Sources for quotations (in order of appearance): Laura Fletcher and Thomas Moore, “An Interview [John Cage],” Sonus 3, no. 2 (Spring 1983): 19; John Cage, I–VI: MethodStructureIntentionDisciplineNotationIndeterminacyInterpenetrationImita-tionDevotionCircumstancesVariableStructureNonunderstandingContingencyIncon-sistencyPerformance (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990), 177–78; John Cage, Composition in Retrospect (Cambridge: Exact Change, 1993), 6; John Cage and Joan Retallack, Musicage: Cage Muses on Words, Art, Music (Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1996), 218; Joan Retallack, “Poethics of a Complex Realism” in John Cage: Composed in America, ed. Marjorie Perloff and Charles Junkerman (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 260.
¶ Recording technology makes it possible for one person to record all the parts of a Number Piece by herself. The question arises: is one person the best example of an anarchic society?
¶ Even the titles of the Number Pieces bespeak a quiet simplicity—a number written as a word indicates the number of performers involved; superscript Arabic numerals indicate (as necessary) the position of that particular piece with respect to all the other pieces composed for the same number of players. Cage liked the titles because they were like the simple clothes he wore, the style of which never changed from day to day.
¶ It is in this sense that one can speak of harmony in the works—each one has an established universe of sounds that we hear at various points, but Cage doesn’t strictly order them because of the time brackets.
¶ Cage’s attitude toward the Number Pieces offers a fitting conclusion to a period that began around 1980 during which the composer’s long-famous optimism had given way to a doubt that music could do anything whatsoever to change people’s minds. In time, however, Cage would find new musical metaphors for the overwhelming social problems of our time. The extraordinary difficulty of the Freeman Etudes, for example, came to symbolize for the composer “the practicality of the impossible,” the courageous act of the individual in the face of desperate and seemingly insurmountable circumstances. Similarly, the Number Pieces were a metaphor for “the type of world in which we could live.”
¶ At the end of his life, Cage wanted his music to be like writing on water—an act that left no traces. The flexibility that the time brackets provided him helped to give this impression: no two performances of the Number Pieces will ever be exactly the same, although one can usually distinguish one Number Piece from another on the basis of its sounds alone.
¶ But the number pieces concern more than just lengths of time, however. There are sounds, too, and almost always a group of fixed sounds that recur unpredictably throughout the piece—a nonhierarchical gamut of elements “to Each/elemenT of wHich/equal hOnor/coulD be given.”
¶ Thus, harmony occurs not as an intentional design to be followed step by step through a piece. Rather, the listener is a “tourist,” observing the landscape around her, creating private connections or ignoring connections altogether.
¶ Joan Retallack tells the story of a person who asked Cage the initial idea he’d had for one of the Number Pieces. As I remember it, Cage said, “I began with the idea of thirty minutes,” saying nothing further.
¶ The music of Cage’s Number Pieces generally occurs within little slices of time, each around a minute long. Two indications at the left-hand side of these “time brackets” tell the performer the range of times during which she may begin; a similar pair of indications show her the range of times during which she must stop.