I recently finished David Revill’s The Roaring Silence, a biography of the American composer, writer, and print maker John Cage (not to be confused with Manfred Mann’s 1976 album). My Kindle edition of this book is dogeared with so many virtual notes, highlightings, and reminders to “tell so-and-so about this,” that I made up my mind to simply write a blog post about certain aspects of John Cage’s life that I feel creative people can take inspiration from.
For those of you for whom the name John Cage is unfamiliar, or perhaps only vaguely familiar, John Cage (1912-1992) is known for being one of the first Euro-American composers to write for percussion instruments as a stand-alone ensemble; he was an advocate for nontraditional sounds in music, an early pioneer of electronic music, and later in his career he became a pioneer in the “nonintentional” generation of art and music through random processes, often generated by flipping coins and consulting the I Ching, a Chinese text originally used for divination.
Here are some of some of the aspects of John Cage’s personality that I believe contributed greatly to his extraordinary creative output.
1. Cage never seems to have desired to create a “masterpiece.” Creativity for him seems to have been untainted by this kind of dismissive self-evaluation. He wrote incredibly quickly, sometimes producing a lengthy new piece in just a few hours. He wrote for whatever instruments were available, and early in his career frequently wrote for amateurs who had little or no musical training and who performed on improvised instruments. The result of this is that he wrote a huge amount of music, received frequent performances, and developed numerous new techniques. Of course, his œuvre includes a great deal of derivative or uninteresting work, but his legacy speaks for itself.
This, for me, is one of the most important things I’ve learned from John Cage’s life. It is tremendously refreshing to do creative work for the sake of creativity itself. I have long struggled with such high standards of self-criticism that I sometimes struggle to produce anything at all. I know other artists who deal with the same issue. Wouldn’t it be better to wipe the slate clean every day? Write something small just for our friends to play – to try to do something really new, even if its objective value to colleagues and juries is nil? I think creative people, at least those devoted or unbalanced souls who pursue creativity as a central goal in their life, should really accept the fact that they may never get paid a cent for their work; they might end up working as a taxi driver or teaching piano in some windy, flat, bitterly cold farming town in Illinois. You may not get a “big break,” or it may not come until you’re very old, but if your desire is really to work in music and create something original, those external standards of success shouldn’t matter. Keep working for the sake of the work itself.
2. Cage worked constantly. He wasn’t picky about when and where he worked (as I, unfortunately, am). He would bring his staff paper, and I Ching, and coins on the bus so he could keep working in transit. Thousands of coin tosses might be required for a single piece. Each creative decision determined by the flip of a coin, seems meaningless, but is it any more or less meaningful than one we make consciously and intentionally? What after all is there that is more meaningful in life?
3. Cage gave up most other distractions in his life. During his self-described “heroic period” he refused to sell his menial labor even to earn money for food and basic living expenses. Needless to say, he lived in near-abject poverty for most of his life and at one point considered retiring to Bolivia in order to support himself in his old age. (A contemporaneous composer, Moondog, took this to an extreme, making a conscious decision to live on the streets of New York for most of his life.)
4. Cage would work through a single creative idea in innumerable iterations and variations until he exhausted the creative potential of that idea completely. Sometimes this included an obsessive repetition of mind-numbingly boring tasks. His electronic collage, Williams Mix, required over 600 recordings made on magnetic tape that had to be cut and spliced together by hand according to detailed, randomly generated splicing instructions. The score is 192 pages long, and the minutely detailed work took Cage and two assistants over a year to complete! The result is just four minutes of music.
In an even more impressive example of obsessive thoroughness, Cage created Writing Through “Finnegans Wake” in 1976, a 682 page book of what amounts to found poetry generated procedurally from James Joyce’s notoriously incomprehensible novel Finnegans Wake. Over the next few years, Cage proceeded to write four more volumes of “writing through ‘Finnegans Wake,’” each using slightly different technical procedures!
5. Cage always went directly to the best teachers and colleagues he could find. Despite having zero money to pay for expensive lessons (and never having graduated from any university), Arnold Schoenberg agreed to teach him for free after extracting a promise that Cage would “devote his life to music.” David Revill quotes Cage: “I’ve always gone, insofar as I could, to the president of the company.” During my Watson Fellowship, I’ve taken inspiration from this quote. I’ve found that most professionals are flattered to have someone show a genuine interest and enthusiasm to learn about their work. No doubt you could learn nearly anything by going directly to those people who know the subject best. I’m very grateful to the composers who have shared their time with me over the years. As Cage did later in life, one must remember to return the favor to younger students in the future.