The structure of Cage’s freedom

Jan 9, 2009
Paper: Presentation of Cage as a meta-composer
Study Day at Orpheus Instituut/ORCiM, Gent, Belgium.
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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.

The structure of Cage’s freedom – On discipline, the ego and meta-composition

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

Understanding Cage is very often done from two opposite poles:

1) Newness, non-ego, non-intention NON-INTENTION

2) Structural analysis – how he went about to write his works. INTENTION

“I frequently say that I don’t have any purposes, and that I’m dealing with sounds, but that’s obviously not the case. On the other hand it is. That is to say, I believe that by eliminating purpose, what I call awareness increases. Therefore my purpose is to remove purpose.”[ref]Kostelanetz, Conversing with Cage, 231.[/ref]

1+2=3) Intentional movement towards non-intention.



There is an odd polarity in John Cage’s oeuvre between his inclination to perform disciplined chance operations and his strive towards freedom in any sense, may it be musical or personal liberation from the ego. As a matter of fact discipline and freedom are reciprocally dependent on each other. Without freedom, if the subject is deprived of the privilege to choose why she disciplines herself, discipline would turn into a meaningless ascetic activity. On the opposite side, and this is rather Cage’s focal point, there is no freedom without discipline. By composing through chance operations he tried to free himself of his ego. Without the disciplined actions, he was afraid that he would only express what he already knew. I Ching and the other chance methods he used to compose with were the precondition for something new to arise. This differs from the possibilities an improvising musician has. The improviser plays according to his likes and dislikes, that is, he performs what he already knows, whereas by performing disciplined actions a new musical situation could arise, one that went beyond the performer’s taste and thus was unthinkable without utilizing the instructions Cage prescribed. In this paper I will first look at the structure of Cage’s chance procedures in general. What are they? How can they come about? What kind of answer do different questions give, etc.? I will then go more specifically into how Cage tried to escape his ego through the Freeman Etudes, only to fail. I will elaborate a concept I call the ‘meta-composer’[ref]I owe my gratitude to professor Ivar Frounberg at the State Academy of Music inNorway for this concept.[/ref] and through this explain why Cage should be considered as a much more traditional composer than his reputation has it.


The structure of Cage’s questions:

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] Now, if a question is to give an answer, then 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.

From 1952 and onwards Cage very seldom worked primarily with sound but instead he spent a significant part of his life performing disciplined actions without any overt relation to music, such as tossing coins, rolling dices and spotting imperfections in paper. 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. Taken at face value, the coins or dices have little or nothing to say about sounds in a musical composition. Cage had several strategies to create this relation, which furthermore was the precondition for something new to occur.

By severing the music into basic parameters he could take charge of the music in a way an improviser or a traditional composer could not do. When an improviser makes something up he is unable to make certain combinations of the parameters since it does not make sense as a whole according to his musical imagination and taste. In a fixed score, on the other hand, the composer can manipulate a particular parameter without changing any others, which leads to a greater freedom for the composer than for the performer for whom the parameters are interdependent. Still, from Cage’s point of view, this is not good enough because the composer will be subjected to his own taste. Even if the composer was trying to neglect his taste or ego, all that could be achieved would be a negative of the taste rather than something completely new.

What Cage did was that he split the music up into different parameters or layers and then he subjected these to chance operations. By combining seemingly non-congruent entities, such as letting the imperfections of a paper, the shape of a rock, or tossed coins determine aspects of the structure of the music, he took a decisive step towards complete musical freedom and also towards letting new situations occur.

All the same, Cage could not succeed fully in relieving his compositions of his ego because he always had to pose the questions. He always had to create the translation key between results of the chance operations and the musical output. In other words, Cage composed indeed but his material was not set sound structures but rather premises on which the sounds of a composition would be chosen. Furthermore, and this is one of the most important points that I am advocating in my paper, from the way he forwarded many of the questions, it should be obvious that he must have been able to anticipate something of the result of the chance operations. Hence he should be considered as a composer; though through composing with questions and structures that selected the detailed musical material the term ‘meta-composer’ is probably more fitting than ‘composer’.

But let us fist see what Cage actually wanted to achieve and then from there discuss to what extent he managed to free his compositions of himself as a composer. The Freeman Etudes will provide a very clear example.


Freeman Etudes

In Freeman Etudes Cage and Paul Zukofsky, for whom the first etudes were written, tried to compile a complete list of possible violin stops RÄTT TERM?. Instead of trying to choose which stops to combine he put them into charts and let I Ching do the work for him. By letting chance work like this, combinations could arise that were inconceivable for a thinking and feeling ego with its consciously or unconsciously regulative taste. A condition for I Ching to really create new situations was that Cage accepted whatever outcome it produced so that his ego was left outside the composition, even if he would find the outcome detesting. At least this is how the conventional story about John Cage goes, but this is highly questionable. Even so, at this stage in my paper I acknowledge his chance operations as a means to write music that was assumingly unthinkable and that put him, as a listener, in a situation where he simply could not even understand what he himself had written. The latter was a point Cage expressed as an aim of his. He said that he wanted to “make a music which I don’t understand and which will be difficult for other people to understand, too”.[ref]Richard Kostelanetz, Conversing with Cage (New York: Routledge, 2003), 223.[/ref] As long as he could not understand what he heard, his music could be used as a “means of self-alteration, and what it alters is mind”.[ref]Ibid., 230.[/ref] Changing one’s mind did not mean to find a new understanding but to “accept THE??? uncertainties of change”.[ref] Ibid.[/ref] By using chance operations Cage could write a music that was ever changing without letting itself be subordinated in any causal categories like harmonic relations or formal schemes. Discipline was the condition and it led to freedom in composition and ego, and the same goes for listening to his music, which was a way to discipline oneself through hearing something that is not to be understood. Or was it really so? Well, a short and simple answer would be ‘no, he did not manage to free himself of his ego’, but that is not an interesting answer, so I will try to give a more elaborate one.


Intentional non-intention:

Cage frequently said that his intentions were to free himself and his music of intentions. There is a paradox at work here and the common way to solve it in Cage research is to read his praxis as a movement from intention towards non-intention, thus including both but emphasizing the latter. Here, I will turn it about and rather dwell on how his compositions started out with being put together by musically non-intentional building blocks that turned intentional as they were put into his compositions. I think this will present an unorthodox view of Cage and it will conclude negatively on the question of if he freed himself of his intentions or not. Though Cage saw the Freeman Etudes, the example that I will now deal with, as the antipode of 4’33’’ he also saw a common denominator between the two pieces, which he furthermore said was central to his work, “namely, to find ways of writing music where the sounds are free of my intentions.”[ref]KOLLA!!!!!!!!!!!!!! REF ibid. s. 231[/ref]

There are 32 of the Freeman Etudes and each one of them is a different result of the same chance procedure, or in other terms, each one is a different answer to the same question. The temporal flow and the grain of every musical event of the Freeman Etudes are laid down by letting star maps establish “the basic notes”.[ref]James Pritchett, «The Completion of John Cage’s Freeman Etudes,» Perspectives of New Music 32, no. 2 (1994): 266.[/ref] (KOLLA HUR!) Every basic note was to stand on its own or function as the basis of an aggregate. These are very deliberate compositional choices of Cage. Though the exact result of the chance operations was unknown to Cage, before the procedures were actually carried out, one can imagine how the piece will sound. The 32 etudes all have 84 bars each and the work is to be played in one consistent tempo from beginning to end. Cage proposes three seconds per bar but wants the performer to be as quick as possible. Since we know this we know something about how long the piece is going to be, which Cage also knew when the work was conceived. Furthermore, we can assume something about the temporal succession and about the irregularly leaping pitches through visualising a star map. We can assume that the temporal succession will not be regular, but this will not be to the extent that there are any extremely dense parts. The temporal succession will rather be characterized by striving towards equilibrium, just as the stars are spaced out in the universe. When it comes to pitches we can assume that it will be much less balanced than the temporal succession. A musical stave is much wider than it is high, and thus differences in height (pitch) will give rise to more significant audible variations than differences in the width (duration). At this stage we can also imagine that the etudes will have different characters given the density of the star map that is chosen to establish that particular etude’s basic notes. This will be most clearly heard in the temporal flow.

This technique of composing is very similar to the one he used in Atlas Ecpliticalis (1962) and Etudes Australes (1974-75). He used star maps in all three works and all of them consists of 32 parts (KOLLA ECPLI). The temporal flow and the way pitches are varied will be similar in these pieces because Cage used similar techniques. Even though Cage constantly tried to vary himself and his pieces, we see that the pieces have similarities within the large scale form and that Freeman Etudes will sound as if it was written in a similar style to that of Atlas Eclipticalis and Etudes Australes.[ref]JAG HADE FÖRST SKRIVIT: “and indeed there is a style.” LÅT DETTA FÖLJA MED I AVHANDLINGEN[/ref] Still, there will be differences in density and most of all in sound because Eclipticalis was written for an orchestra and Australes was written for solo piano. KIKA PÅ PARTITUREN. In other words, Cage wrote these pieces in a certain style which was varied through changes in density. MEROM KLANG?

That much about large scale form. When it comes to how the music sounds at shorter time spans, i.e. sound, articulation and character, an anticipation of the finished result could be derived from the setup of several technical aspects of violin playing as charted parameters. These performance instructions were to be determined through chance operations: “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]REF Pritchett: The Music of John Cage, s.198f.[/ref] In addition, he decided that the piece should not be played solely with purely intonated twelve chromatic tones but that it was to be a microtonal piece, though these notes were not independent but rather diverging variations from the chromatic scale. There were different ways of treating intonation. Some notes are to be played slightly out of pitch, and he operates with twelve different inflections of the basic pitch. Yet an aspect that was taken into consideration was that Cage gave a number for every written ricochet, and the number stated how many sounds to produce of the same note.[ref]John Cage, Freeman Etudes I-XVI. Books 1 & 2 (New York: Edition Peters. No. 66813a/b).; John Cage, Freeman Etudes XVII-XXXII. Books 3 & 4 (New York: Edition Peters 66813c/d). Se också James Pritchett, «John Cage: Freeman Etudes,»[/ref] All these parameters are also deliberate choices that stemmed from Cage’s mind or ego, though the exact presentation was pinned down by chance operations. Cage could have decided to use a certain combination of the above mentioned parameters and then change them in turn. Through chance operations he could have set rules for how the changes should occur. He could have decided that one parameter would change every 1-8 bars, and then he could use I Ching to set the number of bars that were to pass before it changed and I Ching could also decide which parameter that was to change. This would produce a sound of the piece that was somewhat homogenous, though with variations. But Cage made another decision, namely to let the articulation of every aggregate be given its articulation individually. In practice, what happened through this is that Cage decided that the sound and character of every event stemming from a basic note should sound heterogeneous, almost chaotic. Points like these about how Cage composed or meta-composed through his deliberate choices could be taken even further, going into his decisions about single parameters of articulation, but it is time to conclude my paper.



The whole practice of dealing with parameters is highly paradoxical. On the one side, the parameters are the precondition for changing single aspects of a musical event and the combination thereof, and this practice allows for a type of music to be written that any pragmatic relation to composition or improvisation would not render. On the other hand it is peculiar that Cage, the touchstone of anarchistic composition, deconstructed music in a fashion that may seem highly intellectual, which is contrary to his wish to dispose of the ego, not to mention how an intellectual and thus discriminatory stance is incompatible with his non-dualist way of conceiving reality. I suggest that we think of Cage from two different vantage points. First we have him as the traditional composer that dealt with sounds, although he tried to avoid establishing any relations between them, and then we try thinking about him as a meta-composer, who rather dealt with the conditions and circumstances under which forms and sounds were combined. As a traditional composer he did make unforeseen events arise. Here the parameter thinking is problematic since it represents a foreign element in his anarchistic compositional freedom. On the other hand, as a meta-composer Cage did not explicitly deal with sounds or sound events. He rather composed with types of large scale form, with variations, with patterns of likeliness etc.

I am inclined to see Cage primarily as this kind of meta-composer. From this stance, the definition of a parameter and how it is to be dealt with in a composition and in relation to other parameters is meaningful, just as a particular sound event is considered meaningful to a traditional composer. What matters less is the exact outcome of the chance operations. The point is that Cage has composed with the likeliness of the outcome of certain densities of the parameters. Cage once asked rhetorically: “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.[/ref] Well, he was a master questioner, and as I mentioned that Suzuki said, who Cage very often paraphrased: “the very asking is more than half the answering.”[ref]Suzuki, Essays 2, 74. För en liten diskurs om Cage och frågor, se: Perloff and Junkerman, «Introduction,» 1-3.[/ref] Cage composed through asking questions. Still, his purpose was not to inflict anything particular into his compositions but to remove purpose. His intention was to free himself of the intentions he had. He wished not to act with his ego but rather to witness occurring events. As a composer he was doomed to ask questions and opening his mouth, no matter how much chance was put to work, he did act and thus changed reality rather than merely observe it as it was before anything had happened to it.

By focusing on Cage as a meta-composer, we can start discussing what makes the Cagean style, something that is neglected in Cage research. We can also gain a proper understanding of what his practice as a composer was about. Once asked to summarize his philosophy, Cage answered: “Get out of whatever cage you find yourself in.”[ref]John Cage, For the Birds. John Cage in Conversation with Daniel Charles (Boston and London: Marion Boyars, 1995), 239.[/ref] Cage’s career as a composer was a lifelong failed struggle to free himself of John Cage. All he did was to take one step further back from the composition and the role of the composer, and he thus turned himself into a meta-composer.



Not a question about either Composer or Meta-composer. He was both. More about balance

A simple fact: Cage was a composer (what he did, loving sounds, pragmatic, for-the-kicks)

But why did he not just write down what he liked, chaos, how he could envisage that the piece would sound?

Chance may be blind but it cannot act blindly within music. Cage explains this clearly in conjunction with Theatre Piece (1960), in which the performers are to write their own performance instructions. At one performance, one of the musicians asked Cage if he could not walk the easy path and just do anything. He reasoned that it would probably sound the same at any rate. Cage explains:


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]Kostelanetz, Conversing with Cage, 235. I will deal several times with “Letter to Zurich”, but I also wish to draw attention to how he in “John Cage and the Glaswegian Circus” tells that he was “unhappy, and even disturbed” by musicians that played Five “incorrectly”. Furthermore he says that the correct action from his part would be to interrupt the performance “and explained to the audience that the piece was not being played correctly, then told the players what to do.” Turner and Cage, «Glaswegian Circus,» 5. His ego was indeed very present in his compositions.[/ref]


As a spiritual practitioner it was important to aim at what he did not know. An impossibility since: No search without utterance, no question without utterance.

Even so, through trying he could arrive at something that “resembled” something unforeseen. He about aspects of the outcome of the piece but not about the details. Other times, such as in open form works, it could be that he knew about the material but not of the form.

One reason to the constant attempt at creating something new as the 1700 koans. Another reason was because he was simply curious on sounds.

Go back to quote where he emphasizes “the discovery”

Newness can be repeated, so he had to write with different kinds of newness (not several MoC but different compositional means).

Talks of pieces as more or less like commodities (not his term).

With Suzuki’s words: “the koan is compared to a piece of brick used to knock at a gate; when the gate is opened the brick is thrown away. The koan is useful as long as the mental doors are closed, but when they are opened it may be forgotten.”[ref]Suzuki, Essays 2, 98.[/ref]

MoC was only useful as long as it was chaotic. When he could follow the “melodies” he could throw the brick away.

From object to process

Not the piece but the experience of the piece

Meeting the new, what can not be grasped intellectually, no beginning, middle, end


The Cagean experience


The Cagean experience denotes a possibility for composer, musician, and listener alike. Their activities may seem unlike, but even for the composer and the performer, it all comes down to setting themselves in a mind state resembling how the open listener meets what she does not understand, a listener that even ventures for what cannot be understood.

Though it is not possible to enfold Cage’s paradoxical music, there is much to say on the structure of the senseless. Underlying the diverse expressions of his practice is a common goal, and understanding this is furthermore a precondition to achieve an adequate understanding of how Cage’s often paradoxical utterances are to be interpreted. No matter which stance we take on Cage, if we see his project as deconstructive or affirmative, if we focus on pieces with a set sound structure, or if we emphasize open form pieces with instructions, Cage had a similar aim with all of his works, at least this is true from the fifties an onwards. The aim was that the pieces should make possible a mental change to the composer, performer and listener.[ref]Another example of Goehr’s turn since 1992 concerns this topic (see also footnote: 18). In 2008 she distinguishes between “occasions for rather than of experience (Erfahrungen rather than Erlebnisse). In occasions of experience, one would always know what would happen in advance of the actual experiencing of the experience, rendering the actual experience unnecessary. In Cage’s happenings, by contrast, one would genuinely not know, musically at least, for what one was buying a ticket and that surely was liberating, especially because it would make the actual having of the experience one again necessary.” Goehr, Elective Affinities. Musical Essays on the History of Aesthetic Theory, 120.[/ref] The structure of the music should facilitate for the participant to partake in the music as a process. At times it may seem as if sound structures as such were arbitrary to Cage. Yet other times he exercised an influence on the music and reception thereof that may seem irreconcilable with his wish to liberate the music from his intentions. Even so, he always aimed at opening up for a possible experience. This experience derives from the musical material though it is not identical to it. In other words, music does not express, it merely happens. The experience does not come from understanding music’s expression. Instead, when music avoids expression the listener is faced with a situation outside what she encounters in her everyday life.[ref]That Cage at times controlled the outcome of his music may seem to contradict that music is non-expressive. The question is open to debate, but it is conceivable that Cage at times let I Ching construct the possibilities of experience whereas he at other times had a clear preconceived view on how music could avoid expression.
Avoiding expression in order to express may sound Adornoesque. Though the German philosopher expressed hostility towards Cage, extremes often meet, and I will point out some other likenesses in the course of my thesis.[/ref]

According to Cage’s religious views, the extra-normal is not a construction but rather an instance of reality as it is, in a similar fashion to how a haiku can point to reality. The analogue to a haiku is also apt because the reality that is shown can only be experienced; it cannot be understood. The music is a mere pointing finger. It does not express what it points against.

I have chosen to call the experience that Cage’s music points toward ‘the Cagean experience’. The reason why I choose to coin a term is because there is an underlying structure that is common to the expressions of the experience, no matter if it involves the composer, performer or listener, or any combination thereof. The experience has two reciprocal characteristics. The first is that the participant encounters a frame of references which she is unable to grasp. The second characteristic of the Cagean experience concerns the frame as such, and that is that the frame changes with the participant’s response to it. I will explicate what this in short can mean to the listener, performer and composer.

1) To the listener, Cage’s post 4’33’’-music is almost always about encountering a structure that does not make sense. The structure is non-linear, the music lacks expression and if there are references to sounds that are usually to be found outside of music, they are deprived of their ordinary reference. If there are references to traditional musical sounds, then they are also deprived of their signifying force. Listening to Cage is not about understanding something external such as the Composition or its expression, but it is about coming to terms with the situation in which the listener finds himself. It is about accepting that there is nothing to understand. Though Cage started out by wanting to include sounds that are traditionally considered non-musical into his music, he later changed his frame of reference. If one listens to Inlets as a work that has expanded the possible musical sounds, then one will most likely be bored after a while because as a composition it is static and seems to lack content. Instead the Cagean experience presupposes that the listener hears the sound of the water filled conches as profound and sufficient as such. There is no narrative or expression to the sound. There is only the fact that at that very moment, there is sound coming from the conches, and that sound is profound. If the listener gets to know a piece so well that he can anticipate what is coming up, then the piece has lost its value. It is then a solved koan. In short: listening to Cage’s music is to come to terms with that there is no understanding to arrive at. It is not about thinking or knowing with one’s intellect that such is the case, but it is about accepting and enjoying the situation that music has taken the listener into.

2) As a composer Cage put himself in a position similar to that of the listener. After making some initial decisions he withdrew his control of the material and let it act on its own. The questions he initially asked were what generated the final result, and in the process of generating Cage merely acted like a bureaucrat that administrated his executives’ (the initial questions) decisions. Cage could not interfere with the outcome of the piece. His mission was to make sure that the material was generated in accordance with the initial questions, hence depriving him of the possibility to infuse the music with his taste and make it expressive.[ref]I will later deal in length with his relationship to Boulez, but here is a crucial point at which the two composers’ ways were divided. Later Boulez came to see his serialism in Structures 1a not as “Total but Totalitarian”. But it took him many years to draw that conclusion. At the time being, he first saw the faults of others music, such as Cage’s which apparently betrayed “fascist tendencies”. (Alex Ross, The Rest is Noice. Listening to the Twentieth Century (New York: Ferrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007), 370.) His own works, on the other hand, slowly shifted emphasis from total(ist)-serialist composition towards “indiscipline – a freedom to choose, to decide, and to reject”, though all of this was made within a serialist paradigm. Cage on the other hand would probably agree that Boulez’ conduct was totalitarian, but when it came to his own practice he was unwilling to compromise with his strict respect of the outcome of his chance operations, and thereby they were similar in some sense.[/ref] This conduct applies to works that are written out in detail, such as Music of Changes, Freeman Etudes, Atlas Eclipticalis and Etudes Australes. Though, in most cases Cage withdraws one further step from the composition. In Musicircus the time brackets gave the exact moment for when the performer was to start and stop playing, though what the performer played, within certain limits, was up to the performer to select. With numerous players pouring their disciplined intention into the musical situation simultaneously, new unexpected musical situations will be generated. Another way is the Number Pieces where start and stop is executed within an interval, generating new combinations of events sounding together and diffusing time. There are yet other types of instances, such as when he makes initial decisions like deciding that the melodic contour would be derived from the shape of a rock, and then he lets the performer be the bureaucrat that translates the instructions into sound. Finally there are extreme instances like Variations IV where Cage instructs the performers on how to generate their own instructions (this simplification will be discussed at later stages). In this case Cage asks initial questions that render the basis for asking secondary questions. With the secondary questions the performers turn into cooperating composers[ref]They would be called ’Co-Creative Musicians’ at theNorwegianAcademy of Music.[/ref] all the while they are bureaucratic performers executing the given instructions.

From the composer’s point of view there are two ways we could say that he is having a Cagean experience. First the composer is turned into a listener of the music. He gives a set of instructions that will have synergetic effects that cannot be anticipated. But Cage has the experience of the synergetic material in common with both listener and performer. What was unique to him as a composer is that he too had to subordinate to his own questions. Cage compared the activity of composing with meditation.

3) Finally we have the performer. I have already dealt with how the performer is turned into a listener and composer. What is unique to the listener’s Cagean experience is that by subordinating to the instructions the performer can, at best, bring forth musical events that were inconceivable to a thinking intellect. The occasions are numerous where Cage emphasizes that the musician must play without involving his ego and taste. Cage facilitated this through writing music that will not make sense from an expressive point of view. The performer had to make choices within given frames, and through exercising the instructions, new situations could arise that the performer could not anticipate. At rare occasions Cage spoke of the practice process as a way of letting the performer change his mind, such as he did concerning Irvine Arditti studying the Freeman Etudes.

It should by now be clear that the work is not about its ontology, but the work is rather an instance that makes certain musical nonsensical events possible. This is starting to be acknowledged within Cage research. In Elective Affinities, Goehr writes: “The question no longer asks in an ontological vein what makes musical and natural sound different or the same; instead, it asks psychologically how we can come to experience the natural world through music in the right naturalistic way.”[ref]Goehr, Elective Affinities. Musical Essays on the History of Aesthetic Theory, 94. This is another clear example of how Goehr has changed her understanding of Cage since 1992.[/ref] Earle Brown also expressed that Cage was interested in a turn from sound to attitude saying: “John is more involved with the potentials of performer’s minds”.[ref]Dickinson, ed., CageTalk. Dialogues with and about John Cage, 145. This is not sheer fantasy from Brown’s side, but he claims that Cage endorsed his interpretation: “I said to John, “What you’re saying is that you’re not really interested in music but are writing experimental psychological and sociological works, experimenting with people’s minds.” And he said, “Yes””. Dickinson, ed., CageTalk. Dialogues with and about John Cage, 145.[/ref] Even so, one must be careful not to understand the nonsense of Cage’s practice as an end in itself, as if the expressive content of the music that proves a philosophical point.[ref]Brown explains Cage’s practice as manipulative. It was a question of whether “he can get them [the performers and probably listeners as well although they are not explicitly mentioned] to do what he wants them to do.” Dickinson, ed., CageTalk. Dialogues with and about John Cage, 145.[/ref] That is a simplification that does not do Cage’s music justice. The nonsense is rather a precondition and a means through which the listener can have her Cagean experiences, but neither the experiences nor the structure of the nonsense are the ends of music. The meaning is in having the experiences but they will be ever changing and it is not possible to make a taxonomy of the psychological experiences that constitutes a musical meaning.


Now, to facilitate for this to happen, Cage had to ask questions. He had to make music where parts of the outcome was unforeseen; but to do this, the questions were essential, and thus he also knew something about what would come out of his creative practice. That takes us back to meta-composition. To arrive at something un-intentional he had to have the intention to get there. And having that intention, Cage said “I believe that by eliminating purpose, what I call awareness increases. Therefore my purpose is to remove purpose.”[ref]Kostelanetz, Conversing with Cage, 231.[/ref] And as awareness increases, we are yet again within the discussion of the Cagean experience. And now, we are at the very end of my presentation.

Thank you!



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

———. For the Birds. John Cage in Conversation with Daniel Charles. Boston and London: Marion Boyars, 1995.

———. Freeman Etudes I-XVI. Books 1 & 2. New York: Edition Peters. No. 66813a/b.

———. Freeman Etudes XVII-XXXII. Books 3 & 4. New York: Edition Peters 66813c/d.

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 Completion of John Cage’s Freeman Etudes.» Perspectives of New Music 32, no. 2 (1994): 264-270.

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