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  John Cage: Genius or did he just collect the wrong type of mushrooms  James McFadyen at 11:07 on 24 August 2007

One cannot speak of 20th century music and dismiss John Cage. Love him or not, his ideas on music still reverberate strongly today.

He is largely misunderstood by many but what does Cage's music really stand for? You can't take his music at face value; it's all metaphoric and symbolisim and probably for this reason alone his music is only appreciated by academics and the most die-hard of modernist fans.

The main issue with Cage is he wasn't just a composer. He was a poet, an artist, a philosopher and quite ironically, a collector of mushrooms. If he wasn't the famous composer, he may have been known as the local nutter. It is the line between genius and insanity. His very name seems to present this mystical orb of greatness, almost in a way that we are brainwashed to into the genius of Cage.

But is the music of Cage actually music. This is a grey area. What is "music" to one is noise to another. Take 4'33 for example, a much debated piece of music which really sorts people out into two camps; The academics and the Listeners.

Academics, whether teaching at university or having the mindset of an academic look at music as if it were a science. They are strategic and look into music in a very deep way to understand its inner workings, which I'll call Quantum Anaylsis.

That's all fine and well and it's all very big-brained of those people but when we get to the brass tacks of the situation, can an everyday people appreciate it? NO. To say otherwise is ubsurd in the extreme and adds evidence that some acadamics need to get out of the books and into the real world of interacting with normal-brained human beings.

On the whole, the average joe can't relate to music which requires the super-brain to be switched on, they (we) don't care what the piece stands for metaphorically. Don't get this confused with the story of a piece. A piece of music can and arguably should have a story

I guess you can see where I lean. I'm not a Cage fan and I never will, to me it is nothing more than modern art, much in the same way that a crumpled bit of paper would win some prestigious art prize because that bit of paper represented womans sexual desires or climate change.

To some, art of this sort is euphoric, to me it's the world gone pear-shaped.

However the Cage is era is well and truly dead, his ideas while philosophical and good-natured just lay outside the boundaries of the musical language. To put it acurately he was a philosopher in composers clothing. NOT the other way around as is often thought.

His name and music might live on but the concept and ideoligies were lightweight, it was all very intellectual but lacked depth of expression on the large scale; Elements of aletoric music are used today, particularly in Jazz and it is this that perhaps we must thank Cage. Jazz takes the best elements of the Cage ideas and cuts out all the upper-class tosh of philosophy and art of the really obscure.

So what do you guys think? Don't be afraid to air your views. John Cage was just an everyday soul like the rest of us, you don't have to like his music just because it is academically acceptable to do so. It is MUSICALLY acceptable to disagree with Cage on many aspects and in fact in my opinion this must be encouraged. His music had a fundemental flaw that no composer should ever have: He failed to relate to the everyday person. He may have felt that they could relate to it but he dressed his philosophical ideas in a such an obsure way that he was never going to win anybody over apart from the academics and the die-hard fans of moderism/aletoric music.

So, genius or did he just get high on those mushroom fumes! ;)

  Re: John Cage: Genius or did he just collect the wrong type of mushrooms  piargno at 03:11 on 25 August 2007

I'm reserving myself.

Cage is a genius, and I think he has too much music for anyone to really judge him.

But quasi off the record, when I first tripped, I wondered the same thing about Cage, so I asked Stephen Drury (who was a friend of Cage's), and Stephen said no. Cage didn't do that. But he loved his booze.


  Re: John Cage: Genius or did he just collect the wrong type of mushrooms  atticmusic at 08:49 on 28 August 2007

I believe Cage was an inventor, philosopher and visionary though I have to confess I am not really a fan of his music either. I do have a collection of his works on CD and as much as some of his music fascinates I could not say that I have 'enjoyed' any of his works.

Ultimately, will his work stand the test of time? I know that his work Organ˛/ASLSP is in progress and supposed to last until 2640 (one way to have your music heard after you have gone) but will people give up on it? (Actually, what really is the point of a work that can never be heard complete by any one individual?) Will there be a audience for his music when all the die-hard modernists and academics have gone? Cage has his place in the development of 20th century music and music experimentation but is he now in fact, out of date?

I think that Cage is hard to classify - an academic may regard him as a genius, the everyday person who listens to music for enjoyment my regard him as mad or simply dismiss him without further thought.

BTW - I was under the impression that Cage was fond of cooking - mushrooms can all look the same after several glasses of wine.

  Re: John Cage: Genius or did he just collect the wrong type of mushrooms  red5 at 19:47 on 30 August 2007

Listen to Roratorio, very enjoyable!

  Re: John Cage: Genius or did he just collect the wrong type of mushrooms  piargno at 21:14 on 30 August 2007

Roratorio kiks major tail! As well as the "Constructions", the "Sonatas and Interludes" for prepared piano (Takehashi plays them the best), "In the Name of the Holocaust", "Perilous Night", a realization of "Fontanamix" by Max Neuhaus, and that electronic piece with him reciting the cute stories...

Dangit! I couldn't restrain myself!

  Re: John Cage: Genius or did he just collect the wrong type of mushrooms  scott_good at 02:33 on 31 August 2007

I’ll start with an anecdote involving Cage's music. Just one example of many I have where average Joe's had incredible life affecting experiences with modern art:

Last year, percussionist D’Arcy Gray, pianist Michael Hynes and myself performed a concert of the music of John Cage, Morton Feldman, Christian Wolfe, and Earl Brown. The concert lasted over 3 hours. We performed in a small town for people who had never heard of them, their music, or their artistic practice. A blue collar town in the mountains – population 1000 or so.

Not one person left during the concert.

In fact, during the 2 intermissions, the audience grew as people rushed/called home to try and convince others to leave their American Idol back on the couch to witness the spectacle (it really was – we went to town – simultaneous works, up and around the audience, as loud and soft as possible, poems being read, interrupting each others performances, screaming and whispering, some obscenities, some complete gibberish, some moments of real virtuosity and other moments where if you walked in, you might guess we had never played our instruments before, and of course, some silence (no, we didn't do 4,33...).

It was a focused, yet interactive audience - they knew (new???) when it was funny, and laughed, they new when it was serious, and were quiet and contemplative - in other words, they got "it".

There was a long and hearty ovation at the end of the show.

Many people thanked us for introducing them to this unknown art form. One man said it lowered his blood pressure. After, at the bar, sipping on pints (of course, I am a trombone player, so beer, and a composer, so, vodka and/or wine and/or absinth and/or…a long night) and munching poutine (it was in Quebec, so, when in Quebec…), we had delightfully heated conversations about the meaning of art, and music – we exchanged ideas in engaging conversations, and of course, lots of laughs. It was a beautiful night.

James, I have heard this kind of rambling so many times. Sorry man, nothing new. Why is it that so many conservative musicians think they know what the "everyday person" is like, and what music they will, or more importantly, will not enjoy or understand? hummmm...could it be a confusion between average, and lowest common denominator. It is my belief they are talking about the lowest common denominator…let me try and explain using food taste as a metaphor: It’s a bit like saying salt, sugar, and fat are all we need for good tasting food ‘cause that’s what the average person wants. True, these are all things that the body enjoys in a “natural” way for most (like heart-ache melodies and 4/4 boom-boom time), and this is the lowest common denominator of taste – but eating foods saturated with these ingredients all the time leads to, well, first brain death (no nutrition to feed the mind) and then actual death (heart stops…). I hope I don’t have to spell out the metaphor further.

I would also say that the time of Cage's influence is just beginning. Many people I meet are tired of the same old same old, and relish new experiences. His musical ideas/compositions are unique, directly expressive, and totally different in technique than the other "modernist experiments". Cage’s approach to finding art without ego is to say the least, refreshing, to say the most, he is possibly the first to truly discover an artistic link between eastern philosophy and western art practice.

And ya, if you don't get off on the "constructions" or “sonatas and interludes”, you might want to check in with the doctor and make sure the ticker is still ticking – it might not be too late…

A question to all: The word “academic” is bandied about here on this list often, implying there are academics and non-academics. In my society, most people go to school for many years of their life, and study stuff like Shakespeare, WWII, and physics. Don’t most do that in England as well? (this is meant to be a joke…ha ha) But seriously, who is this academic collective of whom you speak? Do you mean people employed in academia? Are these the only people who can have academic thought or reasoning? Aren’t many the best books, and the best scientific unveilings etc etc made by people who don’t work in Universities?


(btw, cage was incredibly prolific, a legendary worker, and lived quite a healthy lifestyle. I can't comment on the genius part, it's not a word that I like to use, but, can certainly attest that he was a diligent worker. At minimum, he deserves respect for his vast output, not just 4,33…. ohhhhh god, can you all please stop using this work as if it is the only thing the guy ever did, huh, please?????)

  Re: John Cage: Genius or did he just collect the wrong type of mushrooms  red5 at 15:41 on 31 August 2007

Piargno, are you agreeing with me about Roratorio? I think it's great, is 'it kicks major tail' an American way of saying its good? Please translate....!!

  Re: John Cage: Genius or did he just collect the wrong type of mushrooms  piargno at 19:20 on 31 August 2007

Yes! I LOVE RORATORIO!!! Really the phrase is kickass... but I wanted to be "academic" about it.

Scott - I love what you said, especially about 4'33" and people ignoring his VAST output.

To expound more on the academic thing - isn't being academic a good thing? I dunno', but in my opinion, the opposite of being an academic is being an intuitive, which implies a complete autodidacticism without the desire for preserving and carrying on a tradition. Now those that use academic in the sense of non-feeling are just ignorant to the accused's life. Recently my friend called Stockhausen's works academic. Honestly, I feel a lot of reactionary elements in Stockhausen's works, and while he does use plenty of processes, his ideas and choices within the processes are definitely directly related to his Bukowski-esque childhood and of course WWII. Academic? Lets stop being ignorant and judgemental, and put notes and other symbols on pieces of paper!!! (Or whatever...)

  Re: John Cage: Genius or did he just collect the wrong type of mushrooms  atticmusic at 22:41 on 31 August 2007

I don't think 'academic' is being used here to describe 'non-feeling'. I certainly did not intend, with my comments that is, to give that impression at all. I do feel that people who have been taught and continue to study music analysis and have a confident grasp of the developments of 20th century music (thus are able to put the work of Cage and others into context) will have an advantage over those who have not had that type of education but enjoy listening to music.
I confess I have only recently come to listen to Cage and to read his history. At present I find his music a challenge which I accept, is due to my ignorance of his work. I will attempt a bit of self-learning and listen to Roratorio and see if it does indeed, live up to the "kickass" hype.

  Re: John Cage: Genius or did he just collect the wrong type of mushrooms  scott_good at 16:10 on 01 September 2007

"I do feel that people who have been taught and continue to study music analysis and have a confident grasp of the developments of 20th century music (thus are able to put the work of Cage and others into context) will have an advantage over those who have not had that type of education but enjoy listening to music."

A bit of a chicken and egg issue.

I mean, if someone were to pursue developments of 20th century music, would it not be true that they wold have a natural inclination to enjoy the music?

Does enjoyment come from study, or is the study a result of already having that enjoyment?

I would like to add (surprise surprise), that I feel Cage's music has appeal that transcends normal musical boundaries. He uses non musical influences and techniques in most of his compositional process. Thus, I think his music is fair game for the musical and the non musical to enjoy or dislike. I think James' sentiments are widely felt by many musicians and academia, for his work challenges a traditional musicians authority and expertise. In fact, most of the academia that I have dealt with don't care much at all for his work.

Also, his compositions are based so strongly around performer interpretation that it can only be truly viewed as collaborative composition. Perhaps it is David Tudor who is liked or disliked. Maybe for those who haven't enjoyed listening to recordings, their minds may be changed if they were to witness a virtuoso work of his live with a sincere and intense performance. Much of the music is physical - it's fun to watch. It is important to know that he was deeply rooted in the tradition of dance music, in particular with his partner Merce Cunningham who was a modern dance artists.

And atticmusic, listen to constructions as well. 3 is my fav cause I like the rawk!


  Re: John Cage: Genius or did he just collect the wrong type of mushrooms  atticmusic at 22:21 on 01 September 2007

Scott, I will get hold of a copy, thanks for the suggestion.

I have many thoughts and questions about Cage and others like him. I found this topic of great interest and I know it will take time and effort to explore the work of Cage and others (actually I am looking at a work by Earle Brown at present).

Scott, your concert last year sounded a great night - if I wasn't several thousand miles away I would loved to have come to hear it.
You say after the event 'Many people thanked us for introducing them to this unknown art form' - do you think that in general, people have any idea who John Cage was, or indeed the impact of the Cage circle on the developments in music? Do you think that we have to step back to re-educate people in the music of the mid-twentieth century (an 'unknown art form' in 2006) in order to then move forward again? Is it necessary for people to have an understanding of post-war musical development to enjoy the variety and abundance of new music today? Lots of questions I know.
People listen to music because they enjoy it and what they don't like they ignore. We enjoy writing, performing and listening and even nattering on about what we think of composers and their work - lots depends on personal preference. Enjoyment is what it is all about.

Just a thought, the simple fact that we are discussing Cage in this way does say quite a bit about the man whether we consider him a genius or not.
Thanks again for the suggested listening.

  Re: John Cage: Genius or did he just collect the wrong type of mushrooms  Tacitus X at 11:52 on 16 May 2011

It seems to me well-said that Cage was more of an academic than a musician. Many of his works are essentially academic debating positions rather than music. Cage's theories of randomness and divorcing composition from human cognition are wrong because random sounds are no more music than random marks are writing. One might as well propose a meatball without the meat.

That being said, certain of his pieces are clearly quite musical, but just as clearly, those pieces succeed to the extent they observe conventions such as meter, equal division of note value, recurring patterns, etc.

In other words, his works are musical to the extent they don't follow his stated theories, so his philosophy and musical compositions are self-refuting.