Why People Still Hate John Cage

hear-no-evil

John Cage is the subject of a new museum exhibition in Barcelona. The exhibit looks at Cage’s works in various media and his impact on all forms of contemporary art.

The New Yorker’s Alex Ross shares his thoughts on the highlights of the exhibit – but also raises this conundrum:

The great oddity of twentieth-century art history is that while Rauschenberg, Jackson Pollock, and other radical postwar painters are almost universally hailed as masters, their works drawing huge crowds in museums, Cage is still often treated as a freak or a charlatan.

The distinction makes no intellectual sense, but there it is.

It is striking that someone as influential as Cage – as a composer, author, electronic music pioneer and artist – hasn’t found an audience that reflects his influence.

Ross is right. Many people that might appreciate Rauschenberg or Pollock would cringe at the idea of sitting through a concert of Cage’s works.

Maybe the answer to Ross’s conundrum is as simple as this: you can’t close your ears.

If you see a painting that’s confrontational, ugly or incomprehensible, you can close your eyes or walk away. You are in control of the experience.

At a concert of music by an artist like Cage, you can’t close your ears or move on to the next thing. You aren’t in control of your experience – you can just react to it.

This seems to be a fundamental challenge of electronic music (and to a certain degree, music in general); when anything is possible, how do you create music that is original, yet still has the power to seduce someone’s ear?

via disquiet; Image: fallwithme

18 thoughts on “Why People Still Hate John Cage

  1. The real issue to me is that Cage produced work that was at it's most extreme. Like painting of it's day, the work reached a breaking point, where on some level, the medium could be taken no further. Painting eventually evolved to be about the act and result of painting. The canvas a mere document of a moment in time. Similarly, Cage's music reached out to the most outer limits of what might be considered "organized sound". It's near an anti-aesthetic and is completely disinterested in historical notions of beauty. Not always the easiest or most accessible sound to listen to. But unlike painting, sound is intangible and ephemeral. Nothing left to hold onto other than the temporary experience of the moment.

    I personally identify with much of Cage's philosophies. And I agree with tay0, that Cage is as relevant now as he was 40 years ago, is not more so. The language of found sound has become part of popular culture even if it is regulated by "pop" sensibilities. It's a shame that more people cannot appreciate Cage's work. I can't tell you how many times I've listened to 'Indeterminacy' and it never seems to grow old.

  2. The real issue is cultural. The audience for "serious" music has never really moved beyond the 19th century, and still worship the ancient ones – Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner, Brahms. MAYBE you can get them to listen to Debussy.

    All the "interesting" stuff akin to the exciting 20th century art movements is "hard to listen to", and it's difficult to convince symphonies, with their high overheads and dwindling audiences, to take a chance on something as mild as Rite of Spring.

    Meanwhile nearly everybody else is listening to pop music (and I include here any flavor of electro, house, metal, etc.) and few of those listeners are interested in, or appreciate John Cage's innovations.

    Cage's body of work is as diverse and thought-provoking as those of his good friend Marcel Duchamp. However, finding good recordings of said works is challenging, and some of the works don't translate well to the recorded environment, either because they're conceptual or because they rely on improvisation or chance.

    Finally, visual art has a certain immediacy – you look at something, you get it. Music is inherently temporal – you have to sit through it, and in some cases, actually pay attention. That's hard for a lot of people.

  3. The real issue is cultural. The audience for "serious" music has never really moved beyond the 19th century, and still worship the ancient ones – Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner, Brahms. MAYBE you can get them to listen to Debussy.

    All the "interesting" stuff akin to the exciting 20th century art movements is "hard to listen to", and it's difficult to convince symphonies, with their high overheads and dwindling audiences, to take a chance on something as mild as Rite of Spring.

    Meanwhile nearly everybody else is listening to pop music (and I include here any flavor of electro, house, metal, etc.) and few of those listeners are interested in, or appreciate John Cage's innovations.

    Cage's body of work is as diverse and thought-provoking as those of his good friend Marcel Duchamp. However, finding good recordings of said works is challenging, and some of the works don't translate well to the recorded environment, either because they're conceptual or because they rely on improvisation or chance.

    Finally, visual art has a certain immediacy – you look at something, you get it. Music is inherently temporal – you have to sit through it, and in some cases, actually pay attention. That's hard for a lot of people.

  4. That is a good point about not being able to close our ears. I think also becuase our hearing is linked so close to our emotions. A good song will make up feel good. Rarely does a good painting make us feel anything close to that.

    On John Cage, I could never take him seriously at all. I have never been a fan of so called Avant-garde composers. But we do need people like him. The Avant-garde are there to push us, the masses forward. Without them, we would not know the limits.

    That said I am very sure a lot of them pull it out of their asses. But I know a lot of "artists" who can back up hours of bullshit with a lot of $5 words.
    Cages works has always felt too far outside the realms of what I would call music at all. Probably Art. But I am not sure. I will be honest and say I don't get it.

    But what was once avaunt-guard can become "pop". I remember when Philip Glass was considered very much "outside" but he does movie scores, TV ads.
    Artists like Dan Deacon have taken that style of music to levels of pop sensibility. If you don't believe me just listen to "pink batman" and you will hear very clearly Philip in Dan's work.

    I write music that I want to hear.
    I think the second that you stray from that, aim to please a crowd or a peer group, your going to go up your own ass.
    Your music will reflect it and it will be boring.

  5. That is a good point about not being able to close our ears. I think also becuase our hearing is linked so close to our emotions. A good song will make up feel good. Rarely does a good painting make us feel anything close to that.

    On John Cage, I could never take him seriously at all. I have never been a fan of so called Avant-garde composers. But we do need people like him. The Avant-garde are there to push us, the masses forward. Without them, we would not know the limits.

    That said I am very sure a lot of them pull it out of their asses. But I know a lot of "artists" who can back up hours of bullshit with a lot of $5 words.
    Cages works has always felt too far outside the realms of what I would call music at all. Probably Art. But I am not sure. I will be honest and say I don't get it.

    But what was once avaunt-guard can become "pop". I remember when Philip Glass was considered very much "outside" but he does movie scores, TV ads.
    Artists like Dan Deacon have taken that style of music to levels of pop sensibility. If you don't believe me just listen to "pink batman" and you will hear very clearly Philip in Dan's work.

    I write music that I want to hear.
    I think the second that you stray from that, aim to please a crowd or a peer group, your going to go up your own ass.
    Your music will reflect it and it will be boring.

  6. the explanation is found in Cage's own words, "I have nothing to say and I'm saying it."

    you know, like people who ramble on and after a little while you realize it's all drivel

  7. the explanation is found in Cage's own words, "I have nothing to say and I'm saying it."

    you know, like people who ramble on and after a little while you realize it's all drivel

  8. I was listening to some of Cage's prepared piano works this weekend. I get why some people don't understand or like it, but he speaks directly to me. I discovered him while in high school, and it rewired my brain. He's the grandaddy of ambient, found sound, noise, minimalist, all of it. There were others before him, but he distilled and focused things in a way that IMHO leads directly to electronic experimentation circa right now.

  9. I was listening to some of Cage's prepared piano works this weekend. I get why some people don't understand or like it, but he speaks directly to me. I discovered him while in high school, and it rewired my brain. He's the grandaddy of ambient, found sound, noise, minimalist, all of it. There were others before him, but he distilled and focused things in a way that IMHO leads directly to electronic experimentation circa right now.

  10. Lots of interesting points raised.

    Do you think that there's a fundamental difference in the ideas that people will accept in art vs music, because of the way that we we experience art vs music?

    You typically experience modern art in a "bite-size" way, seeing 100 different works in a couple of hours. Two hours of post war modern music seems to be much more challenging and taxing to most people. It's almost a physiological difference.

  11. The real issue to me is that Cage produced work that was at it's most extreme. Like painting of it's day, the work reached a breaking point, where on some level, the medium could be taken no further. Painting eventually evolved to be about the act and result of painting. The canvas a mere document of a moment in time. Similarly, Cage's music reached out to the most outer limits of what might be considered "organized sound". It's near an anti-aesthetic and is completely disinterested in historical notions of beauty. Not always the easiest or most accessible sound to listen to. But unlike painting, sound is intangible and ephemeral. Nothing left to hold onto other than the temporary experience of the moment.

    I personally identify with much of Cage's philosophies. And I agree with tay0, that Cage is as relevant now as he was 40 years ago, is not more so. The language of found sound has become part of popular culture even if it is regulated by "pop" sensibilities. It's a shame that more people cannot appreciate Cage's work. I can't tell you how many times I've listened to 'Indeterminacy' and it never seems to grow old.

  12. The real issue to me is that Cage produced work that was at it's most extreme. Like painting of it's day, the work reached a breaking point, where on some level, the medium could be taken no further. Painting eventually evolved to be about the act and result of painting. The canvas a mere document of a moment in time. Similarly, Cage's music reached out to the most outer limits of what might be considered "organized sound". It's near an anti-aesthetic and is completely disinterested in historical notions of beauty. Not always the easiest or most accessible sound to listen to. But unlike painting, sound is intangible and ephemeral. Nothing left to hold onto other than the temporary experience of the moment.

    I personally identify with much of Cage's philosophies. And I agree with tay0, that Cage is as relevant now as he was 40 years ago, is not more so. The language of found sound has become part of popular culture even if it is regulated by "pop" sensibilities. It's a shame that more people cannot appreciate Cage's work. I can't tell you how many times I've listened to 'Indeterminacy' and it never seems to grow old.

  13. John Cage, what is there to say about such a man. We can focus on his works which, in all honesty are hard to listen too but his work as stated above is more cultural than musical. And perhaps even the idea of music in reference to John Cage is something of a misnomer, as Chris states some of his works could be better categorized as organized sound. But lets look for a second at the idea of chance. As commented on by Anu there is a cultural lag with regards to adoption of music into popular culture, which often lags far behind that of painting or other art forms. To think that the Action Painters such as Jackson Pollock were fully accepted in their day would be jumping the gun it was the help of critics such as Greenberg who help to dramatically legitimize the movement, but it was Greenberg who had something to say and used this form of art to say it. With Cage it is often hard to draw parallels to other works as chance is now so ubiquitous and often taken for granted in music making, but we need look no further than a Jam session in a garage to see it. Now chance almost shares a symbiotic relationship with music. In todays world of music production we now use terms such as algorithmic generation, which sound far more scientific, but really is just a term you could supplant with chance just as easy. However, at the same time adoption of terms like algorithmic generation, might suggest we are starting to see main stream adoption of chance as a viable composition methodology. Additionally, what Dajebus states about pop music is very true what was once avaunt-guard can become pop, or at least the current pop genre will borrow many pieces from what was once avaunt-guard. I am glad the comparison to Philip Glass was used as he is a perfect example. Although I would use the term popular to describe his work I would not include him in what I see as pop music which would contain artists which fall into the 5 chord paradigm which I see as being musically bankrupt. But even as I say that I can think of the cultural significance of these genres and link them back to music such as stride in the early 20th century. I guess to sum up what it is I want to say, is discourse needs to be developed around Cage and his significance as a composer and how his method of working in many cases reflects modern ways of working.

  14. Lots of interesting points raised.

    Do you think that there's a fundamental difference in the ideas that people will accept in art vs music, because of the way that we we experience art vs music?

    You typically experience modern art in a "bite-size" way, seeing 100 different works in a couple of hours. Two hours of post war modern music seems to be much more challenging and taxing to most people. It's almost a physiological difference.

  15. Lots of interesting points raised.

    Do you think that there's a fundamental difference in the ideas that people will accept in art vs music, because of the way that we we experience art vs music?

    You typically experience modern art in a "bite-size" way, seeing 100 different works in a couple of hours. Two hours of post war modern music seems to be much more challenging and taxing to most people. It's almost a physiological difference.

  16. I agree with you Synthhead, there is a "fundamental difference" in how audio is experienced physiologically. But there has also been a large shift culturally which started with recording technology. Previously to the 20th century compositions would play for a much longer period of time and often the play length of an instrument was based on levels of human endurance. With the advent of recording technology the length of work was drastically shortened. As a result the majority of people in our culture have been acclimated over the last 8 generations to a shorter musical composition. So I would say 3 minutes on a 78rpm record drastically changed the landscape. Perhaps it also has something to do with our visual acuity as a people, our vision is our primary sense and its vocabulary is more developed, cathartic response to an image can be instant, where as the experience of audio is temporal as Anu suggests and is dependent on duration. So comparing the two is like comparing two dissimilar experiences which attempt to achieve the same result.

  17. The idea that a modern audience has no appreciation of music that contains random elelments is not true. In fact many underground electronic musical scenes have music which feature many random elements in it and is far more profound, powerful and sophisticated than anything John Cage ever did – its just that it is not presented in the same way as Cages music was. Cage presented his work as “high brow” and so it was assumed that only the intelligensia would appreciate it and that the masses were too stupid to appreciate it. However truly experimental music – the like of which you would be more ikely to hear in a squat gallery or traveelers site – was made by people who had nothing or people like Sun ra or Throbbing gristle – so it is not taken as seriously – because it is not “high brow” – yet this is where true innovation lies in 20th century experimental music. Truly experimental music is still capable of impressing the mainstream public – depending on how it is presented .

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