John Cage interview: 'I gave up the notion of communication as impractical in my case'

16 November 1989: In a classic interview from our archive Gerald Larner finds composer John Cage, famous for the rebellious poise of his atonal music, writing harmonies

See also: Tom Service’s guide to John Cage’s music

John Cage at 77 is looking very well - a little frail perhaps in comparison with the bearded and gleeful mushroom-collector beaming from the covers of his books of writings, but definitely not like someone on his way, as he put it, ‘toward the end.’

‘Well, I’m better than I ought to be,’ he consented in that gently witty manner of his, reflecting no doubt that, for a self-confessed extremist old enough to have invented the Sixties 20 years before they began, being ‘not entirely well’ is not entirely bad.

The health report is offered with the news that, more than 50 years after Schoenberg so fatefully told his composition student in California that he had no feeling for harmony, John Cage has just discovered nothing other than a feeling for harmony.

Schoenberg’s diagnosis caused Cage to reject harmony and to look for alternatives which would admit noise to music and, in the process, influence the history of the art as profoundly as Schoenberg.

Given his creative energy - which shows no sign of abatement - Cage’s discovery of harmony could lead to another fundamental change in the way we hear things. At present, still somewhat bemused by the experience, he hasn’t yet assimilated its implications even for his own music.

It happened last December at a new music festival in Miami when he heard a piece by James Tenney: ‘He and I have been friendly over the years but not close. The lack of closeness comes through his devotion to harmony and my efforts at finding alternatives to it.

‘Well, in Miami there was this piece of his for about seven instruments, one of which was an accordion. The accordion played first, I think it was the A below middle C, and the other instruments began playing the same tone, not all at once but one after the other. The audience didn’t listen. They were under the impression that some kind of tuning was going on but, when the situation became microtonal, when one of the pitches was not the right one, they began listening and then their attention was very close.

‘It went on for about half an hour and the intervals grew larger than microtones. It had begun with one tone and it went to music that stretched through the whole range. It was just quite marvellous! ‘There was no melodic movement. The impression was one of harmony and to me very revealing of what harmony might be without theory. In other words, there were no rules that I could perceive. There was no following of a hierarchical relationship between the tones.’

The revelation was confirmed some months later when he heard a recording made by the composer Pauline Oliveros and the trombonist Stuart Dempster in a cavern somewhere in the State of Washington and endowed with a 45-second echo. ‘They went down - he with his trombone and didgeridoo, she with an accordion and her voice - and improvised together and made this CD called Deep Listening. I heard it for the first time last August and I had again this experience of harmony.’

Section from the piano part of Concert for Piano and Orchestra (1957-58). The Guardian 16 November 1989.
Section from the piano part of Concert for Piano and Orchestra (1957-58). The Guardian, 16 November 1989. Photograph: the guardian

He feels that he somehow anticipated his new interest in harmony in one or two of his recent works - including Four, which will be first performed by the Arditti Quartet at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival next Friday. ‘I can’t wait to hear it,’ he says, having no real idea of what to expect from a performance of a work which has four parts but no score, just an inter-relationship determined by chance.

What Four should not do is express emotion or communicate with the audience in any way: Cage is quite frank about that aspect of his work. Recalling his student compositions of the Thirties he says, ‘I found that when I wrote a very sad piece people were as apt to laugh as they were to be moved. So I gave up the notion of communication as impractical in my case.’

Avant-garde minimalist composer John Cage playing a children’s size piano.
Avant-garde minimalist composer John Cage playing a children’s size piano. Photograph: Ben Martin/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

He wants us to listen to sounds for their own sake. The problem he has with music as communication is that it ‘becomes very difficult to listen to, because of what’s been done to it in organising it. And when expression sweeps sound into its production then you also get into a situation where you’re not allowed to just listen.’ That’s why his 4’ 33’ - a work in three movements in which the performer remains silent throughout its duration of 4 minutes 33 seconds - is such a classic.

He has created more picaresque pieces, like the one to be played pizzicato on eight cacti, but that is a product of his Dada background and his admiration for Marcel Duchamp. The essential Cage is the piece which directs the ear to the chance noises of everyday life and which - according to Zen philosophy - opens the mind to divine influences.

What John Cage (prophet of the alternative culture and the non-intentional in art) will find in common with the other featured composer at Huddersfield, Pierre Boulez (archbishop of the mainstream and supreme structuralist) not even he can say. ‘My plan is to stay on at the festival after the concentration on my work has ended to hear the days devoted to Pierre’s work. We were very close before 1950, not just as friends but as musicians too. He was the most interesting composer I discovered in Paris. I had just come from hearing Stefan Wolpe’s Battle Piece played by David Tudor and the Boulez Second Sonata was equally exciting. Our friendship began before my use of chance operations but I’m not sure at the present moment that we aren’t again somewhat closer together.’

The Guardian, 16 November 1989
The Guardian, 16 November 1989. Click to see original article. Photograph: The Guardian
Gerald Larner

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