We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more


Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 2 Indeterminacy
Richard Taruskin

That excluded music was the utilitarian music that accompanies our everyday lives and that does not require special temples for its contemplation, including all popular music. Cage's attitude in 4′33″ was just as purified of the popular as any other kind of midcentury sacralized art (say, a Beethoven symphony recorded by Toscanini), and it was an especially poignant purification in Cage's case since his early percussion and prepared-piano music had been so full of popular-music resonances. Once Cage became a prophet of purity, a “Beethoven,” his earlier life was rewritten as myth, a myth that no longer contained any reference to the Asian or Afro-Cuban musics that had inspired Cage in his West Coast youth, although it did anachronistically prefigure his discovery of nonintention and chance.

Here, for example, is an abridgment of Cage's own account, published in 1973 and titled like a fable or a fairy tale, of his first prepared-piano composition:


In the late thirties I was employed as an accompanist for the classes in modern dance at the Cornish School in Seattle, Washington. These classes were taught by Bonnie Bird, who had been a member of Martha Graham's company. Among her pupils was an extraordinary dancer, Syvilla Fort. Three or four days before she was to perform her Bacchanal, Syvilla asked me to write music for it. I agreed.

At that time I had two ways of composing: for piano or orchestral instruments I wrote twelve-tone music (I had studied with Adolph Weiss and Arnold Schoenberg); I also wrote music for percussion ensembles: pieces for three, four, or six players.

The Cornish Theatre in which Syvilla Fort was to perform had no space in the wings. There was also no pit. There was, however, a piano at one side in front of the stage. I couldn't use percussion instruments for Syvilla's dance, though, suggesting Africa, they would have been suitable; they would have left too little room for her to perform. I was obliged to write a piano piece.

I spent a day or so conscientiously trying to find an African twelve-tone row. I had no luck. I decided that what was wrong was not me but the piano. I decided to change it.

Besides studying with Weiss and Schoenberg, I had also studied with Henry Cowell. I had often heard him play a grand piano, changing its sound by plucking and muting the strings with fingers and hands. I particularly loved to hear him play The Banshee To do this, Henry Cowell first depressed the pedal with a wedge at the back (or asked an assistant, sometimes myself, to sit at the keyboard and hold the pedal down), and then, standing at the back of the piano, he produced the music by lengthwise friction on the bass strings with his fingers or fingernails, and by crosswise sweeping of the bass strings with the palms of his hands. In another piece he used a darning egg, moving it lengthwise along the strings while trilling, as I recall, on the keyboard; this produced a glissando of harmonics.

Having decided to change the sound of the piano in order to make a music suitable for Syvilla Fort's Bacchanal, I went to the kitchen, got a pie plate, brought it into the living room, and placed it on the piano strings. I played a few keys. The piano sounds had been changed, but the pie plate bounced around due to the vibrations, and, after a while, some of the sounds that had been changed no longer were. I tried something smaller, nails between the strings. They slipped down between and lengthwise along the strings. It dawned on me that screws or bolts would stay in position. They did. And I was delighted to notice that by means of a single preparation two different sounds could be produced. One was resonant and open, the other was quiet and muted. The quiet one was heard whenever the soft pedal was used. I wrote the Bacchanal quickly and with the excitement continual discovery provided. […]

When I first placed objects between the strings, it was with the desire to possess sounds (to be able to repeat them). But, as the music left my home and went from piano to piano and from pianist to pianist, it became clear that not only are two pianists essentially different from one another, but two pianos are not the same either. Instead of the possibility of repetition, we are faced in life with the unique qualities and characteristics of each occasion.

The prepared piano, impressions I had from the work of artist friends, study of Zen Buddhism, ramblings in fields and forests looking for mushrooms, all led me to the enjoyment of things as they come, as they happen, rather than as they are possessed or kept or forced to be.27

Cage has given himself here an entirely European musical ancestry, one that included Schoenberg, of all contemporary composers the one who most insistently claimed a lineage from Beethoven, but whose influence actually had no bearing at all on Cage's neoprimitive Bacchanale And of Cowell's magnificently eclectic legacy (one that encompassed all the “Music of the World's Peoples,” to cite the title of Cowell's popular course at the New School and the once fairly big-selling record set that came out of it) Cage chose only the Irish mythological side, the most European side, to admit to his self-constructed narrative. In later life, Cage even replaced the Indian and Japanese sources of his spiritual philosophy with European and Euro-American ones, claiming a lifelong latent kinship with James Joyce and Henry David Thoreau. At the same time, Cage began to embrace aspects of mainstream culture he had formerly eschewed.

He became fascinated with “big science,” the government-subsidized scientific projects of the cold war period, especially computer technology and the exploration of space. Enlisting the help of Lejaren Hiller, a computer engineer and early experimenter with music-writing programs at the University of Illinois, Cage devised a flamboyant mixed-media performance called HPSCHD (computerese for “harpsichord”). The piece had been commissioned by a Swiss harpsichordist, Antoinette Vischer, who had little idea of what she was letting herself in for. Her money enabled Cage to buy mainframe computer time and hire a programmer. Programming a computer to make the I Ching coin tosses for him enabled Cage to make enough random decisions—more than a million—to keep seven keyboard players (one of them Mme Vischer), fifty-two tape recorders playing random computer-generated “tunes” in fifty-two different tuning systems, fifty-two film projectors and sixty-four slide projectors (showing scenes of space travel, some from old science-fiction movies) constantly busy for four-and-a-half hours in a University of Illinois campus auditorium on the evening of 16 May 1969 (Fig. 2-4).

Purification and its Discontents

fig. 2-4 Premiere of HPSCHD by John Cage and Lejaren Hiller, University of Illinois at Cham-paign-Urbana, 1969.

Another space-age extravaganza was Atlas eclipticalis (1962), in which Cage derived eighty-six instrumental parts that could be played in whole or in part, for any duration and in any combination from soloist to full orchestra, by projecting sidereal charts (“star maps”) on huge sheets of music paper and inking in a note wherever there was a heavenly body, later deciding with the aid of the I Ching which staves carried which clefs, and how they were to be assigned to the various instruments of the orchestra. Leonard Bernstein, then the conductor of the New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra, selected Atlas eclipticalis, the only Cage piece as of then that could enlist his whole band, for a performance in February 1964 that would introduce the work of the avant-garde to an unprecedentedly large audience. (A piece by Cage's avant-garde colleague Earle Brown was also scheduled, together with Vivaldi's Four Seasons and Chaikovsky's Pathétique Symphony.)

The performance was a fiasco, compared by many to the scandalous first night of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring There was a significant difference, however: the orchestra rebelled along with the audience. When Cage took his bows he heard their hissing behind him; and at the last performance they engaged in sabotage, playing scales or banal tunes instead of their prescribed parts, and singing or whistling into the contact microphones attached to their instruments. A few players were so enraged that they threw their microphones on the floor and stamped on them, obliging Cage to replace them out of pocket.

These were regrettable discourtesies, but their explanation may be something more than mere philistinism on the part of unimaginatively conservative musicians, as is usually alleged. Far more frequently than any other modernist composer, Cage got into confrontational situations with performers at various points over the course of his career, and with orchestral musicians in particular. After a performance of another Cage orchestral work by the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1977, one of the members wrote to the Los Angeles Times to complain that “no musical training is necessary for this quasi-intellectual trash, only the ability to make noise for thirty embarrassing minutes. I felt ashamed to sit on stage and be a part of it.”28 As noted earlier, Cage himself has acknowledged, and at times decried, the way in which the social practices that have grown up around the sacralized work-object since the advent of Romanticism have tended to dehumanize performers, especially those who play under conductors. The only way in which such musicians are able to retain a sense of personal dignity is by believing in the esthetic of communication or self-expression (expanded to encompass a notion of collective self-expression), the very notion that Cage devoted his career to discrediting. When asked to perform works based on the principle of nonintention, the contradiction has been for many musicians unendurable, because such works present performers with a set of especially arbitrary, hence (potentially) especially demeaning, commands. They are intolerably deprived of their normal sense (or illusion) of creative collaboration.

The contact mikes in Atlas eclipticalis, which fed each player's sound into a mixing console that, operating on the usual chance principles, added an extra dimension of unpredictability to the proceedings, were a special outrage. As Earle Brown explained, “Even if you were making your choices with diligence, you might be turned off. Maybe you were heard, maybe you weren't.”29 The composer, though ostensibly (and, from his own perspective, sincerely) aiming to efface his ego—and ostensibly (and equally sincerely) opposed, as Cage put it, to “the conventional musical situation of a composer telling others what to do”—became more than ever the peremptory genius, the players more than ever the slaves. By forcing others to efface their egos along with his, he had become an oppressor. His effacement was voluntary; theirs wasn't.

Even soloists devoted to Cage have recognized the paradoxical reinforcement that his work has given to the old hierarchies. By the use of chance operations, Cage said, he was able to shift his “responsibility from making choices to asking questions.”30 When the work is finished, he said, he had the pleasure of discovering it along with the audience. The only one who cannot share the pleasure is the performer, to whom the buck is passed, who cannot evade the choices, but must supply laborious answers to the composer's diverting questions.

The pianist Margaret Leng Tan, an outstanding exponent of Cage's keyboard music (including the prepared-piano works), has complained of being cut out of the fun. Her freedom in performing “chance music” is not enhanced but diminished: “By the time you've worked out all this material, can you really give a spontaneous performance? It's a discovery for him [that is, Cage] if he's hearing it for the first time, but it's not a discovery for me.”31 Once again the composer's authority over the performer is paradoxically magnified. The grandiosity of genius is affirmed. If that is something to rebuke in Beethoven, it is something to rebuke in Cage as well. But the main paradox or contradiction is the one that maximalists have always faced. At some point quantity inevitably, and subversively, transforms quality. At some point—but what point?—the disinterestedness of the artist and the transcendence of the artifact inevitably metamorphose into indifference and irrelevance. That has been the fate and the tragedy of “purist” modernism, and Cage was (or became) the purest of the pure.


(27) John Cage, Empty Words: Writings ’73 to ’78 (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1979), pp. 7–9.

(28) Letter to the editor, Los Angeles Times, 30 January 1977; quoted in Revill, The Roaring Silence, p. 207.

(29) Quoted in Revill, The Roaring Silence, p. 208.

(30) Quoted in Kathan Brown, “The Uncertainty Principle,” The Guardian (London), 3 August 2002.

(31) Quoted in Revill, The Roaring Silence, p. 190.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 2 Indeterminacy." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 19 Jan. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-002004.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 2 Indeterminacy. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 19 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-002004.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 2 Indeterminacy." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 19 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-002004.xml