John Cage: New Music for a New Age

August 15, 1992

It would be easy to dismiss the American composer John Cage, who died this week at age 79, as an engaging eccentric who never quite managed to make "real" music. But that would be a mistake.

Mr. Cage's experiments with "prepared" pianos, electronic synthesizers and other unorthodox instruments have been enormously influential -- despite the reluctance of critics to accord him recognition as a "serious" composer. Ironically, it has fallen to popular culture to exploit many of the musical breakthroughs Mr. Cage pioneered.

Like many of his contemporaries born near the turn of the century, Mr. Cage believed that late 19th-century European Romantic music had reached an artistic dead end. He set out to create a musical language based on new harmonic and structural principles. For a time he studied under Arnold Schoenberg, inventor of the 12-tone system. Soon, however, Mr. Cage not only was exploring the outer limits of atonality but challenging traditional notions of the nature of music itself.

His experiments led him to compose pieces for flower pots, cow bells and frequency oscillators, which one critic likened to "the meaningless sounds made by children amusing themselves by banging on tin pans and other resonant kitchen utensils." Another work was scored for 12 radios operated by two performers, who worked the volume and tuning controls according to a precise notation but who never knew exactly how the piece would sound.

Such exercises struck many of Mr. Cage's "serious music" contemporaries as absurd. Yet even as the critics scoffed, Mr. Cage's idiom was quietly insinuating itself into American popular culture.

Honks and squeaks that so offended concertgoers turned up in TV and radio commercials. Sound tracks of movies like "E. T.," "Jaws" and "Silence of the Lambs" exuded haunting sounds fraught with the emotional weight of music but owing little to traditional melody or counterpoint. By the time rap music arrived in the late 1980s, techniques like electronic sampling and the use of such "non-traditional" instruments as synthesizers, tape loops and record turntables were widely accepted.

Performances by the rap group Public Enemy, for example, consist almost entirely of angry, rhythmic doggerel projected against a backdrop of what sounds like industrial machinery noises. They are perfect examples of the popular exploitation of musical principles pioneered by Mr. Cage.

Of course, many people think what Public Enemy does isn't really "music" at all. But then, the same thing was once said about John Cage, too.

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