- Cage and the Ultramodernists
One of Edgard Varèse's favorite quotations was from an autobiographical novel by the fin-de-siècle French author Jules Renard: "Tout le monde ne peut pas être orphelin": "Not everyone is able to be an orphan." Given the combination of mishap and intention that led to the destruction of Varèse's early works, it is difficult to listen to Amériques (?1918–21), Offrandes (1921), or Hyperprism (1922–3) without having to agree with the composer's even more direct assertion: "Moi, je suis l'ancêtre." However, as Larry Stempel made clear in the title and content of his 1974 Musical Quarterly article, "Not even Varèse can be an orphan": Stempel's discovery of a 1906 song, supposedly lost, made clear the links between Varèse and the French musical milieu in which he had matured.1
John Cage's enthusiasm for Varèse's work was considerable: he praised it on many occasions, perhaps most generously in a short 1958 article, reproduced in Silence, which concludes as follows: "That he fathered forth noise—that is to say, into twentieth-century music—makes him more relevant to present musical necessity than even the Viennese masters."2 Coming from a former pupil of Arnold Schoenberg, one of those selfsame Viennese masters, this is strong praise indeed. Given, then, such enthusiasm for Varèse and his work, it is surely no coincidence that Cage—aided from the 1950s onwards by a notoriously (and sometimes conveniently) unreliable memory—should similarly have aspired to the condition of musical orphanhood. For example, when, in 1981, I quizzed Cage regarding [End Page 492] possible influences on his work, he wrote back, "My percussion pieces and prepared piano pieces were the result of my own researches."3 And while Cage often cited both Varèse and Schoenberg as being seminal influences on his earliest work, the music he wrote seems precisely intended to negate such a possibility: indeed, it is hard to imagine anything less Varèsian than the severely restricted timbres and rhythms of the 1936 percussion Trio, or less Schoenbergian than the dry academicism of the 1935 Three Pieces for Flute Duet. The simple fact is that Cage's music rarely suggests obvious stylistic influence. This is not, of course, to suggest that his work is sui generis, but rather to introduce the possibility that Cage, like Varèse and many other post-Classical composers, set a high premium on the assertion of primacy and of individual achievement. Thus what Cage tells us at any given time regarding his musical and aesthetic origins may not be the whole truth, or may be a version of the truth that places him in a particular light. A number of scholars, including David Bernstein, Michael Hicks, Thomas Hines, Leta Miller, David Patterson, and, most recently, Richard H. Brown, have, over the last two decades, unearthed important information regarding various aspects of Cage's life and work, information that often contradicts Cage's preferred version of his personal history. I owe a particular debt to Michael Hicks and Leta Miller for having shared with me their research. In this essay, then, I would like, albeit briefly, to suggest additional musical and aesthetic contexts for some of Cage's more radical achievements of the 1930s and early 1940s, and in doing so to perhaps nudge him a little further out of the orphanage.
That Cage spoke and wrote so frequently of the importance of Varèse and Schoenberg is significant in that it immediately diverts our attention from other possible influences. Principal among these is undoubtedly Henry Cowell, self-styled ultramodernist, who helped the young Cage far more than did any other individual. Cage had first contacted Cowell in the fall of 1933, at the suggestion of pianist Richard Buhlig: the immediate result was a workshop performance, given in San Francisco under the auspices of Cowell's New Music Society, of Cage's Sonata for Clarinet (1933). During the next eighteen or so months, Cowell taught Cage—both in California and at the New School for Social Research in New York—advised him to study with Schoenberg...