I think it’s safe to say that John Cage’s music has entered an American musical canon. For better or for worse the performance of his compositions will be played by a vast number of musicians for years to come. These are compositions that demand a certain amount of interpretation by the performer or received information from Cage himself which, after his death, is not possible. The question, then, is how does an accepted performance practice take shape for his work? For those unfamiliar with either the concept of performance practice or with the scores of John Cage, here is an example that hopefully gives a definition of the former and explains the current difficulty with the latter. For our purposes, performance practice can be defined simply as the accepted way in which a majority of musicians perform a specific piece, the works of a single composer, or the works in a particular style or belonging to a particular time period. As an example, the performance practice surrounding the work of Gustav Mahler is to treat his music with great gravitas, the brass playing with heavy dark sounds. This is that music’s standard performance practice (simplified of course). And, this comes, in large part, from the way in which Mahler presented his music through his choice of articulations, dynamics, and other notational guidelines. For John Cage, much of the printed guidelines that created a performance practice around a more traditional composer like Mahler, doesn’t exist. His scores have been purposely created to be open to and almost force interpretation, which makes a codified “correct” way to perform them very difficult to come by. And, it’s this thinking about the performance practice related to John Cage’s music that becomes an interesting idea to explore in this issue. Some of the questions I ended up asking myself as I was preparing material were:
Does the way to perform his music become codified and stale if a performance practice is put in place as a iron-clad guiding principle?
Conversely, does a lack of articulated performance practice allow for the ambiguity of his scores to devolve into musical anarchy?
And, finally, as I began to be completely absorbed in this project, this question seemed to leap to the forefront of my mind:
Was John Cage enough of a genius to create musical forms that allowed for something transcendent in the middle path between anarchy and dogma?
After setting up interviews and recordings with the broadest possible range of interpreters of Cage’s music; everyone from those receiving the transmission from Cage himself (Joan LaBarbara) to those that are discovering Cage’s music through a rigorous examination of his history, aesthetic, and the scores themselves (JACK Quartet and Rob Haskins), to those that regard Cage almost more as an idea, a somewhat open vessel that provides fodder for philosophical and musical speculation (BSC), I settled down to my foregone conclusion that John Cage had been full of interesting ideas, but that his legacy wouldn’t stand up once you took the genius of his interpreters out of the equation. I was beginning to get a feeling of apprehension, but I was still determined to be successful in my grounding of America’s maverick king.
The following is one example of how I overcame that apprehension and embraced Cage's genius.