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  • John Cage and Recorded Sound:A Discographical Essay
  • Rob Haskins

Record collections,—that is not music. … A lady in Texas said: I live in Texas. We have no music in Texas. The reason they've no music in Texas is because they have recordings. Remove the records from Texas and someone will learn to sing.1

John Cage's ambivalent attitude toward recorded sound is well known. Ever skeptical of an aesthetics that privileges objects, he felt that audiences should pay more attention to art, like existence itself, as a continual process of becoming. In conventional music, according to Cage, composers imprisoned sounds within relatively straightforward structural designs that were intended either to impress listeners with intellectual ingenuity or to drown them in sentiment, preventing the sounds from tending toward their natural complexity and ambiguity. As a result, musical recordings brought about the mistaken impression that performance—a naturally evanescent experience—could be reified and that the resultant objects, now possessed by its consumers, held the same ontological status as the music itself.

Cage's emphasis on becoming also included an ethical dimension. He famously spoke of his music and ideas as useful for society—that principles embodied in his music could be used to solve social problems—and also noted that he had no use for recordings. While this statement suggests that Cage doubted the social usefulness of recordings, the implications of the remark are unclear. He possibly meant that the false objectification of music through recorded sound discouraged difference: the ideal state of societies comprising many individuals. A recording fore-closed a multiplicity of performance interpretations, since it was itself a finite object, and it effectively turned the act of audition into an essentially private action. Cage saw performances of music as a metaphor for [End Page 382] social action: the audience who attended to the music as it occurred in acoustic space was just as necessary for the metaphor as the musicians who actually brought the music into existence.

On occasion he expressed himself on the subject of recordings with unusual vehemence. In the course of an interview that appeared in Peter Greenaway's four-part 1983 documentary devoted to as many American composers, for instance, Cage remarked:

[A recording] merely destroys one's need for real music. It substitutes artificial music for real music, and it makes people think that they're engaging in a musical activity when they're actually not. And it has completely distorted and turned upside down the function of music in anyone's experience.2

Certainly, the medium of phonography ill suited Cage's own compositional practice. Articulating his ideal of allowing sounds to be sounds in 1958, he theorized that the best acoustical space in which to hear his music was one in which the instruments were widely separated; that separation allowed each of the sounds to exist, literally, as one of an array of centers intersecting with each other in myriad ways determined by the location of individual auditors.3 Ideal seats in the hall no longer existed: every location offered something different and therefore equally valuable. By definition, even the best recording compresses the sonic space comprising the sounds themselves; one could only replicate the ideal Cage concert situation with as yet unavailable speaker technology that diffuses separate sounds in such a way that a listener senses them issuing from a multitude of locations.

Cage's turn toward the exploration of indeterminacy and its limits in the later 1950s and 1960s further compromised the suitability of his music for phonographic reproduction. Whereas formerly one could, say, regard a recording as a documentary representation of a composition's performance possibilities, the recording of a Cage indeterminate work seemed to have only negligible value as documentation, since such a work could be realized in radically differing ways. In effect, a recording doubly removed the experience of Cage's music from an audience, which often remained unaware of the process required to bring a composition to performance. (Surely this process, somewhat analogous to composing one's own score, is as important to the aesthetic understanding of these works as a performance would be.)

Only after 1969—with such fully notated works...