PBS’s John Cage documentary, I Have Nothing to Say and Am Saying It gives a remarkable picture of John Cage’s life and work. Cage is truly remarkable—it takes a special sort of person to devote his life to music. His work with sounds is interesting—the world is full of sounds, and I’m pretty sure that John Cage has made a musical piece with all of them. Cage is perhaps the most original and creative musician of the twentieth century. (Although surprisingly, his most controversial work, 4’33’, was actually not original at all. No less than two earlier composers had already come up with the same idea, though Cage claimed to be unaware of their work).
Cage represented a new vision of art—that beauty is not in the eye of the beholder, but that of the artist. Cage did manage to become relatively famous—not quite a household name (most of my friends don’t seem to have heard of him), but nearly so. But I suspect that he would have been quite content had his music been known to only a tiny circle of avant-garde artists. In fact, for many years it was—Cage really only became notorious late in life.
John Cage’s music is creative—but also, in my view, a bit pointless. For example, Cheap Imitation is a really remarkable piece of work—I can’t imagine the difficulty of adapting the piece the way Cage did. It’s difficult, original, and creative. It’s also almost impossible to listen to—I’ve tried, and I get bored about a minute into it. (It sounds like the same three notes over and over). Maybe I’m just an unsophisticated, musically illiterate philistine (and bear in mind that I do listen to country music), but I’m pretty sure I’m not alone—outside of a relatively small number of avant-garde music fans, I doubt that the piece has many fans.
I don’t think that Cage really cared whether anyone liked Cheap Imitation—he wrote music for himself, not others. He would probably be the last person to call a piece of music—any music—“good” or “bad.” But there has to be some scale, even if that scale is simply individual taste. If not, then Mozart and some highschooler trying to play techhop acoustofunk in his mom’s basement are equally good—and that can’t be right.
John Cage’s most famous quote was the title of the PBS piece—“I have nothing to say, and am saying it.” Exactly. That is why I don’t like Cage’s music. His music was created to separate sound from emotion. But the point of music, in my mind, is to communicate, thoughts, feelings, and emotions.
Anyway, that's my opinion.