John Cage and the California Experimentalists

In preparation for our next production, John Cage’s Europeras 1 & 2, which premieres on November 6 at Sony Pictures Studios in partnership with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, we asked our Music Director Marc Lowenstein to give some insight into the work of John Cage and The Industry’s Highway One series, which pays homage to the great California experimentalists.

And now, over to Marc Lowenstein…


I used to giggle when I saw the term “experimental music”. How on earth could music be experimental?

Is there a double-blind protocol? Is there a scientific method? My parents were scientists and music lovers, and despite the synergy, the two worlds seemed to be the obverse of one another. Science was the pursuit of knowledge via experiment and theory. Music was the pursuit of abstract beauty and emotional expression.

Then I moved to California, home of an experimental music school, and home of a great experimental opera company. Both of those fit naturally here, because California is of course home of the American Mavericks, source of the great American musical experimentalists, home to Harry Partch, Henry Cowell, and Lou Harrison and the birthplace of John Cage.

Cage didn’t set out to be a musician. Like many of the other American Mavericks, he wandered. He took piano lessons from an early age but flirted with writing, theology, and painting. This is completely different from the mainline European composers who, because they grew up in the halls of tradition, explored alternate paths and opened new doors much more gradually.

From the beginning, Cage thought of uncommon disruptions that wildly reimagined the relationship between artists, art, and the public. In doing so, he gradually centered in on what became crucial to experimentalism in music: treating sound as an object, not only free from emotion but free from other sounds as well. He famously said,

When I hear what we call music, it seems to me that someone is talking. And talking about his feelings, or about his ideas of relationships. But when I hear traffic, the sound of traffic here on Sixth Avenue, for instance, I don’t have the feeling that anyone is talking. I have the feeling that sound is acting. And I love the activity of sound […] I don’t need sound to talk to me.

This is crucial to understanding Cage’s music. The challenge he faced was how to liberate sound from “talking”, how to listen to sound without the need to process any kind of syntax whatsoever. And this is where it makes sense to talk of experimental music. He truly felt the need to search, to experiment. 4’33” is perhaps best understood as a part of this lifelong experiment, in that case, the experiment could be framed as, “what happens when we indicate no sound whatsoever? what do we hear?” The controversy the piece engendered was besides the point.

Seen through this lens, other anecdotes about Cage come into focus. Like the time he left a concert in Carnegie Hall after the very first piece, one by Webern. He met Morton Feldman in the lobby and they agreed that they couldn’t take anything in after such pure, distilled succinctness. When you see Webern’s music as a more European search to freeze and objectify music, it makes sense that Cage would be so taken with it. And then there is the conversation he had with Feldman years later at CalArts. Feldman asked Cage, “Don’t you ever want to pick which sound you like best?” Cage laughed. No touching!

Many of Cage’s experiments involved passing sounds associated with one organizational system through a completely different aesthetic world. Thus his Sonatas and Interludes passed a simple Clementi-like sonata aesthetic through a piano prepared in such a way to change the timbre of each note to the extent that they no longer had any standard relationship with any other note. The famous picture associated with the piece almost drips of the desire to be taken seriously as an experimentalist, a scientist almost.

John Cage with a prepared piano

Other experiments included Atlas Eclypticalis. There, only vaguely standard music notation passes aleatorically over an actual star chart. The message of the beautiful piece seems to be “There are the notes, notes in the sky. Who put them there?” Maybe that’s a question to unask. “They are just . . . there.”

Which brings us to Europeras, one of his final pieces. Asked in 1981 to write an opera, he continued along the path of objectifying, filtering, and randomizing found objects made of sound. This time, the found objects were actual 19th and 18th-century opera quotations: “For 200 years, Europeans have sent us their operas. Now I’ll send them all back,” said Cage. This gleeful, uber-American reaction to European norms actually disguised Cage’s continuing delightful fascination with the abstraction of sound objects. He would throw them around at different angles, and then leave the audience to find them like mushroom hunters walking in a forest.

John Cage collecting mushrooms

In addition, though, there was something even subtler at play. What would it mean to write an opera that was an objectification of “Opera.” How could that be done? Like the seasoned experimentalist he was, Cage used the tools and methods he had developed over the years to answer this new question.

The answer he came up with what he discovered in his writings of music for dance. In his long partnership with Merce Cunningham, the pair had devised ways to lovingly detach the music from the dance, objectifying both and enabling delightful discovered relationships between the two. Usually, both of them would rehearse separately and only come together for the performance to ensure that there were no expectations, no “shoulds.” Cage called this “independent but co-existing,” a phrase that worked on the macro scale and also worked for his concept of each musical sound as well, coexisting independently with each other sound.

The way he made this independent coexistence occur on a larger, operatic scale was to use his old friend the I Ching, randomly and physically disperse the instrumentalists and singers, randomize their direction and staging, print random librettos, subject the scenery to random variations, and finally, lest the audience manufacture too much attachment to the spectacle, interrupt the proceedings at random intervals with a crazy recording made of highly layered, practically indistinguishable opera recordings.

What Cage really threw back at the Europeans was not just their objectified opera arias, but the whole concept of Gesamtkunstwerke, opera as an integrated whole. Europeras instead is Opera as a dis-integrated random sum of objects, placed in such a way that no audience member sees them the same way. There is, in fact, no correct way, there is only us finding our own ways through the resonant wreckage made newly beautiful.

Cage’s famous saying “I have nothing to say and I am saying it” is not actually the complete quotation. The entire quotation from his Lecture on Nothing is: “I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry as I need it.”

John Cage's Lecture on Nothing

The importance of this work to The Industry becomes clear. Our Highway One series pays homage to the great Californian experimentalists: Terry Riley, who sliced music into bits and let them jiggle along at their own pace, Lou Harrison who saw California as part of the greater Pacific Region and made new, deeply personal mixtures from the America and Asia, and now John Cage, the most abstract, the most abstracting of them all. All three were humorous, serious, radical and hard-working in their pursuit of new reexaminations and recombinations. And all three of them exist as honored ghosts in our each of our own productions where our own new simultaneities ask new, even more, satisfying questions.

Marc Lowenstein, Music Director, The Industry

Leave a Comment





This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.