With Electronics, Tin Cans and Silence, John Cage Reigns as King of Avant-Garde Music

updated 10/15/1979 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/15/1979 01:00AM

The grimy Manhattan commercial district is filled with the buzz and blare of a city going to work. Five flights above, in a sunlit loft conspicuosly devoid of stereo, radio or any other amplifying equipment, composer John Cage tunes in to the 7 a.m. urban cacophony. "I prefer the sounds of the streets to all the music I know," he says. "And that includes my own."

Cage, 67, may be his own worst critic. He has others. His strange, atonal music has all the appeal of squealing brakes to many listeners. They frequently walk out of his concerts in which tin cans, cowbells and plumbing pipes are employed as instruments. Even silence becomes a sound. In the premiere performance of Cage's notorious 4'33" the pianist did nothing for four-and-a-half minutes but close and open the keyboard lid to indicate the three movements of the piece. The music was subliminal: the creaking of the seats in the theater, the puzzled whispering, the quiet beating of the human heart.

That curiosity was introduced in 1952. Today Cage has achieved a respectability of sorts and is generally regarded as the philosopher-king of the modern arts. His compositions, now numbering 150, may not endure in their more outrageous forms (one critic has summed up Cage's career as "a one-way tunnel to the gadget fair"). But his theories of artistic expression have influenced such disparate work as Jasper Johns' paintings and Pink Floyd's rock albums.

Floyd and other groups make increasing use of electronic music—and Cage, indisputably, is the father of that vibrant product of the computer age. In 1937 he made an astonishingly prophetic declaration: "I believe that the use of noise to make music will continue and increase until we reach a music produced through the aid of electrical instruments which will make available...any and all sounds that can be heard."

In the dance world, too, Cage has shattered tradition. As musical director for 22 years of the trend-setting Merce Cunningham Dance Company, he insisted on not composing with the choreographer. The dancers often did not hear the music until the performance. "We do two separate works which are then performed simultaneously," he explains.

Recently, Cage has been dabbling in still another field—tiny drawings known as postcard art. Exhibits of his larger etchings and lithographs, which bring up to $1,200, have been held in Manhattan, San Francisco and Los Angeles. This year Cage published three books, including Empty Words, a collection of his writings. "Instead of concentrating on one thing at a time, I prefer to see how many things I can pay attention to at once," he says. "If I succeed in paying attention to three things then it becomes amusing to see if I can pay attention to four."

The public reaction to such versatility is one challenge that Cage is ill-prepared to handle. "I got so troubled at becoming well-known that I engaged an astrologer to tell me how to behave," he admits. "She told me to adapt myself, because it's only going to get worse."

Would-be composers besiege him. "Come by today," he graciously says, "but please don't stay." He is asked constantly to travel. Can he lecture in London? Perform in Tokyo? Compose in San Diego? "When can I get to sleep in my own bed?" he sighs.

To counterbalance the frenzy of his life, Cage finds nothing more effective than to drive to upstate New York in search of the Trumpet of Death, a delicious, spicey mushroom. "I can spot one on the side of the road, even when I'm going 60 miles an hour," he claims. During the 1960s, he often sold these and other wild mushrooms to Manhattan's elegant Four Seasons restaurant. On his foraging expeditions, he usually takes struggling artists along. He's always at the appointed rendezvous spot ahead of schedule. "I don't like to keep people waiting," he explains. "Besides, watching the things that happen around me on a street corner is like having a first-class theater seat."

Another leisure-time fascination is chess. A longtime rival, artist Bill Anastasi, says, "John is a very good chess player. But when it comes to the clinch, he'll go for the creative rather than the strategic move every time. Even if it means he'll lose."

Daring runs in the family. The composer's father, John Sr., was an inventor who designed a submarine which in 1913 set a world's record for staying underwater (13 hours). But as an attack vessel it was less than fearsome because it expelled bubbles of air, revealing its position. "The people who had originally put up the money left dad with all the bills," recalls John. "He lived his life in bankruptcy."

The family was familiar with tragedy too. Before John was born, his mother, Lucretia Cage (who was an editor on the women's page of the Los Angeles Times), gave birth to two sons. "The first was born dead, and the second was a monster with a head larger than the rest of his body," John reports. "He died a few days later. Both infants were given my grandfather's name, Gustavus Adolphus Williamson Cage."

John's childhood was nomadic, as his father worked on inventions in various cities; nonetheless, John was so precocious he skipped three grades. As a grammar-school student in Los Angeles, he recalls, "I had trouble communicating with my classmates. One day I read aloud a composition I had written. I had used mother's thesaurus to find a vocabulary more interesting than my own. Everybody laughed at me—including the teacher." Cage transferred to another school.

About that time he spotted a sign in Santa Monica for piano lessons. He began them, and later asked his Aunt Phoebe, a piano teacher, to help him continue his musical education. She agreed and wound up the object of a young crush. "She promised me that she would stop growing older and wait until I was her age and then we could get married," Cage remembers.

In 1928, having graduated at 15 as valedictorian of his class, John enrolled in Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. After two years, he took off for the bohemian life in Paris. "The first time I heard modern music and saw modern painting, I knew I could do them both," he says.

In 1935 Cage approached the revolutionary composer Arnold Schoen-berg with a request to be his pupil. "He said I probably couldn't afford his time. I told him I did not have any money at all," Cage says. Schoenberg asked Cage if he intended to devote his life to music. "I said, 'Of course,' and he agreed to teach me free of charge."

After two years, Schoenberg suggested gently that Cage find another calling. "It had become clear to him that I had no feeling for harmony," Cage notes. "Consequently, he told me that I would always come to a wall which I would not be able to get through." Cage replied, "Then I'll spend my life beating my head against the wall." In fact, his opposition to harmony became the cornerstone of his theory. "Harmony is not essential because it fails to take silence into consideration," he has argued repeatedly. Cage proceeded to compose offbeat, experimental works. Besides moments of silence, his compositions encompass a wide range of sounds—from the lilting voice of a flute to the gurgle of a kitchen sink. By the 1940s his music was reflecting his awareness of the entire world. Everything was potentially an instrument—even an amplified Slinky toy which produced a "voice like thunder" or a coffee pot which when plugged into a sound system "made a beautiful wailing noise."

Such radicalism was not much in demand. In the late '40s he began lecturing at the experimental fine arts Black Mountain College in North Carolina, and there became friends with artists Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly. Cage was often broke. "I remember one summer when I did not have a penny," he says. "Instead of being bitter or depressed, I was suddenly elated. I felt a liberation from money." Reality intruded, and by mail he sold shares in a piece he was composing: "Would You Like To Be Rich When You Are Dead?" Ten people sent him a total of $250, which kept Cage going for nine months. "I was not faithful to those investors," he says ruefully. They never got their money back.

In 1945 Cage's 10-year marriage to Xenia Kashevaroff, a California artist, ended in divorce. "I became so depressed that I thought it would be necessary to seek psychoanalysis," he says. Instead he turned to Zen Buddhism. "Psychoanalysis might get rid of my demons, I decided, but it would probably get rid of my angels, too," he says.

Out of the experience, Cage developed a unique perspective on life: "If you look inward and concentrate only on your own desires all the time, you end up having fun some of the time, but a large amount of the time you're miserable and another portion of the time you're bored. I'd rather be attentive and curious all the time so I just keep my eyes and ears open to the world beyond myself."

Cage's collaboration with Merce Cunningham's troupe dates from around the time of Cage's divorce. Though he resigned in 1966 as the company's musical director, Cage maintains a close relationship with the group and writes one or two new pieces for it each year. He also remains a prolific and controversial composer on his own. Three years ago, hundreds of subscribers to the New York Philharmonic fled after the first notes of his Renga with Apartment House 1776. "The very thing I like," Cage notes, "is what turns a lot of people off." Some were especially offended when two men and two women sang different spiritual pieces at the same time. The New York Times critic gave a good notice to Cage—and a bad one to the audience. Out of this public humiliation came recognition of Cage's talent for the unfamiliar and untried. Avant-garde edged closer to the mainstream.

About that same time Cage began experiencing severe pain behind his left eye. "I was taking 12 aspirin a day," he notes. "Nothing helped. Finally doctors just said it was my age and smiled." Yoko Ono, a long-time friend and ex-Beatle John Lennon's wife, recommended her nutritionist who put Cage on a macrobiotic diet (no red meat, no dairy products, no coffee or tea). "I lived for two days in shock," Cage confides. "I couldn't imagine a kitchen without butter." As the pains subsided, he became a zealous convert. Today Cage makes dishes of brown rice and vegetables and carries a picnic basket of carrots, turnips and leeks when he travels. Cunningham, who has lived with Cage for eight years, has had to convert; "I eat whatever he cooks."

A few months ago, the two men moved to a loft on lower Sixth Avenue. (While apartment hunting, Cage consulted his astrologer and would not sign a contract until the stars approved.) On his walls hang original art by Johns, Rauschenberg and Louise Nevelson.

Cage and Cunningham live in amiable disharmony, as if set to the composer's music. "We don't talk," Cage says. "I communicate best with him by making another piece of music, and he communicates best with me by making another dance. Nothing we say could possibly be as interesting." Cunningham's rejoinder: "That's funny. I could swear we are always talking."

Cage complains that his companion is systematic to a fault: "I can tell you exactly what Merce will be doing at every moment of the day. He is a creature of habit, which is just the opposite of me." To this, Cunningham raises an eyebrow. "On the contrary," he says impishly, "I know what John will do in any situation. He is always unpredictable."

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