"A Composer's Confession" by John Cage
An address given before the National Inter-Collegiate Arts Conference,
Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, New York, February 28, 1948
I am going to tell you the story of how I came to write music, and how my musical ideas and my ideas about music developed.
I remember that when I was eight years old, in Santa Monica, California, I saw a sign – PIANO LESSONS – two doors away from where my mother and father and I lived. It was love at first sight; I remember that running and eating became faster and day-dreaming became longer and slower. It made no difference to me what I was taught: the exercises, a piece by Victor Herbert called Orientale, and Für Elise. I was introduced to ‘neighborhood music,’ that branch of the art that all the world loves to play, and I did too.
Neither my mother nor my father took this turn of events with the passion and the intensity that I did. Having before them the examples of two of my aunts and one uncle, they were aware of the economic difficulties which musicians can run into. And deeper than this, my father, who is an inventor and electrical engineer, would have preferred to see me follow in his footsteps, I am sure.
However, they were indulgent and practical: they bought a piano; nothing could have pleased me more. We moved to another neighborhood in Los Angeles and I remember that when the movers were bringing the piano into the house, before they had its legs on, I was walking along with them playing already by heart Victor Herbert’s evocation of the Orient.
My new teacher was my Aunt Phoebe, and she taught me how to sight-read. This was her particular interest, and I am grateful to her for it. She also extended my awareness of the music of the 19th century, avoiding, however, that century’s masters. Together we played Moskowski’s Spanish Dances and alone I played Paderewski’s Minuet in G. Music appeared to be divided according to the technical difficulties it presented to performers: it was first year, second year, third year, and fourth year. Later on I studied with a teacher who was also a composer, Fannie Charles Dillon. She taught me to play Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 5, but my Aunt Phoebe did not agree with Miss Dillon’s interpretation.
I remember having a kind of sinking feeling inside myself every time Aunt Phoebe or Miss Dillon played the piano for me or at a recital. The music they knew how to play was fantastically difficult, and my sinking feeling was the realization that I would never be able to perform as well as they.
I stopped taking lessons and fell back on the ‘open sesame’ that Aunt Phoenix had given me: the sight-reading. And that, together with a library card, changed music’s aspect for me. It no longer was first to fourth year: it was rather A to Z. Of course, my aunt had warned me about Bach and Beethoven (Mozart wasn’t mentioned at all) and her remarks about the Hungarian Dance also contained references to a side of Brahms that she felt I would not like. So I confined my curiosity to the minor figures of the last century. I became so devoted to Grieg that for awhile I played nothing else. I even imagined devoting my life to the performance of his works alone, for they did not seem to me to be too difficult, and I loved them.
This was my first ambition. Nothing in school had suggested to me a life-work. Going to church had, indeed, made me feel that I should become a minister. But this feeling was not very strong because two years at college removed it. I was caught in the too great freedom American education offered, and I did not really know what on earth to do with myself. This I did know: that continuing in college would be useless. Therefore, I persuaded my family to send me to Europe for a year, since, as I told them, I had determined to become a writer and ‘experience’ was certainly more valuable for a writer than education.
After a month in France, the whole place seemed to me to be nothing but Gothic architecture. So I spent another month in the Bibliothèque Mazarin studying stone balustrades of the 15th century. A professor from college, passing through Paris, found out what I was doing, literally gave me a kick in the pants, and managed things in such a way that I found myself working in the atelier of a modern architect. He set me to drawing Greek columns when I wasn’t running errands. One day he happened to say that to be an architect, one must devote oneself entirely to architecture, that is, give all one’s time to it. The next day I told him that I could not do that because there were many things I loved that were not architecture, and there were many things I did not even know, and I was still curious.
One evening in the home of La Baronne d’Estournelles de Constant, I was asked to play the piano. La Baronne found my playing very bad but somehow musical. And she offered to arrange lessons for me with Lazare-Lévy who taught at the Conservatoire. He began to teach me to play a Beethoven Sonata, and he insisted that I should attend concerts of music, particularly that of Bach. I had never gone to concerts before, and now I went every evening. One evening I heard some modern music: Scriabin, Stravinsky. I also had seen modern painting in Paris.
My reaction to modern painting and modern music was immediate and enthusiastic, but not humble: I decided that if other people could make such things, I could too.
In the course of the next three years I left Paris, travelled a good deal, returned to California to find the Depression well under way, but all that time I spent painting pictures and writing music, without the benefit of a teacher in either art.
I remember very little about my first efforts at composition, except that they had no sensuous appeal and no expressive power. They were derived from calculations of a mathematical nature, and these calculations were so difficult to make that the musical results were extremely short. My next pieces used texts and no mathematics; my inspiration was carried along on the wings of Aeschylus and Gertrude Stein. I improvised at the piano and attempted to write down what I played before I forgot it. The glaring weakness of this method led me to study Ebenezer Prout’s books on harmony and counterpoint and musical form. However, wishing to be a modern composer, I so distorted my solutions of the exercises he suggested that they took on a tortured contemporary aspect.
I have mentioned the Depression and how it was going on when I returned from Europe. Although nothing in my experience had prepared me to make a living, I now had to do it. I did it by giving lectures on contemporary music and painting. I advertised these lectures as being by someone who was young and enthusiastic about all modern art and that was all. I confessed that I knew nothing about my subject, but promised that each week I would find out as much as I could. In this way I became familiar with quite a lot of modern music. When the music was easy to play I illustrated the lectures at the piano; otherwise I used recordings. When the time approached to give a lecture on the music of Arnold Schoenberg, I asked Richard Buhlig, who was living in Los Angeles, to play the Opus 11 because I had read that he played its first performance years before in Berlin. He said he would “most certainly not.” However, I had met him and he is a great musician, and he became my friend and teacher. He said that he could not really teach me composition, because he was not a composer, but he could criticize what I wrote. The first pieces I showed him were, he said, not composed at all. And then he conveyed to me the idea that composition is putting sounds together in such a way that they fit, that is, that they serve an over-all plan. One day when I arrived at his house half an hour before I was expected, he closed the door in my face after telling me to come back at the proper time. I had some library books with me which I decided to return, and thus I arrived at his house a half hour late. He then talked to me for two hours about time: how it was essential to music and must be observed carefully and always by anyone devoted to art.
Finally the day came when Buhlig looked at one of my compositions and said he could not help me further. He suggested that I send my work to Henry Cowell who might publish it in his New Music Edition. This encouragement that Buhlig gave me acted to put a stop to my painting, for now I began to feel that I needed all the time I had for music. I had developed a rigid way of writing counterpoint. Two voices, each one having a chromatic range of 25 tones, that is, two octaves, and having a common range of one octave or 13 tones, would progress in such a way that no one tone would be repeated between two voices until at least 11 had intervened, and no tone in a single voice would be repeated until all 25 had been employed.
I sent my work to Henry Cowell and he offered to have it performed in San Francisco at a meeting of the New Music Society. This was very exciting, but when I arrived in San Francisco, tired from hitch-hiking but expectant, I discovered that the instrumentalists had not looked at my music and found it too difficult to sight-read. But I met Henry Cowell and I played my pieces for him on the piano. He said that I should study with Schoenberg since, although I used 25 tones, my music most resembled that using 12. He gave me the name of a pupil of Schoenberg, Adolph Weiss, and suggested that I study first with him. I was now anxious to study composition, for working by myself and developing my own ideas had left me with a sense of separation from the mainstream of music, and thus of loneliness. Besides, what I wrote, though it sounded organized, was not pleasant to listen to.
The next year was spent in New York, studying harmony with Adolph Weiss and rhythm with Henry Cowell; and the following two years, back in California, studying counterpoint with Arnold Schoenberg.
There were so many exercises to write, that I found little time to compose. What little that I did write was atonal, and based on 12-tone rows. At that time I admired the theory of 12-tone music, but I did not like its sound. I devised a new way to write it which consisted of not only establishing an order to the 12 tones but of dividing the row into a series of static, non-variable motives and giving each motive its own ictus pattern. This brought the element of rhythm into an integral relation with that of pitch. The compositions resulted from this procedure interested some of my friends, particularly the late Galka Scheyer. She brought a friend of hers, Oscar Fischinger, who made abstract films, to listen to my work. He spoke to me about what he called the spirit inherent in materials and he claimed that a sound made from wood had a different spirit than one made from glass. The next day I began writing music that was to be played on percussion instruments.
I was convinced overnight that although 12-tone music was excellent theoretically, in making use of the instruments which had been developed for tonal music, it had continually to be written negatively rather than straightforwardly: it had always to avoid harmonic relationships which were natural to the tonal instruments, which instruments it did not so much use as usurp; I was convinced that for atonal music new instruments proper to it were required.
I finished a Quartet for four percussion players. I had no idea what it would sound like, nor even what instruments would be used to play it. However, I persuaded three other people to practice the music with me, and we used whatever was at hand: we tapped tables, books, chairs, and so forth. When we tired of these sounds, we invaded the kitchen and used pots and pans. Several visits to junk-yards and lumber-yards yielded more instruments: brake-drums from automobiles, different lengths of pipes, steel rings, hardwood blocks. After experimenting for several weeks, the final scoring of the Quartet was finished: it included the instruments that had been found, supplemented by a pedal timpani and a Chinese gong which lent to the whole a certain traditional aspect and sound.
To write for percussion alone was by no means an original idea with me. I had heard Varèse’s Ionisation and William Russell’s Three Dances. I had also heard, through Henry Cowell, many recordings of music from the various oriental cultures. But I did not think of percussion music as being an imitation of or derivation from any exotic music; rather, it had its roots in our own culture: in the work of Luigi Russolo and the Italian Futurists who around 1912 published a manifesto called The Art of Noise and gave many concerts in Italy, France and England using machines especially designed to produce desired noises. Certain works of Henry Cowell, Ernst Toch, Darius Milhaud and others belong to this same tradition. The term “percussion” in this connection does not mean that all the sounds used are obtained by the act of striking or hitting. It is used in a loose sense to refer to sound inclusive of noise as opposed to musical or accepted tones. Therefore, just as modern music in general may be said to have been the history of the liberation of the dissonance, so this new music is part of the attempt to liberate all audible sound from the limitations of musical prejudice. A single sound by itself is neither musical nor not musical. It is simply a sound. And no matter what kind of a sound it is, it can become musical by taking its place in a piece of music. This point of view requires some adjustment of the definition of music which was given by my Aunt Phoebe. She had said that music was made up of melody, harmony and rhythm. Music now seemed to me to be the organisation of sound, organisation by any means of any sounds. This definition has the advantage of being all-inclusive, even to the extent of including all that music which does not employ harmony, which, doubtless, is the larger part of the music which has been made on this planet, since it includes all oriental music, all of the early and middle music of our culture, and a large and not inconsiderable part of our current production.
Like many others before me, from Russolo to Varèse, I looked forward to an exploration of sound by new technological means: machinery, electricity, film and photoelectric devices, the invention of new means and new instruments. However, I determined to exercise patience in this regard, because I knew that the equipment required was either not existent or not available, being, if existent, expensive and under the control of large commercial companies. I decided, therefore, to work with whatever producing means came my way, and always to have one ear to the ground in search of a new sound.
Luckily, I joined the faculty of the Cornish School in Seattle, Washington, and found there a large collection of percussion instruments and a well-equipped recording studio. Within a few months, I organized a group of players and presented the first concert of music for percussion instruments alone. Compositions by William Russell, Gerald Strang, Ray Green and myself were performed. Before giving the next concert, six months later, I wrote to many composers listing the instruments available and inviting them to send scores. In this way the literature for percussion instruments alone grew from about three or four pieces in 1934 to about 50 in 1940.
Access to the recording studio of the Cornish School led me to write a series of compositions which I called Imaginary Landscapes. These employed records of constant and variable frequencies on turntables, the speed of which could be varied. Durations were controlled by lowering or raising the pick-up arm. This was a use of recording equipment for creative rather than the customary reproducing purposes. I was also able to work with small sounds which to be heard required amplification.
One of the heart-breaking problems that American composers have to meet is not to get their music played once they have written it. I have met very many who have grown bitter and lonely in their studios. I solved this problem for myself by writing music which could be played by a group of literate amateur musicians, people who had not developed instrumental skills on a professional level and therefore still had time to enjoy playing music together with their friends. The number of them who rapidly had become virtuosi was probably due to the natural and uncommercial character of the situation. The problem of performance was also solved for me and for many other composers by the modern dancers, who have always been insatiable consumers of modern music.
In writing for the modern dance, I generally did so after the dance was completed. This means that I wrote music to the counts given me by the dancer. These counts were nearly always, from a musical point of view, totally lacking in organization: 3 measures of 4/4 followed by one measure of 5, 22 beats in a new tempo, a pause, and 2 measures of 7/8. I believe this disorder led me to the inception of structural rhythm.
The structural element in tonal music between Scarlatti and Wagner is its harmony. That is the means by which the parts of a composition are related to each other. Up to this point I had borrowed from 12-tone music its row procedures, that is, a special place-in-the-row of each individual sound observed for the purposes of composition. This procedure, like the intervallic controls of counterpoint, is extremely useful, but is primarily concerned with the point-to-point progress of a piece rather than the parts, large and small, and their relation to the whole.
If one recognizes that the four physical characteristics of sound are its pitch, its loudness, its timbre and its duration, one may say that harmony and the intervallic character of counterpoint derive from no one of the physical characteristics of sound, but rather from the human mind and its thought processes. This, by the way, may account for the cerebral, even psychoanalytical and non-sensuous aspect of much 12-tone music. In dealing with the sounds of percussion music, one hears immediately that in the very nature of their material they are for the most part indefinite as to pitch, but autonomous as to duration. For example: no human power can make the sound of a wood-block last longer than it, by its nature, is going to.
Two facts then led me to structural rhythm: the physical nature of the materials with which I was dealing, and the experience I had in writing within the lengths of time prescribed for me by modern dancers. I also was able to approach this problem objectively because of the aesthetic attitude to which I found myself at that time dedicated. It had nothing to do with the desire for self-expression, but simply had to do with the organization of materials. I recognized that expression of two kinds, that arising from the personality of the composer and that arising from the nature and context of the materials, was inevitable, but I felt its emanation was stronger and more sensible when not consciously striven for, but simply allowed to arise naturally. I felt that an artist had an ethical responsibility to society to keep alive to the contemporary spiritual needs; I felt that if he did this, admittedly vague as it is a thing to do, his work would automatically carry with it a usefulness to others. Any latent longing that I might naturally have had to master expressivity in music was dissolved for me by my connection with the modern dance. For them I had continually to make suitable and expressive accompaniments.
My First Construction in Metal, which embodies the principles of rhythmic structure to which 10 years later I still adhere, I propose now to describe.
It contains 16 parts, each one of which contains 16 measures. Each 16 measures is divided into five phrases: 4 measures, 3 measures, 2 measures, 3 measures and 4 measures. Likewise, the 16 parts as a whole are divided into 5 large sections in the same proportion: 4, 3, 2, 3, 4. The distinction between this system and that of Indian Tala systems is that the latter deal with pulsation, and that not within a closed structure, whereas the idea now being described, independently conceived, concerns phraseology of a composition having a definite beginning and end. I call this principle micro-macrocosmic because the small parts are related to each other in the same way as are the large parts. The fact of the identify of the number of measures and the number of parts, or, in other words, the existence of the square-root of the whole, is an essential sine-qua-non, providing one wants to reflect the large in the small, and the small in the large. I can understand that other rhythmic structures are possible. When I first conceived of this one, I thought of it as elementary because of its perfect symmetry. However, its possibilities appear to be inexhaustible, and therefore I have never departed from it since finding it. The particular proportion of the parts is, naturally, a special aspect of each work. In the one I am describing now the special situation is that of 4, 3, 2, 3, 4. It may be noticed that the first number is equal to the number of numbers which follow it: 3, 2, 2, 4. This made a special situation in which an exposition of 4 ideas could be followed by their development in the four subsequent sections (in other words a sonata form without the recapitulation). For the details of this composition I adhered to the sound-row procedure I had employed previously. I adjusted my materials, however, to number 16, both with regard to their sound and with regard to their ictus patterns.
The next step in my work occurred fortuitously as indeed all else had. I was asked by Syvilla Fort, a dancer later associated with Katherine Dunham, to write music for a dance she had choreographed. She was performing in a theatre that had no room in the wings for percussion instruments; yet her dance, a Bacchanale, most evocative of her African heritage, suggested the use of percussion. But for practical purposes, I had to confine myself to the piano. For several days I improvised, searching for an idea that would be suitable. Nothing satisfied me until finally, realizing that it was the sound of the piano itself that was objectionable, I decided to change that sound by placing objects on and between the strings themselves.
This was the beginning of the prepared piano, which is simply an ordinary grand piano muted with a variety of materials: metal, rubber, wood, plastic, and fibrous materials. The result is a percussion orchestra of an original sound and the decibel range of a harpsichord directly under the control of a pianist’s fingertips. This instrument makes possible the invention of a melody which employs sounds having widely different timbres: as far as I know this is a genuinely new possibility. Its correlates exist in singing where a variety of colors is exploited, for example, in the Navajo Yei-be-chai, and in the playing of stringed instruments, where all the possibilities of variety in sound quality are used (examples of this cross the world and the ages from ancient China to the music of Anton Webern).
The actual muting of an instrument is, as anybody knows, not a new idea at all. We are familiar with the mutes of the brass instruments, and with that of the violin. The altering of the sound of a piano had been effected by hot jazz musicians in New Orleans by placing paper between the strings. Henry Cowell, who had used his fists and arms to play the keyboard of the piano, had muted the strings themselves with the fingertips and palms of his hands. Bach societies, lacking a harpsichord, had placed thumb-tacks on the hammers of small uprights in order to simulate the sound they needed.
The prepared piano also makes possible the use of microtones, that is, pitch differences less than our conventional half-tones. This provides an auditory pleasure which has long been known in jazz and folk and oriental music, but which had been largely excluded from our standardized serious music, with the exception of the modern uses of 1/4 tones, 1/8 tones, 1/16 tones, and even 43 tones to the octave, in the work of Alois Hába, Julian Carillo, and Harry Partch. I can’t refrain from mentioning here that one of New York’s principal opera conductors recently returned from a European visit and, as reported in the Sunday Times, said that nothing new in the field of opera was going on in Europe with the exception, in Czechoslovakia, of Alois Hába’s recent work in quarter tones, which, our informant said, we in American would of course not find of interest.
I learned many essential things about the prepared piano only in the course of the years. I did not know, at first, for instance, that very exact measurements must be made as to the position of the object between the strings and I did not know that, in order to repeat an obtained result, that particular screw or bolt, for instance, originally used, must be saved. All I knew at the beginning was the pleasure I experienced in continual discovery. This pleasure remains to this day undiminished because the possibilities are unlimited.
I was now involved in the presenting of percussion concerts. A tour was made giving programs at the universities of the Northwest. I went to Bennington when it went to Mills College and gave a concert there; the next summer, with Lou Harrison, I was again at Mills. Lou Harrison had written, of the literature for percussion instruments I mentioned earlier, at least half. Our common musical interests began to make us the very best of friends. Just as the weather never tires of repeating the seasons, so Lou and I never tire of discussing again and again problems involved in musical composition.
I spent the next year writing letters and seeing people by appointment, all with the end in view of finding financial support for establishing a Center of Experimental Music. This Center was to be a place where the work with percussion could continue, and where it would be supplemented by the results of close collaboration between musicians and sound engineers, so that the musical possibilities might be continually refreshed with new technological instruments. Composers were to be regularly advised of the new instruments available, and performances were to be periodic. Such an active relationship between music and science might be expected, I felt, to enrich and enliven the whole field of music.
Although I approached many universities, foundations, companies, and individuals, nothing happened. I remember in particular two hours spent at MGM with Douglas Shearer, head of the Sound Department. He showed me a room provided with a library of sound recorded on film and all the auxiliary equipment: light tables, film recorders and film phonographs, equipment with which a composer could compose music exactly as a painter paints pictures, that is, directly. I begged to be allowed to use this room for a few hours a day. But that was impossible, considering the objectives of Hollywood: the doors were closed.
I returned to San Francisco and with Lou Harrison gave a concert of our recent compositions for percussion. To end this concert appropriately we wrote a piece called Double Music which meant that we both wrote it. We did so in the following way: we each wrote independently within agreed-upon time lengths and using agreed-upon instruments. The result required no change, and indicates to me that there is a deeply rewarding world of musical experience to be found in this way. The peculiarities of a single personality disappear almost entirely and there comes into perception through the music a natural friendliness, which has the aspect of a festival. I hereby suggest this method of composition as the solution of Russia’s current musical problems. What could better describe a democratic view of life?
Trying to establish the Center of Experimental Music had made me ambitious, and giving performances had brought me before increasingly large audiences. The natural outcome of this was to come to New York which is the center and the market-place. Later, when Lou Harrison was leaving Los Angeles to come to New York, Schoenberg asked him why he was going east. He said he didn’t know. Schoenberg replied: “Ah! You are going for fame and fortune. Good luck! Study Mozart every day.”
On my way to New York I stopped in Chicago where I gave a concert at the Chicago Arts Club and conducted a class in Sound Experiments at the late Moholy-Nagy’s School of Design. This class was confined to theory for, the school being in a single enormous room partitioned off into separate areas, any sound made disturbed the other classes.
While I was in Chicago I was commissioned by CBS to do a workshop production with Kenneth Patchen. Patchen wrote a script called The City Wears a Slouch Hat. My idea was to use the actual sound effects developed in radio studios, but to use them not as effects, but as sounds, that is, as musical instruments. This, I felt, would provide an accompaniment proper to the play since it would be the organization of those sounds typical of the environment of the dramatic action. The sound effects engineer was agreeable, so I asked him to show what the possibilities were. He was too busy to do this, but said that anything was possible. So I wrote 250 pages of score for instruments, the timbre, loudness and relative pitch of which I described, but the existence of which I only guessed. A week before the performance over a nation-wide hook-up, I took the score to the radio station. They said it was utterly impractical and could not be done, which indeed was true. I spent the next week scarcely sleeping, writing and rehearsing with six players a new score which used the instruments with which I was already familiar: percussion, recordings, and amplification of small sounds.
Many letters were received in Chicago from listeners in the West and Middle West and they were all enthusiastic. So I came to New York expecting to be received with open arms by the highest officers of the Columbia Broadcasting System. The letters they had received from listeners in the East, however, were the reverse of enthusiastic. The Company decided that I had gone too far, and that they themselves would not go further.
The first thing one notices about New York is that an incredible number of things are going on. In Seattle, I remember, there would be a show of modern painting that would last a month, and it was the only one, and we would go to it often and think and talk and feel about it. We would play music and we even had time for simple games. No such thing in New York. There are so many shows of painting, concerts of music, cocktails parties, theatrical events, telephone calls, such a continuum of business, that it is a wonder any one there maintains his wits.
When I arrived the war was under way: I took a job doing library research work in connection with a secret government project which I hasten to say was not the atom bomb. I wrote lots of music for modern dancers. I organized a group of 12 players and gave a concert of percussion music for the League of Composers and the Museum of Modern Art. The difficulties involved in 12 people getting together in New York City for something as uncommercial as a non-union rehearsal are enormous, and in this case we had something like 30 or 40 rehearsals. Thirteen of us did it but at present I can’t imagine how.
Being involved in the complexities of a nation at war and a city in business-as-usual led me to know that there is a difference between large things and small things, between big organizations and two people alone in a room together. Two of my compositions presented at the Museum concert suggest this difference. One of them, the Third Imaginary Landscape, used complex rhythmic oppositions played on harsh sounding instruments combined with recordings of generator noises, sliding electrical sounds, insistent buzzers, thunderous crashes and roars, and a rhythmic structure whose numerical relationships suggested disintegration. The other, four pieces called Amores, was very quiet, and, my friends thought, pleasing to listen to. Its first and last movements were for the prepared piano and were the first pieces using this instrument independent of the dance.
My feeling was that beauty yet remains in intimate situations; that it is quite hopeless to think and act impressively in public terms. This attitude is escapist, but I believe that it is wise rather than foolish to escape from a bad situation. I now saw harmony, for which I had never had any natural feeling, as a device to make music impressive, loud and big, in order to enlarge audiences and increase box-office returns. It had been avoided by the Orient and our earlier Christian society, since they were interested in music not as an aid in the acquisition of money and fame, but rather as the handmaiden to pleasure and religion.
The Amores concerned the quietness between lovers. The Perilous Night concerned the loneliness and terror that comes to one when love becomes unhappy. The Book of Music for two pianos was less concerned consciously with my personal feelings and more concerned with my idea about Mozart, that his music strictly adheres to three different kinds of scales: the chromatic, the diatonic, and that consisting of the larger steps of thirds and fourths. It is thirty minutes long, and employs the rhythmic structure I have described earlier. In this case, however, the number of sections is 31 and each section has 31 measures except when the tempo changes. The number of measures then changes accordingly, thus showing that actual time-length is the basis of this plan rather than arbitrary numerical relationships. The two pianos are prepared at the same points on the same strings but with different materials.
The absence of harmony in my music frequently suggests to listeners oriental music. Because of this, the Book of Music was used by the OWI [Office of War Information] during the war as Indonesian Supplement n. 1, which meant that when there was nothing urgent to do on the radio-beamed-to-the-South Pacific this music was used, with the hope of convincing the natives that America loves the Orient.
Next I wrote the Three Dances, also for two pianos, which Merce Cunningham recently choreographed under the title Dromenon. Considering the theme of this conference, the inter-communication between society and the arts, I may be forgiven for advertising that a recording of the Three Dances is available, published by the Disc Company of America. Notes to the album by Lou Harrison describe the structure of the piece adequately so I will not decrease possible sales by describing it here. The Three Dances are written as a gesture of friendliness towards the dance as an art with which I have long been associated. Since doing this was suggested to me by a passing remark of Virgil Thomson, I open the third Dance with a quotation from his Hymn Tune Symphony, which, due to the preparations, I am afraid he has never recognized.
Another passing remark, this time by Edwin Denby, to the effect that short pieces can have in them just as much as long pieces can, led me two years ago to start writing twenty short Sonatas and Interludes which I have not yet finished.
They have all been written in my new apartment on the East River in Lower Manhattan which turns its back to the city and looks to the water and the sky. The quietness of this retreat brought me finally to face the question: to what end does one write music? Fortunately I did not need to face this question alone. Lou Harrison, and now Merton Brown, another composer and close friend, were always ready to talk and ask and discuss any question relative to music with me. We began to read the works of Ananda K. Coomaraswamy and we met Gita Sarabhai, who came like an angel from India. She was a traditional musician and told us that her teacher had said that the purpose of music was to concentrate the mind. Lou Harrison found a passage by Thomas Mace written in England in 1676 to the effect that the purpose of music was to season and sober the mind, thus making it susceptible of divine influences, and elevating one’s affections to goodness.
After 18 months of studying oriental and medieval Christian philosophy and mysticism, I began to read Jung on the integration of the personality. There are two principal parts of each personality: the conscious mind and the unconscious, and these are split and dispersed, in most of us, in countless ways and directions. The function of music, like that of any other healthy occupation, is to help to bring those separate parts back together again. Music does this by providing a moment when, awareness of time and space being lost, the multiplicity of elements which make up an individual become integrated and he is one. This only happens if, in the presence of music, one does not allow himself to fall into laziness or distraction. The occupations of many people today are not healthy but make those who practice them sick, for they develop one part of the individual to the detriment of the other part. The malaise which results is at first psychological, and one takes vacations from his job to remove it. Ultimately the sickness attacks the whole organism. In this connection let me remark that a composer may be neurotic, as indeed being a member of contemporary society he probably is, but it is not on account of his neurosis that he composes, but rather in spite of it. Neuroses act to stop and block. To be able to compose signifies the overcoming of these obstacles.
If one makes music, as the Orient would say, disinterestedly, that is, without concern for money or fame but simply for the love of making it, it is an integrating activity and one will find moments in his life that are complete and fulfilled. Sometimes composing does it, sometimes playing an instrument, and sometimes just listening. It very rarely happens to any one I know in a concert hall. (Although Lou Harrison and Mimi Wollner told me a few days ago that hearing the Boston Symphony Orchestra play Charles Ives’ Three Places in New England made them feel very good; the same thing happened for me and many of my friends when I heard Webern’s Five Pieces for String Quartet about a year ago.)
I don’t think it is a matter here of communication (we communicate quite adequately with words) or even of expressivity. Neither Lou nor Mimi in the case of Ives, nor I in the case of Webern, had the slightest concern with what the music was about. We were simply transported. I think the answer to this riddle is simply that when the music was composed the composers were at one with themselves. The performers became disinterested to the point that they became unself-conscious, and a few listeners in those brief moments of listening forgot themselves, enraptured, and so gained themselves.
It is these moments of completeness that music can give providing one can concentrate one’s mind on it, that is, give one’s self in return to the music, that are such deep pleasure, and that is why we love the art.
So I don’t believe it is any particular finished work that is important. I don’t sympathize with the idealization of masterpieces. I don’t admire the use of harmony to enlarge and make music impressive. I think the history of the so-called perfecting of our musical instruments is a history of decline rather than of progress. Nor am I interested in large audiences or the preservation of my work for posterity. I think the inception of that fairly recent department of philosophy called aesthetics and its invention of the ideas of genius and self-expression and art appreciation are lamentable. I do not agree with one of our most performed composers who was quoted in a recent Sunday Times article called Composing for Cash as saying that what inspired him and should inspire others to write music today is the rising crescendo of modern industrialism. I think this and the other ideas I have just been ranting about may be labeled along with others, that at present I haven’t the calmness to remember, as being sheer materialistic nonsense, and tossed aside. Since [James “Prexy”] Petrillo’s recent ban on recordings took effect on the New Year, I allowed myself to indulge in the fantasy of how normalizing the effect might have been had he had the power, and exerted it, to ban not only recordings, but radio, television, the newspapers, and Hollywood. We might then realize that phonographs and radios are not musical instruments, that what the critics write is not a musical matter but rather a literary matter, that it makes little difference if one of us likes one piece and another another; it is rather the age-old process of making and using music and our becoming more integrated as personalities through this making and using that is of real value.
In view of these convictions, I am frankly embarrassed that most of my musical life has been spent in the search for new materials. The significance of new materials is that they represent, I believe, the incessant desire in our culture to explore the unknown. Before we know the unknown, it inflames our hearts. When we know it, the flame dies down, only to burst forth again at the thought of a new unknown. This desire has found expression in our culture in new materials, because our culture has its faith not in the peaceful center of the spirit but in an ever-hopeful projection on to things of our own desire for completion.
However, as long as this desire exists in us, for new materials, new forms, new this and new that, we must search to satisfy it. I have, for instance, several new desires (two may seem absurd but I am serious about them): first, to compose a piece of uninterrupted silence and sell it to Muzak Co. It will be 3 or 4 1/2 minutes long–those being the standard lengths of “canned” music–and its title will be Silent Prayer. It will open with a single idea which I will attempt to make as seductive as the color and shape and fragrance of a flower. The ending will approach imperceptibility. And, second, to compose and have performed a composition using as instruments nothing but twelve radios. It will be my Imaginary Landscape No. 4. Twice when I have been offered commissions, once by the New Music Society and the other time by a young recitalist, for whom I would have willingly turned the idea into a piece for solo violin and two radios, the commission has been retracted when I explained my intentions. These experiences have proved to me the essentially conservative character of musical attitudes today. Due to this conservatism, my third desire will seem innocuous. It is simply to write again for symphony orchestra as I did last year when I wrote The Seasons for Merce Cunningham’s ballet which was produced by the Ballet Society. Writing for orchestra is, from my point of view, highly experimental and the sound of a flute, of the violins, of a harp, a trombone, suggest to me most attractive adventures. I also want to finish my Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano and I am looking forward to working with Joseph Campbell on several operas, and with Lou Harrison and Merton Brown on finding a means whereby Triple Music can be written combining the techniques of their secundal chromatic counterpoint and my structural rhythm, and thereby providing a means with which three or four people can collaborate on a single piece of music. The pleasure here would be in friendliness and anonymity, and thus in music.
These desires of mine and the equally intensely felt desires of each other composer, not only as to new materials and such things, but also as to fame, money, self-expression and success, bring about the state of music as it is today: extraordinarily disparate, almost to the point of a separation between each composer and every other one, and a large gap between each one of these and society.
Insults and bouquets are flung across these gaps. Teachers teach what they can, lighting up and sometimes obscuring an atmosphere which is for the most part empty of response and understandably so.
Each one of us must now look to himself. That which formerly held us together and gave meaning to our occupations was our belief in God. When we transferred this belief first to heroes, then to things, we began to walk our separate paths. That island that we have grown to think no longer exists to which we might have retreated to escape from the impact of the world, lies, as it ever did, within each one of our hearts. Towards that final tranquility, which today we so desperately need, any integrating occupation–music is one of them, rightly used–can serve as a guide.
©John Cage Trust