The Book Cooks
Excerpt from
John Cage's Concert for Piano and Orchestra

Martin Iddom + Philip Thomas
(Oxford University Press, New York)

From Chapter 1: Situating the Concert for Piano and Orchestra


Earle Brown did not mince his words when he said that Cage ‘didn’t like jazz at all. I thought the best way to get John to listen to jazz and be a little interested in it would be the Modern Jazz Quartet. But he wouldn’t listen at all.’ (58) Nevertheless, Sabine Feisst hits on something important when, alongside her note that during Cage’s period in Chicago in the early 1940s he ‘not only attended jam sessions and taught group improvisation in his experimental music class at the Chicago School of Design, but he also toyed with jazz idioms’ – this latter most obviously in Jazz Study (1941), whose ‘syncopated walking bass-line and dramatic chordal outbursts suggest that Cage was listening to jazz music at this time,’ according to Paul Cox, (59) but also in Credo in Us (1942) – she stresses that his interest in jazz should be ‘linked to his exploration of percussion sounds, favoured in jazz (and non-Western music), and his performances of William Russell’s jazz- and Latin-influenced all percussion works.’ (60) The connection Feisst makes – that it was the sound of jazz that was truly the focus for Cage, even as jazz idioms and improvisation seemed less useful to him – is one which is of importance in thinking about the relationship jazz has to the Concert for Piano and Orchestra.

Around the time that Cage was in Chicago, that distinction may have been rather less obvious to him, to be sure. One presumes that his passing reference to jazz in ‘The Future of Music: Credo’ is intended to recall, for its author at least, his work with Russell and at the Chicago School of Design:

Methods of writing percussion music have as their goal the rhythmic structure of a composition. As soon as these methods are crystallized into one or several widely accepted methods, the means will exist for group improvisations of unwritten but culturally important music. This has already taken place in Oriental cultures and in hot jazz. (61)

Just a couple of years later, he would pithily note that ‘[f]or interesting rhythms we have listened to jazz’, but only, it seems, as a way to move toward thinking about what he might do with those rhythms. (62) ‘Hot jazz is never unclear rhythmically,’ he claimed, meaning here a clarity which ‘is cold, mathematical, inhuman, but basic and earthy,’ to be contrasted with grace: ‘warm, incalculable, human, [ . . . ] like the air.’ (63) The conflict between clarity and grace was what made hot jazz hot, Cage claimed, suggesting in simple terms that the qualifier was produced by the particular idiomatic ways an individual performer might deviate in phrasing, beat, pulse, or bar. A certain sort of plasticity with respect to a given text (even if not a written one), not syncopation, was the key in Cage’s view. (64) Cage would observe, shortly after the composition of the Concert for Piano and Orchestra that such a view – of composition ‘as an activity integrating the opposites, the rational and the irrational, bringing about, ideally, a freely moving continuity within a strict division of parts, the sounds, the combination and succession being either logically related or arbitrarily chosen’ – was one that had concerned him at a point almost precisely equidistant between the description of flexibility within hot jazz and the composition of the Concert, which is to say in or around 1948 and, thus, pertaining to the Sonatas and Interludes (1946–48) but not to the Music of Changes. (65)

As Cox argues, ‘“hot jazz” allowed him to think of rhythm and its relationship to structure in a more flexible way’, (66) while at the same time ‘[b]oogie-woogie may have conjured Harlem’s nightlife and more broadly the transgression of established boundaries of race, dance, music, gender, and sexuality.’ (67) Nevertheless, even at this point he complained that working with Russell – surely his primary source for any knowledge of jazz at the time – was a challenge, since, as he wrote to Henry Cowell, Russell’s ‘present preoccupation with hot jazz disconnected from his own composition has not been good for him as a composer.’ (68) The cluster of timings – from about 1940 through to 1942 – and the importance of William Russell as what Rebecca Kim calls a ‘musical interlocutor’ for the jazz world is of significance for understanding some of the details of the more otherwise inexplicable attitudes Cage seems to have held with regard to jazz. The time period was of course significant for Russell too, since it was around 1940 that he abandoned composition in favour of promoting jazz musicians. (69) By the other end of the 1940s, however, as Kim stresses, Cage would suggest that the source of his new thinking about rhythm derived almost entirely from Asian sources, with jazz pushed firmly into the background. (70)

By the time he was using jazz recordings for his realisation of his own Imaginary Landscape No. 5 (1952) – Kim’s description states that ‘[b]ig band sounds dominate, some by Count Basie and Billy Eckstine, with flickers of early bebop by Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins, and possibly Lionel Hampton, Ethel Walters, and early Miles Davies; the concluding sample features “Fish for Supper” by Al Cooper and the Savoy Sultans’ (71) – it seems to have become a truism that Cage was using, exactly as he described it, ‘sounds which were distasteful to him,’ just like his use of Beethoven within the contemporary Williams Mix (1951–53) and perhaps one banal possibility is that, though Cage was influenced by the way in which rhythm was thought of in jazz, he genuinely was put off by the sounds it made. (72) Certainly, such a simple reading would make sense of Cage’s discussion in 1958’s ‘Changes’, written in close proximity to the Concert for Piano and Orchestra, that the use of timbres otherwise distasteful was, precisely, a part of an attempt to come to terms with that distaste, an attempt Cage hints he had undertaken successfully with regard to jazz in Imaginary Landscape No. 5, but not, as yet, with respect to the vibraphone. Cage’s statement that ‘I find my taste for timbre lacking in necessity, and I discover that in the proportion I give it up, I find I hear more and more accurately,’ too, becomes perfectly transparent: if Cage is to deliver upon the aim which he says began to characterise his music after 1951 – ‘a composing of sounds within a universe predicated upon the sounds themselves’ – then it will simply not do to have either favourites or the reverse. (73) The specific need, then, with regard to jazz is also a timbral one: because, as Cage says, jazz ‘more than serious music has explored the possibilities of instruments,’ coming to terms with jazz is an important step in ensuring that the broadest range of timbres is available. (74) Cage avows more or less just this when he states that

[t]he mind may be used either to ignore ambient sounds, pitches other than the eighty-eight, durations which are not counted, timbres which are unmusical or distasteful, and in general to control and understand an available experience. Or the mind may give up its desire to improve on creation and function as a faithful receiver of experience. (75)

Even so, it remains difficult to make sense of Cage’s remark, still roughly contemporaneous with the composition of the Concert for Piano and Orchestra, that ‘[j]azz per se derives from serious music. And when serious music derives from it, the situation becomes rather silly.’ (76) By ‘serious music,’ Cage certainly seems to mean the European classical tradition, broadly conceived. As such, George Lewis is clearly right to read this as a denigration of the ‘major competitor’ for the label of the American experimental tradition, which is to say jazz. (77) Moreover, if the point of Imaginary Landscape No. 5 was, at least in part, to erase Cage’s distaste for jazz, it is hard not to agree with Lewis too that by this statement Cage ‘has drawn very specific boundaries, not only as to which musics are relevant to his own musicality but as to which musics suit his own taste.’ (78) This aspect of Lewis’s claim remains unarguable even if one might dispute, at least in 1958 and at least in the case of Cage, that part of his argument which relies upon Anthony Braxton’s claim that ‘[b]oth aleatory and indeterminism are words which have been coined ... to bypass the word improvisation’ since, as stressed in Chapters 3 and 4 in particular, Cage certainly did not want the performers of the Concert to improvise and, indeed, the very basis of his complaints with regard to performers of the piece rests in moments in which they did just that, though to be sure not in terribly imaginative ways. (79)

Notwithstanding Lewis’s terse dismissal – ‘[w]e may regard as more rhetorical device than historical fact Cage’s brief account of the origins of jazz’ – it is not too difficult to establish where Cage might have formed his erroneous views regarding the origins of jazz. (80)  Between 1938 and 1941, William Russell occasionally wrote for the Hot Record Society Rag, the irregular journal of a group of jazz enthusiasts who repressed jazz discs which the original labels had allowed to go out of print. The Society was white, Ivy League-educated for the most part, and unashamedly elitist. As Alex Cummings argues, ‘[t]he white critics and collectors of the HRS sought to perpetuate recordings that they considered to be worthwhile, and they could use their status and resources to impose particular standards of value on the work of some African American musicians.’ (81) The members of the Society doubtless also genuinely intended to make sure that recordings of value were not lost, but were in no position to question whose values were being promoted. Russell’s reviews for the November 1940 issue of the journal of Blue Note’s release of recordings by Meade ‘Lux’ Lewis and of ones by Cripple Clarence Lofton, though effusive, authenticate the quality of both players through direct and literal reference to the Western art music tradition: Russell argues that a comparison between Lewis and Bach, in their respective musical usages of ‘improvisational and contrapuntal technique’ may be reasonable, (82) but that in ‘Bass onTop’ the motival development is more suggestive of Beethoven’s painstaking elaboration. [ ... ] The germ motive itself is derived from the bass accompaniment figure. It is treated by extension (chorus 2) by diminution and inversion (choruses 4 and 6) twisted and turned about until its possibilities of elaboration are seemingly exhausted. Finally, in the eleventh chorus there begins a liquidation in which not only the melodic but the rhythmic motive and accompanying bass figure, as well, are reduced to their most essential features. (83)

Russell even provides a musical example, showing both melodic germ motive and rhythmic motive over a walking bass figure. (84) Other musical examples provide chord symbols – within an analysis which argues that that the ‘suspense as well as the feeling of momentum’ in Lewis’s ‘Honky Tonk Train Blues’ is a product of the persistent 6/4 chords delaying the resolution of the tension until the tonic ‘proper’ is heard at the very close – and a transcription of the boogie-woogie cross rhythms of the same track, which necessarily undermines, if not erases entirely, the relationship between these ostinati and the African time-line concept, as described by Wendell Logan. Samuel A. Floyd Jr., indeed, posited ‘Honky Tonk Train Blues’ as a paradigmatic example of the relationship: ‘the encounter of the right-hand figurations with the left-hand ostinato produces occasional polyrhythms that, together with the percussive attack and the blues mode, place the style squarely in the African-American musical tradition.’ (85)

In ‘Six Wheel Chaser’, Russell asserts that through the use of ‘only repeated notes, chords, or short motives’, Lewis achieves ‘[w]hat Stravinsky probably felt and tried to do in parts of Le Sacre,’ (86) while Lofton, though he ‘has his own kind of virtuosity which could never be matched by any professional concert pianist’ finds ‘I Don’t Know’ compared in its left-hand harmonies to ‘medieval organum.’ (87) Of course there is an extent to which Russell’s comparisons are arch and ironic – the references pointing out the absurdity of the associations at the same time as insisting that the music Russell is discussing is, from his perspective, quite as valuable as any piece of ‘high art’ might be: he is not ambiguous that he sets out directly to challenge the view that would fix Lofton as ‘the personification of crude, illiterate musicianship’ – but it is also unarguably the case that the standards demanded are set by the classical canon and, too, that even the rhetoric feels deeply problematic at this distance. (88) All this said, though this maps on directly to Cage’s apparent understanding, it is a selective reading of Russell: the chapter he wrote on boogie-woogie for Jazzmen a year earlier repeats the claim he made much more generally, that jazz as a whole was born from the New Orleans brass bands of the 1870s and, though he suggests that, as the piano found a place in the New Orleans orchestras, ‘its players remained more or less under the influence of European classicists,’ he states too that Jimmy Yancey ‘developed a style so pianistic that it could not be imagined on any other instrument; yet it shows not the slightest resemblance to the piano music of the nineteenth century Europeans.’ The point of comparison with Lewis here is, instead, the Balinese gamelan. (89)

In this context, at least, it may be helpful to consider the other half of Cage’s dyad. His claim that jazz derives from ‘serious music’ is evidently a spurious one. His focus, however clumsily, may have been on a criticism of what happens when ‘serious music’ borrows materials from jazz. After all, he immediately moves on to stress that the serious pieces by Russell ‘stemming from jazz [ ... ] were short, epigrammatic, and entirely interesting.’ (90) As the following chapter will demonstrate in some detail, the instrumental timbres of the Concert for Piano and Orchestra were developed in consultation with performers who were, in many cases, used to performing jazz. One example of this – quite obvious once one knows with whom Cage consulted – is the instruction in the Solo for Sliding Trombone to play ‘without bell in jar,’ which can only be a reference to Jack Teagarden’s so-called water glass trick, which does just this. (91) Cage wrote to Peter Yates on 11 September 1961 of the next orchestral piece he wrote, Atlas Eclipticalis (1961–62) that what it

does (to an audience) is to let them hear all the things they thought they didn’t want in the way of amplification and electronics: feedback, distortion, etc. rattling loudspeakers, low fidelity, etc. Some of my best friends hate it. M.C. Richards said she never heard so many objections. I am certain, however, that this piece will eventually evoke gratitude since it embraces 20th-century horror, transforming it. Otherwise, I think it is the Concert for Piano and Orchestra without the jazz sounds. (92)

Cage makes clear here the relationship between the two pieces, and in ways which are illuminating. As Chapter 7 will show, the reference to the evocation of twentieth-century horror alludes to Adorno’s reading of the Concert for Piano and Orchestra while, more obviously, Cage states outright that the one vital change that Cage thought was necessary was to eliminate the use of timbres drawn from jazz. One possible reading would be that, after all, Cage’s distaste for the timbres of jazz remained, against any attempt to suppress it. Like Leverkühn’s retraction of the Ninth Symphony through his oratorio, The Lamentation of Dr. Faustus, it was jazz that caused Cage in at least one sense to want to ‘take back’ the Concert for Piano and Orchestra. (93) As Chapter 3 shows, it is not difficult to imagine that Cage might have felt that the introduction of the timbres of jazz caused players, especially those who were versed in performing jazz, to imagine they had liberties not indicated in the score. As Benjamin Piekut’s recent study of the New York Philharmonic’s performance of Atlas Eclipticalis has demonstrated, if Cage thought this, he was certainly mistaken. Both there, and in the Concert, the pieces themselves encode and represent, whether Cage meant them to or not a ‘complex struggle over agency,’ (94) an agon in which at least some of the competing poles are authority against independence, discipline against freedom, Schoenberg against jazz.



58 Brown, quoted in Kyle Gann, ‘Foreword: A Less “Cloistered” Music’, in Rebecca Y. Kim (ed.), Beyond Notation: the Music of Earle Brown (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2017), xvii.
59 G. Paul Cox, Collaged Codes: John Cage’s Credo in US (unpublished doctoral dissertation, Case Western Reserve University, 2011), 175.
60 Sabine Feisst, ‘John Cage and Improvisation: An Unresolved Relationship’, in Musical Improvisation: Art, Education, and Society, eds. Gabriel Solis and Bruno Nettl (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2009), 40.
61 John Cage, ‘The Future of Music: Credo’, Silence [1939/40], 5.
62 John Cage, ‘Four Statements on the Dance’, Silence [1939], 87.
63 Ibid., 91.
64 Ibid., 92.
65 Cage, ‘Changes’, 18.
66 Cox, Collaged Codes, 171.
67 Ibid., 174.
68 John Cage to Henry Cowell, 8 August 1940, in Kuhn (ed.), Selected Letters, 35.
69 Rebecca Y. Kim, ‘John Cage in Separate Togetherness with Jazz’, Contemporary Music Review, vol. 31, no. 1 (February 2012), 70.
70 Ibid., 68.
71 Ibid., 74.
72 Cage, ‘Changes’, 31. Kim posits a different, though complementary, reason, in that, during Cage’s work in San Francisco with the Federal Music Project, he observed that ‘the Chinese people I along with beautifully’, but that ‘[t]he blacks were so gifted that they had no need of me’. Kim juxtaposes these remarks with Cage’s later ones that he had ‘little need for jazz. I can get along perfectly well without any jazz at all; and yet I notice that many, many people have a great need for it. Who am I to say that their need is pointless?’ Kim perceptively notes that the common phraseology suggests a link between the two statements, proposing that a social reason may have been at least as significant a factor as a musical one in Cage’s decision to amplify the influence of Asia in his retrospective descriptions of his development. (Kim, ‘John Cage in Separate Togetherness’, 75–76). George Lewis rightly characterises strategies like this as ones wherein ‘any imputation of influence from African American sources was generally simply denied, ignored, or actively denigrated.’ (George Lewis, A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press, 2008), 380.)
73 Cage, ‘Changes’, 27.
74 Ibid., 31.
75 Ibid., 32.
76 John Cage, ‘History of Experimental Music in the United States’, Silence [1959], 72.
77 Lewis, A Power Stronger Than Itself, 379.
78 George Lewis, ‘Improvised Music after 1950:  Afrological and Eurological Perspectives’, Black Music Research Journal, vol. 16, no. 1 (Spring 1996), 99.
79 Ibid.
80 Anthony Braxton, quoted in ibid. This is, importantly, not to say that Cage did not continue to disavow improvisation, in just the ways Lewis describes, as improvisation became an explicit part of his practice in the 1960s, nor that there were not enormous institutional benefits to the route that Cage took, such that, by the point at which he was himself improvising and allowing and encouraging the musicians he worked with to improvise, he was able to retain the structural position of being a composer. Benjamin Piekut specifically notes that though ‘spontaneity’, as theorised by Daniel Belgrad, had currency for Cage and Ornette Coleman alike, Cage’s own move toward improvisation happened after the 1950s (Benjamin Piekut, ‘Indeterminacy, Free Improvisation, and the Mixed Avant-Garde’, Journal of the American Musicological Society, vol. 67, no. 3 (Fall 2014), 770). Given his admission of a basic lack of knowledge of jazz beyond that which he had learned from William Russell, statements Cage made in the mid-1960s such as ‘improvisation is generally playing what you know’ might, according to a charitable reading, be read as rather clumsy self-criticism in this context, that the problem Cage was himself facing was how to prevent himself from playing what he already knew (Lewis, ‘Improvised Music after 1950’, 106). There is, however, no such simple dealing with Cage’s willingness, in interview with Michael Zwerin, to argue that ‘[t]his reiterated beat in jazz reminds me of all those aspects of my life which don’t seem to me to be the most interesting’ except to say that it demonstrates how right Cage was that he knew little of jazz (‘A Lethal Measurement’, Village Voice, 6 January 1966).
81 Alex Sayf Cummings, Democracy of Sound: Music Piracy and the Remaking of American Copyright in the Twentieth Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 44.
82 One recalls, in this context, Cage’s own observation that ‘[j]azz is equivalent to Bach (steady beat, dependable motor), and the love of Bach is generally coupled with the love of jazz’. The end of this story is notable because of the commonality of expression for another one of Cage’s mention of jazz: ‘Giving up Bach, jazz, and order is very difficult. [ . . . ] For if we do it – give them up that is – what do we have left?’ (‘Indeterminacy’, Silence (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1961 [ca. 1959], 263).
83 William Russell, ‘Notes on Boogie-Woogie’, in Ralph de Toledano (ed.), Frontiers of Jazz (Gretna, LA: Pelican, 1994 [1940]), 60. See too Peter J. Silvester, The Story of Boogie-Woogie: A Left Hand Like God (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2009), 355–81.
84 Russell, ‘Notes on Boogie-Woogie’, 59.
85 Samuel A. Floyd Jr., The Power of Black Music: Interpreting its History from Africa to the United States (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 122.
86 Russell, ‘Notes on Boogie-Woogie’, 60.
87 Ibid., 63.
88 Ibid., 61.
89 William Russell, ‘Boogie Woogie’, in Frederic Ramsey Jr. and Charles Edward Smith (eds.), Jazzmen (New York, NY: Limelight, 1985 [1939]), 183–205.
90 Cage, ‘History of Experimental Music’, 72.
91 For a description, see Dave Oliphant, Jazz Mavericks of the Lone Star State (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2007), 115.
92 John Cage to Peter Yates, 11 September 1961, in Kuhn (ed.), Selected Letters, 249. S
93 Thomas Mann, Doctor Faustus: The Life of a German Composer as Told by a Friend, tr. John E. Woods (New York, NY: Vintage, 1999 [1947]).
94 Benjamin Piekut, Experimentalism Otherwise: The New York Avant-Garde and its Limits (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2011), 45.

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John Cage's Concert for Piano and Orchestra

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