Alan N. Shapiro, Hypermodernism, Hyperreality, Posthumanism

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The development of New Music theory and philosophy with focus on the American composer John Cage, by Marit Trantel

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1. Introduction

In the following paper I will explore how John Cage’s music and his philosophy relate with other theories of New Media philosophy.

Cage was one of the most important composers of New Music and helped to revolutionise the concept of traditional classical music entirely. Important for this revolution was also the philosophy that stood behind his music and which is intricately linked to his “compositions“. I put the word compositions in brackets, because many of Cage’s compositions did not even contain music in the way we sould expect. There were no subsequent harmonies, and sometimes, there were not even harmonies. This concept deeply offended people and their traditional expectations towards music.

But as New Media philosphy introduces revolutionising ways of experiencing and living with media, Cage’s music contributed to a major shift in the musical world, too. Cage’s music goes hand in hand with a development in society that was partly started by the introduction of electronical devices for everyone’s home and this consequently changed the society we live in. However, many utopias and dystopias imagine a very dark life with New Media technology partly taking over the lifes of human beings entirely. But the composer Cage is a representant of a very positive, life-affirming and pleasure-orientated concept of random sounds as fulfilling musical experience.

The explanation of the musical epoques has no claim to be complete, as mentioned epoques are hard to fully distinguish and always come with variations in smaller movements. The few musical epoques mentioned are rather an example used to portray the opposing poles of classical music and New Music.

2. Traditional classical music vs. New Music

In 1948 Pierre Schaeffer, a French composer, recorded a train. He cut and rearranged the strips of the audio tape which he published as the Etudesaux chemins de fer[1]. The definition of a musical etude comes from the french for study, and the description says that it is “a short piece written (esp. for the piano) as an exercise to improve or demonstrate a particular aspect of a performer’s technique“[2]. Clearly, the lack of a piano in the instrumentalisation of this etude is asking for what should be practised in the Etudesaux chemins de fer? By experimenting with the recorded sounds, Schaeffer not only practised his cutting and sound engineering skills, but in terms of music, he contributed to help enhance the traditional definition of what an etude is, because labelled something completely new with this traditional term. The Etudes aux chemins de fer contributed to a fundamental change in music, by questioning everything what music was thought to be consisting of.

Until now classical music was an umbrella construct that included a variety of epoques[3], differing in style, performance practice, performance places, conceptualisation of a musical piece, its purpose, musical instruments and their build and type of construction. All epoques until approximately 1920, when Schönberg introduced the twelve tone composition technique, are nowadays generalisingly called classical music and everything that followed this era was, again blandly generalising, called Modern Music.

One of the main parametres, which distinguishes the classical epoques[4] and Modern Music is the changed approach to the definition of music. While the epoques of classical music roughly differed in the different organisations of harmonic schemata, the epoques within the New Music concentrated more or less on revolutionising parametres of traditional classical music. With his etude Schaeffer and other like-minded composers started to rethink and redefine terms, formalities and values of music. What New Music composers and musicians tried to do was a complex procedure to attack, abolish, redefine, develop and to negate the normalised rules traditional classical music had brought with it so far. They wanted to get rid of the traditional harmonic systems and schemata and tried to develop other forms of musical syntax. They even explored other ways of notation and tried to get rid of the limiting 7-tone system. The twelve-tone system was one of the new techniques trying to abandon the traditional harmonic systems which predominantly had existed before.

The twelve tone system divides the 7 different notes from the natural scale (c, d, e, f, g, a, b) into their half tones[5] and creates a system where the notes appear in determined succesions. The notes all have equal rights in terms of appearance, so the same note can only reappear after the other eleven note have been played.

In the same amount that the twelve-tone technique mathematised and systematised music, it also soon proofed to be very limited in its versatility. Also the lack of a melody disappionted many listeners. German composer Stockhausen and French composer Boulez carried this new form of composition to the extremes when they developed this system further and added the mathematical determination of note durations, dynamics and the formal structure of compositions. The mathematical planning of musical pieces (now including note durations, dynamics etc.) is therefore called serialism. However it is interesting that the majority of composers still used traditional orchestra instruments (e.g. strings, woodwinds, brass, percussion; all not amplified).

Of course, there were composers at the same time who still had their focus on tonality (e.g. having melodies) and harmonic schemata, although they tried to develop it further to more quickly changing forms and sometimes without a tonical centre, which for example had been one of the main characteristics in Classical music. Stravinsky and Hindemit  for example stayed with a harmonical concept of music (although, as mentioned, in new terms), but tried to develop music further in other regards. A very renowned example for this strategy is Stravinsky and his famous ballet music pieces Le Sacre du Printemps, The Firebird and Petrouchka – all highly innovative in complex rhythms, usage of extreme registers of musical instruments, ferocity of the musical expression and reviving and revolutionising ballet music and connecting the arts.

The introduction of electronical devices into music however was a huge shift in New Music and broke up the so far reciprocal developments. Schaeffer was innovative and open and brought New Music to a new level by abandoning one of the last stable components in traditional classical music. He got rid of the traditional orchestra music instruments and introduced the usage of e.g. audiotape and the tape recorder.

Now it could be argued that the use of recording studios was nothing new in the music business in general, but to use tape strips of already recorded music and change them into a compositional resource in order to create something entirely new was revolutionary and appalling for many classical musicians at the same time. The modification and re-usage of recorded material was something that the music world had not been able to do so far. The technical revolution that started in a few people’s homes with the introduction of radio and radiocommunication, the televison and later recording techniques also enhanced its field into the musical world. As the examples of the Etudes aux chemins de fer shows, a recorded sound could suddenly be turned into a compositional, hence musical, resource. As I said the introduction of new technologies into the classical music world was conceived as a sort of attack on traditions. It questioned norms that had existed in classical music so far and, by failing to distinctively answer the question what music is, lead to a plurality of styles in music, and hence a variety of different opinions on what music can do and should be. In any event, the importance of new thinkers and new philosophies about music amongst musicians and composers, became more evident.

3. John Cage

3.1. A short biography

The composer and artist John Milton Cage Jr. was born in Los Angeles (United States of America) on the 5th of

Septemer in 1912. He died almost 80 years later in New York, where he lived most of his life. Today he is known as one of the most influential composers of New Music.

Cage had had piano lessons since a young age. As a pupil in school he scored the highest amount of points that had ever been recorded for graduation.

Cage’s studies were special in the way that his choices of study courses had a wide variety. Trying to become a poet he started to study literature for two years at Pomona College in Claremont. He then left America and studied architecture and piano in France. With a friend he had met at the Sorbonne, Cage travelled through European countries, as for instance France and Germany, where his friend introduced him to the avantgardist works of French composer Duchamps and German composer Schwitters. Cage wrote down his first compositions during his stay in Mallorca.

From 1934 on he studied with German composer Arnold Schönberg’s student Adolph Weiss. He introduced Cage to Schönberg’s twelve-tone composition technique. During this time Cage was also introduced to German film pioneer Oskar Fischinger, who produced abstract films after classical compositions.

Four years later Cage moved to Seattle (Canada) and worked as an accompanist for dance classes and as a piano and music theory teacher at the Cornish College of the Arts. During this time he was introduced to the art of dancing and developed a strong friendship with dancer Merce Cunningham.

John Cage’s compositions were for the piano, but he soon experimented with new “instruments“. His composition Imaginary Landscapes No. 1 (1939) is for two variable-speed phono-turntables, frequency recordings, muted piano and cymbal. The description says that the piece is “to be performed as a recording or broadcast“[6]. With his composition Bacchanale (1940) Cage introduced the prepared piano. By putting nails, rubbers and other things onto or between the strings of a piano, Cage created an innovative and never-heard new sound, which continues to be used in New Musikc compositions, such as for example Arvo Pärt’s Te Deum (1985/92) for choir, strings, wind harp (electronical sample sound) and prepared piano.

In 1942 Cage moved back to New York. Being part of the New York avantgardist circle, Cage was introduced to the Japan concept of Zen and Indian music. The concepts and ideologies of both Zen and the idea of “permanent emotions“[7] in the Indian tradition influenced Cage strongly in his following compositions. A scholarship in 1949 allowed Cage to travel Europe again and meet important musicians and composers, such as Pierre Boulez, a composer of the school of serialism.

Cage’s compositions developed towards his specifically elaborated concept of Indeterminacy, which brought in the aleatoric component in his compositions, and this concept was also the basis of his Song Books (1970). The concept of Indeterminacy was very important for Cage, because it focused on the musician rather than on the composer, as it drew the focus to the performance itself and the performer(s), rather than to a distinctive style or even the composer.

In the years of 1954 till 1956 John Cage lived in a commune and excessively engaged in the study of mycology, the science of mushrooms. But he also went on a European concert tournee with friend and pianist David Tudor. When he returned to New School for Social Research in New York in 1959, he resumed his work as a teacher for mycology and experimental music.

Until his death, John Cage lived and taught in New York, and until then he took part in various installations, art exhibitions, dance performances (in the directing position, of course) and interdisciplinary events.

3.2. Short introduction to Cage’s Song Books

In order to understand Cage and his composition style it is beneficial to have a look at a particular work of his. Cage’s Song Books (Solos for voices) are a three volume opus (Instructions, Volume I & II), published in the 1970s. It is a collection of a pieces for solo voice. Their formal shape can be divided into „1) song, 2) song using electronics, 3) theater 4) theater using electronics.“[8]

The appearance of any solo inside the score is completely random, they are not organised after their category. The introduction says that the solos in this work are either relevant to Satie[9] and Thoreau[10] or irrelevant. Hereby he makes some of the literature that stands behind this work visible. For some of the numbers (i.e. see solo nr. 15 at c) theatre with electronics) Cage consulted the I Ching, a Chinese textbook which is used in the Chinese civilisation as a way to forecast one’s future.

Cage’s notes on how to perform Songbooks gives the performer(s) freedom within his set boundaries, especially encouraging silence to happen:

“The solos may be used by one or more singers. Any number of solos in any order and any superimposition may be used. Superimposition is sometimes possible, since some are not songs, but are directives for theatrical activity (which, on the other hand, may include voice production). (…) Given a total performance time-length, each singer may make a program that will fill it. Given two or more singers, each should make an independent program, not fitted or related in a predetermined way to anyone else’s program. Any resultant silence in a program is not to be feared. Simply perform as you had intended to, before you knew what would happen.“[11]

As I have been involved in the stageing of Cage’s Song Books with 12 female singers from my singing course in 2010 at the Hochschule für Musik und darstellende Kunst Frankfurt am Main, where I am studying music, I will present each of the four Song Books categories on the basis of the solos I had chosen.

It is important to say that our version of the set-up and the frame conditions is only one version of many possible versions. Especially in the late works of Cage, the choices on how to perform and organise the performance is left entirely to the
performer. Also, theoretically, Cage gives no time limit to the duration of the performance, which makes me think of one of his organ piece As Slow As Possible, which is for example supposed to take 639 years to play.

For practical reasons and considering a time that would be suitable for an evening concert, our singing course decided to take 50 minutes as the time frame. Each of the 12 singers (all female) chose between 6-9 solos randomly and/or after taste from the score. Then everyone decided randomly on when their solo should take place, rolling the dice to get arbitrary times was also possible. The solos that occured within our group ranged from “simple“ singing to preparing a sandwhich and putting contact microphones on the toaster and the chopping board. The piece as it was was rehearsed twice before the concert, because the sound engineer had to test if the programme he had prepared was working. He programmed when our microphones were turned on after our times for the solos and added special effects if they were needed.

This brings in the aspect of time management and feasibility of this project. It should be considered that the huge amount of time that the sound engineer alone had to put in preparing the programme and the actual technical set-up on the rehearsal days is overly exceeding the amount of preparation time of classical concerts.

In order to give a little insight how a composition with electronics could be like, I have brought in two examples:

a) song using electronics

One of the parts of Song Books is displayed beneath, showing a section of the score. Noteably, the system for notating is not (musical) notes but with a sentence by Satie (hence its description as “relevant“): “Et tout cela m’est advenu par la faute de la musique“[12]. The different fonts indicate, as is written in the directions to this section, different modes of articulation, speaking voice/singing voice, modes of affection and dynamics. One important note which also applies to most of the songs in the Song Books, is that „what Cage wanted was that whoever plays the piece creates their own system to interpret the notation (…)“[13] And as the example shows, it means literally every form of notation and the interpretation has the parametres that different fonts should be linked to the various modes mentioned above, but every artist establishes their own system of interpretation.

On top of that is the electronical aspect. Cage wants the performer to record the first go of the interpretation, and the recording will subsequently then be played two times after the initial recording, because it is used as basis for the next two rounds. For every round Cage asks the performer to change the way they interpret the fonts, and the “new“ interpretation will be spoken unto the “old“ one and also recorded again together with the initial recording.

This process is very complex and needs the performer to give his/her starting times to the sound engineer, so that the programme can start the recording by itself. This is especially important, so that the sound engineer does not have to do this manually during the performance, in case other partaking artists also need microphones, amplification or similar electronical devices.

b) theatre

The theatre solo has the following description: “Solo 78: What Can You Do? ’I can take my shoes off and put them on.’ (Irrelevant)“[14]

The simplicity of this solo could not be more evident. Cage wants the performer to take of his/her shoes, put them on again and say this sentence after they are finished. He leaves to the performer if he/she wants to stand up or sit down during the performance. This solo may as well be regarded under the terms of sound and what it means to Cage. More about this can be found in point 4.

c) theatre using electronics

In this category one of the solos I had included a typewriter and a contact microphone. The directions to solo nr. 15 is as follows: “Solo for voice 15: Theatre using electronics (Relevant); Using a typewriter equipped with contact microphones (four channels preferably, speakers around the audience, highest volume without feedback), typewrite the folowing statement by Erik Satie thirty-eight times: ’L’artiste n’a pas le droit de disposer inutilement du temps de son auditeur.’ [The artist has no right to waste the audience’s time]“[15]

Especially this solo was very enjoyable for me as a performer. With this solo Cage shows the irony of the performing act. By using Satie’s words he also wants to stress how important it is not to waste the audience’s time by doing “useless“ stuff. But essentially this situation is imagined in solo nr. 15. Everything that the audience can hear is the amplified typewriter sound, hammering more or less rhythmic for a certain amount of time. I know, listening to a colleague, who had a similar solo, that listening to this repetitive sound is very tiring. And on top of that is the fact that the audience does not know what I am typing on the typewriter. I am assuming that many people in the audience found this solo quite irritating and tiring and therefore Cage has created the perfect piece to point out that it cannot be guaranteed that the audience always feels like the time they spend in a concert hall is a well-spent time. But even so, Cage does not restrict this to the kind of music he writes, but he uses the words of a componist who is renowned for his beautiful and harmonic piano works. In doing this, maybe Cage is also trying to find an excuse in order to say that New Music can be exciting, but is not necessarily at all times. Nevertheless, the fact that I as a performer was knowingly wasting my audience’s time was a very enjoyable, and I assume that Cage had imagined the situation to be like this.

4. Synthesis: Cage’s New Music in the context of New Media technology

John Cage was certainly one of the big and very unique thinkers among New Music composers. His music is very often determined by performing random acts in random successions and therefore his compositions can be seen as part of the aleatoric movement in New music. This formation tried to create an anti-pole to the mathematical and rigid methods which composers had used before.

But Cage’s compositions also very often try and suggest to use any everyday object in order to create sounds and hence to make music with everything, and everywhere. By that Cage alsomanaged to not necessarily link his music to concert halls but to make them available literally anywhere. Moreover, many of Cage’s compositions do not specify in which instruments to use. This levels the hierarchy between “real“ instruments and Cage’s often laughed at “not real“ instruments. But for Cage there is no hierarchy, a trumpet is just as good as a fork, they both produce sounds. In this video[16] for example Cage performs his piece Water Walk only using objects as a bath tub, a plant, a wire radio, a pot filled with boiling water amongst others, but also a grand piano, which is considered one of the traditional instruments.

Another example is his Living Room Music from 1940 for four percussionists and four speakers. Although the first movement says it is for percussionists, it suggests as well that one may use any object one can find in a living room in order to play the music. The excerpt from a video on Youtube gives a good insight in what he thinks about music:

„When I hear what we call music it seems to me that someone is talking. And talking about his feelings, or about his ideas of relationships. But when I hear traffic, the sound of traffic, here of 67th for instance, I don’t have the feeling that anyone is talking. I have the feeling that sound is acting. And I love the activity of sound. What it does, is it gets louder and quieter, and it gets higher and lower, and it gets longer and shorter. It does all those things which I’ve (…) I am completely satisfied with that, I don’t need sound to talk to me. We don’t see much difference between time and space, we don’t know where one begins and the other stops. So that, most of the arts we think of as being in time, and most of the arts we think of as being in space, I … . Marcel Duchamps, for instance, began thinking of time, I mean, thinking of music, as being not a time art, but a space art. And he made it a piece called Sculptures Musicales. Which means different sounds coming from different places, and lasting, producing a sculpture which is sonorous and which remains. People expect listening to be more than listening. And so sometimes they speak of inner listening or the meaning of sound. When I talk about music, I … it finally comes to people’s minds that I am talking about sound that doesn’t mean anything. That is not inner, but is just outer. And they say, these people who understand that, finally say: ’You mean it’s just sounds?’. Thinking to, that for something to just be a sound is to be useless. Whereas I love sounds, just as they are. and I have no need for them to be anything more than what they are. I don’t want them to be psychological. I don’t want a sound to pretend that it’s a bucket, or that it’s precedent, or that it’s in love with another sound. (laughs) I just want it to be a sound. And I’m not so stupid either. There was a German philosopher who is very well known. Immanuel Kant. And he said there are two things that don’t have to mean anything. One is music and the other is laughter (laughs). Don’t have to mean anything that is, in order to give us very deep pleasure. (To his cat) You know that, don’t you? (laughs) The sound experience which I prefer to all others is the experience of silence. And the silence almost everywhere in the world now is traffic. If you listen to Beethoven or to Mozart you see that they are always the same, but if you listen to traffic you see it’s always different.“[17]

Cage, if compared to Mozart or Beethoven, looks differently at what music is. He does not consider the hierarchy of the harmonic system at all. For him the harmonic system is something that could happen in his music, but is not bound to happen necessarily. Cage says that music is consisting of different sounds. And sounds can be anything, from the noise a bath tub makes to a note played by the classical instrument cello or simply someone’s voice, or it can also be the traffic noise in the background of the interview with him, and even his cat purring. Sound is not something that is, as a part music, happening at timed events in concert halls or other musical institutions or even churches, but it is something that is wherever there is an ear to hear anything.

One might think that Cage is obsessed with the concept of sounds, but he is also interested in the concept of silence, although it is included as a kind of sound in his musical scheme. Silence, for Cage, is just another sound, co-existing with all the other sounds. It is not, as we would expect, the state of where one cannot hear a single thing, it does not at all mean complete quietness.

I find Cage’s approach to what music means to him very interesting and outstanding compared to fellow composers. He is actually not interested in what is behind a sound, i.e. what it means, or what it should stand for or signify. Cage is only interested in its existence as such, whereas this existence should be true and not something pretending to be something it is not. This is an opinion baroque composers for example would not have shared. Baroque music is characterised by the use of the musical version of onomatopoeia[18], musical paintings or musical imageries of emotions. They included emotional affects in their compositions by using figurised bass lines and stilised melodies. An example for such an emotional affect when the melody includes a fall of a sixth, a very high distance in terms of musical amplitude[19]. Of course, some of baroque music was also used for dancing at court, so it not only had an emotional meaning but also a real purpose. But for Cage, sound is “acting“ on its own, it does not need any further informations such as content, moral or values. In a way its existence is the ground on which we perceive an acting sound, and not by its movements.

How obsessed Cage is with silence can be seen in his probably most famous and notorious piece 4’33’. It consists of three movements, all described with tacet, the latin meaning for silence. When the piece was initially performed in public people left the concert hall, exasperated and disappointed, because there was not any music to hear. But this is actually the point that he wants to convey. The message is that the audience will listen to “nothing“ for the fixed time of four minutes and thirty-three seconds. But nothing, or silence even, is not nothing. Cage is interested in what happens during silence and wants his audience to explore this, too. By that way he is testing the borders of what the audience can accept as music, or musical experience even. Of course Cage plays with the audience, too. I would assume that some even felt betrayed of their “concert experience“, especially when they had paid for the concert, and being part of an experiment they have unknowingly joined is perhaps not such a good feeling, either.

In the interview in the Youtube video, Cage also talks about the sonorous musical sculptures which his colleague Duchamps wrote. It is interesting how Duchamp called his work Sculptures Musicales and pointed out the close relationship of the arts. The denotation of sculpture lies in the other art, and by combining this term with the adjective “musical“ he creates a new connotation and hence also a new art form. Of course this concept could also be seen as a constructivist approach of calling something music and thereby making the musical aspect real. But still the disappointment of the audience of 4’33’’ shows that this approach is not helpful, when not everyone shares the same definitions in the arts.

So all in all Duchamps piece, which has a nominal hint to the fine arts as well as music, does not bring New Music particularly forward in innovative terms, but he and Cage with 4’33’’ certainly help encourage the discurs about it further. The parametres and interdisciplinary subjects have not changed fundamentally.

The connection between art, literature and music has always been prominent and sometimes necessary to create something new in a singular category like music. Interdisciplinary helps revolutionise music and its traditions by bringing up questions about its previous existence.

Cage, however, also created similar pieces to Duchamps, consisting of the addition or assembly of sounds, but he is different in the way that he planned them far away from the musical world. This outer-musical aspect is not only realised through making music with radios but also in the way Cage broaches the issue of sounds instead of talking about music. Also the aleatoric aspect, mentioned beforehand, brings into consideration the random acts that cannot only happen in music, but that happen in everyday life. This takes the traditional music experience away from a planned concert with a planned programme. And at the same time Cage ridicules the systematisation of random acts, especially in one of his pieces, which is “orchestrated“ with cyclists that cycle around a block in New York, and who all ring their bells exactly when they pass the corner. The musicality in this piece, or rather whether there is some, has often been discussed.

Coming back to the subject of sound and its questionable position as a piece of music, it is helpful to look at as what exactly Cage describes sound. As he states in the video, he is first of all interested in the outer, not the inner. And by inner he means the shape and form of sounds. Secondly it is important to him that they should be accepted as they are, without bringing up questions about why they exist or what they could possibly mean. Connected to this way of thinking is also the buddhistic school of Zen, which Cage had studied. In Zen the sign for ego is the circle. It stands for emptiness and at the same time it is also a sign of completion. The lack of further meaning of sounds in the Cageian concept of music is therefore a form of perfection to him. Cage accepts and works with a sound as it is, completely leaving behind any further meaning or the potential to interpret it, and also not prioritising parametres of traditional music. For Cage, the experience of pleasure arises from the existing sound itself.

This leads to a further component of Cage’s compositions: in musical pieces, he is not looking for a meaning or to convey a meaning, but for the simple fulfillment of the feeling of joy and pleasure. He still rightfully wants and needs the sensory aspect in the listening process, but this does not imply that the listeners has to understand the music. Cage wants music and/or sounds for the sake of listening to them and to possibly experience pleasure. This embodiment of “nothing“ and everything in Cage’s music concept means completion in art and is thesource of joy and pleasure – may it be labelled music or not.

Still, Cage has experimented with many composing techniques, and pieces that represent his aleatoric phase or his Zen phase can only be examples in the vast work of a composer, who has never really settled for one distinctive composing style. By being so versatile, Cage makes a stong case for the possibility of the co-existence of a plurality of styles within one person and ultimately in the category of music. Moreover, he is possibly also reflecting the partly chaotic and many-opinioned world of New Music in the second half of the 20th century in his composership.

While with Cage we can see a very pleasure-orientated concept of music, composers around the world still experimented with other techniques, although they were also interested in sounds. Whereas Cage is perfectly content with almost happening to stumble over a sound or accidentally produce one, the composers of the musique concrète school, as Schaeffer for example, were interested in what sounds could be modified into. From a Cageian point of view this would represent the dehumanisation of sound, because what these composers did was in fact to record sounds and try to modify them by cutting them into parts and rearranging them. It was also popular to turn around the recording tapes in order to alienate the recorded material by reversing it.

It is furthermore interesting to look at the change of the way that people talk about sounds, especially regarding the electronical developments within music. Tony Schwartz for example says, “(…) that radio and television communicate by ’resonating’ inside people’s homes and in their social surroundings“[20]. And even just walking through a city, which takes us back to John Cage, who would be perfectly happy just to listen to the sounds of 67th in New York, means that one will “(…) will encouter many different media sounds; they resonate“[21]. By giving the word resonate a new twist and thereby enhancing its meaning and its value as a cultural good, the shift in thinking about sounds as music becomes more clear. Moreover Schwartz gives these electronical devices almost human characteristics when he says that they communicate with each other. With many wireless technologies this has actually already become truth, the laptop “communicates“ with the printer in order to fulfill the job it was asked to. While Cage does not assume that sounds talk to each other, but leaves room for accidental exchanges between sounds, Schwartz makes it clear that the sounds he is talking about want to convey something. Although the content remains unknown, the ability alone to take up communication between radios and tvs for example is an aspect unknown to Cage’s music.

Another aspect is made clear by Mark B. N. Hansen. He reminds us of the phenomenon of making things to art by putting them in the right frame, although he specifically talks about photographing. But his observation can be transferred onto music as well: “(…) the reproducible work of art correlates with a minimal aesthetic rooted in the simple act of ’framing pieces of the world through the camera’s lens’“[22].

The wholistic approach to making anything art because it is within a kind of culturally acknowledged frame is true, but it also has its basic problematics. The “reign of the formal becomes something like a tyranny“[23], once everything is exchangeable and everything can be art, there is no right and wrong and no end and no start. And as Cage mentioned quite rightly, the problematics are not based on where the “difference between time and space“ is. It is actually an argument for accepting that art, as a category, is getting more diverse than it ever has been. And even though there is still no (scientifically) satisfying answer  to the question about the definition of time and space the development of New Music correlates with the way we think about art.

Further on, Hansen says, that we only now realised that images before digitalisation were a fixed entity, because now the “digital image explodes the stability of the technical image in any of its concrete theorizations“[24]. Consequently, “the image can no longer be understood as a fixed and objective viewpoint on ’reality’“[25]. The wording that Hansen uses can exactly be transferred on to music. The music that we have known so far, the traditional classical music, and especially its coherence and stability – mainly achieved by a one-sided development structure in music till the 1920’s – has been destroyed by New Music and the way music composers changed their way of thinking about it.

One of New Music’s key momentums is instability and its connotation of constant new creation(s) and knowingly ignoring traditional music theory. What is so special about Cage’s music is, that he brought it so radically back to reality that people could not accept the use of everyday items as music instruments. This radical grounding of music was so far away from the arty and intellectual music, because it took away its professional essence.

Interesting is also that Hansen says that the digital image is the transfiguration or the dissolution of the conventional analogue image. In fact, the dissolution of the essence happened in music too, hence the distinctive class itself has been dissolved. It is interesting that Hansen says that images “(…) can no longer be restricted to the level of surface appearance“[26]. And coming back to John Cage, it is interesting how he is only interested in the surface alone, in the accumulation of several sounds, in the “outer“ as he puts it. When he talks about music, he is “talking about sound that doesn’t mean anything. That is not inner, but is just outer.“[27] In fact, Cage is also trying to protect his music from too much abstract creation processes, although he was a found user of electronically amplified sounds.

It seems logical and fair that much of Cage’s music was questioned in terms of it being real music. But as Cage was never the composer who wanted to impose his ideas onto other people, the only way of appreciating his music and the philosophy behind it is accepting it. Working with this fact in the humanities/arts can help to broaden up the way of thinking in an interdisciplinary and interlinked way.

Under the umbrella of the title Song Books Cage put theatre into a collection of works that would have been taken as music only. Cage has, on the one side, enhanced the acting field of music, and on the other side underlined an interdisciplinary connection with the embedded performing arts inside the category of music.

5. Conclusion

The composer Cage shows us the interdisciplinarity involved in his music and composing style and stresses how unnecessary it is for him to exclude one category from the other. As Cage thereby establishes new forms of stageing music – or as he would put it – sounds, he helped to reform the philosophy that stood behind the concept of traditional music. Now, with the interdisciplinarity and the use of everyday tools, also including electronical devices as for example radio players, he even expands the complex of problems around trying to find a definition of, or to explore nearer, what New Media has changed about our lifes.

The interdisciplinarity and the impossibility to split up Cage’s music into its essential components stresses one of the biggest issues in New Media philosophy. The movement from singular thought processes and singular musical schools, that were predominant in classical music until the 1920’s, towards the actual allowance and/or co-existence of diversity in music compositions is remarkable. The variety is firstly one of the most problematic points, but certainly also one of the most exciting products in the shift in New Media philosophy.

6. Bibliography

Literary works:

Monographies / anthologies:

Hansen, Mark B. N.: New Philosophy for New Media, Cambridge (Massachusetts) and London (England): The MIT Press, 2004, p. 1-17.

Kostelanetz, Richard (ed.): John Cage: Writer. Selected texts, New York: Cooper Square Press, 2000.

Nicholls, David (ed.): The Cambridge Companion to John Cage, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Nyre, Lars: Sound Media. From Live Journalism to Music Recording. London and New York: Routledge, 2008.

Articles on the internet:

Service, Tom: “A guide to John Cage’s music“ The Guardian. Alan Rusbridger (editor-in-chief), 13.8.2012. Online
article. 16.2.2015. <

Other forms of media:

Music scores:

Cage, John: Song Books – instructions. New York, London and Frankfurt: Edition Peters, 1970.

Cage, John: Song Books –Volume I: 3-58. New York, London and Frankfurt: Edition Peters, 1970.

Cage, John: Song Books –Volume II:59-92. New York, London and Frankfurt: Edition Peters, 1970.

Videos on the internet:

John Cage about silence. Version: internet., retrieval date:
5.1.2015, 9:48, duration: 4’17’’.

John Cage – Water Walk. Version: internet video., retrieval
date: 12.1.15, duration: 9’22’’.

[1] translation: railway etude

[2], 6.1.2015, 14:35

[3] medieval music, renaissance, baroque, classical epoque, romantic music, impressionist and expressionist
styles, twelve tone compositional techniques

[4] The standardised term classical music which involves mentioned epoques (footnote 2), should not be confused with the singular Classical epoque taking place roughly after Bach until early Beethoven (18th century till the beginning of the 19th century).

[5] c, c sharp and/or d flat, d, d sharp and/ or e flat, e, f, f sharp and/or g flat, g, g sharp and/or a flat, a, a sharp
and/or b flat, b

[6] Kostelanetz, Richard (ed.): John Cage: Writer. Selected texts, New York: Cooper Square Press, 2000, p. 7

[7] “the heroic, the erotic, the wondrous, the mirthful, sorrow, fear, anger, the odious and their common tendency

towards tranquility“, ibid., p. 11

[8] Kostelanetz, p. 96

[9] Satie, Eric (1866-1925): French composer

[10] Thoreau, Henry David (1817-1862): American writer and philosopher

[11] Kostelanetz, p. 96

[12] translation: “Why did all that stuff happen? Music is the culprit.“,,
16.2.15, 14:09

16.2.15, 10:39

[14] Cage: Song Books, Vol II

[15] Cage: Song Books, Vol. I

[16], 12.1.15, 15:36

[17], 5.1.2015, 9:48

[18] “The formation of a word from a sound associated with the thing or action being
named; the formation of words imitative of sounds.“,
redirectedFrom=onomatopoeia#eid, 3.2.15, 18:17

[19] musical term: ambitus

[20] Nyre, p. 21

[21] Nyre, p. 21

[22] Hansen, p. 2

[23] Hansen, p. 2

[24] Hansen, p. 7

[25] Hansen, p. 7

[26] Hansen, p. 9

[27] Youtube Video John Cage About Silence, 02:03

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