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i have something to say about Cage

I want to argue that we should revere John Cage a little a less and engage with him a little more. Like Jacques Derrida, he comes to conclusions that create more confusion than clarity - though, on their journey, they generate much light. I think we should approach Cage as a provocateur, not a guru since we do him no favours when we treat his questions as if they were answers.

Charisma is not genius and silence is not music; nor are random sounds - if they were, a currently useful term would be rendered meaningless. Cage understood this and characterized his calculated retreat from musical communication as a spiritual rather than a musical discipline. He made his case clearly, now we have to decide what to accept and what to resist.

It would be foolish to deny that Cage was important – even indispensible – but in what respect, and in what aspect? That’s the question I attempt to tackle here.


Written for the Cage Anniversary Conference at Ausio Arts Festival, Krakow in 2012





Speaking of psychotherapy Wittgenstein remarked that our troubles are not buried in any particular spot but rather that no matter where we dig we are bound to unearth them.

I was asked to give this paper very close to the conference date, while I was in the middle of a concert series in America. I said I wasn’t sure if I had anything useful to say about John Cage, especially at such short notice. Marek suggested that perhaps I speak about Cage and Plunderphonics. I said I didn’t really think there was much of a connection. He said, ‘I’m sure you’ll find something’. So I dug down into Plunderphonics – and of course I came up with what it was I wanted to say about John Cage.


In 2002, I ran a year-long radio series called Out of the Blue Radio for Resonance FM in London. The idea was simple: each night between 11.30 and midnight, I’d play an uninterrupted recording of what someone else was hearing somewhere else on the planet. For material I contacted friends around the world and asked them to make real-time recordings between 23:30 and 00:00 Greenwich Mean Time. They could be where they liked and do what they liked, but the recordings had to be continuous and unedited. Then they sent them to me, and I played them[1].

Half a year into the series, ORTF in Vienna asked me if I’d make a ‘best of’ programme. Since that would have gone directly against the spirit of the series – which of course was based on the premiss that, framed, and removed from their normalising contexts, all sounds are interesting - I said I’d make a programme instead based on not choosing any of the material. To that end, I selected 30 of the recordings at random and extracted the first minute from the first and the second minute from the second - and so on – finally linking all the fragments together to play in a continuous stream.

These elements must seem familiar: arbitrary but specified recording times; taking the sound exactly as it comes; randomised selection of extracts; playing order determined by chance operations… it sounds quite Cagean. Even the use of environmental sounds is apposite: Cage himself said: ‘If you want to know the truth of the matter, the music I prefer, even to my own or anybody else’s, is what we are hearing if we are just quiet.[2]


In 1953, with the assistance of Louis and Bebe Barron, Earle Brown, Morton Feldman and David Tudor, Cage made his first tape piece, Williams Mix, for which he used recordings that included ‘all possible environmental sounds’, edited together according to a fantastic and complicated physical matrix determined in advance by chance procedures[3]. Like so much of Cage’s work Willams Mix was precise and prescriptive as to form but indeterminate as to content. In this case the content was simply various categories of sounds, many of them environmental. And for Cage – and certainly at that time – musak, juke boxes and portable transistor radios were all ubiquitous urban environmental sounds…

 Which brings us to Plunderphonics.

The term was coined in 1985 by John Oswald to describe his meticulous manipulations of other people’s recordings, a procedure he had begun to experiment with in the late 1960s. Sometimes he restricted himself to a single recording or, as he said, a macrosample.  A classic example might be his reworking of Dolly Parton’s recording of Buck Ram’s The Great Pretender,

something of a plunderphonic showcase, since it confines itself to a single calculated procedure – a progressive and calculated reduction in playback speed – in order to make a number of quite dramatic commentaries; firstly, on the song itself - half way through, Dolly audibly changes sex, opening the text up to very different interpretations; secondly, on the music – in which background becomes foreground as harmonies that are merely functional at normal speeds take on a whole new musical character; thirdly, on the nature of sound recording itself, as an unreliable witness and, finallly, on the way we listen.[4] That’s a lot of birds with a single stone.

Oswald himself set strict limits. In particular, he always worked reflexively, making the materials he used comment on themselves, usually according to some metalinguistic scheme. And his selection and treatments of recordings are never randomised, they are always highly crafted and serve at least two critical functions: firstly, they are culture-critical, since he always makes his samples comment either on themselves or on the cultural norms within which they operate - which is definitely unCagean – and secondly, they are medium-critical, that is to say they are always about listening - which is a little more Cagean[5].

That said, that there is no evidence that Cage knew anything about Oswaldian plunderphonics. He certainly never used the term. In fact, it’s likely he would have disapproved, as he did of improvisation, because it’s too human a process and too much tainted by intention. However, he certainly produced works that could be – and have been - claimed as early instances of punderphonia. In his 1952 Imaginary Landscape No.5, for instance, he uses chance operations to determine the durations and the order of a set of 42 recordings – preferably jazz records – which are to be selected by the performers or the producer. Similarly, in Imaginary Landscape No. 4  (1951), he calls for 12 radios to catch whatever is on air at the time of the performance - much of which, inevitably, is other people’s finished work. And in 33 1/3, first performed in 1969 at the University of California, he arranged for 8 or 12 record players and 300 LPs to be scattered around in a large room - and then left the audience to get on with it.

The first point to make is that, intellectually and aesthetically these works did not intend to be plunderphonic, as such – and in spite of his mighty efforts to quell them, Cage, like the rest of us, couldn’t help but have intentions. The second is that they do prefigure a philosophical adjustment that underpins Oswald’s more explicit proposition, since Cage assumes, though he doesn’t say it, that in the modern world, recorded sounds and broadcast sounds are just another feature of the urban soundscape. Inasmuch as recorded music is rained down on us from all sides, it’s no different in any meaningful sense from birdsong or traffic noise. Here, Cage seems to want to equate technology with nature, at least to the extent that both of them sink indistinguishably into the congeries of sounds in which we are all involuntarily immersed. And since these sounds use us, so equally, he implies, we should be free to use them.

In this reading, it is only our ability to aestheticise that sets us apart from ambient nature and brute technology. But Cage wants to erase that difference in order that ‘we become the sounds and the sounds become us’; in fact he hopes that everything might finally be reduced to a kind of numinous creative flux that is no longer meaningful but simply there. ‘Sounds one hears’, Cage says, … ‘are music’.[6] This is one of many reasons why it is generally believed that Cage himself believed that all sounds are music. I have found no evidence that he ever said this in so many words, but certainly he implied it, over and over again and again.

Perhaps more useful and more measured was his statement in the 1937 Credo in which he predicted that ‘electrical instruments … will make available for musical purposes any and all sounds that can be heard...’[7] But there’s the rub: What is it that makes a purpose musical?  That is what Cage doesn’t say. What he does say is, ’the sound experience I prefer to all others, is the experience of silence. And this silence, almost anywhere in the world today, is traffic. If you listen to Beethoven, it’s always the same, but if you listen to traffic, it’s always different’. This seems to say that traffic isn’t so much the same as Beethoven, but more interesting than Beethoven. Now I think Cage wants to be more nuanced than that but - like Stockhausen’s notorious comments after 9.11 - in the soundbite world in which we live such nuances are all too easily lost. With the best will in the world it is hard not to see this statement as either a provocation, or irresponsibly reductive.


Let’s get back to plunderphonics. When Cage, in the Credo, says ‘any and all sounds that can be heard, ’ this of course must include recordings of other people’s finished work. You could argue that Imaginary Landscape No 5 is a test-run of that conclusion. The same understanding underpins plunderphonic theory: all recordings, it says, are raw materials, including those that are already cooked - a radical notion and, not surprisingly, one wholly rejected by the music industry and commercial copyright holders. Intellectually, however, it’s perfectly valid. In fact it’s rather attractive, since it’s both rational analytically and anarchic socially. And – the reason I mention it here - it reinforces - when it comes to our attitude toward those materials - the  essential Cagean divide between what is human and what is not human; between intentionality and letting the chips fall where they may. Oswald favours the former; he wants to confect; Cage the latter, he wants the sounds to be themselves. If we accept his suggestion we will also have to forego the idea of Art and replace it, at least initially, with the concept of aesthetic listening. But even that will be just be a step on the road for Cage because, eventually, what he wants is that the ‘… sounds should be just sounds….in order that each sound may become the Buddha.’  (1959) That’s his agenda; that’s his final frontier.

So now I come to the one thing I want to say about John Cage.

This common understanding - so often repeated, that - after Cage - all sound has become music is a gaping door through which all of Pandora’s mad troubles have flown - and we really ought to close it. Music is a perfectly good term; it’s a discriminating, useful term - even if we constantly have to negotiate its precise meaning, which in any case is continually changing. Not least, it’s a useful term because it orientates us in a world of noise. 

I can accept loose understandings, I can accept working definitions: Wittgenstein’s family resemblances make sense to me – indeed I think in such territories as this, hard definitions are merely self-defeating, as Jacques Derrida has repeatedly demonstrated. When everything is music, then the word ceases to have any meaning. It’s game over. We achieve Nirvana and there’s nothing else to say. Cage of course knew this. In a different context he expressed the problem himself with limpid clarity: ‘Classification’, he said ’ceases when it’s no longer possible to establish oppositions’.[8] I want to add that all sound is music is a perfect example of that error.



I also want to say that music is a category that is already spoken for and that not all work with sound falls into it. In fact, music works in a completely different way from, for instance, soundscape or sound art or radio art, or for that matter, works generated using chance procedures. Most of all, I want to say that we urgently need a term – or terms – to describe the many new ways of organising sound that have emerged in the course of the last century, forms and practices that were brought into being by the collapse of tonality, the invention of sound recording, computers, electrification, and the acquisition of what Marshall McLuhan called a new electric consciousness.

Sound art, sound installations, soundscapes, plunderphonics, hörspiel – none of these media engages in musical thinking. And none of them is a musical work. Critics are right to say ‘That’s not music’, they just fail to understand that the authors are not trying to make music. Edgard Varese understood this perfectly when he said that music was just a subset of the broader category

Sound. All music is sound, but all sound is not music. Varese, as we know, preferred to describe what he did as organised sound.




My own baseline is that music, in order to be music, has to operate as an intentional sign. As a communicative medium, music belongs in an arbitrary but socially forged system of signification. And to be clear, when I say sign, I mean this in the tripartite Piercean and not the bipartite Sausaurrian sense: a sign as I understand it is something that means something to someone on a shared ground. In other words, it is a quintessentially human transaction. By systematically subverting intention, and therefore what is essentially meaningful and human, from the construction of his listening objects, Cage deliberately removes the possibility of communication – that is to say, of using patterns of sound in a way that grows out of, and operates meaningfully on, a shared semantic ground.  So, by my understanding, that means that whatever it is - it isn’t music.[9]

That’s not a criticism. It’s not a value judgement. It’s just a necessary work of semantic maintenance.




Let’s look at the same question from another perspective. It’s a common view today that Classical Art music became overheated, that it overemphasised the importance of the composer as a genius or messenger of truth and became a quasi-religious ritual, reducing listeners to the role of supplicants and worshippers - a paradigm that an increasing body of composers, especially in the 1960s and pre-eminently in America, began strongly to work against. Cage took the most radical position of all, not so much addressing the problem as simply reversing its terms. Genius and self-expression - the handing down of sublime experience - was to be denied by means of the rigorous interpolation of chance procedures. That would ensure that composers, even if they wanted to, would be unable to shape the sound according to their will. Any meaning then would have to come from the listener, since the composer had taken great pains to say nothing.[10] Work produced in this way is, of course, no longer communicating on what Pierce calls common ground, or within what Ludwig Wittgenstein calls a language game. And that means, by definition, that such work cannot operate as a sign. And therefore, by my lights, it is not music.

This is not to say that Cage’s aleatoric works can’t offer great listening experiences. They can. And they certainly function brilliantly as pedagogical interventions, not least because in their role as ingeniously designed experiments, they make some of the problems music faces today transparently clear. They can also just be good to listen to. And, much as Duchamp had done with his readymades - and on the same ground - Cage makes the heady and seductive proposition that everything can be art. What I’m suggesting is that we take this as a question, a salutary pedagogical intervention, not a dictat. And of course, that’s why I’m not discussing Cage’s music. When people ask me if Twice Around the Earth is music, I say, of course not….. but I crafted it, I meant something by it - and I think of it as art. And, as I pointed out at the beginning, in many respects, it is not so far, formally, from the procedures that underlie Williams mix: it uses a lot of random selection and assembly-procedures, and uses them precisely to make the point so often made by Cage, that if you just listen to sounds, they are fascinating in themselves. They wake you up to the world. That said, Twice Around the Earth is not philosophically Cagean. For a start I heavily stacked the deck by moving from recording to recording, and location to location, quickly enough to provide the listener with continuous stimulation - none of the individual fragments lasts more than about 50 seconds; then I was meticulous about deciding exactly where in each fragment to move to exactly where in the next fragment, as well as how to build the links - with fast or slow cross-fades, hard cuts, asymmetric cuts, and so on. In fact I made aesthetic decisions all the way through, with an imaginary listener in mind. In this way, I broke all the fundamental tenets of Cagean construction and aesthetics. I was not experimenting, and I was carefully and deliberately shaping the listening experience. So, while there is a family resemblance between Twice Around the Earth and the aleatoric method, the two in essence are constitutionally and philosophically different.

On the other hand, neither method produces music, and that’s something they have in common.




Which brings us back to my one thing. Failure to accept Cage’s questions and experiments as questions and experiments is standing in the way of our rethinking the terminology we apply to the many new and exciting forms of sound organisation that surround us today. And this, in turn, prevents us from rethinking our understanding of the forms themselves[11]

What I am suggesting is that we all just have to stop talking about Cage - and a whole universe of other innovative and interesting soundworks - as music; and then think hard enough about them to see what they actually are. After that perhaps we’ll know what to call them. And, more importantly, our thinking will have changed and we’ll be able to see more clearly exactly what the problem is.



[1] This programme and other offshoots of the series have appeared on two CDs so far: Twice around the Earth, ReR Megacorp, ReR CC2, in 2002 and There and Back Again, ReR Megacorp ReRCC3, in 2006.


[2] Conversing with Cage, ed Kostelanetz, 1988.

[3] It took a year to assemble, lasted 4'15" and consisted of eight independent quarter-inch tapes each projected from its own speaker, with the eight speakers being then distributed throughout the performance space. It was premiered at the 25th Year Retrospective Concert Of The Music Of John Cage on May 15, 1958, and recorded by George Avakian who included it in a three-LP set released in 1994 to commemorate the concert. Cage specified very similar materials for this Fontana Mix in 1958.  

[4] All of Oswald’s plunderphonic pieces work in this multi- layered way.

[5] Oswald himself claimed that he was simply sharing his own idiosyncratically interactive way of listening. [And I note that to answer the question: why more Cagean? Would mean recognising what a narrow range of possibilities Cage’s music actually explores.  

[6]  John Cage. A Year From Monday (p163), 1968 

[7] "The Future of Music: Credo" (1937) delivered as a speech in Seattle. Published in Silence, Wesleyan University Press, 1961. 

[8] John Cage ‘Diary: how to improve the world (you will only make matters worse)’, 1968 (revised)’ in ‘M: Writings '67-72’, London, 1973. 

[9] Equally if the sounds are ‘just themselves’ they don’t stand for anything else and though they may signify to a listener, they are not part of a signifying system.

[10] “The emotions - love, mirth, the heroic, wonder, tranquillity, fear, anger, sorrow, disgust - are in the audience.”  Silence, 1961

[11] The artists and originators don’t need terminologies to work, Kafka was Kafkaesque without the need for any critical superstructure.



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