Wolff, on Cage

Apropos of my post a couple days ago, about Cage’s sound, I want to quote a few lines from Christian Wolff, who’s interview with William Duckworth I’m reading in the latter’s Talking Music:

“John’s music … had nothing to do with improvisation. That was one of the major confusions that people made, and that, clearly, was dead wrong. We’re getting now to the period of the Variations sequence, which really pushed the notion of what constituted a piece of music, because nothing was said about anything except you had to make yourself something out of these lines and dots and things that were on plastic sheets. … But what always struck me as so mysterious was that what people did with those things almost all the time would come out sounding like John’s work. … There’s this mysterious thing that in those days people would try some of John’s chance techniques, but their music wouldn’t come out sounding like John’s.”

posted on 12.07.10  |  category: i read, new music, notation


  1. Comment by barry

    What is the difference between Cage’s Variations sequence and his chance techniques that would lead to the former sounding like Cage and the latter sounding non-Cage?

    Perhaps I don’t know enough about Cage’s vision, but saying his work had nothing to do with improvisation sounds like an overstatement.

    I haven’t read any notes that may accompany this score, but it seems that if these markings are meant to indicate pitch changes, then they don’t control dynamics. Or maybe vice versa.

  2. Comment by aleksei

    I think what’s needed is a delineation of the difference between a score calling for improvisation and one calling on performers to make decisions about what to sing/play. Improvisation is a performer following his or her own musical intuition on a moment-to-moment basis. In Aria, Cage calls for no such thing. The piece is actually impossible to improvise, even if you’re an uncanny sight-reader. The performance instructions are very clear, and though they call upon the performer to make decisions about what vocal timbre they will use for each style of curve, and pitches are approximate, the piece requires intensive preparation. By the time one is performing the piece, the score is a reference – they know exactly what they are going to do, just as if they were singing Verdi. The Variations provide in some cases less information than Aria, but are likewise are intended to be prepared, not improvised. Not that they become fixed through preparation – they will always vary from performance to performance – but the activity, the way of making the piece must be rehearsed. (Incidentally, take a look at this. It’s pretty interesting.)

    Also, I think you misunderstood something in what I quoted. Wolff wasn’t saying that Cage’s Variations lead to a Cagean sound while his chance techniques do not. He’s saying that when Cage uses his chance techniques, the music sounds like Cage, but when others use them, their music doesn’t. This was my main point in posting the quote, because it’s an experience I have too: when I listen to Cage’s music, it sounds like Cage. He has a sound, which is a pretty extraordinary fact given the nature of some of his music.

  3. Comment by barry

    I mistook “the people…try[ing] some of John’s chance techniques” for performers. Thanks for clearing that up, and thanks for addressing my other, larger misconception.

  4. Comment by aleksei

    I keep seeing it. Feldman: “What does Cage give us besides this camera? It would be hard to say. Yet why do we know, in the most ambiguous musical circumstances, when it is the Cage experience? Why is it so immediately apparent to the ear what is not Cage? We know at once if the performer is involved with his own glamour, or if he is insensitive, or if he misunderstands. … Cage is hidden, but we know what’s good and bad in his eyes. If you’re asked what is Cage, that’s hard. But even Stockhausen knows when it’s not Cage.”

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