Another one of those busy days yesterday, doing various things for various people. I was up bright and early once more, updating my website and uploading the score of The Lord Is My Light, which, like many other of my pieces, is available for free. Word is that the first performance went well. I also tidied a few organisational things here and there, aligned online and paper diaries and took a small intake of relaxation after the notefest of the weekend.
Yesterday afternoon I gave a lecture about John Cage, who would have been 100 years old this year. He is a man whose ideas are more important than his music in many ways, but I continue to admire – no, make that adore – his sense of humour and wonder at the sounds around him. I dug out my CD of Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano on Saturday morning and listened to it in rapt delight. Once one gets over the fact that it doesn’t sound like a piano it becomes an entrancing experience, and the few moments where the instrument reasserts its original nature are delightfully placed. I really love this work, for all that it remains out of the reach of most listeners.
For what it’s worth, I also love 4’33”, you know, the silent piece, ho ho ho. Well, as anybody who has heard a performance will tell you, it is anything but silent, and that’s the whole point. Cage had spent some time in an anechoic chamber at Harvard, a place entirely soundproofed and without echo, but, sitting there on his own, he realised that there was actually no such thing as silence. Instead he could hear noises in his head, those of his nervous and blood systems functioning. I heard a performance of this piece whilst studying at university, and it changed my view of music and Cage. I remember it to this day.
That being the case, I would find it hard to say that I have embraced his methodologies and ideas wholeheartedly, but I am certainly aware that performance also includes what we do not intend and that music does not just encompass notes. Likewise, I know, as Cage did, that silence is nowhere to be found, even more so in our modern age. Whether air conditioning systems, the infernal screeching of various alarms on the new trams on the Tramlink, computer fans humming, hard drives whirring, there is always something going on. Even in an anechoic chamber we are left listening to the music of ourselves. I find that rather exciting.
Of course, it is easy to dismiss Cage as a prankster, and I understand that doing so means that one does not have to spend time and effort pondering the nature of music, noise and silence, time many of us do not have, but to dismiss him as such is to devalue him. While some composers wholeheartedly embraced his idea of the chaotic, others found it too much – Lutoslawski, for example, whose controlled aleatoricism (alea=dice, therefore chance in music) brought the random back into the control of the composer. I have done the same in some of my pieces, the chance procedures in my Ave Verum hopefully going some way to gaining it its award and recording, but still a country mile away from Cage’s negations of a composer’s intentions.
Above all, Cage was reported to be a kindly and gentle man, with an insatiable appetite for curiosity, a very fine cook, too, especially where mushrooms were concerned. As a traditional composer his career only goes so far, but I like Schoenberg’s remark about him – “he’s not a composer, he’s an inventor of genius”.