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Concert for nails and household appliances

by Umberto Eco (Radiocorriere TV, n°28, July 13-19, 1969, pag. 32)

(He’s American, he worked for some time in Italy. Some years ago, totally broke, he participated at Lascia o raddoppia? as a mushroom expert. His works, based on Zen philosophy, had a determinant impact on the cultural life of our times)

You don’t need to take it as music, if such a word disturbs you. It’s a sentence by John Cage. And it should be enough for who doesn’t know him. Enough to be a warning, I mean. When a musician starts out like this, it means that he will let us hear something expressly conceived to defy the habits we are accustomed to.

But the unaware reader could still be deceived: for example after reading John Cage’s biography in a music encyclopaedia: born in 1912 in Los Angeles, a pupil of Schoenberg, a collector of instruments and passionate seeker of new timbres, the inventor of the prepared piano, a supporter of aleatoric music, he deeply influenced the latest generation of avant-garde musicians and composed works which have tranquil peaceful titles such as Variation II, Concerto per piano, Fontana Mix...

This composer of non-music could be misunderstood, by the calm reader, as an angry dodecaphonic, a rigorous manic, an ascetic enemy of tonality and melody. Good, everyone is used to it now, it doesn’t scandalize anymore.
On the contrary (apart from the fact that Cage doesn’t scandalize anymore because he has also become a classic who can be presented to the TV audience), some ten years ago when he passed through Italy he provoked scandal indeed.

Clever dumbness
Fedele D’Amico, a polemic and sarcastic critic, although not usually surprised by modernity, described a concert given by Cage, assisted by Luciano Berio, at the Accademia Filarmonica Romana like this: Each of the two men sat in front of their piano; and every now and then, in turns, often fiddled simultaneously with the inside of the instrument. Other sounds, always separated by extremely long silent pauses, alternated to them: banging wooden sticks, whistle blows, pinches on the strings, slaps on the piano case. Once the composer stood up and switched on a radio ...

Rather than being scandalized, D’Amico spoke of clever dumbness (a term which Cage should be proud of since it emanates from the Zen principles that inspire him); but we must say that Cage controlled himself on that occasion.

It is true that he put his prepared piano – in which nails, screws, chains and rubber pieces are shoved between the strings to modify its timbre – and he abused the instrument, symbol of the concert ritual, with precise slaps, kicks and violent poundings with the lid (like it is normally done in every avant-garde concert that transformed Cage’s verb into academic praxis); but he neither performed his Imaginary Landscape, a concert for twelve radios, nor his Water Walk for pianos, radios, household appliances, vapour, ice and water where the sounds of blenders, toasters, juicers, electric razors give the listener an indeed wider range of sonorous possibilities than the traditional scale, though it also causes him a series of more uncontrolled nervous reactions than those he usually experiences at concerts.

After this prologue many readers will remember John Cage: why did he appear on the stage of the Milano Fiera on Lascia o raddoppia?, and startled Mike Bongiorno during his Water Walk performance. Mike made some scathing comments – but not too many – as he believed that Cage was kidding and resumed to question him about mushrooms.

The story had a happy end, Cage won, and I still remember an awkward nocturnal toast with champagne in a bar pool hall in Corso Sempione, still open at that time of day with John Cage, who celebrated his millions (he participated to stay in Italy as he was completely broke and he knew everything about mushrooms since he lived in the woods and he came out only to upset audiences in concerts), Luciano Berio and Cathy Berberian, Marino Zuccheri, the laboratory technician of RAI’s Studio di Fonologia who was helping Cage to finish his electronic piece Fontana Mix (dedicated to his landlady Mrs. Fontana), Peggy Guggenheim wearing gold-colored sandals and the owner of the bar where Cage used to play pool. A toast in a simple fashion because John Cage has this pure hearted cow-boy air with blue eyes, look in peace with the world and the Absurd.

I’m telling these episodes not only to go back to already epic times, but because John Cage cannot be comprehended without his biographic data, his anecdotes, what goes beyond his music. What I mean is that the fact that John Cage deals with mushrooms is important to understand his art, that the fact that he accepted to participate on a quiz show on television in a foreign country, to be subdued by the gags of an audience which thought of him as an amateurish clown (while he is a professional, in a priest-ish kind of way), is part of his way of facing things and his apparent contempt towards the audience which is instead a means of involving it into a joyous rite that might enlighten anyone who wants to be to involved.

Enlightenment is not a random word. Cage must be placed into a current of American culture that rediscovered Zen philosophy and therefore the importance of Chance, the happiness of illogic, the rationality of the whole and thus the logic of absurdity. This current generated the hippies, the creators of happenings, but we should not forget that when they appeared Cage had already been around for a while.

Hence, if today there are artists who present a non-existing artwork, reducing the creative act into a merely provocative gesture, we must remember that Cage is where this praxis stems from. Which is only half destructive, because arranging the sound of a blender or a coffee maker besides disrupting the well-known sounds on one hand, new ones are also discovered that the tonal scale didn’t allow or justify and which can serve now as moments of contemplation.

Vital moments
Everything deserves a happy listening, even a noise. The point is that an ethics lies at the origin of such aesthetic practice. It is Zen Buddhism that teaches us to reconsider every vital moment, even an unnatural pause, the slowness through which an action is performed (pouring tea, stretching a bow), a fist of sand trickling from our hand, the sharpness of a randomly picked stone, the flowing of water.

If, as the Zen sage says, every attempt to fix the multiple faces of the universe into immutable forms (including the musical ones) is destined to fail, it is better to hasten this failure, to redefine and free our wit and sensitivity via a series of gestures that teach us how to handle randomness, unexpectedness and nonsense – which is then filled with sense – in all their forms. The Zen sage finds his own freshness again in front of the unexpected event, he feels a sudden enlightenment and discovers the truth, the omnipresent miracle of life: What a miracle this is! I get water from the pit and I carry wood!

It is not a matter of analyzing a very ancient doctrine like Zen however; and neither to say if it could really enlighten us, nor if John Cage is a orthodox disciple or just a receptive and vibrating lightning rod that captured and used the advices of Eastern wisdom in his own way...

It is necessary to determine those elements in John Cage’s output that can be explained only through Zen tradition. Zen pedagogy is made of answers to philosophical inquiries given by means of lifting a staff (thus a return to concreteness, putting to a halt the literate discourse, a return to things which are real and sure, unlike ideas), by absurd dialogues that remind us of those in Ionesco’s comedies, and by inexplicable riddles, the koans. And some of John Cage’s procedures are Zen too; and he replies to the irritated audience that asks him about his concerts (Why such a sudden sound from a radio? Why such a never ending silence?) repeating the question posed to him infinitely with long and unnatural silences.

For the introduction of his famous Lecture on Nothing, consisting of many simultaneous poetic bands, Cage had prepared a series of answers to the inquiries that would have been made. The answers (prepared without knowing the questions and to be given one after the other in this precise order) were:

  1. That is a very good question. I should not want to spoil it with an answer.
  2. Had you heard Marya Freund last April in Palermo singing Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, I doubt whether you would have asked that question.
  3. According to the Farmers’ Almanac this is a False Spring.
  4. Please repeat the question
    And again...
    And again...
  5. I have no more answers.
Like the Zen master sometimes he answers the disciple’s question by slapping him.

Beyond art
We might think whether this provocative technique will last for long or if once provocation is settled, it morphs into habit. I believe that Cage would be the first one to agree. When we speak of him, we should not value his message, as if he were a religious prophet, but we should rate his influence on the present discourse of contemporary music.

Such influence can be proved; let’s consider the role of gesture has in music, the progressive destruction of concert rituals and the re-evaluation of noise... Lastly, let’s think of the crisis of artistic creation as a private, privileged act that defines an eternal object.

And the new ways of artistic involvement, beyond schemes, beyond art perhaps. I’m thinking of the writings on the walls of the Sorbonne and that colossal happening that the 1968 May in France was (even if it wasn’t the only one). It was the ripening of an anarchic seed contained also in John Cage’s musical gestures.

(The TV program Musicisti d’oggi – Happening su John Cage, will be aired Saturday, July 19, at 9.15 pm on Channel two)