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So much has been written about how John Cage changed the world with radical ideas about music and art that perhaps not enough is said about how he was also rooted in tradition. Instead, Cage the iconoclast is now a too-familiar cliché, while his rival in the American new music scene of the 1950s, Milton Babbitt (1916-2011), somehow represents another unfortunate cliché of the insulated, impractical academician.
Those who think that both composers took music to a place that was impossible for the average listener to follow should still recognize the modernist path cut by the late works of Beethoven, the chromaticism of Wagner, and eventually the atonality of Schoenberg (Cage’s teacher, who once called him some sort of genius, if not a composer). Clichés aside, both Cage and Babbitt were on that same path: how music could be perceived when each moment is as unpredictable as possible from the next moment, while ardently avoiding rules of the tonal tradition of Western music.
Cage famously began his career as a composer adapting noise to music and many of his early works are for percussion ensemble. The prepared piano was in effect a low-budget percussion ensemble he invented to facilitate a collaboration with dancer Syvilla Fort in 1938.
By 1951, his Concerto for Prepared Piano and Orchestra asked listeners to take more seriously than ever his diminutive percussion ensemble and how it could come alive with simple gestures written for the piano. Aside from that, this work also hit head-on Babbitt’s then reigning philosophy of “determinacy,” even one-upping it with a philosophy Cage facetiously dubbed “indeterminacy.” Although the chance operations of “indeterminacy” had little to do with Babbitt’s approach to Schoenberg’s method, there was still common effort with Babbitt based on how the composer’s intention should fit into music. [Cage introduced chance operations in the third movement of this Concerto.]
Mathematicians remind us that a “determinant” is a set of elements in which each is used once before repeating (concisely defining Schoenberg’s 12-tone row), although Babbitt’s determinacy was more commonly interpreted as simply a row determining a composition. Likewise, Cage’s indeterminacy is often misapplied to everything from jazz to improvisatory melodrama, despite protests from Cage himself that there is a difference between freedom and license.
If following generations of composers are left to assess the march from late-Beethoven to determinacy/indeterminacy polarities, it may suffice to say Western music is left with an unresolved cadence. [The prepared piano and various noisemakers in Oscar Bettison’s Livre des Sauvages are very much in the spirit of Cage.]
— Gregg Wager is a composer and critic. He is author of Symbolism as a Compositional Method in the Works of Karlheinz Stockhausen. He has a PhD in musicology from the Free University Berlin.