James Pritchett: Writings on Cage (& others)

About continuity and Five3

by James Pritchett

Copyright 1996 by James Pritchett. All rights reserved.


A cuckoo fades away, and in its direction, a single island. (Basho)


During the last few years of his life, John Cage wrote many pieces in the same general vein as Five3. They are often referred to as "the number pieces." This is a reference titles of the pieces, which are all simply the number of the performers. Superscripts are added as necessary to distinguish the individual pieces (this is the third quintet, for example).

These works are also called "the time-bracket pieces," a reference to the notation of the pieces. This notation is essentially the same in all the pieces. Each event in the piece consists of three components: a short bit of music (usually a single note, but sometimes a phrase of a few tones or a series of chords) flanked on either side by pairs of timings. The timings on the right side indicate the range of time during which to start playing. The little bit of music indicates what to play. The timings on the left side indicate the range of time during which the playing must be completed.

The notations are lined up vertically on the page: the music in the middle, the timings off to either side. Although I don’t think Cage intended this, they are like Japanese shakuhachi notations in their layout. The performer reads them from top to bottom: starting, continuing, stopping, moving on.


Since it was snowing and icing heavily, I stayed home from work and took a walk on the towpath instead. It was a heavy, wet kind of snow, coming down in large masses of flakes. The canal was freezing right before my eyes. The water was strange and dark and thick. Large islands of slush floated down very slowly. It was a very solemn procession through the whispered white frenzy of snow and wind.

I made a snowball and threw it into the canal. It did not melt, and the ripples moved out from it in slow motion. The next day as I drove to work, I saw that the canal was now a white ribbon of ice.


From our hotel balcony in Miami Beach, I could see out over the palm trees to the city. Very often there were vultures flying in that direction. I love to watch vultures. They are large birds that fly without work: they move, sway, corner, rise, drop, but almost never flap their wings.

As I sat there, a vulture, coming from some point behind the hotel, suddenly appeared over my head. He flew away from me, in a direction slightly away from the land and more toward the sea. I watched him as he traced a gently erratic line through the sky. I remained focused on him until he became a dark spot in the clouds, and then disappeared.


I draw these letters
as the day draws its images
and blows over them
                     and does not return
(Octavio Paz)


Usually, the surface of the lake is a mirror. It reproduces the least movements of the birds and clouds that pass over it; it inverts the shapes of the trees along its edges. The surface is alive, protean, energized.

Once it begins freezing, the images fade, becoming indistinct as they retreat from us. The surface of the lake becomes silent and shadows begin to appear.

It snows. The lake is perfectly nonreflective. It has changed from mirror to canvas. Standing on the bridge or on the jetty, the show unfolds before you. Blowing snow makes one kind of brush stroke (white on white), passing clouds another. Gulls fly by, dipping down to meet their own shadows painted on the snow.


Looking at John Cage’s visual art, one is impressed by the quality of his lines. What are the characteristics of a line? Weight, direction, medium (pencil, pen, brush, crayon, chalk), curvature. But a line conveys something beyond these parameters: it has character and personality. Cage’s lines are beautiful in the way they express their character so simply and directly. This is particularly apparent in the drawings, but it’s there in the watercolors and prints, too. He had a beautiful way of handling the pencil, brush, and engraving tool.

In many pictures he simply drew around stones. Placing a stone on the page with one hand, he would draw around it with a pencil in the other. Starting at one point, he’d go around until he came back to the same spot, then lift the pencil off the page. In some cases, he would draw around the same rock several times with several different pencils. The lines then cluster around the same curve. Which one is right? "A unison of differences," he might say.

Cage almost always drew circles and closed curves, rarely straight lines. The stones are one example of this. In the "Fire" series, circles are burnt into the paper by a hot iron teapot.


We hiked for about an hour. As we climbed the ridge, we talked a good deal about the things that concerned us at the time. As we approached Council Rock, without noticing it we got quieter. By the time we crossed the peak of the ridge — the point at which the rock was visible — the trees were affected by the wind: those that were still standing grew at an angle.

The rock sticks out from the ridge and overlooks what amounts to a large pit. In it were scattered rocks, boulders, and dead trees felled by the wind. These were in various states of decay and were shrouded in piles of fallen leaves. At the tops of the trees the wind was quite strong, but in the pit there was no wind at all. Leaves fell one at a time. Each one would go straight down, very slowly, with only a little movement from side to side.


The Buddha is also called Tathagata: "thus-goer." He is one who goes, leaving no traces, no footprints behind. There are many Buddhist sayings and stories that present this image. John Cage was fond of it as well (a number of those stories appear in his own writings). In one interview he indicated that he thought that it would have been better if he had died before his work became well known. In speaking of his work, he once mentioned “writing on water.”

I’m reminded of this as I look out the window at the short-lived rivers running down my street, a recent snow moving on with no traces.


John Cage was interested in nanotechnology — technology on a molecular scale. The premise is that, if we can build machines out of individual atoms, we can in effect control matter. Nano-scale robots would be capable of moving individual atoms wherever we want: we could make any material substance out of the junk around us. Nanorobots could do their work within our very bodies. We would inhale them and take them into our bloodstream where they could repair our damaged cells. This would result not only in the conquering of disease, but of aging as well. This sounds like science fiction, but steps have been taken in this direction and research centers have been formed at various universities.

The nanorobots are sometimes called "assemblers." How do you construct the assemblers? You can design artificial proteins that will actually assemble themselves into specific forms programmed into their DNA. Self-assembly is an important concept in nanotechnology.

Like the robots of nanotechnology, this time-bracket music is self-assembling. John Cage simply programs all the little machines (the nanonotations) and then releases them into the silence. Each component places itself in just the right spot, with no effort at all. The piece appears before our ears, like magic. It could go on and on, replicating itself, assembling its future forever: there is no end to it.


"Taking a nap, I pound the rice."