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The “New Music” in John Cage’s Thought. Part II

Minima moralia
Mihaela Pop


The “New Music” in John Cage’s Thought

Mihaela Pop

University of Bucharest



(The text continues from Part I)

The I Ching became for Cage the standard tool for composition, he used it in every work composed after 1951. I Cing divination involves obtaining a hexagram random generation (such as tossing coins), then reading the chapter associated with that hexagram. John Cage produced even a chart system which he used during the process of artistic production for the large piano work Music of Changes (1951) and also for Imaginary Landscape No. 4 for 12 radio receivers.

He also applied chance operation  to star charts especially for Atlas Eclipticalis (1961-62) or Etudes Australes (1974-75) or Etudes Boreales (1978). His Etudes are extremely difficult to perform as he usually said: “A performance would show that the impossible is not impossible”.

He also used chance procedures for pre-existing music written by other composers. For example Cheap imitation (1969) is based on Erik Satie’s works. Cage’s method of using the I Ching was far from simple randomization. The procedures varied from composition to composition and were usually complex.

For example, for his work Cheap Imitation, the questions were:

1.             Which of the seven modes, if we take as modes the seven scales beginning on white notes and remaining on whit notes, which of those am I using?

2.             Which of the twelve possible chromatic transpositions am I using?

3.             For this phrase for which this transposition of this mode will apply, which note am I using of the seven to imitate the note that Satie wrote?

Many works (especially those composed during the 1960’s, have instructions for the performer rather than fully notated music. Musicircus (1967) simply invites performers to assemble  and play together without containing a notated music. (The English National Opera became the first opera company, which hold Cage’s Musicircus on March 3, 2012 at the London Coliseum).

The adoption of chance procedures had consequences for Cage’s reputation. Many valuable friendships and connections were lost for Cage. Pierre Boulez opposed to the use of chance and so were other composers as well as Stockhausen and Xenakis who promoted the serial music.

In our opinion, the use of chance procedures in the process of art production is a crucial moment of separation from the classical tradition of creativity. It raises many problems concerning the identity of the work of art – who created it and in which proportion. It introduces in art the notion of relativity and accidentality or indeterminacy changing significantly how the work of art was going to be considered later on. It does not any follow model anymore; it only extends the probability as a normative rule of creativity.

In these conditions, one could ask if this is still a real work of art, as it does not belong entirely to the artist. The next step in the recent history of art was the artistic production by computer and the media art.

In our opinion, this chance procedure resembles to the way Jackson Pollock painted using the dripping method. However, there is a significant difference: while Pollock considered his production the result of his impulses coming from his unconsciousness in a surrealist meaning, John Cage was perfectly aware of using his chance method.

Jackson Pollock and his dripping method

Jackson Pollock, Number 8 (1949)

John Cage, Scores

Another significant innovative contribution was what would become known later as happening or performance art. In 1952 at Black Mountain College, an avant-garde institute in North Carolina – Asheville, Cage organized the first happening – Untitled event – a multilayered and multi media performance event. Happenings were for Cage theatrical events that abandon the traditional concept of stage-audience and occur without a sense of definite duration. Instead, these actions depend on chance or indeterminacy. They have a minimal script with no plot. A happening occurs in the present attempting to arrest the concept of passing time. Cage believed that theater was the closest route to integrating art and real life. That is why he manifested a deep interest in theater from the very beginning as we mentioned before. Theater was for him “the multiplicity of simultaneous visual and audible events all going together in one’s experience, producing enjoyment”.

Text continues in Part III