I certainly had no feeling for harmony, and Schoenberg thought that that would make it impossible for me to write music. He said, “You’ll come to a wall you won’t be able to get through.” I said, “Well then, I’ll beat my head against that wall.”
— John Cage, interview in Observer magazine (1982), repeated on several occasions
He’s bluffing. He has impeccable ears.
— Morton Feldman, in conversation with Peter Gena
I’ve wanted to get this off my chest for a while. People who get interested in John Cage almost immediately find out about him studying harmony with Schoenberg, and the above exchange between the two. It’s up there with the one about the anechoic chamber; he was always telling it…
… And because he was always talking about it, it’s always repeated in books, articles and essays about him; it would get raised as in issue in interviews for him to elaborate the point further. As it happened, Cage spent most of his career largely excluded from the public discourse surrounding “serious” music. Fortunately, his skills as a raconteur enabled him to establish a public persona. He was able to use this situation to his advantage: isolated from wider discussions about his musical context, he became his own leading critic by default. Twenty-three years since his death, he still effectively dictates how we interpret his life and work.
(William Burroughs is another example of this phenomenon, with an even greater emphasis on integrating his autobiography with his literary practice. In Burroughs’ case any critic analysing his writing is faced with the task of disentangling it from Burroughs’ own creation myth. Both Burroughs and Cage have been the subject of unsatisfying biographies, in which the author is constrained by the subject’s own well-established narrative structure. The biography cannot help but reiterate a series of events with which the fan is already familiar, or stray outside these bounds to portray a figure the reader does not recognise.)
I don’t have time to look up which critic noticed Cage’s repeated references to his piece The Perilous Night, written in 1944, the year of his “psychological crisis”. The critic observed that Cage was directing attention towards this piece, and away from more personally revealing works written around the same time, such as Four Walls. (The tangential references to a psychological crisis are another revealing omission.) More than shaping public perception of his biographical details, he influenced critical consideration of his own canon of key works.
Cage’s “no feeling for harmony” story is charmingly self-deprecating and firmly in the mould of the mid-century American caricature, disarmingly plain-spoken and determined. It also cunningly invites anyone who worked with him to point that his sense of harmony was, in fact, superb; and of course that is exactly what happened. Cage’s feeling for harmony is just fine, but it’s a bluff. He’s misdirecting you from his true technical weakness, the one with no anecdotes. I’ve never seen anyone mention this, so I’m going to point it out here:
sucks sucked at counterpoint. *