How Cage structured creativity, why Bach was a follower of Cage, and how all this comes together in a general theory of creativity

April 23-24, 2009
Paper: ”How Cage structured creativity, why Bach was a follower of Cage, and how all this comes together in a general theory of creativity”.
Conference: ”The Musician’s Act of Creation”
Venue: Orpheus Instituut/ORCiM, Gent, Belgium.
Scroll down to read or download: Abstract.
Scroll down to read or download: Paper.

NB! The abstracts and papers are works-in-progress. Papers are meant to be read and may not always make sense without supporting sound/demonstration. Some papers/abstracts may contain my own personal notes for delivery. Also, the abstracts published here are the proposals sent to the conferences where the papers/presentations were later delivered. Abstracts and papers may therefore differ to the extent that they deal with different topics.

How Cage structured creativity, why Bach was a follower of Cage, and how all this comes together in a general theory of creativity – abstract

Although Cage in his scores often left much to decide for the performers, he clearly expressed his skepticism towards improvisation. Cage thought that improvising musicians were slaves to their memory and taste, which limited their creativity to merely arranging what they already knew. If the musician instead successfully performs disciplined chance operations, she will both be hindered from repeating what she already knows, but more important, she will create something new.
Cage was in no understanding of the word ‘anti-intellectual’. The contrary was rather true. The fundamental precondition to make chance work in his compositions was that he severed music into parameters, which had a similar severing effect on the workings of our logical and discursive intellect. In everyday logic, questions and answers are related. Cage’s most often used strategy was to make incommensurable entities work together. The musicians were often supposed to derive their own instructions, or they could use the shape of a rock, transparent circles, or perhaps any everyday action as determinants of the sounding outcome of a composition. As the performer uncompromisingly subordinated to the instructions, the musician’s memory and taste proves inadequate and the performer is pushed to find hitherto un-thought of musical possibilities.
Discipline and structure are absolute prerequisites to be creative in the Cagean sense. Through structuring the musical events prior to performance (i.e. creating keys and legends to make incommensurable and perhaps non-musical entities communicate), and through subordinating to the instructions of the composition (i.e. forcing the intellect to work in unconventional ways), the musician can challenge her creativity.
Bach’s Die Kunst der Fuge will also be examined through the same lens as Cage’s post-4’33’’ oeuvre.[ref] The understanding of Bach that is essential to my cross reading of the two masters is not originally mine. See: Erling. E. Guldbrandsen, ”Die Kunst der Fuge og skriftens flukt”, in EST XI. Gåter. Grunnlagsproblemer i estetisk forskning, ed. Karin Gundersen and Ståle Wikshåland (Oslo: Norges forskningsråd, 1995).[/ref] Prior to composing some fugues, Bach made decisions about how to combine his themes and counterpoints, in manners so complicated that not even Father Bach himself could have performed something similar in real-time improvisation. As the parallel with Cage is highlighted, the question will be raised whether the structure of Cage’s work with chance can serve as a general theory of creativity, a theory not only applicable to performance. This theory comprises identification of, and decisions concerning how, to make unconventional parameters work together, and the disciplined performance of the previously determined upon structure.

Magnus Andersson is a research fellow at the Norwegian Academy of Music and a member of ORCiM (Orpheus Research Centre in Music) in Gent, Belgium. His dissertation on John Cage is written and will be defended in the fall of 2009. Andersson has also a background as a professional pianist, and as a musicologist he more and more works with questions from the musician’s point of view. He is currently lecturing at the Norwegian Academy of Music, and works as a music critic for the Norwegian newspaper Morgenbladet.

How Cage structured creativity, why Bach was a follower of Cage, and how all this comes together in a general theory of creativity – paper presentation

By Magnus Andersson, research fellow at the Norwegian Academy of Music and member of ORCiM

Why should one bother to follow Cage’s meticulous instructions? Why should one spend time working out chance operations of one’s own and then perform them? If it’s just going to sound like chance, why not just play something at random? On a question similar to this, concerning Theatre Piece, Cage answered:

Well, if they do just anything, then they do what they remember or what they like, and it becomes evident that that’s the case, and the performance and the piece is not the discovery that it could have been had they made a disciplined use of chance operations.[ref]Richard Kostelanetz, Conversing with Cage (New York: Routledge, 2003), 235.[/ref]

In one sense one could say that Cage points the attention away from how something sounds towards experience. In another sense, one could say that his disciplined chance operations served to give rise to new sounds. The latter was essential to Cage. Using ever new chance operations in his compositions, and obliging the performer to conduct his own work with chance, were to vouch for the emergence of occurrence of new and unforeseen musical events. In this paper I will question the governing principles of Cage’s chance operations. I believe that Cage’s chance operations are not a private idiosyncrasy of his, but that they rather describe how creativity at large is structured. Cage was not just an avant-garde composer that turned away from traditional compositional craftsmanship. As I entangle how Cage structured his work, I hope to show that Johann Sebastian Bach, a paramount example of excellent craftsmanship, to a certain extent structured his own creativity in a similar vein as Cage did. As these structures are untangled, I will discuss how they are used by the performers that we often call creative, with or without the performer’s awareness of them.

Cage was not very fond of the word improvisation. He argued that an improviser is a servant to his memory and his taste. When one improvises, one makes decisions based on one’s experience. Is that not well then? No, not if you are after creating something new and unforeseen. Let us assume that you improvise over a tonal melody; then you will be bound by ideas about which harmonies are adequate to that melody. Of course, we may think that you try to escape that tonality; that you try to do something altogether different. This improvisation will still be dependent on your memory and your taste, because what you present is a negation of what you already know. Your preferences will always serve as your point of departure. Cage’s method was to sever the music into parameters. If we concentrate on pitch, duration and harmony and think them as separate, Cage’s idea was that you change the parameters independent of each other. But that presents a problem to the improviser. If you change certain pitches in a melody or if you add notes, chances are that you will also change the rhythm to make it go together in the metre of the music, and perhaps you will have difficulties to change the pitch without also changing the tonal structure of the piece to make sure that the new melody goes well with the harmonies. So, Cage’s remedy of severing music into parameters was perhaps not of such great value for the performer, and perhaps we can understand Cage’s scepticism towards improvisation taken into account that it was of such great importance to Cage to create something new.
On the other hand, to Cage as a composer it must have been excellent. Through writing, the composer can indeed change one single aspect of music without letting others follow. As a surgeon or even as a God of music, the composer can change pitches, add durations, and colour harmonies without making the parameters affect each other. A musician that then practices the piece would be better equipped than an improviser to perform the same structure. Even so, this was not enough to Cage because of the basis on which the composer changed the parameters. To Cage, the composer was always the servant of his ego, i.e. of his memory and taste. The composer can in some respects come closer than the improvising musician to make something new arise, but what happens can never be truly unforeseen as it is always the composer that makes the decisions of which parameters to change. This is where chance operations get into the picture.
If Cage could let chance determine how the musical parameters should behave, then he would be free from his ego, wouldn’t he, and would not that also vouch for that unforeseen musical events arose since it was not the composer Cage that made the decisions, but it was perhaps dices or shapes of rocks that determined the exact outcome of a composition? Well, perhaps that is true under certain circumstances.
In every question the answer is latent, or, as Cage’s most influential spiritual teacher Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki put it: “the very asking is more than half the answering.”[ref]Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki, Essays in Zen Buddhism. Second Series (New Delhi: Munishram Manoharlal Publishers, 2004), 74. A little discourse on Cage and questions is found in: Marjorie Perloff and Charles Junkerman, «Introduction,» in John Cage Composed in America, ed. Marjorie Perloff and Charles Junkerman (Chicago: The University Press of Chicago, 1994), 1-3.[/ref] If one asks for an either-or, if one asks whether a piece should be loud or soft, then one knows that the piece will not be mf. This could be applied to far more complicated chance operations, such as the ones in Cage’s Freeman Etudes. The pieces are horrendously difficult to play and they also sound rather chaotic. Even so, are they not chaotic in a certain fashion? Yes they are. Cage used star charts to map out what he called “basic notes”. From selecting a particular star chart, Cage knew something about the disposition of events. Cage then, in collaboration with the violinist Paul Zukofsky, divided violin playing into as many parameters as possible. Subsequently: “Staccato and legato, up- and downbows, bowing locations and styles, tremolos, vibratos, a wide variety of martellato attacks, and so forth were all determined individually for every single note in the piece”.[ref]James Pritchett, The Music of John Cage (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 198f.[/ref] From his way of submitting these parameters to chance, we can to a certain extent imagine what the piece would sound like. Of course we are not able to hum the melody, but we can vaguely imagine what the chaos of the piece would sound like. There are other parameters as well that could be taken into consideration here. Cage decided that the piece was to be microtonal, and there were twelve ways of giving notes different inflections.
Where does this leave us? In my research on Cage I have tried to establish the term ‘meta-composition’ to discuss how Cage determined frames of function and how chance subsequently established the exact sound structure. Integral in the idea of meta-composition is a strive away from Cage’s ego, but as he must always pose a question, he will always fail to become absolutely free of his memory, taste, mind and ego. But the question of success or failure is not of interest here. Even so, by scrutinizing Cage’s questions we learn much about creativity.
If we now look back to the perhaps commonplace example of improvising over a tonal melody, I believe that we can say that the Freeman Etudes is a much more elaborate attempt at making unforeseen events occur. Why is that so? Because: Cage took such great care in formulating the questions that his chance operations were to answer. True, the questions can never fully relieve Cage from his ego, but through having the idea of making star charts so to speak compose or at least lay out a composition, Cage went far in making something new arise. Even so, any question could not make this happen.
If the very asking is more than half the answering, then there must be a relation between questioning and answering. The question must deal within an entity that in one way or the other, even if it is only metaphorically, can have something to say about the answer. The question that for example an equation poses is answered by determining the value of units like x’s and y’s. Question and answer are related and thus meaningful, whereas if the equation question would be “solved” by stating a colour or naming the capital of a foreign country, there would be no such relation and the answer would not be adequate or meaningful to the question. But in a sense it was the latter that Cage did. If we ask about the reasons for why capitalist bastards exploit proletarians and alienate them from what they produce, we have restricted the possible answers. We could say that this is how a primitive improviser thinks. What Cage tried to do was to ask questions where there was no salient relationship between x’s and y’s, where there was no connection from question and answer. He did it by tossing coins, rolling dices and spotting imperfections in paper, just to mention a few methods. In order to make these actions meaningful in a musical context, Cage had on beforehand created keys and legends so that the coins, dices or whatever chance methods he used could be understood in his musical context. What Cage did was to let non-musical entities serve as pointers towards the sound structure of Cage’s music, and the non-musical entities were what triggered his creativity.
Underneath this lies that Cage let go of control. He did so by asking questions. As the rock shape answered, he obliged to the result and worked further in accordance to the answer. Asking questions and acknowledging the answers he got are features found in the core of Cage’s creativity and artistry. Cage said:
Instead of representing my control, they [the compositions] represent questions that I’ve asked and the answers that have been given by means of chance operations [c.f. meta-composition]. I’ve merely changed my responsibility from making choices to asking questions. It’s not easy to ask questions.[ref]Kostelanetz, Conversing with Cage, 228. See also: John Cage, «An Autobiographical Statement (1989),» in John Cage, Writer, ed. Richard Kostelanetz (New York: Cooper Square Press, 2000), 241-242.; and Peter Dickinson, ed., CageTalk. Dialogues with and about John Cage (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2006), 205.[/ref]
He also once laconically asked: Why do they call me a composer, then, if all I do is ask questions?”[ref]John Cage, «Composition as Process,» in Silence (London: Marion Boyars, 1999), 48. The question was not merely rhetorical. In 1989-90 he saw the act of asking questions as his new compositional paradigm: “I compose music. Yes, but how? I gave up making choices. In their place I put the asking of questions.” John Cage, I-VI. MethodStructureIntentionDisciplineNotationIndeterminacyInterpenetrationImitationDevotionCircumstancesVariableStructureNonunderstandingContingencyInconsistencyPerformance (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1990), 1.[/ref] Well, is that not what all composers do to a certain extent? Understanding Cage is to understand how he structured his questions, and arguably, learning how to ask questions will turn us into more creative artists. Now, without doubt Cage was a unique composer and there is no Cagean school that has followed him. Even so, I believe that the structure of his creativity has been used from the dawn of civilization, and I believe that through explicating the structure we may arrive at tools that may develop us as musicians, improvisers, composers, or whatever kind of artists we are. Even so, there is one significant difference. Cage wanted to turn away from his ego, and he did not want his music to tell any stories. I believe that this is contrary to how most artists think of their work, but that does not change the creative model. Let us now briefly discuss how Bach asked his questions in Die kunst der Fuge.
As we all know, musical life was not as specialized in Bach’s times as it is today. A fugue could just as well be improvised as written down. Arguably, one could even think of the written fugue as a substitute for the improvisation, as an example of different improvisational realizations of fugues or as substitute for those that were unable improvise such a rather complicated structure themselves. Die Kunst der Fuge was written as a theoretical treatise???and there is where the creative potential of the work lies. The idea was to create a catalogue of possible combinations manners to treat the themes of a fugue. That was the question. Bach first set down the idea, and we could argue to what extent that idea was musical or extra-musical, or whether it was practical or theoretical. I propose that we here see that the idea sprung from his mind rather than from his practice as an organist. Some of the ways he combined themes would be so difficult to perform in practice through improvisation that even the skills of father Bach would most likely be insufficient. In this sense, improvisation was not enough, but just as Cage needed the possibility to change the course of his compositions in writing through chance, Bach needed his intellect and he needed to fix the structures on paper and through trial-and-error to arrive at the wished for result.
Just as Cage asked for which technical aspects of violin playing there were and then submitted them to chance operations, so did Bach ask for the ways in which a fugue could be structured. Had he answered the question through performance, he would most likely have arrived at different answers, and the most complicated polyphonic work would never have been performed. Instead, his composition resulted in sound events that a performing mind could not envisage.
Let us now revise the theory of creativity somewhat. With Die Kunst der Fuge as an example, we do not have a piece of music that tries to put the shape of a rock into musical sound. But what we do have is a very intelligent way of asking questions. We have an unconventional question that is answered through the composition. Prior to writing the piece, Bach questions the structure of his questions. This is the essential precondition to make the new arise and to be creative. Another way of describing what both Bach and Cage did was that they found limitations through which they worked themselves through. One could compare it with a chess problem in which all pieces are eliminated but the ones that are essential to demonstrate the ones that are involved in the problem. Then the problem could perhaps be to capture all the opponent’s pieces through consecutive moves with the knight. This is not much unlike writing a symphonic movement based on a single interval of a falling third, where the first note is repeated three times (knock-knock), or to write a samba melody on a single repeated note. It is not unlike limiting the musical progression to particular uses of the twelve chromatic notes, not unlike using a single melody that is repeated throughout the piece in different orchestrations and crescendoing all the time. It is not unlike deciding to use two keys simultaneously, or to be the first one to decide to improvise on a particular chord progression instead of over melodies. The last example leads us back to the poor improvising musicians that are not to be left as scapegoats of this paper.
When Cage criticized improvising musicians, he had the free-jazz of the early fifties in mind. Despite the prefix ‘free’, this music was heavily burdened by conventions, and it was those conventions that Cage objected to. When Cage asked the performers of his Theatre Piece to heed to his instructions, it was to give them an opportunity to silence their conventional thinking around music. It was to give them new structures to work within, and those structures would present something new both in terms of sound structures and in terms of experiences for the musicians that perform the music. To Cage that was how creative improvisation should be conducted. It should be a disciplined action based on intricate questioning. Cage was far less critical to the word improvisation later in life. He must have seen the many creative ways of relating to what spontaneously happen in the moment. There are indeed geniuses that are able to create something new as they go along playing their music, but I believe that this is always based on thorough knowledge, or put in Duke Ellington’s words: “There has never been anybody who has blown even two bars worth listening to who didn’t have some idea about what he was going to play, before he started.”[ref]Bruce Ellis Benson, The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue. A Phenomenology of Music (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 142.[/ref] Without prior knowledge or experience, the best an improviser could hope for is to produce a cliché. By using the knowledge for what it is worth, the musician can produce something impressive, and with a strong enough command over the material, and with the ability to ask adequate questions, the musician make the music alive and fresh with unique combinations of the musical parameters.
Is this theory of creativity as the ability to ask interesting questions then only applicable to improvisers and composers? By no means, and the early music movement provide us with an excellent examples. People that dismiss the movement altogether are scarce these days, but just a decade ago, not to mention when it all started, the opponents were many and aggressive in their criticism. For the musician, the creative structures were the same as with Bach’s Die Kunst der Fuge or with Cage’s work with chance. There were ways of playing Bach that the musicians knew. Then one started accumulating knowledge about how the music was performed in Bach’s time. It was discovered for example that the constant legato and playing all the notes at their full length was not how the music was performed in the 18th century. But the knowledge did not fit the picture one had at the time. The unconventional was as appalling for many people’s taste as the shape of a rock was an appropriate foundation for the musical form of a piece of music. The knowledge was the limitation put to music. It was the chess problem to solve, and in short, the problem was: how can we make music come alive with the imperatives of the baroque period mediated through the treatises? Precisely as Cage spoke of making discoveries and that this concerned both sound structure and how musicians related to it, so did the musicians not only create new interpretations, but they forced people to change their listening because the music did not sound well according to the standards of that time.
In a nutshell, creativity is about the ability to ask unconventional questions and giving these questions answers that combine expressive elements in unconventional ways. I believe that is the basic structure of most if not of all creativity, and that it applies to composer, performer, improviser, and even to how a listener organize what she hears. If we are able to formulate these questions, then we can sincerely make something unforeseen and interesting occur, and with Cage we can wish the listener: “Happy new ears!”


Benson, Bruce Ellis. The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue. A Phenomenology of Music. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Cage, John. «An Autobiographical Statement (1989).» In John Cage, Writer, edited by Richard Kostelanetz, 237-247. New York: Cooper Square Press, 2000.

———. «Composition as Process.» In Silence, 18-56. London: Marion Boyars, 1999.

———. I-VI. MethodStructureIntentionDisciplineNotationIndeterminacyInterpenetrationImitationDevotionCircumstancesVariableStructureNonunderstandingContingencyInconsistencyPerformance. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1990.

Dickinson, Peter, ed. CageTalk. Dialogues with and about John Cage. Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2006.

Kostelanetz, Richard. Conversing with Cage. New York: Routledge, 2003.

Perloff, Marjorie, and Charles Junkerman. «Introduction.» In John Cage Composed in America, edited by Marjorie Perloff and Charles Junkerman, 1-13. Chicago: The University Press of Chicago, 1994.

Pritchett, James. The Music of John Cage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Suzuki, Daisetz Teitaro. Essays in Zen Buddhism. Second Series. New Delhi: Munishram Manoharlal Publishers, 2004.