John Cage And Improvisation

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Art is sort of an experimental station in which one tries out living.
-John Cage

The American experimental composer John Cage once said that he didn’t believe in improvising as a composing technique. The reason is that when we improvise we only play what we already know.

But that has not been my experience. When I improvise—not all that skillfully, usually lost and barely hanging on, but in the moment, connecting my listening with the sounds I’m making—I often encounter novel sound combinations. Contra to Cage, I don’t have the feeling of playing what I already know; in fact, when I listen back to some of these improvisations I find them pleasurably unknown to me—I have no idea about the basis upon which I made decisions in the moment to make the sounds. For me the discovery process inside improvising seems to involve going out on a performance limb and then free-falling. Thinking through it comes later.

So when Cage says he doesn’t believe in improvising, I wonder: Could Cage improvise? Could he elicit sound combinations he found pleasing from instruments in real time, without a definite goal and without recourse to what he already knew? The sound and flow of some of his early pieces such as the beautiful In A Landscape or the gamelan-esque Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano, suggest the composer had some interest in performance before theoretical concerns became paramount. This brings me to another thought: Did Cage perhaps turn his back on improvisation because it didn’t have a place within his rigorously conceptualized system of using chance procedures (such as the I-Ching or rolling dice) as a system by which to organize music? What I find odd is that if Cage believed that “art is sort of an experimental station in which one tries out living”, why wouldn’t he avail himself of improvising, that ultimate living strategy available to us all? Was improvising somehow un-composerly, simply too accessible, too universal, too human?

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