Possibly, I’m getting John Cage’s musical philosophy wrong, but here it is, as I understand it: All sounds are more or less created equal, and no sound or arrangement of sounds is superior to another. Therefore, the best thing a composer can do is to remove all personal prejudice from his work, and let the sounds be themselves. This is my understanding of Cage’s philosophy, and I hope it’s correct, because otherwise this post is pretty pointless.
Here’s my problem with this idea: all sounds are not created equal. If you put me and Jimi Hendrix on a guitar, would my annoying janglings even come close to Hendrix’s stuff? Of course not, but according to John Cage’s philosophy, my sounds would be just as good as a master’s. And that can’t be right.
Sounds are everywhere. As Cage found out, even entering a “soundless” room can’t keep out sounds. (Although the high sound he heard most likely wasn’t his nervous system—it was probably tinnitus). You can’t do anything without experiencing a whole medley of sounds—most determined wholly by chance operations. The whole point of music, it seems to me, is to construct sounds that have meaning, that can move and inspire people. Art has been defined as “holding a mirror up to nature.” (Okay, I read that in “the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, but still, it works pretty well). Good (as most people define it) music does that. Cage’s doesn’t—and that is the whole point of his work—to divorce “music” from anyone’s (not popular perceptions, anyone’s) idea of beauty.
I don’t know how valuable popular opinion is for determining art’s greatness—after all, I’m pretty sure that Mariah Carey would win a worldwide popularity contest against Beethoven—but it indisputably has some value. And I think it’s significant that composers like Beethoven and Mozart and Handel all inspire people around the world (I’m not sure of their popularity level outside the western world, but then, if McDonalds is popular in China, I’m guessing classical music is too), while John Cage’s entire fan base pretty much consists of a few people in New York and San Francisco. (I know, he has fans in other cities too, but not many, and apparently Cage never really took off in Europe). I think there is a reason for that—Beethoven and company send a powerful message—it differs depending on the person, but it’s always there. The only message in Cage’s music is: “Hey, I’m listening to some pretty experimental stuff here.”