Music: John Cage, Apostle of Noise

The 20th century is unique in its promulgation of noise. I do not mean industrial racket, the sounds of traffic, or the incessant hum of frost-free refrigerators. I mean the presentation of random noise as art. Never before has an artist asked an audience to come to a pre-arranged place at an appointed time to be assaulted by sheer noise. This is unique both on the artist’s part, that he would dare to ask, and on the audience’s, that it would respond and consider such an experience worth having.

Yet such was the case with the career of John Cage (1912-1992), the apostle of noise. Typical of Cage were compositions whose notes were based on the irregularities in the composition paper he used, notes selected by tossing dice, or from the use of charts derived from the Chinese I Ching. Those were his more conventional works. Other “compositions” included the simultaneous twirling of the knobs of twelve radios, the sounds from records playing on unsynchronized variable speed turntables, or the sounds produced by tape recordings of music that had been sliced up and randomly reassembled. Cage was one of the progenitors of the “happenings” that were fashionable in the 1970s. He presented concerts of kitchen sounds and sounds of the human body amplified through loudspeakers. Perhaps Cage’s most notorious work was his 4’33” during which the performer silently sits with his instrument for that exact period of time, then rises and leaves the stage. The “music” is whatever extraneous noises the audience hears in the silence the performer has created. In his book, Silence, Cage announced: “Here we are. Let us say Yes to our presence together in Chaos.”

Was Cage a mountebank? What was the purpose of all this? Precisely to make the point that there is no purpose, or to express what Cage called a “purposeful purposelessness,” the aim of which was to emancipate people from the tyranny of meaning. The extent of his success can be judged by the verdict rendered in the prestigious New Grove Dictionary of Music, which says Cage “has had a greater impact on world music than any other American composer of the 20th century.” Also, the New York Times considers him “one of the most influential composers of our time.”

Cage certainly had an impishly attractive side to him, and his outrages had a liberating influence on a number of composers. They used his anarchism as an excuse to escape from the stultifying confines of Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system that dominated the music scene at the time. But Cage was not just tweaking noses. He was in earnest, and his earnestness was based on a view of reality with a very clear provenance. Cage himself acknowledged three principal gurus: French composer Eric Satie, Henry David Thoreau, and Buckminister Fuller—three relative lightweights who could not among them account for Cage’s radical thinking. The prevalent influence on Cage seems to have been Jean Jacques Rousseau, though he goes unmentioned in Cage’s many obiter dicta. Cage’s similarities with Rousseau are too uncanny to have been accidental.

With his noise, Cage worked out musically the full implications of Rousseau’s non-teleological view of nature. Cage did for music what Rousseau did for philosophy. (If this article is beginning to sound theoretical it is because Cage is largely a theoretical composer.) Perhaps the most profoundly anti-Aristotelian philosopher of the 18th century, Rousseau turned Aristotle’s notion of nature on its head. Aristotle said nature defined not only what man is, but what he should be. Rousseau countered that nature is not an end—a telos—but a beginning: man’s end is his beginning. There is nothing he “ought” to become, no moral imperative. There is no purpose in man or nature; existence is therefore bereft of any rational principle. Contra Aristotle, Rousseau asserted that man by nature was not a social, political animal endowed with reason. What man has become is the result not of nature, but of accident. The society resulting from that accident has corrupted man.

According to Rousseau, man was originally isolated in the state of nature, where the pure “sentiment of his own existence” was such that “one suffices to oneself, like God.” Yet this self-satisfied god was asocial and pre-rational. Only by accident did man come into association with others. Somehow, this accident ignited his reason. And through his association with others, man lost his self-sufficient “sentiment of his own existence.” He became alienated. He began to live in the esteem of others instead of in his own self-esteem.

Rousseau knew that the pre-rational, asocial state of nature was lost forever, but thought that an all-powerful state could ameliorate the situation of alienated man. The state could restore a simulacrum of that original wellbeing by removing all man’s subsidiary social relationships. By destroying man’s familial, social, and political ties, the state could make each individual totally dependent on the state and independent of each other. The state is the vehicle for bringing people together so they can be apart: a sort of radical individualism under state sponsorship.

It is necessary to pay this much attention to Rousseau because Cage shares his denigration of reason, the same notion of alienation, and a similar solution to it. In both men, the primacy of the accidental eliminates nature as a normative guide and becomes the foundation for man’s total freedom. Like Rousseau’s man in the state of nature, Cage said, “I strive toward the nonmental.” His quest was to “provide a music free from one’s memory and imagination.” Life itself is very fine “once one gets one’s mind and one’s desires out of the way and lets it act of its own accord.”

But what is its own accord? Of music, Cage said, “The requiring that many parts be played in a particular togetherness is not an accurate representation of how things are” in nature, because in nature there is no order. In other words, life’s accord is that there is no accord. As a result, Cage desired “a society where you can do anything at all.” He warned that one has “to be as careful as possible not to form any ideas about what each person should or should not do.” He was “committed to letting everything happen, to making everything that happens acceptable.”

At the Stony Point experimental arts community where he spent his summers, Cage observed that each summer’s sabbatical produced numerous divorces. So, he concluded, “all the couples who come to the community and stay there end up separating. In reality, our community is a community for separation.” Rousseau could not have stated his ideal better. Nor could Cage have made the same point in his art more clearly. For instance, in his long collaboration with choreographer Merce Cunningham, Cage wrote ballet scores completely unconnected to and independent of Cunningham’s choreography. The orchestra and dancers rehearsed separately and appeared together for the first time at the premiere performance. The dancers’ movements have nothing to do with the music. The audience is left to make of these random juxtapositions what it will. There is no shared experience—except of disconnectedness. The dancers, musicians, and audience have all come together in order to be apart.

According to Cage, the realization of the disconnectedness of things creates opportunities for wholeness. “I said that since the sounds were sounds this gave people hearing them the chance to be people, centered within themselves where they actually are, not off artificially in the distance as they are accustomed to be, trying to figure out what is being said by some artist by means of sounds.” Here, in his own way, Cage captures Rousseau’s notion of alienation. People are alienated from themselves because they are living in others. Cage’s noise can help them let go of false notions of order, to “let sounds be themselves, rather than vehicles for man-made theories,” and to return within themselves to the sentiment of their own existence. Cage said, “Our intention is to affirm this life, not bring order out of chaos or to suggest improvements in creation, but simply to wake up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent. . . .”

That sounds appealing, even humble, and helps to explain Cage’s appeal. In fact, Cage repeatedly insisted on the integrity of external reality, which exists without our permission. It is a good point to make and, as far as it goes, protects us from solipsists of every stripe. Man violates this integrity by projecting meanings upon external reality that are not there. This, of course, is the distortion of reality at the heart of every modern ideology. For Cage, however, it is the inference of meaning itself that is the distorting imposition. This is the real problem with letting “sounds be themselves,” and letting other things be as they are, because it begs the question, “what are they?” Because of Cage’s groundwork in Rousseau, we cannot answer this question. What is the significance of reality’s integrity if it is not intelligible, if there is not a rational principle animating it? If creation does not speak to us in some way, if things are not intelligible, are we? Where does “leaving things as they are” leave us?

From the traditional Western perspective, it leaves us completely adrift. The Greco-Judeo-Christian conviction is that nature bespeaks an intelligibility that derives from a transcendent source. Speaking from the heart of that tradition, St. Paul in 1st Romans said, “ever since the creation of the world, the invisible existence of God and his everlasting power have been clearly seen by the mind’s understanding of created things.” By denigrating reason and denying creation’s intelligibility, Rousseau and Cage severed this link to the Creator. Cage’s espousal of noise is the logically apt result of this. Noise is incapable of pointing beyond itself. Noise is the black hole of the sound world. It sucks everything into itself. If reality is unintelligible, then noise is its perfect reflection because it too is unintelligible.

This does not mean there is not a form of spirituality in Cage. There is, but it is spiritual nihilism. Some of it may derive from Cage’s fascination with a form of Zen Buddhism: Cage’s cure for egotism is not humility, but the elimination of the ego. But Zen Buddhism does not lead to Cage’s ultimate destination. He was led there by Rousseau, whose conception of man’s autonomy spawned first the French

Revolution and then, through his notion of alienation, Marxism. It should therefore come as no surprise that Cage developed a revolutionary political program. Cage realized that his “work has stopped being purely musical. . . . I mix musical needs with social needs.” Noise, he discovered, can be used to destroy power: “I want to destroy it [power]. When I really began making music, I mean, composing ‘seriously,’ it was to involve myself in noise, because noises escape power, that is, the laws of counterpoint and harmony.” Noise’s property as a political dissolvent enhanced Cage’s appreciation of rock music: “in rock, the traditions are drowned in sound. Everything becomes confused—it’s wonderful!”

Cage was fooling himself if he thought he was destroying power; he was destroying order. Destroying order creates an opportunity for a certain type of power to ascend. What sort of power that might be became clear from Cage’s infatuation with Mao Tse-Tung’s totalitarianism. In the early 1980s, Cage said, “The Maoist model managed to free a quarter of humanity: that gives cause for thought. Today, without hesitation, I would say, for the moment, Maoism is our greatest reason for optimism.”

Antithetical to Cage’s view, Swiss writer Max Picard observed that in “sound itself, there is a readiness to be ordered by the spirit and this is seen at its most sublime in music.” As we have seen, Cage’s denial that sounds have any disposition to be ordered by the spirit led him away from far more than music. It may be unfashionable to go from the I Ching to the New Testament, but a few refreshing lines of clarity from St. Paul’s 1st Epistle to the Corinthians provide the needed anti-dote to Cage: “And even things with-out life giving sound, whether pipe or harp, except they give a distinction in the sounds, how shall it be known what is piped or harped? . . . [I]f I do not understand the meaning of the sound, I am a barbarian to the person who is speaking, and the speaker is a barbarian to me. . . . I had rather speak five words with my understanding, that by my voice I might teach others also, than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue.”

Robert R. Reilly


Robert R. Reilly is the author of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, forthcoming from Ignatius Press.

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