by Rebecca L. Hein
American Reporter Correspondent
August 12, 2007
THE FAUX-DEMOCRACY OF JOHN CAGE
CASPER, Wyo., Aug. 13, 2007 -- American composer John Cage died 15 years ago today. Cage is best known for an absurdity entitled Four Minutes, Thirty-Three Seconds (4'33"), in which the performer poses on the stage but does not play.
Discussions of this travesty are often as ludicrous as the concept itself. Thus, in his History of American Classical Music, John Warthen Struble writes, "In 1952 Cage created a piece he called...Four Minutes, Thirty-Three Seconds."
But creation is work. Created objects have form and shape. Form and shape are defined by contour, and this is where Cage's philosophy falls as flat as his supposed compositions.
He was an egalitarian of the bulldozer variety, leveling all people under the belief that nobody's mind or abilities are better than anybody else's. Therefore, in his view, what the composer has to offer an audience is not necessarily more valuable than the thoughts, talents, or ideas of the listener.
But art pulls us out of ourselves, elevates our minds, and leaves us breathless with the wonder of that experience. We all respond to this beauty, order, and symmetry, and we know when it's missing. Thus, although we may not be able to define why one book is better than another, or why we never get tired of the Beethoven Violin Concerto, we can judge the quality of that work.
The irony of Cage's empty legacy is that he was breathless with the wonder of living. He was so brilliant that he couldn't contain his curiosity; at age 17 he dropped out of Pomona College to tour Europe where he studied architecture, painting, and music.
His later comments about 4'33" as quoted in David Revill's life of Cage, The Roaring Silence, reveal the intensity of his thinking: "I didn't wish it to appear, even to me, as something easy to do, or as a joke...I wanted to mean it utterly and be able to live with it."
Such devotion could have produced some of the best music in the world. But Cage the egalitarian, who left us with noise and silence where we hoped for music, also reinforced the most anti-democratic institution in history: the Cult of the Expert.
When I was a graduate student in cello performance at Northwestern University in 1982, I soon learned to keep my mouth shut in any discussion of contemporary music. To defend beauty was passť, and anyone who did so merely revealed his ignorance.
So the experts stood around discussing John Cage or fellow composer George Crumb while I shut myself up in the practice room and plodded through my scales, etudes, and unaccompanied Bach Suites.
As I progressed through my career I discovered what audiences want: an exciting performance of music they can enjoy and understand. Listeners need no special training for this, only their innate sense of rhythm, harmony, melody and tone color.
This is true democracy in music: I offer you the composer whose work I've chosen plus hours of practice and my love for that music, and you give me your time and good judgment. Nobody is cheated.
In art, as in politics, the illusion of democracy produces the reality of farce. But even farce can entertain us, and since John Cage is now a dead white man I console myself with being politically correct for the first time in my life.
Rebecca Hein has been playing and teaching the cello for more than 30 years. She is the author of "A Case of Brilliance," and the editor of "Don't Remember This," a bimonthly journal on teaching and creativity. She can be reached at email@example.com.