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Chance and Certainty: John Cage’s Politics of Nature
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“Nature stands behind everything he did” (34), David Rothenberg wrote some years ago. Indeed, John Cage forged strong associations with “natural” and environmental sounds, from the open frame of 4′33″ (1952) to the recording of dawn in Stony Point, New York, that is played at the end of Score (40 Drawings by Thoreau) and 23 Parts (1974). Scholars such as Christopher Shultis and David Ingram have picked up on this natural inclination in his work, and have written about Cage in a longer musical tradition of composers exploring, in the words of Austin Clarkson, “a new relationship with nature in which man is no longer the feudal monarch of the world but only one element in a global organism, all the parts of which are linked in symbiosis” (62; see also Gann; Ingram; Shultis).

This idea of the human and the natural brought into equal alignment is an important one in environmentalist readings of Cage. For example, on the subject of Inlets (1977), in which performers tilt water-filled conch shells that gurgle unpredictably, Ingram remarks, “Music thus arises out of the chance sonic encounter between human performer and the natural material of the instrument itself. It is as if nature is being allowed an equal role in the process of composition” (573). But Ingram might be understating the weight of nature’s participation in Cage’s cosmos. Since at least 1950 the composer took the junior role in his collaboration with what he understood to be nature; Cage sought to remove his own control, to be affected rather than to affect. In his musical experiments, he tells us, he was nothing more than “a faithful receiver of experience,” committed to eliminating personal expression in favor of revealing a more general truth (1961, 32; see also Cage and Charles, 235; on the latter point, see Ulman, 247). As Shultis has demonstrated, Cage’s work resonated with a tradition of U.S. letters in which poets “attempted to express the world without active mediation of the human will” (78). In fact, Cage occasionally imagined a musical scenario bearing no trace of humans at all, except for the amplification they might provide to allow nature to speak for itself. In 1980 he rhapsodized about “a piece of music performed by animals, and butterflies, which sounds fantastic now but is almost within reach, I think, of our technology” (Cage and Cope, 13). Who wouldn’t want to hear this barnyard jam?

I will argue below that as much as Cage may have wished to see an integration of humanity with nature, he continually fell prey in his thinking to a modernist ontology that separated social affairs from natural ones, and that recapitulated an uncritical understanding of nature (see Goehr). This ontology traces its genesis to the emergence of European experimental science and philosophical reason in the early modern period, and it has been the object of a well-known and influential analysis by Bruno Latour. By placing objective matters of fact in the natural world and subjective matters of value in the social world, this ontology conditioned Cage’s understanding of chance and certainty, two terms that—along with their correlates, contingency and necessity—are fundamental to his work and its interpretation. The “nature” category was authoritative for Cage. Figured as chance, it therefore provided him a route to certainty, despite his numerous statements about how it can guide one to the unforeseen. We might say that Cagean multiplicity was underwritten by a mononaturalism that was singular and consistent. Like any good experimentalist of the modern era, he claimed to have attenuated his own role in his musical trials so that we might have direct, unmediated access to this world.

And yet, his compositional practice contradicted this modernist ontology of nature at every turn by actively forming that world that he purported merely to discover. At work in his studio, Cage took part in an ecology of entities that mutually enhanced and defined one another through the event of the experiment. In other words, the human never simply “disappeared,” and the nonhuman was never simply “revealed.” I draw attention to this inconsistency between Cage’s discourse and his practice not to highlight...

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