(Tim Page’s article appeared in The New York Review of Books, 10/27.)
There are certain creative figures whose mature works are almost tangential to their enduring artistic influence. Marcel Duchamp falls into this group, as does Andy Warhol. And so, certainly, does John Cage (1912–1992). He opened doors—floodgates, really—and dissolved definitions; if most of his own compositions now seem less interesting than the ramifications of his ideas, there can be little doubt that his oceanic spirit changed the topography.
It is fitting, perhaps, that the son of a Los Angeles inventor should have attracted initial public attention with his own homemade instrument—the “prepared piano,” a standard-issue piano transfigured with the help of nut bolts, screws, erasers, rubber bands, and other material placed between its strings. Described so dryly, the idea calls to mind some sort of Dada stunt (“C’mon kids, let’s see what we can squeeze into this piano!”), but the resulting sound was specific, exotic, and euphonious, a percussion orchestra in a box.
A 1943 concert at the Museum of Modern Art made Cage famous—and controversial. “About forty kinds of instruments were employed, ranging from thunder sheets and a ‘string piano’ to cowbells, flower pots and even an audio-frequency generator,” Noel Straus reported in The New York Times. “But practically all the ‘music’ produced by the various combinations of them had an inescapable resemblance to the meaningless sounds made by children amusing themselves by banging on tin pans and other resonant kitchen utensils.”
Photo: University of Utah