Stop Making Sense

Caging Musical Innovation

Some lecturers just don't make sense. Often there are times when it seems that a professor tries to convey a message, but his words don't mean a thing.

John Cage, Harvard's Norton Lecturer this year, however, makes it a point to say nothing in his lectures. Relying on chance combinations determined by the I Ching principle, Cage arranges words and letters in a random fashion to create a speech that indicates, as he says, his "nonintention."

Better known, perhaps, for the non-intention in his music than for the randomness of his "poetic" speeches, Cage, 76, has worked for more than half a century to develop a method of music that frees him from the bonds of likes and dislikes, allowing him to seek the "purity of sound and thought."

The composer of such works as "4:33," in which no sound is heard except the environment where the piece is "played," and others works of "chance," in which he tosses coins to determine how the melody will progress, the native Californian has been seen as an innovator in today's occasionally stagnant art world, and one critic has labeled him the "apostle of indeterminacy in music."

Musical History


Cage has developed his theories of chance and randomness over a long spate of work with music. After leaving Pomona College as a sophomore, Cage went to Europe intending to become a writer. Instead, he studied modern music and art and returned to the United States in the mid-1930s to pursue two years of study with composer Arnold Shoenberg. It was after this stint in New York and with a new conviction that he had no ear for harmony that Cage began to usher in a new era of music.

"I left [Shoenberg] because it became clear that I had no ability with harmony," the composer says. "I could not hear harmony like other composers. And so we had come up against a wall--we could not progress any further. But I said I would butt my head against the wall."

Cage proceeded to butt his ideas against those of the traditional musical composers of the time.

"What was characteristic of modern music in the 1940s was that everyone was going in his own direction," says Cage. "There was a big split between the following of Shoenberg and that of Stravinsky. But the problem was that no one understood what anyone else was saying. It was understood that everyone would say something, but no one understood what that was. So I decided to give that up."

Cage says his first departure from traditional music was his focus on percussion instruments exclusively.

"I tried to work with the teponaxtli, an old South American--I forget if it is Mayan or Aztec--log with an 'H' cut out of it with two tongues in the middle," he says. "I trained groups of people to play those, and we had performances at the Museum of Modern Art--I think that with my work the repertoire of percussion instruments jumped from about three or four to about 100."

Cage says that in New York he met Dai Setz Suzuki, a teacher of Zen Buddhism and Oriental philosophy, who instructed him in the art of randomness.

"The purpose of music is to quiet and pacify the mind, to make it susceptible to divine influences," Cage says. "The Orient and the concept of chance gives us a mind free of likes and dislikes."

Cage says he then began to consult I Ching, a book of ancient Chinese wisdom, to come up with ideas for his music and lectures.

According to Cage, the I Ching book is the oldest of its kind on earth. He says the ancient sages used to toss sticks in 64 different ways to learn how to find answers to specific questions about life in the I Ching book.