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The Fool of Chance

John Cage was a laughing man. Photographs of the composer, who pioneered the use of chance and indeterminacy in the composition of art music, show a strong, square jaw, chiseled good looks, and a stern, straight hairline. Laughter softened the severity of his face, and revealed the essence of a man whom Minna Lederman, the long-time editor of the journal Modern Music, called the Holy Fool of Zen.

Cage’s geniality is evident on almost every page of Kenneth Silverman’s biography. His laughter, his good humor, and his charm help explain his rise to prominence as a composer despite his lack of musical technique. He was an intellectually gifted man, to be sure, but he also cultivated a wide circle of friends and allies, and he was savvy about media and pop culture. He also spoke softly, often posing ideas more as questions than pronouncements, and for all these reasons he emerged as a non-threatening face of the avant-garde. Cage was adorable.

Except, that is, when he was enforcing loyalty among his friends, flirting with Maoism, or complaining about shoddy performances of his work. Every biography will yield unflattering details of a fully lived and imperfect life. Silverman’s meticulous and even-handed reconstruction of Cage’s career—presented in straightforward chronological fashion with only occasional critical comments—does not dig up much dirt on the composer, but it offers enough darker substance for readers so inclined to construct a more realistic, balanced, and less reverent understanding of an artist too often seen in the glow of enthusiastic hagiography and the prevailing orthodoxies of contemporary music. Scattered throughout this book are the essential footnotes to a more chastening critical biography that would place Cage’s life and work in proper perspective, acknowledging his vast influence without acceding to the proposition that it was entirely beneficent.

Cage was born in 1912, to a father whose prominence as an inventor was substantial enough to earn front-page notice in the Los Angeles Times after the successful launch of a submarine he designed. John Cage, Jr., had the happy, unfocused, and empowering upbringing that defines so many artists and intellectuals raised on the left coast. He graduated high school early, as valedictorian, but dropped out of Pomona College at seventeen. From then on, he was an enthusiastic prospector in the vast American frontier of Bohemianism and art.

Cage studied piano but he was not particularly accomplished at it. He read poetry and gave lectures on art to housewives, but, Silverman says, “little in his learning and experience prepared him for delivering such a series.” When he was twenty he decided to focus on music, but his early efforts didn’t set the world on fire. Eventually he made it into the circle of Arnold Schoenberg, the pioneer of twelve-tone music who had relocated to Los Angeles to escape Nazi persecution.

Schoenberg, often blamed for the dissolution of Western music, was in fact a pedagogue entirely committed to the history, technique, and the inner understanding of the tradition that he is unfairly blamed for undermining. But it does not seem that Cage learned much from Schoenberg, and he did not stay long under his tutelage. Cage gave different explanations for his break with the master, but the most famous one is this: “I had no feeling for harmony.” Schoenberg was not the sort of teacher who could overlook such a fundamental lack in a student’s tool kit. Later in his career, Cage would say, “I can’t keep a tune. In fact I have no talent for music.” Cage’s humor, and his philosophical suspicion of the traditional skills deployed by serious composers, makes this remark ambiguous, but not without a grain of truth.

It is probably too easy to focus on the technical deficiencies of an artist who created such a revolution in the standards and aims of the art form. But there was something enduringly (and for many endearingly) amateur about Cage. The title of Silverman’s book—Begin Again—can stand for the inexhaustible inventiveness with which Cage approached a limited set of musical problems, mostly having to do with finding ways for music to make itself, without the apparent hand of a composer or fealty to existing standards of taste. But it also suggests Cage’s dilettantism, his life-long need for novelty and new subjects of study.

Cage was happiest, and most radical in his insight, when applying Rube Goldberg inspirations to theoretical problems of which no one was aware. While teaching in the late 1930s in Seattle, he formed a percussion ensemble and coauthored a manifesto with the composer Henry Cowell: “Percussion music is revolution. Sound and rhythm have too long been submissive to the restrictions of nineteenth-century music. Today we are fighting for their emancipation.” But when Carlos Chávez, the distinguished Mexican composer, contributed a score for performance by Cage’s ensemble, “the piece used conventional percussion techniques, especially drumrolls, that the… players could not perform.”

The incendiary rhetoric in the Cowell-Cage manifesto explains how Cage could continue to flourish as a composer. Revolution empowers autodidacts, frauds, and visionaries at the same time; and Cage was a bit of all three. Like many composers of his generation, he believed that Western music had evolved into a form of oppression. “Because of its ability to enlarge sound and thus to impress an audience,” the composer wrote of traditional harmony in 1946, “it has become in our time the tool of Western commercialism.” And it wasn't just music: when he turned to poetry, he favored trivial exercises in acrostics and anagrams. “He viewed conventional language as dictatorial and divisive,” writes Silverman. He also tended to denigrate the skills that he lacked. When fired (for inadequate performance) from a job as a graphic arts consultant to a New York advertising agency in the 1950s—a rare effort to make a living outside of music—he chastised his former employer for not recognizing his brilliance. “My methods of work are intimately my own,” he wrote in an angry letter.

They were indeed. Cage’s musical trajectory took him from studies with Schoenberg to percussion ensembles that featured unorthodox instruments and exotica. He moved on to electronic music, experiments with radio, and then to the real focus of his career: indeterminacy. Compositions made by chance procedures freed music from the personality and the ego of the composer. Only chance could break down the entrenched musical syntax that kept sound in thrall to old bourgeois ideas. Real music could be found everywhere, in the sounds of the street, or in the case of 4’33”, Cage’s infamous exercise in silence, in the ambient sounds of an audience nervously waiting for a pianist to engage with the keyboard.

There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of Cage’s audiophilia. The best of his compositions do expose the listener to striking new sounds in novel ways. His prepared piano works of the 1940s, composed for pianos painstakingly altered with metal screws, paper, and other objects, have endured as appealing if repetitive music, a bit like the compositions of Eric Satie but with a sharper sonic edge. They anticipate sounds that would eventually become commonplace products of the synthesizer.

Decades later, in 1979, when he was using elaborately conceived chance methods to create sonic tapestries—or circuses, as he liked to call them—he wrote Roaratorio, a work inspired by Finnegans Wake. The clever title prepares one for a sonic assault. But like many of Cage’s work, Roaratorio is appealingly mild-mannered. Using chance procedures, Cage wove together the sound of his own voice with dogs barking, water gurgling, Irish singing, and a fiddler who seems to have wandered in from the soporific soundtrack to a Ken Burns documentary. But the results are remarkably two-dimensional and merely decorative. Its surface is flat and painterly, more like an Agnes Martin canvas than a Franz Kline.

There is little reason to listen attentively to more than a few minutes of the work. Most of Cage’s pieces are easier to grasp than to enjoy, and too many of them were outright assaults on the patience and the intelligence of his audience. His experiments with poetry as a kind of spoken music could last for hours—endless streams of nonsense words and gibberish. When asked to give the Norton Lectures at Harvard in 1988, he gathered quotations from Thoreau, Wittgenstein, McLuhan, Buckminster Fuller, and various magazines and newspapers. He then used a computer to randomly select various words upon which he created his own favorite poetic form, the “mesostic,” which was an acrostic with the keyword in the middle of the poetic lines. Silverman cites sample text from the lecture:

                                         nature’ I would gladly tell all that i

                                                  raNge’ b is nothing but a single tone silence

letting them convert these to fooD for man and

                                killing a policE officer in a…. 

Recordings of Cage speaking similar texts in a pitched incantation suggest that this could be hypnotic for a while, but such writing was hardly worthy of the Norton audience, and it is surprising that anyone still takes large chunks of Cage’s output seriously. This work was trivial and juvenile. The defensive crouch of many defenders of contemporary music makes it difficult for such a fairly obvious assessment to take root in the cultural record.

During Cage’s career, there were plenty of powerful musical voices raised against him, cogently and passionately. Foremost among these was Pierre Boulez, the French practitioner of a hard-core serialism, a technique as alienating to audiences as Cage’s most long-winded mesostics. Although the two composers met and at first admired each other, Boulez saw a profound hollowness in Cage’s disavowal of the composer’s responsibility for music. There was, after World War II, an understandable aversion to cultural objects that seemed naïve and sentimental, and worse, perhaps complicit in the madness that wracked Europe. But for a composer to cede the dignity of Homo Faber to pure chance was no solution. Making music, constructing and crafting it, was still a form of resistance to the forces of barbarism.

The distinguished German musicologist Heinrich Strobel witnessed a Cage performance in the 1950s and called it “poor Dada.” Reacting to a sonic collage piece in the 1960s, Robert Motherwell concluded that “John is just spitting in people’s faces now.” The Italian composer Luigi Nono, a committed Communist, called indeterminacy “a superficial idea of liberty and constraint,” and condemned Cage’s followers (his ideas were catnip to mediocrities) as “products of a narcissistically coquettish pseudo-radicalism.”

They were right. And so was an angry Italian audience that shouted “bourgeois” and “assassino” when Cage delivered one of his numbing nonsense poems in Milan in the 1970s. Cage’s argument with the musical tradition within which he was working, even as he wished to undermine it, was naïve and reflexive and shallow, the simple-minded and sociologically banal rejection typical of a bohemian from a relatively privileged background. His later political dalliance with left-wing politics was fueled by his interest in Eastern religion, and by his ignorance of the real world. He dismissed reports that China had degenerated into a brutal authoritarianism, arguing that the unflattering accounts of the Cultural Revolution were merely a question of flawed translation.

How seriously should one take his dalliance with Maoism? Silverman lays out a nuanced history of Cage’s political views, which suggests that Cage eventually realized that his admiration for Mao was inconsistent with his deeper disgust for militarism and crass political power. But it was a fascinating moment. In Chesterton’s The Napoleon of Notting Hill, a society demoralized by its political failures decides to choose its king by chance. Submitting to chance may have been, for Cage, a kind of modesty; but it was submission, nonetheless. A society that valorizes the arbitrary force of chance may well be more susceptible to submission to other forms of arbitrary power.

In a gentle and wise way, Cage’s friend Lou Harrison got to the essence of the problem. Harrison, a composer whose legacy is not philosophically dense as Cage’s but musically much more satisfying, once said: “I would rather chance a choice than choose a chance.” The remark has the pithiness of Cage’s best lines, and it emphasizes the degree to which Cage’s chance procedures, done with the I Ching, or later with computers, were highly constructed, deeply intentional choices. And it implicitly broaches two impolite questions: What does one risk by making artistic, aesthetic choices? And what was John Cage afraid of? Boulez may have had an answer. “He was refreshing, but not very bright,” the French composer said of his one-time friend. “His freshness came from an absence of knowledge.”

Philip Kennicott is culture critic of The Washington Post.