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Four Extracts from Silence

by John Cage

The following extracts are from the book "Silence: Lectures and Writings by John Cage" (Wesleyan University Press, 1961). The page numbers in brackets in the introduction to each extract refer to that book.

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From the second lecture ("II. Indeterminacy") of three given under the title "Composition as Process" at Darmstadt in September 1958 (pp 36-37):

This is a lecture on composition which is indeterminate with respect to its performance. The Intersection 3 by Morton Feldman is an example. The Music of Changes [one of Cage's own compositions] is not an example. In the Music of Changes, structure, which is the division of the whole into parts; method, which is the note-to-note procedure; form, which is the expressive content, the morphology of the continuity; and materials, the sounds and silences of the composition, are all determined. Though no two performances of the Music of Changes will be identical (each act is virgin, even the repeated one, to refer to René Char's thought), two performances will resemble one another closely. Though chance operations brought about the determinations of the composition, these operations are not available in its performance. The function of the performer in the case of the Music of Changes is that of a contractor who, following an architect's blueprint, constructs a building. That the Music of Changes was composed by means of chance operations identifies the composer with no matter what eventuality. But that its notation is in all respects determinate does not permit the performer any such identification: his work is specifically laid out before him. He is therefore not able to perform from his own center but must identify himself insofar as possible with the center of the work as written. The Music of Changes is an object more inhuman than human, since chance operations brought it into being. The fact that these things that constitute it, though only sounds, have come together to control a human being, the performer, gives the work the alarming aspect of a Frankenstein monster. This situation is of course characteristic of Western music, the masterpieces of which are its most frightening examples, which when concerned with humane communication only move over from Frankenstein monster to Dictator.

In the case of the Intersection 3 by Morton Feldman, structure may be viewed as determinate or as indeterminate; method is definitely indeterminate. Frequency and duration characteristics of the material are determinate only within broad limits (they are with respect to narrow limits indeterminate); the timbre characteristic of the material, being given by the instrument designated, the piano, is determinate; the amplitude characteristic of the material is indeterminate. Form conceived in terms of a continuity of various weights - that is, a continuity of numbers of sounds, the sounds themselves particularized only with respect to broad range limits (high, middle, and low) - is determinate, particularly so due to the composer's having specified boxes as time units. Though one might equally describe it as indeterminate for other reasons. The term "boxes" arises from the composer's use of graph paper for the notation of his composition. The function of the box is comparable to that of a green light in metropolitan thoroughfare control. The performer is free to play the given number of sounds in the range indicated at any time during the duration of the box, just as when driving an automobile one may cross an intersection at any time during the green light. With the exception of method, which is wholly indeterminate, the compositional means are characterized by being in certain respects determinate, in others indeterminate, and an interpenetration of these opposites obtains which is more characteristic than either. The situation is therefore essentially non-dualistic; a multiplicity of centers in a state of non-obstruction and interpenetration.

The function of the performer in the case of the Intersection 3 is that of a photographer who on obtaining a camera uses it to take a picture. The composition permits an infinite number of these, and, not being mechanically constructed, it win not wear out. It can only suffer disuse or loss. How is the performer to perform the Intersection 3? He may do this in an organized way which may be subjected successfully to analysis. Or he may perform his function of photographer in a way which is not consciously organized (and therefore not subject to analysis) - either arbitrarily, feeling his way, following the dictates of his ego; or more or less unknowingly, by going inwards with reference to the structure of his mind to a point in dreams, following, as in automatic writing, the dictates of his subconscious mind; or to a point in the collective unconsciousness of Jungian psychoanalysis, following the inclinations of the species and doing something of more or less universal interest to human beings; or to the "deep sleep" of Indian mental practice - the Ground of Meister Eckhart - identifying there with no matter what eventuality. Or he may perform his function of photographer arbitrarily, by going outwards with reference to the structure of his mind to the point of sense perception, following his taste; or more or less unknowingly by employing some operation exterior to his mind: tables of random numbers, following the scientific interest in probability; or chance operations, identifying there with no matter what eventuality.

One evening Morton Feldman said that when he composed he was dead; this recalls to me the statement of my father, an inventor, who says he does his best work when he is sound asleep. The two suggest the "deep sleep" of Indian mental practice. The ego no longer blocks action. A fluency obtains which is characteristic of nature. The seasons make the round of spring, summer, fall, and winter, interpreted in Indian thought as creation, preservation, destruction, and quiescence. Deep sleep is comparable to quiescence. Each spring brings no matter what eventuality. The performer then will act in any way. Whether he does so in an organized way or in any one of the not consciously organized ways cannot be answered until his action is a reality. The nature of the composition and the knowledge of the composer's own view of his action suggest, indeed, that the performer act sometimes consciously, sometimes not consciously and from the Ground of Meister Eckhart, identifying there with no matter what eventuality.

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From the introduction to "Lecture on Something" (p 128):

Although it had been prepared some years earlier, this lecture was not printed until 1959, when it appeared in It Is, edited by Philip Pavia, with the following introduction:

In the general moving around and talking that followed my Lecture on Something (ten years ago at the Club), somebody asked Morton Feldman whether he agreed with what I had said about him. He replied, "That's not me; that's John." When Pavia recently asked me for a text on the occasion of Columbia's issuing a record devoted to Feldman's music, I said, "I already have one. Why don't you print it?"


To bring things up to date, let me say that I am as ever changing, while Feldman's music seems more to continue than to change. There never was and there is not now in my mind any doubt about its beauty. It is, in fact, sometimes too beautiful. The flavor of that beauty, which formerly seemed to me to be heroic, strikes me now as erotic (an equal, by no means a lesser, flavor). This impression is due, I believe, to Feldman's tendency towards tenderness, a tenderness only briefly, and sometimes not at all, interrupted by violence. On paper, of course, the graph pieces are as heroic as ever; but in rehearsal Feldman does not permit the freedoms he writes to become the occasion for license. He insists upon an action within the gamut of love, and this produces (to mention only the extreme effects) a sensuousness of sound or an atmosphere of devotion. As ever, I prefer concerts to records of instrumental music. Let no one imagine that in owning a recording he has the music. The very practice of music, and Feldman's eminently, is a celebration that we own nothing.

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From the article "History of Experimental Music in the United States" published in 1959 (pp 71-72):

[...] in connection with musical continuity, Cowell remarked at the New School before a concert of works by Christian Wolff, Earle Brown, Morton Feldman, and myself, that here were four composers who were getting rid of glue. That is: Where people had felt the necessity to stick sounds together to make a continuity, we four felt the opposite necessity to get rid of the glue so that sounds would be themselves.

Christian Wolff was the first to do this. He wrote some pieces vertically on the page but recommended their being played horizontally left to right, as is conventional. Later he discovered other geometrical means for freeing his music of intentional continuity. Morton Feldman divided pitches into three areas, high, middle, and low, and established a time unit. Writing on graph paper, he simply inscribed numbers of tones to be played at any time within specified periods of time.

There are people who say, "If music's that easy to write, I could do it." Of course they could, but they don't. I find Feldman's own statement more affirmative. We were driving back from some place in New England where a concert had been given. He is a large man and falls asleep easily. Out of a sound sleep, he awoke to say, "Now that things are so simple, there's so much to do." And then he went back to sleep.

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From the lecture "Indeterminacy" given in Brussels in 1959 (p265):

Artists talk a lot about freedom. So, recalling the expression "free as a bird," Morton Feldman went to a park one day and spent some time watching our feathered friends. When he came back, he said, "You know? They're not free: they're fighting over bits of food."

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John Cage's quotes appear courtesy of The John Cage Trust.

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