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The Twentieth Century
by Don Robertson

Part Two: Noise

© 2005 by Rising World Entertainment

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An "Era of Noise and Silence" was ushered in by American composer John Cage.

Noise, and then silence, was the result of a complete disintegration in music, and this occurred not only in Western classical music (Edgard Varèse, John Cage), but in Jazz (Coltrane, Sanders, Sun Ra) and Rock (MC Five, Blue Cheer, Greatful Dead) as well, when "everyone is just doin' their thing” was considered the ultimate in freedom during the artistic revolution of the 1960s.
    It all began with a composer by the name of John Cage. Cage studied with composer Arnold Schönberg for a short time beginning in 1933. He embraced Schönberg's teaching about the equality of all musical intervals and elaborated by saying “what distinguishes dissonances from consonances is not a greater or lesser degree of beauty, but a greater or lesser degree of comprehensibility.”
But Cage would soon move beyond Schönberg, who detested Cage and his music. By 1937, Cage was saying “The present methods of writing music will be inadequate for the composer who will be faced with the entire field of sound.”
     Cage later wrote: “…when Schönberg asked me whether I would devote my life to music, I said, ‘Of course.’ After I had been studying with him for two years, Schönberg said, ‘In order to write music, you must have a feeling for harmony.’ I explained to him that I had no feeling for harmony. He said that I would always encounter an obstacle, that it would be as though I came to a wall through which I could not pass. I said, “In that case I will devote my life to beating my head against that wall.” “Harmony,” Cage wrote in 1954, “is a forced abstract vertical relation which blots out the spontaneous transmitting nature of each of the sounds forced into it. It is artificial and unrealistic.”
     Around 1951 Cage began to redefine how he composed music, and that year he wrote his Music of Changes, where he tossed coins to determine the pitches and rhythmic values of the music. He got this idea from his student, Christian Wolff, who had brought him an I Ching, the Chinese Book of Changes, which was consulted by tossing coins. 
    Cage was deeply influenced by Buddhist teachings, and from this influence he defined a set of renunciations. First was the renunciation of expressivity, then the renunciation of structural controls, which he would renounce by using chance operations, a euphemism that he invented for his dice rolling. In 1952, writing about his Music of Changes (1951), Cage said:

It is thus possible to make a musical composition the continuity of which is free of individual taste and memory (psychology) and also of the literature and “traditions” of the art…Value judgments are not in the nature of this work as regards either composition, performance, or listening. The idea of relation (the idea: 2) being absent, anything (the idea: 1) may happen. A “mistake” is beside the point, for once anything happens it authentically is.”

     In other words, don't force your will or your inspiration on the composition process anymore, just "let it happen." And thus Cage began to remove the composer from the process of composing. “Nothing was lost when everything was given away. In fact, everything was gained. In musical terms, any sounds may occur in any combination and in any continuity.”
  Schönberg introduced the freedom from tonality, allowing musicians and composers to chose freely from any of the twelve notes of the chromatic scale. Cage went the distance by admitting any sound into his definition of music, thus eliminating scales, chords, and other traditional constructs altogether. All sounds were now music. Finally we, the composers of that generation, could invite people into our bedroom, seat them, and play them a piece of improvised music by opening and closing drawers on the boudoir.
     This was the "freedom" that I witnessed in a New York City night club during the late 1960s, when members of Sun Ra's Arkestra strolled among the tables, each musician playing whatever he wanted, without regarding the other players. It was the "freedom" that I witnessed in the 1970s when the composition class at Sonoma State, then sometimes referred to as the "touchy/feelly" college that was located north of San Francisco, gathered in a large room and were invited to create musical chaos in the same manner. It was considered by some to be the music of cosmic consciousness, but it was really just a way for the musicians to blow of steam.
      Schönberg invited in the age of freedom of notes, and ushered in an era of chromatic anarchy; Cage ushered in the era of noise. Schoenberg had said: get rid of tonality. Cage said: get rid of music.
     But perhaps we should give the credit not to Cage, but to another for the introduction of noise into the world of music. In fact, Cage himself gave him credit when he said in 1959 that it was “Edgard Varèse who fathered forth noise into twentieth-century music.” Varèse accepted “all audible phenomena as material proper to music.” He considered sound as the solid base of music, its raw material. “The intellectualism of the interval is a factor which for me has nothing to do with our age and its new concepts. As obsolete as the artificial versification of a Banville,” he wrote to Luigi Dallapiccola in 1952.
     Cage was a brilliant man, and his ideas, many based on his own understanding of Zen Buddhism, are philosophically very attractive. But the resultant music composed after his conversion to "chance operations," has little to offer musically, as it was written to support his philosophy….works such as his Europeras I & 2 where the singers sing bits and pieces from the opera repertoire selected by chance methods, fly across the stage on wires, and a helium blimp floats off the stage and around the balcony, all while attentive, beautiful people in evening dress sit respectfully in the audience, ready to resound with their fully supportive tumultuous applause. Cage’s music and his philosophy represented an important era in Western classical music. He released us from the confines of the serial music of Schönberg by telling us that anything was music, and thus set the stage for the return of tonality, which will come from the ordering of noise.
     But Cage's renovation would not be complete simply by accepting all sound, or noise, as music. Therefore, he added another element to his philosophical spectrum: silence. Cage's composition 4’ 33” ("four minutes, thirty-three seconds") was composed in 1952. The piece was a result of Cage’s first viewing of the totally white canvas made by his friend, the painter Robert Rauschenberg, who called the 1951 work White Painting, and by Cage's visit to Harvard's anechoic chamber, designed to eliminate all sound. For the performance of 4'33", a tuxedoed performer walks onto the stage, carefully seats himself at a grand piano, opens the lid, occasionally turns some music pages, but otherwise sits as quietly as possible for 4 minutes and 33 seconds, after which he rises, bows, and leaves.
     On a number of occasions, Cage indicated that his silent piece 4’33” was his most important work. This clearly demonstrates that Cage’s main contribution to music was philosophical, not musical, since silence contains no sound, let alone music. Cage carefully brought music to an apparent end by convincing us that traditional music, from Beethoven to Webern, was invalid, and only by an appreciation of the randomness of the expression of natural sound, or the lack of it, could one be in tune with currents of true art and reality. He lured people into accepting his stylistic methods by use of reasoning, as had Schönberg when he talked about the “end of harmonic evolution and tonal melodic development," i.e., the era of music that proceeded each of these composers.
    Cage left his mark on the 1970s and 1980s, but the obvious dead-end that his paradox of silence and noise presented also opened the door for the return to tonality. Peter Yates, in his book Twentieth Century Music, said it all:

"Music is born from the ordering of noise."

Thus, one of the results of the work of John Cage was the rebirth of the creation of tonal music by members of the next generation of composers. 

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