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Last year I spent a good deal of time listening to Morton Feldman’s music, trying to get a picture of his entire body of work. I started with the works of the early 1950s and marched forward through the 1960s and 1970s. When I got to 1983, I faced the need to listen to Feldman’s String quartet No. 2, his famous six-hour string quartet, the longest work of a composer who wrote many long works. How do you listen to a six-hour string quartet?
Recently, I learned Morton Feldman’s Two pianos, a short work from 1957. I’ve also been listening to the String quartet II lately, and I’m recognizing the same processes of musical attention in this late work—just at a massively greater scale (hours instead of minutes).
Morton’s Feldman’s graph music—a music that was silent about which pitches should be played—changed Cage’s work forever. Cage expressed his understanding of Feldman’s radical act in a new lecture, the “Lecture on something”.
Morton Feldman’s “Projection” showed John Cage the destination of his musical-spiritual journey. It was a revelation, the opening of a door to an entirely new world, “not just the musical world outside of you”, as he later described it, “but the musical world inside of you.”
By 1950 Cage had arrived at a style that celebrated emptiness. Paradoxically, by letting go any strong self-expression, he discovered a truer musical voice. His next major work, the Concerto for prepared piano and chamber orchestra, was to explicitly present this release from self-expression.
Energized by the discoveries of the quartet, Cage created his first really great piece of writing in 1950, the “Lecture on nothing”. It eloquently presents Cage’s belief that self-negating discipline produces insight.
Through the composition of his “String quartet in four parts”, Cage went further on the path of “self-knowledge through self-denial”. In it, he discovered a non-expressive use of harmony, and he did it by treating materials in a systematic fashion.
In his writings “Defense of Satie” and “Forerunners of modern music”, Cage attempted to build a framework for music that could integrate what he needed in his life from both traditional and avant-garde music. In the process his work and thought began moving in the direction of “self-knowledge through self-denial”.
In 1948, Cage was completely in alignment with Ananda Coomaraswamy’s severe criticisms of Western art. At the same time, it directly contradicts Cage’s own career, built by playing the role of the brash individualist, modeling himself on artists such as the “Art of Noises” Futurist Luigi Russolo. This conflict is a key factor in the history of Cage’s path in the late 1940s.
“To what end does one write music?” For a composer like John Cage, this was not just a question about the meaning of his work, it was a question about the meaning of his life. It is not surprising, then, that Cage would turn to sources that combined the artistic and the religious to seek out answers.