John Cage and Revolutionary Music

An Avant-garde is someone who is ahead of his time. He is a person who is willing to cross new boundaries and to try new things. The meaning of an Avant-garde is a group or an individual who is active in the invention and application of new techniques in a given field. Who else could this definition fit better than John Cage himself? He himself believed that he was someone who wanted to invent new music. “Cage considered himself a musical inventor” (Page 83, 20/20). John Cage’s art or experiment as you might see it, is definitely a great achievement is the field of music. His Sonata No 5 for prepared piano, which was written in 1948, was one of the greatest music he ever wrote.

Music, in most of the dictionaries is defined as sound that has rhythm and melody or harmony. Rhythm. When we listen to music we use this term quite often. In almost all the songs we appreciate we would attach the word Rhythm to it. Rhythm is defined as a regular repetition of a beat. It is also defined as the time element of music. When we hear John Cage’s Sonata No 5, we can clearly hear a repetition of sound. So we hear a rhythm.
Melody on the other hand is defined as sound in a pleasant order and arrangement or also a sequence of single tones organized rhythmically. It is very evident that Sonata No 5 is melodic since it is organized rhythmically. Therefore it definitely fits the technical definition of music. The surprising part of the first performance of such a relative new sound at the time was that when the audience first heard the Sonata they heard “sounds of profound beauty” and also “noises rich in sound” (Page 87,20/20). Which again proves that not only is the Sonata No 5 music, but it is good music which people enjoyed.

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To listen to music is one thing, but to appreciate it is entirely another. John Cage’s music was revolutionary. The music that he wrote or preferably invented was not always melodies or harmonies, in fact Cage pushed the boundaries of traditional music by eliminating harmony in a lot of his Sonata’s. The Sonata personifies his interest in the rhythm of the piece then in harmony. This was one of the first revolutionary concepts. Cage had quickly discovered that “harmony was inhospitable to nonpitched sounds”(Page 86, 20/20).
Another revolutionary concept initiated in the Sonata No 5 was the unusual timbres generated by the prepared piano. By adding nuts, bolts, screws and such metallic instruments to the piano Cage had created a new set of timbres. The timbres generated give you a feeling of the flow of water while others are metallic. In the Sonata we hear a wide range of timbres that can be produced by the prepared piano. They are a complex set of timbres some with unpitched thumps and hums. Although most of the sounds produced barely sound like a piano but sometimes we can hear a note here and there, which reveals to us the instrument.
Then there was another new innovative concept, of using everyday noises. The “everyday noises” like the clunk, bang and pound which can be heard in Sonata No 5. The metallic noises produced by the prepared piano sound a lot like playing with metal instruments, which can be found in the kitchen, but in a lot of his other works he has used instruments, which are used in a normal household to produce new kinds of sounds. One of John Cage’s motives was to open our ears to the sounds of our surroundings. The greatest example was the 4’33’’, a silent piece, which was written for a piano. He wrote music but he left the style of performance on the performer. So that he would hear it being played in different styles.
Cage in Sonata No 5 has also incorporated some of the conventional elements of music. An example of this would be ornamentation, although ornamentation involves making a note fancy. In this piece the ornamentation is of the ostinato, which is present for most part of the music. In describing the contour of the piece, it can be said that the contour is smooth but it doesn’t always remain smooth it gets spiky and unpredictable which makes it seem disjoint and broken up. Although some of these elements of music are relatively of a new concept there are conventional models present in the Sonata No 5 and by no means can it be said that it was a predictable or typical piece.

John Cage has definitely revolutionized the way music is made and the way people listen to music today, but the fact is that if we did a review on John Cages popularity when he was inventing all this it would not be as high as that of, say Ricky Martin when he had his first album. A huge audience did not appreciate his music when he invented it, so therefore it was not very influential, but slowly the critics recognized it as a new kind of music. Usually it is the next or the newer generation who learns to love and appreciate such kind of art, this new style of music, but in the case of John Cage, his generation itself and also the later appreciated his music. It is because of John Cage and his new style of music that helped the newer generation to break free and claim their right to revolutionary music and new forms of music. Of course there have been others, but none to compare to John Cage’s innovations. Sonata No 5 is one such invention that had changed the way music could be performed.
John Cage did not write or invent music just for some specific audience. He believed that people had to listen to their environment. He wanted music to be personal to each person. He wrote music for whoever wanted to here it. He is an Avant-garde and his motive was to bring new music and different kinds of sounds to our ears. John cage said “Experiment must necessarily be carried on by hitting anything — tin pans, rice bowls, iron pipes — anything we can lay our hands on . . . We must explore the materials of music.” He is out there to explore to invent and to make us listen. It is truly a matter of opinion for a person to consider some form of sound as music, but overall most of the critics agree, John cage was a revolutionary and he revolutionized the field of music. As William Duckworth puts it “a person so influential that he changed forever the way we write, hear, and understand music” (Page 81, 20/20).


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