Spring 1999 Volume XXVIII, No. 2

Defining American Music
by David Nicholls

Post-Canonical Ellington
by Mark Tucker

Elliott Carter at 90+ by John F. Link

Persona non grata: Frank Zappa's Orchestral Subculture
by Arved Ashby

The Eclectic World of Tom McDermott
by Edward A. Berlin

ISAM Matters


Twentieth-Century Originals
by Wayne Alpern

Cage, Notation, and Theatre
by Jon Erickson

Country and Gospel Notes
by Charles Wolfe


Cage, Notation, and Theatre

William Fetterman’s John Cage’s Theatre Pieces: Notations and Performances (Harwood Academic Publishers, 1996; cloth $74, paper $37) attempts to locate Cage’s achievements in expanding conceptions of musical performances by showing how theatrical aspects influence our understanding of works, problematizing distinctions between music and theater. He defends Cage’s sometimes confusing attempts at this blurring of generic boundaries by claiming a priority for his compositional processes and their notational result against the popular impression of Cage derived purely from the reception of performances. While Fetterman focuses on what he call Cage’s “theatre pieces,” his concern that critics pay close attention to his composing and notation to be able to correctly judge the value of any performance applies to his music as well. As a kind of spin-off of Pritchett’s The Music of John Cage, Fetterman’s book focuses on works that result in an overt attention to visual elements: “theatre.”

In a number of Cage’s works Fetterman examines, it may be difficult to determine where a “musical” piece leaves off and “theatre” begins. Any time the process of making music draws attention to the performer’s body in the course of unconventional sound-production, Cage has created a theatre piece. Fetterman doesn’t spend time on the question of what is meant by “theatre piece,” deriving his choices loosely from Cage’s own open-ended notion of theatre: “theatre is something which engages both the eye and the ear.”

Fetterman notes that “Much of the negative criticism or misinterpretation by critics of Cage’s work has been because reviewers rely on their experience of a specific performance, rather than first studying the score and then comparing the two.” But the primary problem is that a number of Cage’s scores are so indeterminate that a specific score, realized in different ways, would be unrecognizable as the same piece. What is to be valued more: Cage’s compositional methods and notation, or their realization as performance? Fetterman is evasive about this, while always maintaining that “In Cage’s work the process involved in performance can only be critically viewed in terms of the relative faithfulness to or ignorance of the score.” What does faithfulness to an indeterminate score entail? How is the performer supposed to know when he is doing it right? There is only the insistence that the performer is to conduct himself as seriously and selflessly in exact execution of the score as possible, with no extraneous showiness. Fetterman sees David Tudor as the best model of Cage’s aesthetic, a practically transparent medium for the realization of the score, not acting, but singlemindedly carrying out his task.

Perhaps what makes notation so important an issue comes from the false impression that for Cage “anything goes.” How do listeners distinguish pure free improvisation from an exact manifestation of a fixed score whose contents were derived by chance methods? To prove the actual disciplined nature of Cage’s works, knowledge of the score and the performer’s faithfulness to it are thus essential.

Fetterman distinguishes Cage’s use of chance from the idea of indeterminacy. Chance methods–such as using the I Ching or Tarot deck layout (for 4’33")–are employed to create a composition whose notations may be determinate or indeterminate, but are to be strictly followed. In the creation of indeterminate notation, “Cage invents a variety of notation systems that provide a bounded, limited range of possible events or actions which are then to be determined by the individual performer or performers.” One consequence of indeterminate notation is that the performer is required to come up with their own determinate score, following the indeterminate general patterns given them.

Fetterman indicates that as Cage’s pieces got larger and more environmental, as “musicircuses” after 1967, indeterminacy as notational method got looser: a master score was no longer used, and sometimes no score was provided at all. It’s then that one wonders how Fetterman’s admonition to critics to evaluate performances by reference to the score can mean anything.

He concludes on a critical note, drawing attention to Cage’s claim of finding a selflessness in chance composition: “If there was a major failure by Cage to implement his aesthetics into actual performance practice, it was in the fact that he never fully gave up his own subjective taste, in either composition or performance.” But there are clues that point to the nature of this failure: reviewers noting Cage’s “masterful authority,” Cage scolding performers about taking expressive liberties, and Cage’s centering presence as “guru/patriarch/elder statesman of the avant-garde.” Fetterman even admits that “On the most trivial level, much of the popular success of the various musicircuses has been because Cage was either a simultaneous performer or known to be in attendance.” The lack of direction that radically indeterminate notation brings to the performance situation necessitates Cage’s personal intervention, or his performative presence as model, making up for what the score itself cannot provide.

Fetterman’s study is valuable in its suggestability for people wishing to critically analyze Cage’s oeuvre. This is possible because of Fetterman’s self-restraint in interpreting or defending Cage’s works or methods. He explicates the details of the development and elements of Cage’s scores as well as their realizations in a variety of performances. As an empirically-based attempt at presenting material and explaining in detail how scores work, it allows others to note the various contradictions between Cage’s aesthetic claims and his practices, and to explore what is both intriguing and problematic about the relation of notation to performance in Cage’s work. Out of this, Cage’s radicalizing of the notation-performance situation could be theoretically applied to questions about any realization of a composition.

–Jon Erickson
Ohio State University

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