Writings about Music

What John Cage Was Really Getting At

John Cage’s most famous work, 4′33″, was originally envisioned to be performed in an outdoor rustic theatre where the exquisite sounds of nature would take sway, following the pathway of his hero, Henry David Thoreau, who heard music in the elemental aural art of nature, this being another term for God, also echoed by Ravi Shankar: “I hear music in the waves, the breeze, the rain and even in the rustle of the leaves.”

What John was really getting at was the elemental conditions allowing not only creative pursuits such as music composition, but life itself. We take our planet for granted, not respecting how fragile it truly is, and must be wiser about this so that quality of life moving forward improves and doesn’t get worse.

Cage was also saying he was dissatisfied with the state of music composition, and wished to wipe the blackboard clean and begin again. And this is essentially what the minimalists did, though I feel they generally went too far in the other direction from the opposing cliff of serialism, which is understandable given the extremes of what they were escaping from.

I believe what Henry David Thoreau, John Cage, and Ravi Shankar were all saying in agreement, at different times in history, is that there is no human music surpassing the glorious sounds of nature, again another word for God, these being fantastically beautiful, mysterious, and utterly authentic at once. Thus, the sounds John calculated to emerge at the outdoor theater for his 4' 33'' would be at least as beautiful as any human music if not more so, not to mention that most of us are extremely discriminating in our musical tastes, preferring not hearing most human music.

Personally, the most amazing music I've heard in Los Angeles are the ever-changing utterances of mockingbirds, mostly at night, their melodic, timbral and rhythmic invention being simply astounding (and putting to shame any attempts to emulate them musically).

It is enormously arrogant to assume human music is superior to the sounds of nature. The two are entirely different entities, and probably impossible to compare. After the premiere of 4' 33'', my sense is that Cage expanded his original thought to include sounds divorced from nature, though humans and their machines and such making inadvertent sounds are linked, of course; this subsequent refocus suggesting we climb off the merry-go-round of convention to reexamine what we are doing musically done to the bare bones. Like a chess grandmaster with an innovative move in a familiar opening like the Sicilian Defense, or an actual new opening like the Larsen Opening, John Cage's music move was profoundly simple and confounding at once even many years after it was first unveiled. And there really is no way to checkmate him since he aligned himself with nature, once again another word for God, whether he used that term himself or not, suspecting the latter.

Turning from the opposite extreme cliffs of minimalism and serialism, I began focusing on entirely notated through-composed melody and rhythm together with appealingly advantageous elements of melodic drone and rhythmic ostinato, my inspiration largely coming from jazz and Indian classical music, both of which superseded Western classical music of the time in terms of overall substance.

And I will always be indebted to John Cage for calling attention to the need to start over with composition from bare bone beginnings, though I would add simultaneously retaining and benefiting from knowledge and experience of past music, while being more aware of our environment and other cultures, together with the personal kindness and encouragement he showed me. Actually, Bill Evans advocated much the same approach, encouraging jazz pianists to rethink music from the most basic building blocks towards the development of a personal style.

From time to time while passing by close to his teenage home adjacent to Eagle Rock, I park near that rugged craftsman structure with bracing mountain views, get out of my car, and imagine him entering and leaving out into the world and back into his remarkable imagination in cyclical form like the ocean waves.

Perhaps Arnold Schoenberg put it best when he described his student, John Cage, as “an inventor of genius.” Thus, as Schoenberg indicates, characterizing John as a charlatan is misguided because it involves evaluating him by irrelevant criteria, the salient features of his work being misunderstood. For myself, the value of Cage has been mostly philosophical, again echoing Schoenberg's assessment, recognizing his essential catalytic effect on the extraordinarily varied, surprising, and ongoing evolution of music on earth.

- Michael Robinson, August 2020, Los Angeles


© 2020 Michael Robinson All rights reserved


Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer and writer (musicologist).