john cage makes bread, and the chance of a little bit more..


I’ve always had a bit of an axe to grind with John Cage and his legacy. He was unquestionably the most important composers and thinkers of the 20th century. He forever changed how we approach and conceive of music. He remains all around us. On the other hand, he had strong authoritarian tendencies, was well know for underhanded attacks on other composers, and there are numerous indications that some of his assertions were guided by racism and homophobia (despite having been gay himself). Since first encountering his music shortly after his death in 1992, I have struggled to negotiate how my own ethics and politics interface with what Cage left behind, and paradoxes of his ideas.

I often describe Cage as a mind marked by a conflict between the ideal and the self. Many of his thoughts opened endless possibility to how we engage with music – where it comes from, the way we listen to it, and frame its potential. He drew our attention to its temporality, proposed new ways of relating to unconventional and non-instrumental sounds, and that composition could develop through chance and indeterminacy (it should be noted that though Cage is generally credited with the popularization of chance and indeterminacy as compositional devices, they were utilized in the music of Ives, Cowell, and Boulez decades before he came to them). Despite the implied openness and democratic character of his ideas, Cage was known for trying to rigorously control the realization of his own music, and more notably, the landscape in which he existed – seeming to say, “do whatever you like, just don’t do that.. or that.. or that.” He rarely lived what he preached, indicating that his music may lack much of the idealism which made it famous.

Cage has become untouchable. I’m likely to ruffle feathers by even daring to raise my brow. But how Cage has been canonized, the unchallenged character of such an operation, with its tendency toward elitism, and its under-acknowledged precipitous legacies, are often precisely the problem (rather than the music itself, or what it proposed). Like many Modernists, he held strong convictions about what was and was not art. His attacks on other members of the avant-garde – those whose ideas were not sympathetic to his own, or did not represent them as he would have liked, were vast and venomous, and still effect how we approach those with whom he shared context. African Americans, particularly, but not limited to, those associated with Jazz, received especially strong condemnations. Because of how Cage has been framed by history, we are still disposed to some of his less than savory legacies. For many he is the axis of 20th century avant-garde music. For me he is the sometimes source of its frustrating factionalization, inferred hierarchies, and much of the continuing difficulty when trying to recognize the breadth of practice and realization within it. In other words, John Cage often keeps us separate, rather than opening us to the democratic possibilities of sound. What he left behind precipitates a tendency to designate certain practices as “high-art” and others as lesser forms – particularly along race lines.

Most broad histories written about avant-garde music veer sharply in the favor of White and Eurocentric practitioners, regardless of how tenuous the connections they establish may be. They acknowledge, connect, and follow Cage with the Minimalists, while very few of the so designated composers worked with (or responded to) his ideas for long – if at all. On the other hand, a great many of Free-Jazz’s practitioners openly acknowledged the use and influence of chance and indeterminacy for decades, and are all but are absent from the same histories. This becomes all that more sinister when remembering that in the early 80’s, when Cage was looking for a new young champion, he chose John Zorn, a white saxophonist – then known largely as a free-improvisor. The lines Cage drew, are the lines still followed by most historians and critics of the American Avant-garde. We have Ives, a peppering of Partch, Cowell, and Nancarrow, the Serialists, Cage, Minimalists, Zorn, etc. Much remains obscured from view, designated as unworthy to share company with these so called “higher” forms.


Excerpt from Mr. Hoover and I  (1989) by Emile de Antonio

I love Cage for the ideas that he set into the world – that we hear music everywhere, and that it can be the result of chance. Yet nearly as soon as he unleashed them, he began tying them down, designating orthodoxies, and reminding us who was out or in. I struggle with that Cage, what that side of his personality brought with him, and how it still exists with us today. In this spirit I bring you a film of him making bread – a simple operation, stripped of elitism and filled with chance. I challenge you to hear the music within it – to recognize the democracy and sense of possibility that he once proposed. It’s an excerpt of a film called Mr. Hoover and I by Emile de Antonio. The film is at once an attack on J. Edgar Hoover (who accumulated a 10,000 page dossier on the filmmaker, viewing his radical Left-Wing politics a threat), and an abstract autobiography of Antonio himself, who passed away shortly after the film premiered in 1989.  Below are two later segments where Cage discusses chance operations, and intervals respectively. I hope you enjoy them both, and that my words in will operate as I hope they might – as an intervention with how we navigate history’s legacies, their authorship, and proposal that we its inheritors, take a more active role.. leaving less to chance.

-Bradford Bailey


Excerpt from Mr. Hoover and I  (1989) by Emile de Antonio


Excerpt from Mr. Hoover and I  (1989) by Emile de Antonio







Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s