Construction Literary Magazine

Fall 2020

John Cage and Politics

John Cage and Politics

Photograph via the University of Utah

Statistically, music defines how you vote. If you listen to country, chances are that you’re a Republican (Kenny Chesney is a giveaway, as is Elvis). If you listen to top 40, chances are that you’re a Democrat (Rihanna is quite popular, though so is Madonna).

And if you listen to John Cage, chances are that you’ve got something else in mind entirely.

“He wouldn’t vote at all!” the violinist Tom Chiu told me after his Flux Quartet performed in one of many retrospectives honoring Cage’s 100th birthday this year.

I was sitting inside a barge floating on the East River below the Brooklyn Bridge at the aptly named venue Bargemusic. The small audience faced an eight-piece orchestra—Chiu on violin, accompanied by second violin, viola, cello, piano, percussionist, flute, clarinet—assembled in front of two giant windows framing downtown Manhattan’s financial district across the river. The skyline’s angular and geometric layout juxtaposed with the music’s incoherent mash of viola squeals, symbol clashes, and flute whistles. As percussionist Matthew Gold rubbed two ribbed canes against the wood wall, the wake of a passing ferry surged the barge against the dock, sending a water bottle rolling down the center aisle.

To Cage, all of this was music, from the dock creaking to the bottle rolling. All music is noise, noise music. The two are one, Cage would say. Which I accept, to a point. Rain pounding on a roof is musical. Windshield whispers are rhythmic. Nature and machines can’t help but fall into melody. And at times, the sounds in the barge were indecipherable from the sounds on the river. “Whenever you feel in need of a little music, all you have to do is to pay close attention to the sounds around you,” Cage once said.

But here’s the thing with this style of music (and politics): I get my fill of noise everyday while bicycling through midtown Manhattan. When I go to a concert, I want musical noise.

Cage won’t indulge the listener in such preposterousness. The evening concluded with his “Music for Nine,” a score almost almost gimmicky in its emptiness, utterly devoid of any structure amid clashing cymbals, the high-pitched flutes, the violin squeals like cats in heat, and a vocalist hiccuping into a microphone. The percussionist poured water, blew bubbles, swung a plastic tube, rubbed a balloon, rang a desk bell, blew a whistle, sprayed aerosol, wound up a mouse toy.

The New York Times called the Bargemusic performance “a freewheeling work with some of the flexibility of ‘Seven’ but also with a broader palette.”

But to me, it was indecipherable. Which was perhaps the point: I was forced to decipher my own meaning in the cacophony. Themes would not be spelled out in rhythms and melodies for me (the listener) or for Tom Chiu (the violinist). The themes would need to be interpreted by each musician and each listener spontaneously, by chance, and in this way John Cage would communicate with us.

It was something of an oxymoron: communicating by being uncommunicative. (Indeed, Cage’s most famous piece is the silent piece 4’33”.)

“Chance-determined answers will open my mind to the world around,” Cage told an interviewer in 1985.

If this is the way Cage thinks about music, you might guess how he feels about politics.

“I’m an anarchist,” he told the same interviewer. “I don’t know whether the adjective is pure and simple, or philosophical, or what, but I don’t like government! And I don’t like institutions! And I don’t have any confidence in even good institutions.”

The man sounds like a paranoid Debbie Downer, but in fact he was the opposite. “He was open, frank, ready to reveal all of his most optimistic utopian schemes and dreams, willing to be a friend to anyone who sought him out,” recalled Carolyn Brown, a founding member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, in her memoir Chance and Circumstance.

Which actually makes sense: The pure optimist doesn’t make a contingency plan, which is really the definition of government: a collective ability to react to natural disaster, war, or your everyday healthcare needs. If you believe everything is fine and will be fine if left alone, then you don’t need government, because the world operates better without our scheming.

To get there, you might vote for the worst candidate in the hopes that he will self-destruct once in office. Cage simply suggests withholding your vote altogether.

Cage continued: “I think we have to embarrass the government out of existence . . . by not voting. By not accepting their offer of letting us vote. By refusing any connection with the government. Thoreau said: ‘Government is a tree, its fruit are people. As people ripen, they drop from the tree.’”