The history of Western music shows us that a few composers distinguished themselves in other fields of creative endeavor: Guillaume de Machaut’s poetry is as famous as his music, for instance, and Carl Ruggles supported himself during his final years as a painter. John Cage (1912-1992) wrote poems and prose every bit as distinguished as his music for most of his career. After producing isolated examples of visual art (notably the plexigram/lithograph series Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel of 1969), he turned decisively to printmaking and watercolor in 1978 thanks to invitations from Kathan Brown of Crown Point Press and Ray Kass of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. As the distinguished appointee of Harvard’s Norton Professorship in the 1988-89 academic year, Cage produced the imposing and diverse poems of I-VI, the crowning achievement in a series of literary works that exemplified “a way of writing which comes from ideas, is not about them, but which produces them.”
There certainly are examples in which Cage’s compositional procedures carry over from music to painting or vice versa—for instance, the series of works inspired by the Ryoanji garden in Kyoto. But more generally, both the writings and prints from his late years offer a helpful context for his final musical compositions—above all, the forty-seven completed works known collectively as the Number Pieces.
From 1985 until 1992, the date of his last session at Crown Point, Cage used smoked paper for his prints—a fire was built on the bed of the press and damp paper ran through it, which extinguished the fire and left elegant, swirling patterns on the paper. The images then added to this paper came from a variety of sources. For instance, teapots were used to brand circular shapes onto the paper in the series called Fire (1985), while the 1991 group called Smoke Weather Stone Weather shows tracings of stones. In these works particularly, we can see a striking continuity between the gestural quality of the tracings and the more neutral environment of the smoked paper. Cage admired this continuity very much:
I wanted to have an ambiguity between the smoke and the images. I was afraid at the beginning some of the marks were going to be too strong. But as we continue . . . even the strong marks lose anything that you could compare with impact.
The twenty-second print from the series shows this ambiguity very clearly. Cage’s tracings, while they show the degree of his skill and keen visual sense, has a certain muted quality that asserts itself as surely as time’s passing. The gentle swirls of the paper, though unobtrusive, make an unforgettable impression.
Turning to Cage’s late poetry, we see that the incredible heterogeneity of I-VI echoes another important theme in his work: the bringing together of elements conventionally considered incompatible. Compare this remark from Silence: “It goes without saying that dissonances and noises are welcome in this new music. But so is the dominant seventh chord if it happens to put in an appearance.” The presence of so much variety helped Cage to guarantee that no one component of his work could dominate and overshadow the importance of the rest. His art is like a map in which every path taken leads to a marvelous destination.
Cage realized variety in I-VI with a library of found sources including newspapers and writings by Wittgenstein, Emerson, Thoreau, and himself, among others. A combination of chance operations and his own choices determined the final content of the work. Although there are moments that approach the pattern and gesture of conventional poetry–notably the final section of Part IV with its repetition of the words “equally loud and in the same tempo”–the majority of I-VI has an unusual mixture of the prosaic and the profound, an almost disconcerting blankness:
alwayS ’ iT is not pullEd philippiNes would ’ talks Convert something alwaYs all ’ prevIous circle aNother from whiCh bullfighting tO iN nature ’
Analogies with Cage’s Number Pieces show themselves readily. The sounds emerge from and recede into a silence as neutral and as elegant as the swirls of smoked paper in the final prints. Indeed, silence does not so much articulate the musical material of the Number Pieces as it offers another kind of sound to listen to—or put another way, the sounds of Cage’s music are only something considerably easier to hear than the silence which surrounds them. And just as I-VI alternates between the evocative and the everyday, so too the Number Pieces generally alternate simple pitches and even conventional chords with inexplicable noises and dissonances. The transparency that characterizes most of the works in the series even allows us to pay attention—with an unusual level of awareness—to the attacks of sounds, their tunings, or their particular timbre. All in all, they demonstrate Cage’s quiet reconciliation with harmony, which he now defined as “several sounds . . . being noticed at the same time.”
Of course, the Number Pieces differ from Cage’s printed poetry and his visual pieces in the amount of variability that can occur from performance to performance—variability made possible by the composer’s use of time brackets specifying ranges of start- and end-times for every sound in one of the works. So long as the performer observes these ranges, she can make a sound as short, long, loud, or soft as she wants. The unchanging durations of the time brackets ensure that the playing time of the composition remain the same and that the events of those pieces occur in more or less the same order.
Short, loud sounds in performances of Cage’s Number Pieces always remind me of the brandings or tracings in Cage’s prints—they are more gestural, more demonstrative than the longer sounds and silences. Sometimes I find the loud sounds annoy me—they remind me too much of another kind of modern music that seems at odds with the Number Pieces. But their presence helps to keep the music unpredictable and astonishing, qualities Cage surely sought in his composition. And in the best performances of these works—almost magically—they somehow join with everything else to create a continuity, an environment in which every type of sound has its place.
Cage scored 108 (1991) for the largest number of players in any of the Number Pieces. Its duration of 43’30” makes an oblique reference to his groundbreaking 4’33” (1952). And the work can be played on its own or with either of two solo works from the same year, One8 (for cello) and One9 for the sho, a mouth organ with bamboo pipes that acts as one of the harmony-producing instruments in Japanese gagaku. Both solo works were composed for artists very important in Cage’s final years. The cellist Michael Bach had invented a curved bow that permitted him to play sustained chords, while Mayumi Miyata had pioneered the sho as a contemporary concert instrument. Cage first met Miyata during his historic return to the 1990 Darmstadt summer course; the composer was enchanted with the sound of her instrument and produced in all three works for her. (The second of these works, Two4, has been released on Mode 88.)
As was his habit, Cage wanted to learn as many possibilities for a new instrument or medium as he could before composing a work, and among his papers are copious notes indicating all of the single tones and clusters (aitake) that the sho could play, both familiar and unfamiliar. Once this material was in place, he could then use chance operations to choose which of all these possibilities would become the sounds for his new pieces, thus producing results that he hoped would surprise and interest him when he finally heard them performed.
As I mentioned, when either One8 or One9 are performed with 108, they become concertos much in the same manner as Fourteen (1990), for bowed piano and instruments. Even so, the concerto formed by One9 and 108 is a very unusual one indeed, and a fine example of Cage’s aesthetic. The delicate sounds of the sho enter almost imperceptibly, reminding me of Cage’s suggestion (in the performance notes for 101) that tones be “brushed into existence as in oriental calligraphy where the ink (the sound) is not always seen, or if so, is streaked with white (silence).” Both orchestra and soloist remain completely silent for the first minute and a half of the piece. The orchestra disappears again in other two sections, but not to herald a grand cadenza: the sho music continues much as it had before, a quiet, serene, almost timeless utterance. Indeed, the regal simplicity of the sho makes it an ideal instrument for Cage, who tried to make his final work like writing on water—an action, incomparably graceful, that would leave no traces.
Reprinted from the Mode Records CD: John Cage: One9 and 108. Mode 108 (www.mode.com)
Cage records this idea for the first time as part of the “Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse) Continued 1973-1982, published in X: Writings ’79-’82 (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1983), 163.
Quoted in Kathan Brown, John Cage Visual Art: To Sober and Quiet the Mind (San Francisco: Crown Point Pres, 2000), 117. For more on the technique of smoking paper and Cage’s visual works from 1985 onward, see pp. 97–124. Cage probably would have disagreed with my characterization of the tracings as gestural. He thought of them as something neither non-gestural nor gestural, but rather “something else.” See Joan Retallack, ed., Musicage: Cage Muses on Words, Art, Music. John Cage in Conversation with Joan Retallack (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1996), 127–28.
From “Experimental Music,” in Silence: Lectures and Writings (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1961), 11.
John Cage, I-VI (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1990), 73.
Reproduced in Richard Kostelanetz, ed., John Cage: Writer (New York: Limelight Editions, 1993), 198.
This principle is one of the “whispered truths” in Tibetan Buddhism. Cage discusses the idea with Joan Retallack in Musicage, 163 and 189–91.