Caged in: in discussion with the 20th century’s guru of music and life

Reading John Cage leads one to question the purpose behind any musical pursuits, particularly composition.

And what is the purpose of writing music? One is, of course, not dealing with purposes but dealing with sounds. Or the answer must take the form of paradox: a purposelessness or a purposeless play.”

On first reading, Cage has it right. Music does not serve a goal. One does not listen to accomplish something. One listens because he wants to listen, to engage in the reality sensible to his auditory sense. I ask, though, is that purposeless? Useless, yes, but purposeless?

This play, however, is an affirmation of life – not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and one’s desires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord.” John Cage

Cage would suggest purposeless. Though it appears that even he is admitting a good arising from the activity, that good cannot be considered a purpose. Purpose implies end, goal, something to be attained. For Cage, there is no possession, only awareness. Of course, one could argue that even awareness is a sort of possession. I believe, however, that Cage would disagree. “[P]lay is…a way of waking up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and one’s desires out of  its way and lets it act of its own accord.” Cage would suggest that our life is somehow separate from us, a removed entity of which we are only observers. For him, the mind and desire are obstacles to engaging reality, for they are part of the “ego”, the “I,” which is not to be considered a participant in the real. No, for Cage music is the occasion for an anti-purpose, a rejection of possession and all manifestations of the “I.” If followed to its logical conclusion, Cage’s affirmation of every reality except the “I” will destroy the possibility for even the awareness of which he speaks.

But “I” is something, and it has a rightful place in the reality to which one is awakened in listening to music. Cage is correct – there is not a chaos of sound out of which “I” must make order. That the sound exists is testament to its goodness and orderliness. But “I,” too, exists, and is therefore good, a part of the reality to which music is the means of awakening. How, then, does anyone awaken to the “I” of another? There must always be a medium. An “I” will allow others to participate in its being through presence, which is brought about through innumerable ways: speech, physical closeness, written word, and art, etc. All these, though, make use of something which is already present, and therefore already good – speech through sound and gesture, physicality through light and space, written word through parchment ink and electricity, art through any physical entities available to the manipulative power of man.

Is music, then, purposeless? No. There is an end to music: possession of the good through knowledge. Sound is good; to know and posses it is the purpose of listening. The “I” of another is good. How do I know and posses it? Through its communication, accomplished by its interaction with the already good reality. I, too, am real and have a place in the canon of goods to be known. How am I known? Through my interaction with creation, with what is already good. I have nothing to add to the good, only something to make with it in love.

Quotes taken from John Cage’s address to the convention of the the Music Teachers National Association in Chicago in 1957.


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