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.