art's anniversary 2006
john cage and radio
lecture by guy de bièvre
"It [the radio pieces] made it possible for me to listen to radio with great interest, no matter what it was doing." (John Cage in conversation with Richard Kostelanetz in John Cage (ex)plain(ed))
In 1939 John Cage composed Imaginary Landscape No. 1, for 2 variable-speed turntables, frequency recordings, muted piano and cymbal. Which is probably the very first truly electro-acoustic composition, and a far away precursor of the DJ era. The score also mentioned that the work was to be performed as a recording or broadcast. So, this is also a first reference to radio in Cage's music. Not in his life though: Cage had a radio program when he was 12, for the Boy Scouts of America.
This was in 1924, when radio was still fairly new. In a conversation with Richard Kostelanetz Cage recalls that radio was close to his experience because his father had invented, without ever being credited for it, the first radio to be plugged into the electric light system.
Even though he made radio as a young teenager Cage never seemed to care much for the medium, certainly not to listen to music, apart from being impressed by the Columbia Workshop, which was producing radio drama between 1936 and 1947 (and was revived between 1956 and 1957 as the CBS Radio Workshop.) Those were heydays for radio drama with among others the famous Orson Welles version of H. G. Wells' War of the Worlds produced by The Mercury Theatre on the Air.
In 1941 Cage managed to get a commission for CBS Radio to write music for a radio play based upon Kenneth Patchen's The City Wears a Slouch Hat. Initially he composed a work, based on his ideas of using electronic sound effects, assuming this could be realized in the CBS studios. But the technician in charge told him the original score could not be realized on the short notice he was given and Cage wrote a more 'conventional' work scored for 6 percussion players and narrator.
But it was in 1951 that Cage used radio for the first time as an instrument or sound source, in Imaginary Landscape No. 4, scored for 12 radios and to be performed by 24 people, 2 per radio, one to control the tuner and one to control the amplitude and timbre. The score was conventionally notated and required a conductor. The first performance of the work in May 1951 left many people in the audience displeased, partly due to the fact that the work was fairly quiet, with very low volume levels most of the time (due to chance operation results.)
Next to the use of radio Imaginary Landscape No.4 is also very significant in Cage's oeuvre as it was composed at about the same time as Music of Changes for piano and both works can be seen as Cage's first radical use of chance as a compositional tool. Both works used the I Ching (which he had used in a less radical way in the last movement of the Concerto for Prepared Piano earlier that year) to make the compositional decisions, as a way to abandon the composer's likes and dislikes. As he said in For The Birds: "I had a goal, that of erasing all will and the very idea of success." The I Ching will from then on be used in a majority of Cage works. Cage actually wrote Imaginary Landscape No.4 because Henry Cowell had remarked that he hadn't freed himself of his tastes completely in Music of Changes, so he wrote the music for radios feeling sure that no one would be able to discern his taste in that.
Radio is indeed one of the better tools to obtain non intentional sound results, as, unless you carefully check program schedules at a specific location, you cannot predict what will come out of it if you tune into a particular frequency.
The next work using radio was Black Mountain Piece, a forerunner of the later multimedia happenings, composed in 1952 for 3 speakers, piano, dancer, gramophone, radios, film and slide projectors and paintings. Later that same year Water Music also calls upon radio. 1952 is also the year of 4'33" (the silent piece) and Williams Mix, the first of a series of works for tape.
The next major work for radio is Speech for a news reader and 5 radios, composed in 1955 to be followed in 1956 by Radio Music for 1 to 8 radios and performers.
The score provides each of the performers with a list of frequencies and occasional silences, calling upon each performer to decide upon timing all the actions within a total duration of 6 minutes. Cage said he wrote Radio Music partly to please the people who were disturbed over the quietness of the performance of Imaginary Landscape No. 4. Indeed Radio Music requires maximum amplitude all the time. Looking at the score now, 50 years later, raises a number of questions. The radio landscape has changed enormously since 1956. The radios themselves have changed, they sound different. It is often said that Cage used 'Golden Throats' for the radio pieces (at least for Imaginary Landscape No.4), but Golden Throat is not a radio model, it is a technology patented by RCA Victor and implemented in various models, from smaller portable ones to larger cabinets. The Radio Music score is also confusing, as it lists figures between 55 and 153, while Cage talks about kilocycles in interviews, which would logically mean the radios operate in the rather (especially in the US) uncommon LW band. But in those days AM was the most common bandwidth and radio designers omitted the last zero on the dials. So the scores are meant for the AM band, which makes perfect sense.
So, even with 50s radios there's no way to make a 'historical' recreation of the work, in analogy to historically true performances of baroque music for instance. It also would make no sense at all within Cage's philosophy.
Later on radios are required only occasionally in Cage's works, like in 1985 in Music Walk or in 1979 in Concerto Grosso (scored for 4 TV sets and 12 radios) and Rocks in 1986 (which suggests radio as a possible instrument.)
At the end of the 70s he composed two works for radio station (Sounday and Paragraphs of Fresh Air) and in 1983 he composed HMCIEX as a radio play commissioned by Klaus Schoening of the WDR.
His use of the radio medium can be seen as culminating in 1982 with Fifteen Domestic Minutes for multiple radio stations.
John Cage: Silence (1973, Wesleyan University Press, ISBN 0-8195-6028-6)
John Cage: For the Birds (in conversation with Daniel Charles) (19841, Marion Boyars, ISBN 0-7145-2690-8)
Richard Kostelanetz: John Cage (ex)plain(ed) (1996, Schirmer Books, ISBN 0-02-864526-X)
Richard Kostelanetz: Conversing with Cage (1988, Omnibus Press, ISBN 0-7119-1846-5)
James Pritchet: The Music of John Cage (1993, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-41621-3)
David Revill: The Roaring Silence (1992, Bloomsbury, ISBN 0-7475-1215-9)