[Dixielandjazz] John Cage thread

Ed Danielson mcvouty78 at hotmail.com
Wed Dec 3 17:50:20 PST 2003

Dan Spisak wrote:
>John Cage killed my interest in defining music or art: i.e., any sound can 
>be music.

I had the privilege of meeting John Cage, back in 1966.  He spoke at 
Convocation at my college, and somehow I was one of the students invited to 
join him at lunch.  He knew about Armstrong, of course, but had never heard 
of John Coltrane, Miles Davis or Dave Brubeck, which I thought was strange 
for someone with his avant-garde reputation.  He dismissed jazz as boring.  
"Boring?" I remember asking him.  "How can music that's improvised -- made 
up on the spot -- be boring?  Jazz is the absence of predictability."  Well, 
I doubt that I was that eloquent, but I do remember making some remark about 
the intense emotionality of Coltrane's music and asking how such passion 
could possibly be boring.  He told me he would listen to some Coltrane 
music, to see if he could find something of value in it.  (Like Jay 
Leonhart's experience with Leonard Bernstein, I never heard from John Cage 
since that day.)

I remember the pre-recorded John Cage piece played as the students assembled 
for this particular presentation.  At some point, he had run microphones to 
several remote locations, and tape-recorded the sounds of birds, other 
sounds of nature, and a garbageman noisily emptying trashcans into a garbage 
truck.  This was played back on four speakers, one in each corner of the 
hall, years before "quadraphonic" sound had been dreamed of.  In his remarks 
to the crowd, Cage was witty and engaging -- and, to my mind, full of beans. 
  He defined music to us as "organized sound" and noise as "unorganized 
sound," but his notion of organization was so nebulous as to be meaningless: 
  the fact that he had organized the placement of the microphones and mixed 
the different taped sounds in the piece that was played on that occasion was 
enough organization to make that sound qualify as music.

What I like about Cage's music, I guess, is his sense of timbre: his 
"prepared piano" works have an unusual and interesting sound.  But, looking 
back on that experience, I think that Cage helped me realize that 
craftsmanship is more important than art.  An artist can have the most 
original idea of his time -- be it a Jackson Pollack painting or a John Cage 
composition -- and that idea may be art, but that art may be pure crap.  
(Crenshaw's Principle:  90% of anything is pure crap.)  I admire someone who 
can find novel and interesting ways to play the changes of "I Got Rhythm" 
far more than someone who takes it upon himself to smash the so-called 
bourgeois notions of art.  Anything can be art, if you set your standards 
low enough.

Cage's talk wasn't a total waste of time, though -- he did tell a great 
story about two famous composers and a peanut butter pie.

"You might as well fall flat on your face as lean over too far backward."
-- James Thurber

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