John Cage, as we’ve mentioned, seemed to have little tolerance for jazz, suggesting that if musicians want to have a conversation they should use words, and we’ve always found this attitude surprising coming from an otherwise tolerant and peaceful composer – but who named one of his own books Silence, which contains, among many innovative works, our favorite, his “Lecture on Nothing.”
“I have nothing to say, and I am saying it, and that is poetry,” Cage said, as he is often quoted, but incompletely, for the third column (measure) in that line is “as I need it.” Two lines up we find three empty measures. The fourth measure of that line starts the sentence “I have nothing to say.” The first measure of the next line is empty. The second measure reads “and I am saying it.” The third measure is empty. The fourth measure says “and that is.” The first measure of the next line contains “poetry,” the next measure is empty, the next contains “as I need it,” and the final measure contains the period to the sentence. You begin to see why we have always liked John Cage, and find ourselves coming back to him again and again, to read and to listen.
To round out the discussion, it’s worth mentioning, perhaps, that Silence also contains Cage’s “Lecture on Something,” suggesting a compare and contrast essay just itching to be written.
For some reason we’ve always paired John Cage with Thelonius Monk, thinking, for one thing, maybe Monk did for jazz what Cage did for classical, which is to say, in short, put some fresh wax on the board, unafraid to paddle out solo. Then again, we’ve always thought much of Cage’s music closer to jazz than to classical, for he admitted random access to sounds, in notation and performance. What bothered him about words was probably the many connotations, too many to contain, to orchestrate, or that words distract from sound with meaning. For Cage, the tree falling in the forest with no one listening certainly makes noise; the question is, what sounds does it make, the sounds no one hears?
Monk’s song titles provide clues to his intentions, “Rhythm-a-ning,” for example. Monk’s titles often convey what he has to say, his audience and purpose, if not his strategy. Monk had something to say, and said it, but, with the exception of the song titles, without words, and that is jazz, as he needed it.
In response to a request for a statement on music, Cage wrote “…nothing is accomplished by writing a piece of music…” Or, Cage continued, “…by hearing…playing a piece of music} our ears are now in excellent condition.” What’s more, in the opening of this statement, he writes “instantaneous and unpredictable.” That seems to describe Monk, and isn’t that jazz, as we all need it?