How John Cage, the great disrupter, had the last laugh - by writing beautiful music

Late in life, maverick composer Cage decided to stop finding ‘alternatives to harmony’. The results have been rediscovered by a new generation of musicians

In the summer of 1990 John Cage gave a lecture at the International New Music gathering in Darmstadt, Germany, and effectively admitted defeat. The then 76-year-old US composer announced that his philosophical ideas of freedom and collaboration, concepts built into his avant garde musical compositions since the 1950s, had failed to influence reality. The world had got worse, not better. It was “a life spent … beating my head against a wall”, he announced. There was, however, one consolation. “I no longer consider it necessary to find alternatives to harmony,” he said. “After all these years I am finally writing beautiful music.”

Cage was referring to his Number Pieces, around 40 late works named after the quantity of performers involved (from 1 to 101) in which individual musicians could choose when and how long to play (within designated time brackets) resulting in often quiet and meditative pieces, a marked contrast to the previous, often abrasive compositions he’d built his 40-year reputation on.

The Number Pieces were performed on numerous occasions following Cage’s death, but often as a kind of theatrical game by musicians who still regarded Cage as a disruptive enfant terrible. “Musicians would often interpret the openness of Cage’s scores as meaning ‘anything goes’,” says classical music label boss Simon Reynell. “They wouldn’t follow his instructions or they’d introduce theatrical elements that treated the music as a joke.”

Apartment House
Apartment House Photograph: Alicja Wróblewska/Black Shadow studio

Reynell’s record label, Another Timbre, has just released a four CD box set containing 13 Number Pieces for mid-size ensembles, performed by Anton Lukoszevieze’s British avant garde ensemble Apartment House, who take their name from one of Cage’s later compositions.

“Most of these pieces haven’t been recorded for more than 15 years,” says the group’s chief clarinettist Heather Roche. “They’ve become neglected.”

In consultation with Reynell, Apartment House agreed there would be no emotional or theatrical styles in their Cage interpretations.

“No sudden fortissimo notes, no vibrato!” says Roche, laughing. “We made a conscious decision to play at the quieter end of what Cage suggests, adding a certain fragility of sound that invites you inwards. It’s sort of like ‘make a comfy space on your sofa and sit with us’.”

A comfy space on the sofa seems like an unlikely listening space for a label that began as an outlet for avant garde improvisation 15 years ago but, says Reynell, it makes total sense given how his attitudes to contemporary classical music have changed in that time.

“I grew up in the 70s listening to avant garde improvisation,” says Reynell, “Free atonality, distorting the note. But then in the 90s I got bored of it. Morton Feldman, Luigi Nono’s late music and British artists such as Laurence Crane drew me to a gentler kind of experimental music, an emphasis on quiet and minimalistic improvisation.”

“The new music scene of the 80s was very macho,” says Crane, “certainly in the UK. Someone like me working with common chords and pared-down textures had to accept that we had less access to funding or high-profile performances. Most people considered “new music” to be mainstream modernism, fast changing, fleeting, glittery and goal-directed. Mentioning no names, a number of the London publishing houses were weighted towards male composers writing in that style and what I found irksome then was the unequal distribution of resources, with some stylistic positions being heavily favoured over others.”

Crane says the scene today is far more inclusive and diverse. “That uniformity eroded,” he says, “and the internet has had a big role to play in allowing composers to release their music free from publishing houses. Another Timbre emerged from this stylistic openness [and] has contributed greatly to setting some sort of new agenda. There’s no doubt Reynell’s CDs of music by composers such as Jurg Frey, Martin Arnold and Linda Catlin Smith have been crucial in introducing this music to wider audiences and younger composers.”

Based out of Toronto since the early 80s, Canadian composer Linda Catlin Smith, who’s had five CDs of her music released on Another Timbre, says she was “born too late” for the ultra-modernism of Elliott Carter and the minimalism of Steve Reich so was instead drawn to the immersive ambiguous transparency of Feldman and late Cage.

“I reacted against all that active, intense, dramatic music,” she explains, “With Cage’s Number Pieces and with Feldman I felt drawn into a world where I could hear everything that was happening.”

It’s a philosophy she extends to her own slow, graceful spectral music, and the recordings of it by Apartment House for Another Timbre.

“Apartment House get it,” she says. “When I hear them play my music I feel I’ve learned something. The piece might be written by me but the performance is authored by the players. It’s deep collaboration. And there is a listenership out there for it that’s really huge. We’re living in a time of great plurality. I think people just want to be included; they’re looking for a space inside the music.”

‘It expands the way that we think about our lives, music and sound’: Shiva Feshareki.
‘It expands the way that we think about our lives, music and sound’: Shiva Feshareki. Photograph: No credit

“It’s definitely a conversation around diversity and inclusivity,” agrees British-Iranian composer and sound artist Shiva Feshareki. “In the last 10 years listeners have been embracing composers such as Feldman, Pauline Oliveros, who were getting back to the basics of sound focused on listening but also people such as Cage and Éliane Radigue who were influenced by eastern traditions, where the music isn’t immaculately controlled by one person on a score. It’s almost like the ego has been removed.”

“Cage wanted to remove ego with his Number Pieces,” agrees the Swiss clarinetist and composer Jurg Frey who is associated with the spare, fragile elusive music of the Wandelweiser group, also released through Another Timbre. “Thirty years ago people thought the important thing about the Number Pieces was that they were non-personal. Now we can hear it another way. It’s about melody but also space. In the past, melody told the listener, ‘Hey, listen this way!’ But I don’t want every listener to think or feel the same way. That is Cage’s heritage. Foreground melody but not in a didactic way. Allow space for the musicians and the listener.”

“It’s all about accessing a depth of sound that cannot be achieved through the normal modes of harmony and structure and form,” says Feshareki who sees a link between this Cage approach and the current interest composers such as Kali Malone, Sarah Davachi and Caterina Barbieri have in deeper, long-form, meditative compositions using just intonation. “It’s therapeutic. It connects to people on new levels. It expands the way that we think about our lives, music and sound.”

“It’s funny,” says Crane, “Simon Reynell has no interest in pop and rock but Another Timbre are now played on [BBC stations] 6 Music and Radio 3 alongside those younger composers. Programmes such as Freak Zone, Late Junction, Unclassified, play his music. Even Iggy Pop is now playing contemporary classical music [on his 6 Music show].”

Reynell however, is uncertain about such notions of high-profile attention. “On the one hand,” he says, “I’d love it if lots of people rediscovered the Number Pieces. There is a warmth and gentleness to them that is quintessentially Cage. On the other hand there’s something about Cage that will always remain the maverick. I think he’d feel funny if he was no longer the outsider.”

• Number Pieces four CD box set is out now on Another Timbre.

Contributor

Andrew Male

The GuardianTramp

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