John Cage, the Student: Time at Black Mountain College

Word Cloud of Cage’s Defense of Satie

This is from my talk at the Black Mountain College ReVIEWING conference in November of 2021. That year’s conference focused on John Cage’s ideas and practices. The annual conference draws scholars from around the world to Asheville, North Carolina, near the original site of Black Mountain College, to explore the impact of one of the most unique experiments in interdisciplinary education.

John Cage, The Student: Time at Black Mountain College Elliot Inman, November 2021

In 1948, John Cage delivered his notorious Defense of Satie at Black Mountain College during what students called the “Satie Summer,” a series of performances and informal lectures led by Cage. The lecture is best remembered for the fact that Cage called Beethoven an “error” that had set back the progress of the exploration of innovative uses of time in musical composition. In the talk, Cage described the work of Satie and Webern as counterexamples – true innovators — and proposed those models for the future of music.

This paper argues that the least innovative aspect of Cage’s lecture were his comments on Satie and the use of time in music. Using textbooks written by his two main teachers, Henry Cowell (New Musical Resources, 1930) and Arnold Schoenberg (Theory of Harmony, 1911), this paper documents how Cage’s ideas regarding time and Satie, himself, were those of his teachers. Even Cage’s style of presenting these facts — simultaneously confrontational about current conventions and enthusiastic about an imagined future — was sourced from his teachers who spoke about music in the same way.

What was new about Cage’s Defense of Satie was that Cage had finally found a way he could combine what he had learned in music theory classes and his many experiences in the worlds of art, dance, and the theater and from psychology and from eastern religion to build an integrated aesthetic argument that crossed all of those boundaries. At Black Mountain College, he found a way to deliver that message by engaging directly with an audience, channeling a kind of West Coast vibe, starting with simple philosophical questions, and deliberately trying to simultaneously provoke and charm his audience. Cage had not discovered a new theory of composition; Cage had discovered Cage.

A Manifesto on Time and an “Error”

It is easy to think of John Cage’s “Defense of Satie” (1948) as a major turning point in Cage’s artistic development, a sign-signifier of a Kuhnian shift in his own compositional practices, a public declaration of a radical break from all of the music he had created until that moment.  Cage would turn away from melody and harmony and explore music as an expression of sounds over time — time not constrained by tempos and time signatures or the limits of standard notation, but time expressed as pure durations distinguishing sounds from silences or silences from sounds.  Looking back, the lecture can be identified as pivot point between the work of the 36 year-old Cage and the music he would create over the next four decades.  And it may have been that, somewhat.

On the other hand, the talk is best remembered for a single infamous word.  To make his case for the importance of rhythm over melody and harmony, Cage said that, in the evolution of musical invention, Beethoven was an “error.”  Beethoven’s  entire musical output, his life, himself.  An “error.”  Beethoven had spent his life working to extend harmony and that was a mistake.  He should have dedicated himself to extending rhythm.  Beethoven had led music in the wrong direction and modern composers should not make the mistake of trying to follow him. 

For those unfamiliar with the context of the talk, Cage’s brief “lecture” was delivered as an introduction to a series of concerts featuring the music of Erik Satie at Black Mountain College in the summer of 1948.  Satie was not at all well-known in the United States at the time.  Joseph Albers, who had invited Cage to spend the summer teaching classes and staging various performances at the college, requested Cage provide some background.  All that was needed was the kind of concert notes that usually accompany new music — something about the composer’s methods and intentions and “how to listen” to it.  What Cage delivered instead has achieved the status of mythical notoriety, not because of his defense of Satie, but primarily because of that single word.  In the talk, Cage discusses the purpose, practice, and meaning of art in various fields (visual, theatre, architecture, and so on) before addressing in detail the music of Satie and Webern.  But the talk is remembered because Cage said that Beethoven was an “error.”

That might be a salacious statement for anyone to make even now, but Cage was saying so out loud just a few years after the end of World War II to a roomful of German emigres and the music department chair who was simultaneously staging a set of Beethoven concerts.  Diary entries and later interviews with Black Mountain College students confirm that the talk was shocking at the time, but Cage was known as a provocateur and at Black Mountain College students expected it.  Black Mountain College was an experiment, itself.  Anything unusual that happened in that place at that time was merely another part of the ongoing experiment.

But Cage’s deliberately provocative statement that Beethoven was an “error” has distracted from the actual content of the talk and a serious consideration of the antecedents of the ideas the 36 year-old Cage was presenting as his own.  What did Cage actually say?  What was it intended to be?  A careful description of a new musical methodology or a one-person performance piece of semi-serious bomb-throwing we might now call “trolling” for the “lulz.”  Cage was already known for both.  Which was it? Fortunately, unlike the other concert series talks Cage gave that summer, the Defense was preserved, a printed copy of the text published later by Kostelanetz  with Cage’s approval (Kostelanetz, John Cage, An Anthology, 1968).  A careful reading of the text supported by text analytic methods and a return to the writings and work of Cage’s own teachers (Weiss, Cowell, and Schoenberg) provides a clearer understanding of the themes, content, and purpose of the text.

A Text Analysis of the Text, Itself

The printed essay from the Kostelanetz anthology was converted to machine-readable text, a computer file of the text that could be examined using data science (primarily C++ and Python code) to illuminate the words and phrases that establish the meaning of the text.  Sentences and paragraphs of words were converted to a linear flow of individual words and phrases that could be ordered, counted, and considered in their relationship to one another in the text.  Punctuation from periods to em-dashes were deleted, although they do, we know, help to convey meaning. 

What was Cage’s Defense of Satie?  The short, silly answer is that it was 3,041 words.  There is a bit of variation in that count due to how the code processes hyphenated words, numbers, and other text elements.  But one answer to the question is:  It was 3,041 words beginning with “A” and ending with “self-knowledge.”  More advanced analyses reveal aspects of the talk that might have been overlooked, even by careful human readers.

There are some caveats with this kind of analysis.  This was a speech that was converted to text and we don’t know to what extent this was actually a speech written word-for-word before Cage delivered it.  But it seems unlikely, reading the text of the speech, that it was strictly written and delivered as if on a teleprompter.  Knowing Cage, that seems actually impossible to believe.  But, for any speaker/writer, interpreting text from speech has some unique challenges.

We know what was said, but not how.  Speed, intonation, tone, and inflection – all of which speakers use to communicate meaning – are lost in written text.  Even the punctuation writers use to convey meaning may not have been apparent when the text was spoken out loud.  Well-rehearsed speakers, like actors working from a text, may have carefully prepared timings, but most speakers do not precisely and consistently measure every pause between sentences or paragraphs.

Speech often exists in a contemporary context and references that context.  For example, at one point in the text, Cage writes/says, ““Last night in a discussion, I was willing to grant that there may be different physical elements of structural principles. Today, I will not be so pacific.”  We don’t know what that conversation was about or who was there or who there that day might or might not have known what was said the night before.  And we don’t know if the word “pacific” there was delivered with a wink as a pun as Cage, himself, had come from California (a Pacific coast state) to North Carolina (an Atlantic coast state), but “pacific” also meaning “calm” or “tranquil.”   

Furthermore, speech includes repetitions, more accentuated parallelism, asides, simplifications, and other conversational qualities.  For example, Cage writes/says, ““What kinds of things in art (music in particular) can be agreed upon?”  The parenthetic aside is the kind of moment a reader might look up from the podium or it may have been written down years later as part of a transcription to clarify something Cage thought should have been said.  We don’t and won’t know.  The text does include the speech-like repetitions:  “In the field of structure, the field of the definition of parts and their relation to the whole…”  It includes the kind of parallelisms that are consistent with speech.  “I answer immediately and unequivocally…”  What we don’t know is whether Cage was grinning when he commented on the experimental works of composers like Partch when he wrote/said, “However, we need not take innovations of this kind too seriously, unless somebody tells us to.”

So, we have to be cognizant that text mining a text that was delivered as a speech (essentially a play from a script) sets aside certain aspects of the oral presentation that affected its meaning. Habits of speech make this kind of text different from formally written communication.  We won’t know some things we wish we knew when trying to interpret this speech.  But our analysis begins with a curious problem. This text is called Defense of Satie, but it doesn’t seem to be about Satie.

Where is Satie?

One of the most curious aspects of this 3,041 word Defense of Satie is how little it is actually about Satie. A reader might ask: Where is Satie? “Satie” does not even appear until “Erik Satie” starting at word 1,539 of 3,041 words when the lecture is already half over (50.6%). Below is a word cloud of the entire text. A word cloud enables us to visualize the frequency of individual words in the text. Often, common words like “and” and “the” are omitted as they provide little additional meaning. In the word cloud below, some themes are readily apparent: life, method, structure, time, music, form, measure, but Satie is to the side, bottom right, almost hiding out of sight.

And although Satie does get more mentions (n=13) than any other composer, Webern (n=12) is close behind, with Beethoven (n= 7) and Schoenberg (n=3) getting mentions, too.

Although Satie does get more mentions (n=13) than any other composer, Webern (n=12) is close behind, with Beethoven (n= 7) and Schoenberg (n=3) getting mentions, too.  Given the salacious attack on Beethoven, readers might expect that he would have even greater prominence in the text, but not so.  What is more surprising is the appearance of Webern as a close second, a composer whose pursuit of 12-tone methods seems so very different from the methods of Satie. 

In fact, Satie and Webern are almost always mentioned together, as one.  Satie is mentioned 13 times and Webern mentioned 12, but, of those, Satie and Webern are mentioned together 11 times with Webern taking top billing 7 (“Webern and Satie”) over the 4 times Satie (“Satie and Webern”) appears first.  Both composers took an unusual approach to time, but it seems odd that they should appear together so often here, especially in a speech titled “Defense of Satie.”  It is not a coincidence.  It a letter from Cage to Peter Yates in 1948, Cage questioned his own admiration of Satie and wrote, ““I do not know if I am being rabid about Satie or not. However, I give him first place with Webern and I fight for them both” (Martin, John Cage and Peter Yates: Correspondence on Music Criticism and Aesthetics, 2020).

So, was it a defense of Satie or a defense of Webern or a defense of them both?  Cage, himself, in 1948, said we would “fight for them both.”  But the concert series was primarily for the music of Satie.

Before and After Satie

Using the data structure from the speech, we can map the primary words and phrases before the first mention of Satie and after. The word cloud below shows the keywords from before the first mention of Satie, the halfway mark in the text. The word cloud illustrates what the reader encounters: A talk about music, structure, life, art, poetry, artists, method, language, work, and the individual with a subtext based on “contemporary,” “difference,” “different,” and “new.”

Before Satie

After the first appearance of Satie, the focus of the text shifts significantly. Suddenly, Satie is front and center with Webern and numerous keywords related specifically to music: rhythmic, harmony, measure, sound, music, structure, and to the bottom right, “time.”

After Satie

You could argue that perhaps half of the text is a defense of Satie, but it is also not accidentally a defense of Webern and, in fact, very little about the “error” of Beethoven. Considering the entire text again, below is the frequency of certain keywords across the entire 3,041 text.

As the critic James Pritchett notes in a footnote of his book on Cage, this text is actually the only place where Cage so strongly advocated for duration (time) as the only important variable in musical structure. In fact, the frequencies generated from the text for this project demonstrated that “duration” was, within the text, mentioned only 3 times; time, 9; rhythm(ic), 5; and silence, only 3.

Which raises the question: Is this about time and duration or not? This text is only partially a defense of Satie and, in that respect, equally a defense of Webern. But a careful (computer aided) reading of the text reveals that it is also apparently not about “time.” And even the ideas Cage espoused here were perhaps not as radically original as they seemed. A careful look at the writings of three of his teachers shows that the ideas here about composition were very consistent, sometimes surprisingly so, with the theories and practices of his three teachers: Adolph Weiss, Arnold Schoenberg, and Henry Cowell.

Adolph Weiss has been summarily dismissed as a minor composer who may have been completely forgotten if not for his intersection with Cage.  The one thing scholars acknowledge Cage learned from Weiss, based on Cage’s own statements, is that Cage did not want to write music that was never performed.  Weiss had composed a large number of scores that were played once or never and Cage did not want to face the same fate.  But that overlooks two aspects of Weiss’ work that might have made a much more significant impact on Cage. 

First, Weiss was the composer who “discovered” Schoenberg in Germany.  Weiss is the one who wrote the Musical Quarterly article about the “School of Schoenberg,” (1932) birthing it into existence.  Weiss is the one who created a series of concerts to introduce Schoenberg to audiences in the United States.  Weiss was a composer who was simultaneously serving as a new music impresario, concert promoter, and publicist for a composer unknown to American audiences.  What was Cage doing in his concert series on Satie at Black Mountain College in 1948?  The exact same thing.  After that summer at Black Mountain College, Cage continued to serve as hype man for Satie, writing enthusiastic articles and staging concerts.  To what extent was Cage merely following the model Weiss had set with Schoenberg?  It is worth noting that it is the same model Cage extended to his own work with essays and even radio and TV appearances to promote Cage, himself, and concerts that included his own compositions, thus avoiding the never-performed problem he saw in Weiss.  But Cage’s methodical approach to promoting Satie and later his own work closely resembles the plan Weiss put in place for Schoenberg.

Second, Weiss may not have generated groundbreaking pivotal compositions, but he was not someone completely mired in the status quo.  He had “discovered” and promoted Schoenberg who was a radical at that time.  He was also exploring alternative methods of notation that would free composers from the bounds of standard time. Consider the following proposal made by Weiss in the Bulletin of the American Musicological Society in 1940.

This was a radical re-imagining of a notation without lines, notes, or staves with a transparent piano roll score that is played by photocells reading the score and playing the desired timbres and durations over a loud speaker. Note Weiss’s copyright notice for 1940. This is a proposal for what is very close to a modern sequencer, a piano roll editor played by a electronic device for which traditional notation is obsolete because the composer has complete control over time and timbre.

This is an idea that Weiss had already developed to the point that he was publishing his plan — eight years before John Cage even came to Black Mountain College. Considering the compositions Cage was working on at that time, his teacher, Adolph Weiss, was already thinking decades ahead of Cage, the student.

Cage may have learned much more from Weiss than scholars have acknowledged. 

Arnold Schoenberg’s Treatise on Harmony (1911) is almost 450 pages long with just 5 scant pages on rhythm in a chapter of its own.  Schoenberg described some of the contemporary experimental work with rhythm, but declared such pursuits to be fake originality.  “Nevertheless — and this cannot be emphasized strongly enough — even though the use of unusual meters may be eminently suitable for producing the halo of originality, something truly new is scarcely attainable by this means alone. One eighth note more or less does not revitalize a worn-out idea.  On the other hand, rhythmic originality can appear in ordinary four quarter time.” 

“…But as soon as the system professes to be a yardstick by which to judge some artistic innovation emerging from the rhythm of nature, we are justified in extinguishing the feeble spark that gives an aura of vitality to this phantom [i.e. to this artificial, quasi-mathematical inbred system, with only a spark of life]. And this spark is indeed feeble…”

But Schoenberg then seems to contradict himself by saying that there will be a rhythm of the future.  “Hence, our metrical subdivisions, with their primitive imitation of nature, with their simple methods of counting, have long been incapable of satisfying our rhythmic needs.  Our imagination disregards the bar line, by displacing accents, by juxtaposing different meters, and the like. Yet, a composer can still not give a performable picture of the rhythms he actually has in mind. Here, too, the future will bring something different.”

A careful look at one of the first of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone pieces that demonstrated his new approach to tonality reveals his own radical experimentation with rhythm. “Klavierstücke” is a 40 measure composition that lasts less than 2 minutes. But within it are 8 time signature changes and 11 different directions to change the tempo.

Consider just these four measures from the score. It is easy to be distracted by the complexity of the notation regarding sharps and flats, but that is 5/4, 9/8, 6/8, and 4/4 with one measure each over four measures and some additional notes about slowing down in the third measure.

So, while Schoenberg was emphasizing the importance of harmony and, in his own text on the subject, deriding as trite contemporary experiments with rhythm, he was also imagining a future with a different kind of rhythm and, in his own compositions, attempting far more complex experiments with time and duration, even in 1928/31. Almost two decades before Cage, the student, spoke at Black Mountain College about a radical new approach to composition that relied on a new approach to duration and time, Schoenberg was already composing using that method.

Cage may have learned much more from Schoenberg than scholars have acknowledged. 

Henry Cowell was, like Weiss with his new notation and Schoenberg with his Klavierstücke, a strong advocate for a new approach to time, meter, and rhythm.

Note that Cowell, in 1930, had already turned to Satie as an example of what could be done. As with Cage’s other teachers, this was an idea Cowell was enthusiastically advancing almost twenty years before Cage gave his own “defense” of Satie at Black Mountain College.

Returning to the work of Cage’s teachers, it is easy to find the antecedents of Cage’s own thinking about time, duration, and rhythm. Whereas Cage was seemingly trying to distance himself from Schoenberg, it was Schoenberg who had already proved himself more radical in his use of time than Cage, himself, was in 1948. The idea of composition without any formal restrictions on notation was something already being copyrighted as a new technology by Weiss. Weiss’s new notation had no lines, no staves — nothing but durations. Even the identification of Satie as the exemplar of this new approach was something proposed by Cowell. And, right alongside Satie is Webern, another Schoenberg student.

So, if the “Defense of Satie” was not really about Satie and it was not a radical turning point from which Cage advocated for duration or time as the only important variable in composition and, in fact, many of the seemingly radical ideas Cage was proposing were exactly the same ideas his teachers had been teaching and practicing for decades before 1948, including even the championing of Satie, what was Cage’s “Defense of Satie?”

What was the “Defense of Satie?”

One of the weaknesses with word clouds as a visualization of text is that they, by design, illuminate the most frequent words and phrases in the text.  That can help demonstrate the equal weighting Cage gave to “Satie” and “Webern” and the emphasis on certain themes like “time.” 

But part of what Cage was doing in this text was connecting many different kinds of artists and ideas.  Within this one text, each of these receives only one or just a few mentions:  Hopkins, Joyce, Stein, Cummings, Stravinsky, Mozart, Hába, Partch, Varèse, Gothic architecture, Buckminster Fuller, Balinese dance, psychology, Esperanto, architecture of Baltimore row houses, fashion of GI clothing, Indian Tala, the Orient, Freedom, Law… Statistical summaries of the most frequently mentioned words and phrases miss the fact that Cage was actively bridging a very wide set of things together to bolster his case.

At the same time, although the text includes many words about the power of the individual artist, Cage used the word “I” only 14 times compared to the 42 times he used the word “we.”

What was the “Defense of Satie?”  It was not about Satie.  It was not a radical personal statement in which Cage broke away from his formal training to forge a path of his own.  It was not an original manifesto on the importance of time and the challenge it poses to composers.   Given a homework assignment by Albers to include some introductory notes for the Satie concert series, John Cage was a student trying to synthesize what he knew and what it might mean.  But it wasn’t even a lecture. 

In 1959, a decade after his talk at Black Mountain College, Cage described his methodology in his Preface to Indeterminacy.

What, then, was Cage’s “Defense of Satie?”

It was poetry.

~ Elliot Inman, BMC ReVIEWING conference, November 2021

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