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Music in the Late Twentieth Century

CHAPTER 2 Indeterminacy

Cage and the “New York School”

CHAPTER 2 Indeterminacy
Richard Taruskin

Richard Taruskin


The American counterpart to the postwar avant-garde in Europe was a group of composers and performers gathered around the charismatic figure of John Cage (1912–92). Their methods differed so radically from those of the Europeans as to hide their basic affinities from many contemporary observers. What they shared, however, went much deeper than their differences, for both groups sought “automatism,” the resolute elimination of the artist's ego or personality from the artistic product. It was a traditional modernist aim (compare Josè Ortega y Gasset's ideal of “dehumanization”, enunciated in a celebrated essay of 1925), pushed to a hitherto unimaginable extremity.

The Americans went about the task with such stunning directness as to put themselves almost wholly outside what anyone could possibly think of as the musical mainstream. Cage in particular, an inveterate maverick, was long thought of as a joker—or at least a “dadaist”—on the margins of the legitimate musical world. The postwar existentialist mood, however, and especially the European “zero hour,” brought the mainstream round to him, and he became for a while perhaps the most influential musician in the world.

Like Henry Cowell, his early mentor, Cage was born and grew up in California, far from the power centers of the Eurocentric mainstream. Almost his entire formal music education consisted of childhood piano lessons. He never attended a conservatory, and never acquired the basic skills in ear training and sight singing normally thought necessary for creative work in music. He audited some of Schoenberg's theory courses at UCLA and the University of Southern California beginning in the summer of 1935, and thereafter called himself a Schoenberg pupil,1 but as a composer (except for some sporadic private lessons with Adolph Weiss, a genuine Schoenberg pupil who was the first American to use the twelve-tone system) he was self-taught—a “primitive.” “The whole pitch aspect of music eludes me,”2 he once cheerfully told an interviewer, no doubt exaggerating for effect. But it could be fairly said that his whole career was devoted to countering the supremacy of traditional pitch organization—harmony, counterpoint, and all the rest—as the basis for making music. A few unpromising apprentice works aside, his earliest original compositions, beginning with a Quartet composed in 1935, were for percussion ensembles that included pots and pans and other household items (“Living Room Music,” as he actually titled one piece) in addition to more conventional percussion instruments.

In composing them, Cage was putting into practice a theory that he enunciated, in an astonishingly developed form, in a lecture called “The Future of Music: Credo,” first delivered in Seattle in 1940, under the auspices of Bonnie Bird, a dancer who had hired him to accompany her classes, when he was a twenty-eight-year-old unknown. “The present methods of writing music, principally those which employ harmony and its reference to particular steps in the field of sound, will be inadequate for the composer, who will be faced with the entire field of sound.”3 Where Schoenberg had “emancipated the dissonance,” in other words, Cage now proposed to complete the job and emancipate noise. This was the basis for his interest in percussion music.

But the implications went much further. Having envisioned a music that might include, as he put it, “a quartet for explosive motor, wind, heartbeat, and landslide,” and anticipating objections from those for whom “the word ‘music’ is sacred and reserved for eighteenth- and nineteenth-century instruments,” Cage suggested that the word be abolished for new creation and replaced with “a more meaningful term: organized sound.” From this emerged an even more radical thought:

The composer (organizer of sound) will be faced not only with the entire field of sound but also with the entire field of time. The “frame” or fraction of a second, following established film technique, will probably be the basic unit in the measurement of time. No rhythm will be beyond the composer's reach.4

So the music of the future, as Cage envisioned it, would not merely replace one type of sound with another on its sounding surface, but would entail an entirely new ordering of the musical elements, with duration rather than pitch as the fundamental organizing principle. Duration, Cage argued, was the fundamental musical element, since all sounds—and silence, too—had it in common. And therefore, he could aver, he was the only contemporary musician who was dealing newly with music on its root (i.e., “radical”) level. Accordingly, most of Cage's early percussion pieces, like most of the music he would write forever after, were based on abstract durational schemes—“empty containers,” he called them, to be filled with sounds—that replaced the abstract harmonic schemes of the classical tradition.

Imaginary Landscape No. 1 (Ex. 2-1), composed in 1939, was the first piece in which Cage filled an empty container with sounds. The container consisted of four sections each comprising fifteen (3 × 5) measures, separated by interludes that grow progressively in length from one to three measures, and followed by a four-measure coda to complete the growth progression. (Ex. 2-1 shows the first two sections and the first two interludes.) The sounds were furnished by a quartet consisting of a muted piano, a suspended cymbal, and two variable-speed turntables on which single-frequency radio test records were played at various steady speeds and also sliding between speeds in siren-like glissandos. The title came by its surrealist ring honestly; Cage had been commissioned to provide music to accompany a performance of Cocteau's Les mariés de la tour Eiffel, the very skit for which the composers of Les Six had a written a ballet in 1921. For Cage, the idea of the “imaginary landscape” was a striking spatial analogy for his preplanned temporal schemes; he used it as a title several times.

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ex. 2-1 John Cage, Imaginary Landscape No. 1, beginning

In later percussion compositions, Cage incorporated instruments or sonorities associated with various kinds of Asian and Caribbean repertoires, like the Indonesian gamelan, an orchestra of metallic percussion (compare Cage's two Constructions in Metal, composed in 1939 and 1940), or Afro-Cuban pop music, in which elements of West-African drumming were combined with the rhythms of syncopated Latin-American ballroom dances. An inventory of percussion instruments in Cage's collection, drawn up in 1940when he formed a regular touring ensemble to perform his own percussion music and that of other composers, included a large assortment of Afro-Cuban instruments (bongos, quijadas or rattles, güiro or scraped gourd, marimbula, maracas, claves, etc.).5

Cage's performances with his ten-piece percussion ensemble (whose members included his wife Xenia and Merce Cunningham, later a prominent modern dancer) culminated in a concert at the New York Museum of Modern Art on 7 February 1943. It was widely written up in the press, including a picture spread in Life magazine, and won him his first fame. The program on that occasion, which featured Cage's Constructions alongside works by the Cuban composer Amadeo Roldán (1900–39), was covered mainly for its exotic curiosity value. The musicians dressed formally and behaved with punctilious decorum. But it is already evident that, although his manner was polite and friendly, Cage had anticipated the intransigent renunciations of the postwar avant-garde, turning his back on virtually the whole European art-musical tradition while claiming a place within it.

Even before that concert, Cage had taken a step that would bring him additional notoriety, and see him creatively through the 1940s. One of Bonnie Bird's pupils, an African-American dancer named Syvilla Fort, had worked up a neoprimitivist dance solo called Bacchanale for her graduation recital in 1940 and asked Cage to provide an accompaniment for it. The performance space was too small to accommodate a percussion ensemble, so (recalling Cowell's experiments in extended piano technique) Cage ingeniously turned an ordinary piano into a one-man percussion band by inserting metal screws, pencil erasers and other homely devices between the piano strings to deaden the pitch or otherwise alter the timbre. He called his invention the “prepared piano”; skeptics called it the “well-tampered clavier.”

A glance at the score (Ex. 2-2) is enough to verify that Cage's neoprimitivism was of the conventional, ostinato-driven sort established for all time (or so it seemed) by Stravinsky's Rite of Spring What cannot be gleaned at all from the score is any idea of what the piece sounds like in terms of pitch or timbre, since the sounds of a prepared piano no longer have any predictable relationship to the keys that activate the strings. In this sense a prepared piano score is like an old “tablature” for lute or keyboard, of a kind widely used in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It prescribes the player's actions directly, the resulting sounds only indirectly (based on the tuning of the lute or, in Cage's case, the specifications for piano-preparation that come with the sheet music).

Between 1940 and 1954 Cage produced some two dozen works for his new percussive medium. They constitute a major body of twentieth-century keyboard music. At first they were mainly orgiastic, rather patronizingly neo-Africanist dance pieces like the original Bacchanale—for example, Primitive or Totem Ancestor (both 1942)—but around 1944 Cage began using the medium to write pieces meant not for dance accompaniment but for “pure” concert use. The summit of his achievement in the medium was an hour-long set of Sonatas and Interludes (1946–48), in which the sonatas were of the Scarlattian type (single binary-form movements, with repeats) and the interludes consisted, very often, of very sparsely filled time-containers. It was Cage's single concession to then-fashionable neoclassicism.

In terms of its significance within his career, however, the most important of Cage's prepared-piano compositions was a six-movement suite called The Perilous Night (1944), which carried, and sought to convey, a strong emotional charge. Cage always referred to it as his “autobiographical”6 piece, and his biographer David Revill has convincingly associated it with the traumas associated with Cage's sexual reorientation, culminating (1945) in divorce from his wife and the beginning of a monogamous homosexual partnership with Merce Cunningham that lasted to the end of his life.

It may be difficult in more tolerant times to recall the stigma once associated with homosexual liaisons, and the emotional trials that reordering one's life on less than socially respectable terms then entailed. At any rate, The Perilous Night was Cage's attempt to express, and thereby relieve, the anxieties he was experiencing in his private life. One can understand his distress, then, when a frivolous critic, who could not get over the shock of the novel prepared-piano timbres, dismissed this most intimately confessional of all Cage's works with the remark that it sounded like “a woodpecker in a church belfry.”7 The wounded composer talked about this experience for the rest of his life. Thenceforth, he once told an interviewer, “I could not accept the academic idea that the purpose of music was communication.”8 Another time, even more strongly, he said that after the Perilous Night fiasco, “I determined to give up composition unless I could find a better reason for doing it than communication.” One might say that the bruise that Cage received from an uncaring philistine equipped him with the resentment and aggression that a truly avant-garde artist needs.

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ex. 2-2 John Cage, Bacchanale, “piano preparation” chart and first page of musical notation


(1) On Cage's claim to have studied composition with Schoenberg, see Michael Hicks, “John Cage's Studies with Schoenberg,” American Music VIII (1990): 125–40.

(2) Alan Gillmor, “Interview with John Cage (1973),” quoted in David Revill, The Roaring Silence. John Cage: A Life (New York: Arcade Publishing, 1992), p. 30.

(3) John Cage, “The Future of Music: Credo,” in Silence: Lectures and Writings by John Cage (Cambridge: The M.I.T. Press, 1966), p. 4.

(4) Ibid. p. 5.

(5) “List of Percussion Instruments Owned by John Cage” (2 July 1940), now at the John Cage Archive, Northwestern University Music Library; handout accompanying Tamara Levitz, “The Africanist Presence in John Cage's Bacchanale,” University of California at Berkeley musicology colloquium, 24 March 2000.

(6) See Revill, The Roaring Silence, p. 84.

(7) Ibid. p. 88.

(8) Ibid. p. 89.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 2 Indeterminacy." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 23 Feb. 2024. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-chapter-002.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 2 Indeterminacy. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 23 Feb. 2024, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-chapter-002.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 2 Indeterminacy." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 23 Feb. 2024, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-chapter-002.xml