In 1961, the Wesleyan University Press published a collection of John Cage’s essays entitled Silence: Lectures and Writings. Already an avant-garde cause célèbre, notorious for his ‘silent’ composition, 4’33”, Cage’s revolutionary, Zen-derived, non- deterministic approaches to creativity were now available to all in one handy volume. Silence would duly become the catechism of the 1960s British art school and help propel Cage toward icon status; the ideas contained within its covers going on to profoundly affect not only experimental composers but free-thinking artists across a range of musical and other creative disciplines – an influence, David Sheppard explains, which continues to resonate today.
Back in the spring, I was lucky enough to catch a stunning performance by a young German pianist and composer called Hauschka, the stage name of one Volker Bertelmann. I’ve seen Hauschka play on a number of occasions now, bought his albums and marvelled at his ability to transform the grand piano into a thing of in nite sonic versatility way beyond its orthodox conservatoire sound palette. To do this, Bertelmann ‘prepares’ the piano by inserting all manner of found objects, from metal rods and pieces of material to chopsticks and ping pong balls, into the innards of the instrument, critically modifying how the hammers strike the strings and how those strings then resound. Hauschka’s audience stood transfixed and beguiled as he coolly set about attacking his posh-looking Steinway with what looked like the contents of a hardware store – yet ‘prepared piano’ is a technique first applied (and an appellation first coined) by John Milton Cage Jr. over 70 years ago.
Although Californian innovator Henry Cowell, and before him French ‘Furniture Music’ composer Erik Satie, had reached into the body of the grand piano to grapple with the strings in search of new sounds (not to mention the uncredited inventor of the ‘tack’ piano, a standard upright instrument permanently modified with drawing pins or nails wedged into the striking end of its hammers, producing a sound most readily associated with the saloon scenes of Hollywood Westerns), it was Cage who first intervened in the piano’s internal workings in order to create an entirely novel vocabulary of percussive, meta-pianistic sounds – the ‘prepared’ quality – as was Cage’s hallmark – often being as much a matter of chance as anything formally prescribed.
Cage’s first prepared piano composition dates from 1940, at a time when he was employed as a dance accompanist at The Cornish School in Seattle. Cage was mainly working with conventional percussion instruments during this period, but when one student-artiste, Syvilla Fort, requested a score for her dance, Bacchanale, which was to be presented in a space too limited for Cage to utilize his customary rhythmic arsenal, he turned instead to the piano. However, crucially, Cage resisted deploying it in the orthodox manner and, still intent on providing the requisite percussive accompaniment, instead wedged metal bolts and strips of leather between the strings, subduing the tone and creating a panoply of muted timbres – part toy piano, part muffed harp, part marimba, part drum… It was a Damascene moment for Cage. “I wrote the Bacchanale quickly”, he later recalled, “and with the excitement continual discovery provided.”
Although, initially, audiences could be bamboozled by the inchoate sounds and blurred rhythms Cage procured (and some of the more pious critics saw his interventions as tantamount to heresy), the composer was certain that out of expediency he had stumbled upon the portal to an entirely new sound world, and he countered his critics with a straight bat: “Composing for the prepared piano is not a criticism of the instrument… I’m only being practical,” he deadpanned. Cage would continue with prepared piano pieces throughout the 1940s, mainly as accompaniment to other choreographers and dancers such as Merce Cunningham (who would become Cage’s life partner and regular collaborator) and Valerie Bettis, culminating in the Indian music-influenced 1946-48 series Sonatas and Interludes, Cage’s most acclaimed and enduring prepared piano work.
With all that in mind, what was most telling about Hauschka’s 21st century recapitulation of Cage’s techniques was just how innovative, contemporary and challenging the resulting music sounded. Volker Bertelmann’s most recent album, 2010’s Salon Des Amateurs (Fat Cat), which uses prepared piano almost exclusively across its 12, bouncing, polyrhythmic tracks, stretching the sound of the venerable instrument into a beguiling range of percussive, organic/mechanistic shapes inspired by the ’90s electronic dance music of the Cologne-based Kompakt label, whose albums Bertlemann grew up with. is meadow-fresh marriage of acoustic innovation and minimalist electronic method is one of the most startlingly invigorating-sounding records of the last five years – and it owes a huge debt to a composer who would have been 100 this year (Cage would surely have loved the dance music connection)…
Prepared piano was just one of the aleatoric, ‘random variable’ compositional techniques which Cage had developed in the immediate pre-war period, and his overriding philosophy, effectively removing the ego from musical ‘authorship’, would be thoroughly laid bare in his now iconic 1961 tome, Silence: Lectures and Writings. Alongside innumerable Zen musings and instructive, typically whimsical detours into mushroom collecting (Cage’s other lifelong passion), how to sh through ice, and more, the book reflected Cageian philosophy in both word and design. Thus, the essay ‘Composition as Process’ was presented in four columns while the text of ‘Erik Satie’ was in two, mirroring scored notation. ‘Where Are We Going? And What Are We Doing?’, meanwhile, was laid out in several different fonts, paralleling the original lecture, which was presented on several simultaneously looping tapes. Other essays were fashioned by subjecting the work of other authors to chance procedures determined by reference to the I Ching. One treatise, ‘Lecture on Nothing’, was composed using a complex time-length scheme, similar to many of Cage’s musical compositions.
From the monochrome, pre-Beatles Britain of the early 1960s, the approaches outlined in Silence seemed exotic and door-opening, especially to art students. Enlightened young tutors in provincial art colleges would soon begin using Cage’s experiments as readymade class stratagems; it was timely, as UK art education was already beginning to wriggle free of time-honoured ‘life study’ classicism. Cage was also a visual artist, of course, and if nothing else his graphic scores – impressionistic, enigmatic, often as aesthetically pleasing as they were non-prescriptive and open to endless interpretation (not to mention being totally devoid of formal staves or notation) – evinced a gently subversive, mischievous-yet-profound visual language which chimed with the incipient Zeitgeist.
At the tiny Ipswich Art School, in Suffolk, painter, composer and visiting tutor Tom Phillips was a typical mid’-60s pedagogic advocate of all things Cageian. “I could bring information about people like John Cage to the school, because I was that bit older – and Ipswich was a long way from European music, or world music, at the time and I had a bit of an alibi for being an art student and making music”, he told me in a 2007 interview. “It was current anyway, since most [experimental] music got made in art schools. When I was teaching, it was the only gig – the only place you get someone like John Cage or Christian Wolff or Morton Feldman to perform was in art school – the musical schools weren’t interested.”
One of Phillips’ Ipswich students was a young Brian Eno, who would, of course, go on to parlay what were essentially Cageian precepts (especially chance as a compositional tool and ambient music, itself a logical extension of Cage’s Imaginary Landscape series) into one of the most coruscating and influential modern musical careers since Cage. In 1966, Phillips would introduce Eno to the ambit of radical British experimental composer Cornelius Cardew (a student of Karlheinz Stockhausen, at Darmstadt, who had been hugely influenced by a German performance given by Cage and his associate David Tudor) and both would perform in Cardew’s profoundly Cage-inspired London ensemble the Scratch Orchestra, among whose number were such future British musical luminaries as Gavin Bryars, Michael Nyman and Howard Skempton.
Thus, Cage’s influence began to trickle down into all manner of musical outposts which, as Tom Phillips put it, would become “in-posts” as the ’60s became the ’70s. The effect wasn’t only being felt in Britain and Europe, however. In California, pianist Harold Budd was acknowledging the change in current by swapping austere Modernist serialism for an unashamedly blissful, harmonious music effectively based on Cage’s sublime 1948 dance etude ‘In A Landscape’, another piece which anticipated the great forward sweep of ambient music in the latter part of the 20th century and beyond. Elsewhere, Cage’s work with tape and radio ‘samples’ (often in collaboration with Earle Brown) and electronics and computer-generated sound (mainly with David Tudor) would prove no less prescient, as would the groundbreaking ‘happenings’ (part of his increasingly meta-musical Variations series) which he would stage from the mid 1960s.
Even after his life was ended by a stroke, in August 1992, Cage’s influence refused to diminish. Indeed, the import of his passing was widely felt. The tone was set by British composer Simon Jeffes, leader of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra, who composed and recorded an elegiac cryptogram score, ‘CAGE DEAD’, its melody based on those letter notes.
That influence shows no sign of abating, even in Cage’s centenary year. Around the same time that I’d encountered Hauschka, last spring, I was commissioned to write an article about Wunderkind Luxembourgian pianist and composer Francesco Tristano. Best known for his recitals of J.S. Bach’s keyboard concerto cycle, Tristano is also a keen collaborator with electronic musicians and this year released an album, bachCage (Deutsche Grammophon), which conflated recordings of works by the two eponymous composers (including a luminous recapitulation of ‘In a Landscape’) with discreet synthetic interventions by former Basic Channel producer and minimal-techno cult figure Moritz von Oswald. Bach and Cage, separated by two centuries of musical evolution, have much in common, Tristano insists. “ They were both men of their time – true contemporary figures… They share several notable compositional processes, such as mathematical layout of rhythmic patterns and overall rhythmic structure… and a kind of abstract scoring”.
John Cage, it seems, is destined to always be with us, his legacy almost Bach-like in its universal acknowledgement, his place in the classical musical pantheon already assured, even if (or, perhaps, because) much of his music and many of his ideas, like those contained within the still doggedly in print Silence, appear as challenging and unprecedented today as they did when perplexed but intrigued mid-20th century audiences were first exposed to them. I know I will not be alone in raising a glass to salute the maestro’s 100th birthday on September 5.