Overcoming Preconceptions


Frank J. Oteri, Editor and Publisher
Frank J. Oteri
Photo by Melissa Richard

I was lucky to have had two brief encounters with John Cage that were both defining moments though in very different ways.

The first time I met John Cage was at a bookstore in Greenwich Village where he was autographing copies of his new book For The Birds. I was in high school and had just discovered his music while my peers were telling me that the greatest musical revolutionaries were The Clash and Blondie. On line in front of me was a standard uniform punk rocker—Mohawk, slashed leather jacket with requisite safety pins—who proceeded to kneel in front of Cage exclaiming that he was the inspiration for all of punk rock. Cage, in characteristic Zen fashion, sat motionless with a sanguine smile.

The second time was somewhat less valedictory. A few years later, I was up at SUNY Purchase for the premiere of one of Cage’s Europeras, a production I was finding only slightly less irritating than the accompanying program notes which definitively proclaimed that this masterpiece was the last opera anyone ever needed to write. During intermission I leaned over to the friend with whom I was attending the performance and launched into one of my typical over-the-top blathering tirades only to discover a few minutes later that John Cage was sitting directly behind us. Cage, still completely in character, he said absolutely nothing, but neither did I for the remainder of the day.

The greatest lesson in the music and writings of John Cage is to be open to possibility: any possibility, all possibility. And while Cage espoused a music created by leaving elements open to chance (in many ways the only real fulfillment of his teacher Schoenberg’s goal to emancipate dissonance), Cage’s real marching orders to both composers and listeners is to get past the preconceptions that frequently distract us from appreciating the breadth and depth of musical experience. Strangely, I believe that the composers, musicians, and listeners of today’s musical environment where all styles co-exist and none is dominant are all somehow Cage’s disciples and his legacy.

The Pandora’s Box of chance music was opened by a variety of confluences in the early 1950s, but the most dramatic was probably Cage’s reading of the ancient Chinese classic divination text I Ching (Book of Changes). Cage was given his copy of that book by a precocious teenager named Christian Wolff who, along with Earle Brown and Morton Feldman, became the youngest member of the so-called “New York School” of Composers led by Cage. We spent an afternoon with Wolff during which he recounted his initial encounters with Cage more than a half-century ago and explained how his own music has evolved since then. Sabine Feisst provided us with an overview of music in which chance is a structural component.

At a lecture about chance music given by John Cage in the 1950s, he asked, “Is music just sounds? And what does it communicate?” We rolled some dice to determine whom we should ask to provide us with a contemporary series of answers. And we ask for your own random thoughts in our interactive forum!

In keeping with the spirit of this month’s issue, Amanda MacBlane also took some chances with our compendium of new recordings which, through pure serendipity, contains a great deal of indeterminate and free-improvised music. So, take some chances and overcome your preconceptions!