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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 2 Indeterminacy
Richard Taruskin

It also says a lot about Romanticism. Cage's activity, more than that of any other individual, reveals the latent continuity between the Romantic impulse and the impulses that drove modernism, even (or especially) its most intransigent, avant-garde wing. His unsettling presence on the scene replayed the esthetic battles of the nineteenth century, splitting the avant-garde all over again into what the German poet Friedrich Schiller had called “naive and sentimental poets” in a famous essay of 1795. Sentimental poets were the kind “whose soul suffers no impression without at once turning to contemplate its own play.”18 Such artists were egoists, forever proclaiming their purposes and analyzing their methods, even when consciously directing their purposes and methods toward the elimination of ego. Hence the need for magazines like Die Reihe, the organ of the “sentimental” Darmstadt school, full of scientific or pseudoscientific explanations, formal justifications and, above all, rationalizations.

Naive poets (in Schiller's words) celebrated “the object itself,” not “what the reflective understanding of the poet has made.” Or as Cage put it, “the division is between understanding and experiencing, and many people think that art has to do with understanding, but it doesn't.”19 To relinquish rational reflection, Schiller said, leads to “tranquillity, purity and joy.” Or as Cage put it, “the highest purpose is to have no purpose at all. This puts one in accord with nature in her manner of operation.”20 In saying this Cage thought that he was expressing the main principle of Zen, even though the aphorism itself was a paraphrase of one he had come across in the writings of the Indian art scholar Ananda Coomaraswamy (1877–1947). But appropriating and paraphrasing “oriental” philosophy was nothing new. Cage was doing exactly what Arthur Schopenhauer, the German Romantic writer who had exerted such a decisive influence on Wagner a hundred years before, had done; Schopenhauer, too, had claimed that he was bringing the wisdom of Hinduism and Buddhism to the West, when in fact he was pioneering a new Romantic esthetic.

Cage's principle of “purposeful purposelessness,” whatever its remote links to Hinduism or Buddhism, was the direct descendent (or, to put it musically, an inversion) of the “purposeless purposefulness” (Zweckmässigkeit ohne Zweck21) by which Immanuel Kant had defined the brand-new Western concept of “the esthetic” in his Critique of Judgement, published in 1790. Like Cage, Kant was after purity. The esthetic, in Kant's definition, was a quality of beauty that wholly transcended utility. Esthetic objects existed—that is, were made—entirely for their own sake, requiring “disinterestedness” and zealous application on the part of the maker, and a corresponding act of disinterested, self-forgetting contemplation on the part of the beholder. As we have known, so to speak, for two hundred years, autonomous works of art occupied a special hallowed sphere, for which special places were set aside (museums and concert halls, “temples of art”), and where special modes of reverent behavior were observed, or, when necessary, imposed.

As we have also long known, music, inherently abstract to some degree owing to its lack of an obvious natural model, quickly became the Romantic art of choice, the most sacred of the autonomous arts. Not only for that reason, but also because it was a performing art in which a potentially meddlesome middleman stood between the maker and the beholder, “classical” music developed the most ritualized and the most hierarchical social practices. Like many artists, especially in liberal and democratic America, Cage consciously opposed this notoriously oppressive social practice: “The composer,” he told an interviewer, “was the genius, the conductor ordered everyone around and the performers were slaves.”22 (And the listener? An innocent bystander.) As we shall see, though, his work went on upholding it in spite of himself.

The composer's status was enhanced, and the performer's demeaned, precisely because the new romantic concept of the autonomous artwork sharply differentiated their roles and assigned them vastly unequal value. The composer created the potentially immortal esthetic object. The performer was just an ephemeral mediator. Musical works that were too closely allied with egoistical performance values (virtuoso concertos, for example), or that too obviously catered to the needs or the whims of an audience, or even that too grossly represented the personality of the composer, were regarded as sullied because they had, in Kant's terms, a Zweck, a utilitarian purpose that compromised their autonomy. The only truly artistic purpose was that of transcending utilitarian purpose.

The art that most fully met this prescription, as we have long known, was “absolute music.” It fell to Cage to magnify and purify the notion of absolute music beyond anything the romantics had foreseen. In his compositions of the 1950s, romantic art reached the most astounding, self-subverting purism of its whole career. In this way, Cage's “Zen” period paradoxically represented a long-heralded, if little recognized, pinnacle of Western art. In so doing, it reexposed with unprecedented boldness the problematic and self-contradictory aspects of the idea of absolute music, the West's most cherished esthetic tenet.

Cage reopened all the old questions: How does an art form that is inherently temporal achieve transcendent objectification? What is the actual ontological status (i.e., the status as “object”) of a musical work? How does “the work” as such (or as an idea) relate to its performances? To its written score? The Polish philosopher Roman Ingarden once teasingly summed up all of these pesky ontological questions when he asked, “Where is Chopin's B-minor Sonata?”23 Cage provided the most cogent, and therefore the most unsettling, answers.

We have seen that the essential structure, the “workhood,” of a formalistic composition like Boulez's Structures can have rather little to do with its aural experience. Cage's highly determined “containers” were even more arcane, because they had even less to do with the often wholly indeterminate sounds that now filled them. Cage was fully aware of these problems, and engaged with them both playfully and in deadly earnest in his “Lecture on Nothing” of 1959, which begins with a sort of Zen koan that on repetition becomes a mantra: “I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry.”

The Lecture is not really a lecture, though; it is a typical Cage composition consisting of a predetermined time-container. The filling in this case consists of familiar words in grammatical sentences that chiefly concern the filling process itself. Here is an excerpt, which the reader is invited to recite aloud, pausing in accordance with the spatial layout:

Here we are now  at the beginning of the

eleventh unit of the fourth large part  of this talk.

More and more  I have the feeling

     that we are getting

nowhere.  Slowly  ,  as the talk goes on

,   we are getting  nowhere

    and that is a pleasure

.  It is not irritating to be where one is

.  It is only irritating

to think that one likes  to be somewhere else.

    Here we are now

,  a little bit after the beginning

of the eleventh unit  of the

fourth large part  of this talk.

 More and more  we have the feeling

 that I am getting   nowhere

 Slowly  ,

as the talk goes on ,  slowly

,  we have the feeling

  we are getting nowhere


     That is a pleasure

  which will continue  .

  If we are irritated  ,

  it is not a pleasure  .

Nothing is not  a  pleasure

if one is irritated  ,  but suddenly

,  it is a pleasure  ,

and then more and more  it is not irritating

(and then more and more  and slowly  ).

Originally ,  we were nowhere  ;

If anybody is sleepy , let him go to sleep

.  Here we are now at the beginning of the

thirteenth unit  of the fourth large part

of this talk.  More and more

I have the feeling  that we are getting


Cage's Imaginary Landscape No. 3 (1942) is scored, in the manner of its time, for several audio-frequency oscillators, two variable-speed turntables, an electric buzzer, and several other pieces of audio equipment. Nine years later, after his encounter with Zen and the I Ching, Cage returned to the surrealistic genre he had invented and found a way, by tossing his coins, to compose a fully determined score that would produce a completely indeterminate, hence completely autonomous performance.

The work that accomplished this breakthrough was Imaginary Landscape No. 4 (1951), scored for twenty-four players playing twelve radios under the direction of a conductor. Two players are assigned to each radio: one controls the volume knob, the other the tuner. The score, notated in fairly conventional notation that looks quite intricately contrapuntal, directs that the players turn the knobs at specified times to specified frequencies (where there may or may not be a broadcast signal) and amplitudes (many much softer than comfortable listening volume).

The conductor executes all kinds of tempo changes that relate only to the “work” as notated, not to the aural experience, which depends on entirely unpredictable and uncontrolled factors. His elaborately choreographed actions, often eliciting no discernable result, pointedly signal the abstractness and the autonomy of the work-concept. The first performance, which took place late at night when there was very little on the air, was an apparent fiasco, but its very sparseness illustrated all the more forcefully how unstable the ontological relationship between the prescribed work (as an ideal object) and the actual physical performance could be.

Any whiff of spoof—there is always nervous laughter at performances—is definitely an illusion. When Virgil Thomson told Cage he didn't think a piece like that ought to be performed before a paying audience, Cage took extreme umbrage and it caused a permanent rift in their relationship.24 Perhaps needless to say, the piece has never been recorded. What would be the point?

Strangely enough, however, the celebrated 4′33″ (1952), Cage's most extreme experiment in indeterminacy, has been recorded several times, icon that it has become. Its subtitle is “Tacet for any instrument or instruments,” and Cage (who according to his biographer always spoke of it “reverentially”25) called it his “silent piece.” But that is a misnomer. It is, rather, a piece for a silent performer or performers who enter a performance space, signal the beginnings and the ends of three movements whose timings and internal “structural” subdivisions have been predetermined by chance operations, but make no intentional sound. (Usually the performer is a pianist and the signals are given by most carefully and noiselessly closing and raising the keyboard lid.) The piece consists of whatever sounds occur within a listener's earshot during these articulated spans.

This might seem on the face of it the very antithesis of an autonomous work of art, since the sounds are wholly contingent, outside the composer's control. (Cage often maintained that his aim in composing the piece was to erase the boundary between art and life.) But sounds are not the only thing that a composer controls, and sounds are not the only thing that constitutes a musical work. Under the social regimen of modern concert life, the composer controls not just sounds but people, and a work is defined not just by its contents but also by the behavior that it elicits from an audience. As the philosopher Lydia Goehr has observed,

It is because of Cage's specifications that people gather together, usually in a concert hall, to listen to the sounds of the hall for the allotted time period. In ironic gesture, it is Cage who specifies that a pianist should sit at a piano to go through the motions of performance. The performer is applauded and the composer granted recognition for the “work.” Whatever changes have come about in our material understanding of musical sound, the formal constraints of the work-concept have ironically been maintained.26

And she comments tactfully, in the form of a question, “Did Cage come to the compositional decisions that he did out of recognition that people will only listen to sounds around them if they are forced to do so under traditional, formal constraints?”

It is a profound political point. A work that is touted as a liberation from esthetics in fact brings an alert philosopher to a fuller awareness of all the constraints that the category of “the esthetic” imposes. Sounds that were noise on one side of an arbitrary framing gesture are suddenly music, a “work of art,” on the other side. The esthetic comes into being by sheer fiat, at the drop of a piano lid. The audience is invited—no, commanded—to listen to ambient or natural sounds with the same attitude of reverent contemplation they would assume if they were listening to Beethoven's Ninth.

That is an attitude that is born not of nature, but of Beethoven. By the act of triggering it, art is not brought down to earth in the least. On the contrary, “life” is brought up for the duration into the transcendent. 4′33″ is thus the ultimate esthetic aggrandizement. Like any other musical “work,” it has a published, copyrighted score. The space on its pages, measured from left to right, corresponds to the elapsing time. Most of the pages have vertical lines drawn on them, denoting the chance-calculated time articulations on which the duration of the piece depends. One of the pages, bypassed by these markers, remains blank. If copyrighting a blank page is not an act of esthetic grandiosity, what is?

So Cage's radical conceptions were as much intensifications of traditional practices, including traditional power relations, as departures from them. And they kept up a tradition of art-as-philosophy that was wholly a phase of the Western romantic tradition. The most obvious predecessor to 4′33″ was a work of visual rather than musical art: Fountain (1917) by the painter Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968), who later became a close friend and mentor to Cage. Asked to submit a work for a jury-free exhibition organized by an avant-garde artists’ society of which he was a prominent member, Duchamp purchased a commercially manufactured porcelain urinal, signed it “R. Mutt,” and sent it in. On its rejection he noisily resigned from the society, turning his “readymade” or found object into a much-exhibited cause célèbre, paradoxically one of the most famous artworks of the early twentieth century (Fig. 2-3).

Ne Plus Ultra (Going as Far as You can Go)

fig. 2-3 Marcel Duchamp, Fountain (1917); replica, 1964.

The immediate effect of Duchamp's Fountain was similar to that of Cage's early chance pieces: it exposed the residual or “invisible” restrictions that continued to operate behind a self-advertised facade of liberation, forcing even the most extreme modernists to acknowledge their sentimental ties to the past or stand convicted of hypocrisy. Once exhibited, however, the work acquired a new meaning: a test, or limit-case, to define the nature of art not just according to the artist's intent but according to the mode of its reception.

If people walked by his signed urinal and, rather than using it as its manufacturer intended, looked at it the way they looked at the more conventional art works in the gallery, then their act of “disinterested” contemplation defined it as—or, more strongly, transformed it into—a work of art. Even if, as was sometimes claimed, it was Duchamp's signature (the signature of a recognized “genius”) that turned a piece of plumbing into art, the act required the public's collusion. They were free to reject his gesture, but they did not. Art is defined, as in the case of 4′33″, by the behavior that it induces. All that it takes to make art these days, cynics muttered (and philosophers admitted), was a frame.

But there was nothing as inherently provocative in 4′33″ as the selection of something normally fouled by body waste for transformation into art. On the contrary, Cage's conception of the piece (and by now the reaction of most audiences as well) was entirely one of reverence—the reverence that was due not only to sacralized nature, but also to sacralized art in the Beethovenian tradition. In keeping with that tradition, it was left to a musician to achieve the ultimate transcendence of life into art. For music did not necessarily carry automatic “life” associations the way a urinal (or any other physical object) did.

Especially in the age of recordings, music had no necessary physical presence at all. (Was it a coincidence that the length of Cage's piece was exactly that of a 12-inch 78 RPM “side”?) Even if one exhibited an empty frame in a museum gallery, there would be a physical object, and a “normal” utilitarian association, to limit the viewer's reaction. Paintings and frames were not only art objects but life objects as well. 4′33″ was literally a blank, a void, on which anyone could inscribe anything. To an extent unavailable to any other art medium, Cage's silent performance was divorced from surrounding “life,” which normally contains lots of music. But all of that music was specifically excluded by the “silence.”


(18) Friedrich von Schiller, Naïve and Sentimental Poetry; and, On the Sublime: Two Essays, trans. Julius A. Elias (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1966), p. 129.

(19) Thomas Wufflin, “An Interview with John Cage,” New York Berlin I, no. 1 (1985); quoted in Kostelanetz, Conversing with Cage, p. 115.

(20) John Cage, “45’ for a Speaker,” in Silence, p. 155.

(21) See Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, Vol. I, §17: “Beauty is the form of the purposiveness of an object, so far as this is perceived in it without any representation of a purpose.”

(22) Interview with Arlynne Nellhaus, Denver Post, 5 July 1968; Kostelanetz, Conversing with Cage, p. 106.

(23) Roman Ingarden, The Work of Music and the Problem of Its Identity, trans. Adam Czerniawski, ed. Jean G. Harrell (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1986), pp. 2–6.

(24) Revill, The Roaring Silence, p. 196.

(25) Ibid. pp. 166–67.

(26) Lydia Goehr, The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works: An Essay in the Philosophy of Music (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), p. 264.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 2 Indeterminacy." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 23 Apr. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-002003.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 Apr. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-002003.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 Apr. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-002003.xml