I’m listening to Music of Changes by John Cage. I once traveled to Sheffield to hear it played, along with Cage’s more famous 4’33”.
Cage composed it using the coin-tossing procedure usually used for the consultation of the I Ching, or Book of Changes. In other words, what happens next is randomly selected by the composer.
The idea of randomly generated music is intriguing. I am intrigued by the fact that although Cage stepped aside and applied an impersonal procedure to the process of composition, Music of Changes still sounds like a piece of mid-20th century avant-garde music – one might even say it “sounds like John Cage”.
I’m listening to Music of Changes by John Cage. I’m thinking too much. I’m reminded that Mozart wrote a minuet which one has to assemble with the help of a dice. Mozart allows you to choose sounds from the musical style he was familiar with and however the dice lands, the result sounds like a minuet. Cage allowed himself to choose from the musical building-blocks of his own era : individual notes on a piano, considered as sounds existing independently of their relationship to other notes.*
In randomizing aspects of the process of composition Cage, to use an over-used cliché, was trying to “think outside the box”. However, the box is like a set of Russian dolls. You start in the smallest box. When you think you’re thinking outside of it all you’ve done is step into the next biggest box. Think outside of that, and you find yourself in the next biggest and so on. Cage knew this better than most: a year after he composed Music of Changes, he composed the silent piece, 4’33”. There are no notes to play. One merely has to listen. It can be played on any instrument and last any length of time. Hang on though. Have we burned the boxes or has the box just got even bigger? Do we perform it “on” an instrument? In a concert hall? To an audience? Perhaps I should perform it to myself, wherever I am, on anything. However, the box has just got bigger again. If I take anything and decide to make a sound with it, I’ve made a musical decision. Music, though, is as much about not making sound as it is about making sound (musicians have to “count rests” as well as “play notes”) so if I take something and decide not to make a sound with it that, too, is a musical decision. 4’33” puts me in a musical relationship with whatever I contemplate, be it a conventional musical instrument or not. Even if I attempt to contemplate nothing I have, in so doing, decided not to use my voice to make sounds. I am a musical instrument and cannot escape the decision not to use myself. I am in a musical relationship with myself at all times.
I’m listening to Music of Changes by John Cage. I’m not paying much attention to it as I’m writing this, wondering what to type next. I’m sure this is what he would have wanted.
*I’ve deliberately kept this description brief and straightforward: there is a more detailed description of how Cage composed the piece on Wikipedia.