Choice and style in Cage’s Cheap Imitation

John Cage at the piano (possibly playing Cheap Imitation)
John Cage at the piano (possibly playing Cheap imitation?) (Photo: James Klosty?)

With John Cage’s music and its carefully planned systems, it is easy to get fixated on the mechanics of chance. Understand the system and you understand the music—or so one might think. But with Cheap imitation, it’s quite apparent that chance only goes so far. The system, based on Satie’s original music and the chance-operated rules, determines the pitches (mostly), phrasing (mostly), and rhythms (mostly), but that’s it. Everything else in the piece was Cage’s musical choice.

I’m not the first to point this out. William Brooks wrote about it back in 1982, placing Cheap imitation in the context of a wider change in Cage’s music. David Bernstein included a discussion of Cheap imitation and the roles of choice and chance in 2001 in an article on “appropriation” in Cage’s music. Marc Jensen presented a deeper analysis of choices in Cheap imitation in a 2009 article. Jeffrey Perry draws upon all of the above in his 2021 paper on the technique of Cheap imitation.

Jensen itemizes the domains where choice operated in the composition of Cheap imitation: “The elements that were neither appropriated from Satie nor derived by chance are: pedal markings, dynamics, accents, registral shifts, octave doublings, and held notes.” Since I’ve been focused so far on understanding the chance-operated pitch-and-rhythm system of Cheap imitation, let me take some time here to look at one domain of choice: pitch register. Register is at the boundary of the system. The system might select a B-flat, but not which B-flat. Let’s look at an example:

Cheap imitation, first movement, mm. 21–26
Cheap imitation: First movement, mm. 21–26

What choices does Cage actually make, and why? This example is from the first movement; recall that the system here is producing a random series of pitch names. For each pitch, Cage could have chosen any of the seven or eight instances of that pitch that exist on the piano, from the lowest to the highest. Looking at the first movement as a whole, the example above is typical of Cheap imitation. Cage tends to favor conjunct motion, keeping the music within a relatively narrow range. Practically the entire piece is notated on a single treble staff. Analyzing the intervallic content of the first movement, we see a clear emphasis on intervals under a fifth, up or down (over 80% of the intervals in the movement). Intervals over an octave are quite rare (just 2.5%).

I can imagine Cage in the act of composing Cheap imitation. He has a list of pitch names determined by the system. He now has to write down the resulting piano line, one note at a time. At any given point, he has to make the decision: does the line go up or down? In some cases the choice seems to be whichever direction keeps the line within the treble range (for example, the turn upwards at the start of m. 22). But Cage doesn’t always go for the most even version of the line. He breaks off unexpectedly into wider leaps at various points. I have to think that the distinctive spreading out of the line at the end of the example above is connected to the choice to hold down the pedal here. It produces a shimmering harmony emerging from the ongoing linear business of Cheap imitation.

So we can say that the smooth linear nature of Cheap imitation is the result of Cage’s deliberate choices. It represents an aspect of this piece’s style. The change in the system for the remaining two movements reinforces this stylistic direction, since it preserves the largely even intervallic contours of Satie’s Socrate. However, even here, we find places where Cage can’t resist mixing it up a little. Consider this example from the second movement:

Socrate and Cheap Imitation, second movement, mm. 168–173
Socrate and Cheap imitation: Second movement, mm. 168–173

Here, Cage has to make decisions every half-measure, when the system calls for another transposition of the original Satie vocal line. At each half-bar, he must decide whether to go up or down to start the next transposition. In this example, he begins as I expect, making choices that emphasize the even line. But starting at m. 171, he chooses to create a more instrumental line full of wide leaps. He even goes so far as to break the rules of his own system by disrupting the original intervals of Socrate in the first parts of mm. 171 and 173.

All of these stylistic departures appear to be based on Cage’s taste: what he’d like to hear at this point in the piece. Brooks cites the above example as an instance of Cage shaping “an elegant and gentle climax” for the second movement. I’d also point out the parallelism of mm. 170–171 and 172–173 as part of that buildup.

This is, in a word, composing. Cage was using the system to give him raw material to work with as a composer. Chance was limiting—not eliminating—his choices. That Cage was a composer should be no surprise (I’ve been saying it for decades), but people forever seem to find it notable. Cheap imitation in particular seems to elicit this kind of shock at Cage relying on his taste. All the authors cited above (and, to be honest, I myself) have put the stylistic discontinuity of Cheap imitation front and center. It’s just so different from everything Cage was doing in the 1960s. We’ve all said (although not in so many words) that with this piece, Cage became a composer again.

I believe that it would be a mistake to think of the use of taste and choice in Cheap imitation as something new in Cage’s work. Cage never abandoned choice and intention, even though he often talked as though he did. His chance systems were always under his control. And in all cases, they were designed to shape their musical outcomes to the results that Cage wanted. I’ve explained this before (in the introduction to my book on Cage and in an old article in the Bucknell Review). In more contemporary terms, we’d say that Cage controls the algorithm, and what it serves up reflects his values.

But even beyond the self-evident truth that Cage chose to make his compositional systems the way he did, the pattern I’ve been outlining in Cheap imitation is nothing new. What he does here is create raw material by chance to be used for his composing by choice. He did exactly the same thing in 1951 in Music of changes, for example. Chance selected the sound events and rhythms of a passage, but it was Cage’s musical and pianistic sensibility that decided how to put those together. The methods are less transparent, but I would not at all be surprised to find that similar compositional choices were at play in works like 31′ 57.9864” for a pianist (1954). The arrangement of paper imperfections into chords and other pianistic events has never been explained.

So the fact that Cage was making choices in Cheap imitation isn’t something new, something added to his way of composing. It’s more like something picked up again after a pause. I personally think that Cage’s musical life in the mid-1960s was an aberration. He wrote very few works and mostly acted as an organizer of events. Performances such as Musicircus, Reunion, and Variations VII are one-off events that largely rely on the work of others to create the sounds. I would describe Cheap imitation not so much a break as a return to form.

So it’s time to get past the wonder at Cage making choices. It’s not enough just to note that Cage is making choices, but to ask the further question: Why? What is driving Cage’s choices and hence the style of Cheap imitation? The answer is hiding in plain sight in the persons of Merce Cunningham and Erik Satie.

This is part of the series Understanding Cheap Imitation

Notes & sources

The mechanics of Cheap imitation have been examined by a number of other writers. Here are four articles I’m aware of:

  • William Brooks, “Choice and change in Cage’s recent music,” A John Cage reader, Peter Gena, Jonathan Brent, and Don Gillespie, eds. New York: C. F. Peters, 1982, pp. 82–100.
  • David W. Bernstein, “Techniques of Appropriation in Music of John Cage,” Contemporary Music Review vol. 20, Part 4 (2001), pp. 71–90.
  • Marc Jensen, “The role of choice in John Cage’s Cheap imitation,” Tempo vol. 63, no. 247 (2009), pp. 25–37.
  • Jeffrey Perry: “Cage’s Imitation Game: Cheap Imitation and Song Books through the sketches,” Music Theory Online (MTO): A journal of the Society for Music Theory, Vol. 27, No. 3 (July 2021).

Of course, I myself wrote about the method of Cheap imitation and the contradictions the work embodies in my book The music of John Cage (Cambridge University Press, 1993), pp. 162–166.

Regarding the idea that Cage making compositional choices is nothing new in 1969, I opened the introduction of that book with the statement “John Cage was a composer.” The entire introduction defended this proposition. I explained how his design of compositional systems created the style of their results with the example of the “harmonies” of Apartment House 1776 (see pp. 3–4). This all was an extension of ideas first proposed in my early article “Understanding John Cage’s chance music: an analytical approach,” Bucknell review 32:2 (1989), pp. 249–261. My detailed discussion of Cage composing using chance-selected materials in Music of changes can be found in Chapter 3 of my book, on pp. 82–83.

Lastly, regarding the possibility of choice in 31′ 57.9864” for a pianist, I would just leave this challenge to some bright young (or old!) music scholar out there: figure out how Cage translated paper imperfections into events. I explained the basics of the I ching operation in my dissertation. The rolls of graph paper with all the thousands of marked imperfections are in the Tudor collection at the Getty Research Institute. Back in the 1980s, I didn’t have the time with them to do the careful work of examining them closely, but they are just waiting to reveal their secrets today.

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