The following FEATURE was written for the John Cage Centennial Festival Washington, DC. It is
copyrighted and appears in its original publication here. While links TO this FEATURE from other sites are welcome,
the FEATURE itself may not be reprinted for any reason without express agreement in writing from the copyright holder/author. Please contact Stacie Birky Greene to facilitate this.
HOW JOHN CAGE IMPROVED MY HEARING
by Gene Caprioglio
When I began my studies at Queens College of the City University of New York back in the 1970s, Copland, Shostakovich, and Stravinsky were still alive. And judging by the curriculum at that time, you would think that Berg, Hindemith, Mahler, Prokofiev, Schönberg, and Webern were still alive too. No one ever mentioned John Cage. 4'33" had been around for over 20 years, but it never came up, not even as a joke. It was not until two years after I left college that a co-worker at G. Schirmer, Inc., Mark Kanny, now a music critic in Pittsburgh, made me aware of Cage. Mark had a beautiful MacIntosh audio system and a massive record collection, and I did some “post-grad” work under his tutelage. One day he handed me a C.F. Peters Corporation catalogue and said, “Check this out. Wouldn’t it be cool to work at this place?” It was a contemporary catalogue that featured, along with the usual lists of composers and their works arranged in alphabetical order, comments by selected composers who were asked to give their “thoughts on music”. These thoughts were printed in the composers’ autographies throughout the catalogue. It was very impressive. I still have that copy. A few years later, I was offered a job at Peters and that catalogue played no small part in my decision to take it. The fact that I was, at the time, about to be invited to conclude my brief piano-making career at the Sohmer and Company factory in Long Island City, also helped.
At Peters, I was afforded the unique opportunity of being put into daily contact with the music and concepts of John Cage. I had access to just about all of his printed music, commercial recordings and writings as well as the occasional opportunity to interact with the composer himself. It was a gradual process, but I ultimately found that I really liked his music, all of his music. The percussion and prepared piano pieces were a pleasant surprise, and I liked them immediately, but the chance operation works presented a bit of challenge. I remember finding one performance of WINTER MUSIC particularly excruciating. I understood and appreciated the concept behind its creation, but I did not find it a satisfying listening experience. Gradually, though, I found my way deeper into the Cage oeuvre.
I think the bridge to the chance pieces, for me, were the theatrical or performance pieces. WATER MUSIC, for example, is compelling, even if you do not register the sounds as a musical composition. There is enough walking around and tinkering with duck calls and radios to make it a fascinating experience. That Cage arrived at these performance activities via chance operations did not diminish the experience in the least, and I eventually found that to be true in his chance generated music also, but it took awhile to get to the point where I could appreciate each discrete sound as much as I did each discrete activity.
I finally had my breakthrough moment in 2007. I had attended a performance at Bard College that included the Merce Cunningham Dance Company Musicians (David Behrman, John King, Takehisa Kosugi, Stephan Moore, and Christian Wolff). They performed FOUR3. This is one of Cage’s “number’ pieces. He wrote the “number” pieces in the final years of his life. FOUR3 was written in 1991. It is for 1 or 2 pianos, 12 rainsticks, violin or oscillator, and silence. My recollection is that they used 2 pianos, 12 rainsticks, and 1 or 2 violins. It was a masterful performance, but it was not until later that night that I realized how deeply it affected me. I was staying with my wife in a hotel in Woodstock, not too far from Bard. Woodstock is in the country, and it can be very quiet at night, especially to city dwellers. As I was getting into bed, I had a moment where I heard every little sound in the room and outside the room: the clock, the dripping faucet, someone whistling, the jiggling of keys. I have never been the same. Now I can sit and listen like never before. I hear more. I know it was Cage that improved my hearing, and I will always be grateful.
– Gene Caprioglio