his spatial compositions.

When I was a teenager, visiting some relatives in upstate New York, we decided to go to the opera.  Now, upstate New York does not have many opera houses to choose from – I think we ended up about 45 minutes to get to what I now realize was the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown. My parents didn’t tell me anything about the opera we were going to see, and, having grown up on Mozart, Puccini, and Verdi, I was expecting to see something I knew.  Then the overture started…

Like something out of a strange dream, The Mother of Us All is awkward but memorable and insanely American.  It has been ten years (maybe more) since I saw the performance at Glimmerglass and I have chosen to not go out of my way to hear the opera by Virgil Thomson again… until this evening.  And it wasn’t any more enjoyable than it was the first time, even with a much more thorough understanding of what music is and can be.  The music is dry and uber-patriotic, complete with militaristic snare drum and quasi-minimal vocals.  I’m still not surprised it took me over ten years to run into this work again – I struggle to find any real substance within this music.

I was surprised, however, about Roy Harris’s Symphony No. 3, a piece previously unfamiliar to me.  Symphony may be a poor label for the work as it fails to live up to the grandiose nature the symphonic tradition that had been developing for the past two hundred years, however the work has nice layers of color and line and its overall affect is rather intriguing.  There is an American optimism in this music that I’ve only really heard in works by Aaron Copland and it was interesting to hear this sound, although notably different, created by the pen of a different composer.

In many ways, listening to these two works, it feels as though the floor fell out from beneath the American composer’s feet – the music feels much more introverted and significantly less experimental.  The stock market crash in 1929 is distinctly audible when comparing American music from the 1920s and the 1930s.