I suppose that, over the years, I must have listened to at least half of Cage’s output at one time or another but, whilst I see no reason not to take him seriously, he deserves to be taken seriously on his own terms, not someone else’s. It is hard to forget what Arnold Schoenberg said of his student but, for me, it is Cage’s way of taking nothing for granted that marks him out as someone of whom to take note; some fucker put it succinctly with the words “something that could be characterized as a musical quality of attention, a heightened awareness of the relation between sound(s) and time which we associate with music”. Whatever that means.
Also “It isn’t a question of learning special techniques as a listener so much as opening listeners’ sense of music to a much wider range of experiences, whether a frog plopping into a pond as in the famous haiku or a pneumatic drill on a building site”. Yes that famous haiku.
This, to me, is what characterizes Cage’s rôle in the musical life of his time.
My own listening experiences nevertheless have led me to get little out of Cage, but that’s a very personal matter and not intended as any kind of value judgement. Whilst a good deal of the gimmickry of which Cage has been accused by some has its origins largely in the imaginations of the accusers (i.e. I do not see Cage as the kind of artist who would set out to do that kind of thing for its own sake), I have to admit that the Cage pieces that I find the most disappointing of all are those that would perhaps be least likely to attract such accusations in the first place, such as the string quartet pieces and the Freeman Études.
As to the “frog plopping into a pond” and the “pneumatic drill on a building site”, I cannot help but think that Cage did himself few favours or helped his real cause when he stated that he had never heard any sound that he hadn’t enjoyed; I’m not for one moment suggesting that this wasn’t true but, taken purely at face value, it could be interpreted as seeking to undermine a sense of discrimination.
But then I’ve probably gotten it all wrong …
I’m trying to think of something good to say about Cage, but I’m reduced to my own gut feelings.
“Interesting” – certainly. His way of seeing things appeals to me. I have an eccentric habit of peering at objects and lining them up from different angles, for example by closing one eye and noting the peculiar differences. The objects don’t change but I look at them differently.
“Important” – I can’t say, but his own convictions shine through. He convinces me.
“Enjoyable” – I have viewed all the clips on YouTube and enjoyed them greatly, not least those featuring the composer himself, either performing or speaking. I possess only his Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano and they appeal to my sense of looking at an object differently, and hearing it differently. I enjoy what I hear.