On the Importance of a Unique Voice

Today is John Cage’s birthday, a composer whose music I find myself turning to more and more as I get older, a composer who devoted so much of his work to questioning our assumptions about music, and a composer who has made me ponder one of the mysteries of my own response to music.

Over the years I have unconsciously developed a test for whether a composer is worthy of my further attention or not: Does he or she have an individual voice that marks them out from others? You can use this test with music of any period old or new, and indeed it can be extended to other genres of music such as jazz, though then I normally ask the question of the performer rather than the composer. I am picking my words carefully. Worthy of further attention is not the same as like. There are plenty of composers whose music passes that test, and who are undoubtedly important in the history of music, but where I struggle to say that I enjoy them. Liszt, Rossini and Verdi for example. Equally there are minor composers who do not have that special something, but who have written at least some pieces that I enjoy regardless. Guilty pleasures such as Saint-Saens’ Organ Symphonyand d’Indy’s Symphonie sur un Chant montagnard français.

Musicians and others more expert than I am can probably explain why Mozart has a different voice from Haydn, Schubert from Schumann, Shostakovich from Prokofiev, but from years of listening I think that I have a good ear for identifying the composer when it is a piece that I don’t know. Sometimes of course you get other clues. Once when driving I turned on the radio and found myself in the middle of a violin concerto that was clearly mid-twentieth century and probably Russian (or Soviet anyway) but wasn’t one that I knew and therefore I could rule out Prokofiev and Shostakovich. The soloist was evidently brilliant but the recording quality less so and perhaps dated from the late 50s early 60s. Adding those facts together surely it had to be David Oistrakh? So, I asked myself, what other composers were there that Oistrakh championed? Khatchachurian? Correct on both accounts as it turned out, though I think I might have been lucky.

You may be wondering what any of this has to do with John Cage, seen by many as the ultimate avant-garde crazy composer of silent pieces, chance operations and general wackiness? I have listened to a lot of Cage over the years, both on CD and in concert, and what has struck me is that he is an example of a composer with a unique voice (or perhaps several different voices) even though in some of his music – particularly the music that involves chance elements – his stated aim has been to remove the composer from the music and to allow the sounds to exist independently from the composer’s ego. That is the mystery for me. Even when Cage uses the most extreme aleatoric elements, such as using the I Ching, star maps, or even flaws in manuscript paper to derive the notes, it still ends up sounding like John Cage. How can that be?

One of my favourite Cage discs is a CD of vocal works performed by Paul Hillier and his Theatre of Voices. The main work is the haunting Litany for the Whale which gives the disc its title and which could be enjoyed by anybody who likes the music of Arvo Pärt or John Tavener. The track I enjoy the most though is Experiences #2 which is one of the more misleading titles in music, giving the impression of a difficult obscure over-complicated piece when the reality is very different. Experiences #2 is an exquisite setting for solo voice of an e.e. cummings poem, highly modal, sung with very little vibrato, and with an almost folk-like melody. So why does it sound like Cage and nobody else? I don’t know though perhaps it is the extended silences between the musical phrases that gives it away.

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