THE CHRONICLE REVIEW
His New School sessions in the 1950s were noisy free-for-alls, and a model of how to teach.
By Geoffrey Hilsabeck
MAY 08, 2016
Fred W. McDarrah, Getty Images John Cage in the late 1950s
When John Cage offered a music-composition course at Black Mountain College in the summer of 1952, nobody signed up for it. Apparently the students knew that the coursework would consist entirely of the tedious cutting and splicing of tape to create Cage’s new composition, “Williams Mix.” But the lack of interest doesn’t seem to have bothered Cage. Over the course of his life, he spent a lot of time in and around classrooms. He delivered the Norton lectures at Harvard. For many years, he taught in the music department at Wesleyan. He taught courses on composition and composers; he even occasionally taught a course on mushrooms. Little is made of his work in the classroom, perhaps for good reason. Cage did not seem to think too much or too hard about his teaching. It was a way to make a living.
One of his courses, however, was very successful and is worth a closer look. It was called “Experimental Composition,” and Cage offered it six times at the New School, in New York. Here is the description of the course — called simply “Composition” when it was first offered — from the New School’s fall 1956 catalog:
Experimental music, a course in musical composition with technical, musicological, and philosophical aspects, open to those with or without previous training.
Whereas conventional theories of harmony, counterpoint, and musical form are based on the pitch or frequency component of sound, this course offers problems and solutions in the field of composition based on other components of sound: duration, timbre, amplitude and morphology; the course also encourages inventiveness.
“Experimental Composition” has become legendary in the art world for having birthed Fluxus, the seminal postwar movement that sought to move art beyond its narrow obsession with the fixed artifact and into the fleeting, imperfect, even amateur realm of performance, broadly conceived. Cage’s students in “Experimental Composition” included virtually all the early figures in Fluxus: Dick Higgins, La Monte Young, George Brecht, Al Hansen, Jackson Mac Low. Allan Kaprow, the creator of the Happening — art events that involved the participation of the viewers — was also a student, as were Nam June Paik, the sculptor George
Segal, and Toshi Ichiyanagi, a young Japanese composer who was sometimes accompanied to class by his then-wife, Yoko Ono. Fluxus turned its audiences into artists, or at least participants; a famous example of this is Yoko Ono’s “Cut Piece” (1964), in which she invited people from the audience to come up on stage and cut off her dress piece by piece.
For all of these young — and mostly male — artists, the encounter with Cage and his ideas was galvanizing and transformational. What about Cage’s teaching of “Experimental Composition,” and the institutional context in which it happened, made it so powerful? And what might we learn from it about how to run our own classrooms and schools?
Cage was both a reluctant teacher and a born pedagogue. His own education had been desultory. He entered Pomona College at 16 and dropped out two years later. Most of his schooling was informal —
lessons with Henry Cowell and Arnold Schoenberg, classes on Zen with D.T. Suzuki at Columbia, breakfast every morning at Black Mountain with Buckminster Fuller, correspondence with Marshall McLuhan and Norman O. Brown. Like his beloved Thoreau, Cage seems to have distrusted institutions, although that did not keep him from accepting numerous invitations to lecture, teach, and perform at colleges and universities throughout his career.
At the heart of Cage’s work is an invitation to action. Think of “4’33″,” his most famous work. A pianist comes on stage, sits down at the piano, opens the sheet music — and then closes the lid of the keyboard. He sits still for three movements, spread out over four minutes and 33 seconds. The ambient sounds in the environment become audible: creaking seats, scattered coughs and whispers, footsteps walking out. The piece “4’33″ ” was and is controversial. Its insouciance and simplicity tempt listeners not to take it seriously. At play, however, are essential aesthetic, epistemological, and even ethical questions. The piece asks us to reconsider our assumptions about what is and isn’t music, to examine our criteria for distinguishing the beautiful from the ugly, the meaningful from the not meaningful — which is to say it tells us to change the way we live.
That inquiry informed all of Cage’s work, in the concert hall but also in the classroom. In the 1950s, it made him a perfect fit for the New School. At the time the New School was essentially two distinct entities — the Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science (formerly the University in Exile) and the Adult Education Division — with a shared mission, which was nothing less than the creation of a truly democratic society, with an abiding commitment to both pluralism and the practice of free inquiry. It was an exciting time at the New School: Along with Cage, lecturers and instructors in the Adult Education Division included Meyer Schapiro, Robert Frost, Stuart Davis, Erich Fromm, Martha Graham, W.E.B. Du Bois, Alfred Kazin, and Margaret Mead, among many others. Faculty members at the New School trained students of all ages to become engaged citizens. They believed in the necessity of popular government and the interdependence of individual freedom and social justice. Their students were housewives, nurses, social workers, businessmen, artists; they came from Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Long Island, New Jersey; the majority of them were women.
Cage’s class very much fit the mission. While his was a course in experimental composition rather than, say, political theory, the culture of the classroom was pluralistic, modern, and democratic. Free inquiry (or what Cage in his course description called “inventiveness”) was the essence of “Experimental Composition.”
So what did these classes look like? There are few photographs, and none of them capture the spirit of restless invention. Accounts from people who were there fill in the picture. The room itself is small and drab. There is a smattering of desks and chairs, a blackboard, a clock. In one corner stands an upright piano, and a few percussion instruments are stacked in a closet. (Over the course of the semester, the room will fill up with guitars, radios, toy whistles, paper clips, light bulbs, cellophane, and handmade objects.) John Cage walks into the classroom carrying a brown paper bag full of wild mushrooms. Class isn’t supposed to start for another few minutes. He passes the bag around. “You really should try these,” he says to the students who have arrived early. “Wild ones have much more taste than the domestic ones.”
More students arrive. Everyone starts talking informally about Zen (Cage is not one for small talk), which Cage is studying once a week up at Columbia. He then introduces the students to the various properties of sound — pitch, timbre, volume, duration — and shows the students how these properties can be altered. He puts a Pink Pearl eraser on the strings of the piano, and it emits a light, buzzing thud. “Nice,” he says. Eventually he asks the students to take out their homework: compositions written as solutions to various problems that Cage has posed — problems like how to make a piece of music using a guitar and a paper clip, or how to come up with a system of numbers that will determine every aspect of a composition.
Al Hansen performs his composition “Alice Denham in 48 Seconds.” He has written the score using a system in which the letters of Denham’s name have been replaced by numbers that determine what type of sound to play and how long and loud. He puts the score on the blackboard and then hands out toy noisemakers. (In 1958 he would perform an early iteration of Fluxus, reciting a requiem for W.C. Fields while hand-spliced images from Fields’s movies were projected onto his chest.)
George Brecht presents to the class a stack of 22 cards for a piece he’s calling “Motor Vehicle Sundown.” The piece is an outdoor concert to be performed at sunset. A number of vehicles are arranged outdoors. Each driver will have a deck of cards. On each card is an instruction: Switch on parking lights, operate wipers, hit the horn, strike the dashboard, etc.
Dick Higgins, a young artist who has recently suffered a nervous breakdown, offers up his sound and visual poems. He will go on to create “Danger Music No. 17,” a score that consists entirely of the instruction, “Scream! Scream! Scream! Scream! Scream! Scream!,” and “1,000 Symphonies,” which has a policeman firing a submachine gun through sheets of music paper to create a musical score. (In 2012, for a 50th-anniversary concert for Fluxus, a chamber orchestra in Chicago performed “1,000 Symphonies” using a new score created by a team of Chicago cops, who shot 200 bullets into the scoring paper, an act with chilling contemporary resonance.)
The overriding lesson of Cage’s class was freedom: how to achieve it, what to do with it (anything!). Allan Kaprow learned “to be free, to be liberated” in the class. Brecht called Cage “the great liberator.” For Higgins, “The best thing that happened to us in Cage’s class was the sense he gave that ‘anything goes,’ at least potentially. … The main thing was the realization of the possibilities, which made it easier to use smaller scales and a greater gamut of possibilities than our previous experience would have led us to expect.” Cage himself said of the course, “I didn’t want to transmit any body of information. I simply wanted to stimulate the people to do experimental work.” Doing so required faith in the capabilities of nonexperts, an open mind, and a willingness to fail.
In his essay “Experimental Music: Doctrine,” Cage defines what he means by “experiment”: “The word ‘experimental’ is apt, providing it is understood not as descriptive of an act to be later judged in terms of success or failure, but simply as of an act the outcome of which is unknown.” Cage’s class was democratic — no doubt verging on anarchic at times — and pluralistic, at least in the wide variety of forms of expression it licensed. It was also risky, uncomfortable, and, I imagine, full of ugliness — unpleasant sounds, inharmonious configurations, bad ideas.
Cage didn’t believe in ugliness, though: He said that if you noticed yourself thinking of something as ugly and then asked why you thought that, you would quickly realize that you were wrong. Ugliness is another word for failure, and failure is a necessary aspect of experimentation.
W hen I was a student at the Iowa Writers Workshop, there was nothing like Cage’s class on offer. We dutifully sat around the table for three hours critiquing one another’s technique (not our ideas).
We were in the business of creating artifacts. We were after expertise and success. Nor did Vassar provide me with many opportunities to invent and experiment. Much of the teaching there, as I recall, was uninspired, disconnected, and, well, aimless. It pains me to say that, since I feel great affection for both places. They helped me grow as an artist, a thinker, a friend, but that happened mostly because of my classmates, not my instructors. Meanwhile, my big, suburban, public high school certainly did not traffic in anything like what Cage was doing at the New School. There we sat immobile in rows waiting for the bell to ring. There were no meaningful problems to be solved. There was no taste for invention, experiment, or risk. There were no high ideals about democracy or pluralism. There was no belief system at all.
Perhaps “Experimental Composition” was a product of its time, free of the constraints and restrictions and demands of the market. But I refuse to believe that, because to do so would be to buy the bill of goods constantly being sold to us that everything is different in the new economy, and that schools need to be in the business of conferring measurable skills, and that a teacher can be measured solely by how effectively he or she has done that. It would be to accept the premise that education is about success and failure, when in my experience education is about much more important things, like freedom, democracy, and imagination. That was true in Cage’s time, and it’s true today, in every educational setting, public or private, for children or adults. As schools integrate
increasingly sophisticated technology into their classrooms, and universities rely more and more on adjuncts and lecturers, it is worth reconsidering just what it is that a teacher does. Cage is a good place to start. He reminds us that teachers are bearers of a great flame, and their job, to paraphrase Emily Dickinson, is to light the fuse of what’s possible.
John Cage changed his students in “Experimental Composition,” and in doing so he changed the course of American art. He did that by encouraging them to take risks and suspend judgment, by promoting the free exchange of ideas, and by believing in the individual’s capacity for both invention and meaningful inquiry. And he did it with the support of his school, which, in the progressive spirit of John Dewey, organized itself around the search for what Dewey called the “richness and freedom of meanings” and the inherent value of inquiry. What would it look like if more of our schools and universities were animated by those first principles?
Geoffrey Hilsabeck is a poet and writer. He is the author of Sleeves, Smoke (The Song Cave, forthcoming 2017). His essays have appeared in Seneca Review, Bomb, and Wax.
A version of this article appeared in the May 13, 2016 issue.
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