[Dixielandjazz] John Cage thread
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
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
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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