17. Perception of Music: John Cage

Dozens of concerts and events were organized in New York City in 2012 to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of John Cage’s (1912-1992) birth. One of them was the concert of 103, which he had composed for 103 orchestral instruments. It was going to take place on November 7, at 8 pm, at the Bohemian National Hall, which is in the building on 73rd Street that houses the consulate general of the Czech Republic. It was going to be the first performance of the piece in New York, by an orchestra, the Janácek Philharmonic Ostrava, which had come from the Czech Republic. 

That day we woke up to an unexpected heavy snowstorm, which later turned into a rainstorm with strong winds. The streets were covered in slush. I called to see if the concert was cancelled but no one answered the phone. Thinking that, if performed, it would be the only live performance of 103 I could witness in my life, I bundled up and made it to the concert hall.

The concert was on and the room, including the balconies, was filled with musicians. In order to complete the count they had invited local musicians to participate in addition to the Czech orchestra. That is, 103 musicians had braved the weather and grabbed their small or big instruments and come to perform John Cage’s 103. There were around 50-60 people in the audience, occupying about a fifth of the hall, which did not have fixed audience seats.

Two time brackets from Five (1988), the first one flexible, the second fixed (Wikipedia)

103 was composed in 1991 using the “time bracket” technique which Cage thought up in his final years. A large chronometer that can be seen by all musicians is required. Each musician’s score contains certain single notes with minute+second indicators, showing the musician when to start playing a note and its duration. The start/stop points can be left to the musician to approximate (flexible) or can be definite clock-times (fixed). The notes and their timing and duration were determined using Cage’s “chance operations” method. That is, the time-line was structured “by chance” as opposed to the conscious choices of a composer.

The total duration of the piece is exactly 90 minutes and, if desired, Cage’s 90-minute movie, One11, consisting of movements of light only, can be shown during the performance (it was shown at the Bohemian Hall concert). There is no need for a conductor (Petr Kotik, the organizer of the event, played the “role” of the clock by moving his arms for 90 minutes).

As in all “chance” pieces by John Cage, 103 does not have sections, intentional intensifications, accelerations, decelerations, etc.: the piece ends just like the way it begins. The main point is to observe the sound traffic determined by chance, in a certain space and duration. Neither the listeners nor the musicians can predict when and which instrument will play a note and what kind of tonality will result from overlapping sounds. 

In that respect, Cage concerts where musicians alongside the listeners curiously and seriously observe the outcomes of the chance operations reach the goal, whereas concerts where musicians perform halfheartedly, embarrassingly or defiantly cannot communicate Cage’s central point.

I can say that I had never before been to a concert where the sequence of sounds was executed and listened to with this much attention and curiosity. We sat there and carefully “watched” the succession, durations, overlaps and locations of sounds in varying timbres together with the musicians. 

This was not that different from sitting anywhere and watching and listening to the movements and sounds that happen around us coincidentally for a period of time (one of Cage’s goals was to show that this can be done). In fact, at the end of the concert I pointed at the page with 15-20 notes in front of a double-bass player and asked “was it boring for you?” He said, “no way, I wouldn’t hesitate for a second if they say let’s do it two more times now.”

I have told about a concert which was considered to be “quite crazy” even in the year 2012, thinking that it would make what I am going to write below more understandable:

Let us look at the event called the “piano concert,” for instance. Here is the common description of this social ritual: We go to the concert hall and sit, the pianist comes out and plays some music on the piano and we listen to it. The reason why we attend that event as a “listener” (sight doesn’t get included in the formula) is usually formulated as “the desire to be affected by the sounds generated by the pianist from the piano.” At the end, we hit the palms of our hands against each other repeatedly (the act called applause or clapping): If we do that for a while, it indicates that we have “liked” (satisfactorily been affected by) the way the pianist generated the sounds. If we haven’t liked it, we cut the clapping short, indicating that we were not affected to the degree we were hoping for. Then we get up and leave.

What do we mean by “affect”? The answers to this question generally mention certain physiological changes in the body (weeping, palpitation, feeling breathless, goose bumps, laughter) and appreciation is often linked to the degree of these experienced changes. If we ask what creates the “affect,” most people will give the seemingly evident answer: “the music.” Basically, this implies that when the sounds are ordered and grouped “successfully” in a certain way and the pianist produces and delivers them “well,” clear salty liquid fills the eyes of the listeners and trickles down the faces as if some chopped onion were held near their heads. And that is usually considered to be “good.”

Sounds as just sounds, at the denotative level, have no role in the “affect” (unless the volume and/or pitch levels are hurting the eardrums). Sound becomes a sign and acquires communicative value when it points at concepts in our minds. Verbal sounds consist of coded and learned symbolic signs, one can look them up in a dictionary (lexical). For instance, the spoken word “table” is nothing but a certain ordering of a few phonemes, but it has been coded to signify a certain object, to bring that corresponding object to mind. 

In contrast, nonverbal sounds are interpreted at the level of connotations, through learned associations. Nonverbal sounds tend to form indexical signs, they just point at their sources. For example, through acquired association, we recognize the distinct timbre of a car horn as signifying the presence of a car. Yet, we do not often run into the sound of a pure 880 Hz sine wave and, therefore, there aren’t too many things or situations we can associate it with in our memories. If we hear a 880 Hz sine wave, we need to find its source to be able to interpret it.

I can theoretically say that we relate to the music we listen to at three levels (which intermingle in practice):


I will call the first level “the sound level,” referring to the material of the event. What I have in mind here is the listening to the sound as sound only, literally, without reaching beyond denotative features. This is the level where the sounds are “observed” physically and objectively, considering the instrumentation, sequencing and grouping preferences of the person who has structured the piece (John Cage built his structures using his “chance operations” as opposed to conscious choices and decisions).

Identification of a sound as the “first octave G of bassoon” by a musically educated listener, as opposed to calling it “a low sound,” does not form a superiority or make a difference. This level is open to descriptive adjectives such as “multiple/single,” “short/long,” “high/low,” “sharp/soft” but does not contain references necessary for critical adjectives such as “good/bad,” “beautiful/ugly,” etc. John Cage and his followers claim that sounds can be listened to strictly at this level, just as sounds, and can be found interesting and any person who is able to hear can do it.


I call my second level “the connotative level,” where the sounds and their arrangements refer to learned information in the minds of the listeners.

It is accepted in music cognition that progression is realized by forming expectations in the listeners’ minds and proceeding in response to those expectations, by fulfilling or unfulfilling them, which gives way to a new set of expectations. How do listeners form expectations? They do it by referring to all the sounds they have heard up to that point, labeled as “music” or not, and to everything visual or aural they have associated with such sounds.

To elaborate, we “recognize” the sound according to the references in our minds and anticipate what may come or should come next. For instance, when we hear the notes “C-D-E,” we expect them to be followed by “F-G-A-B-C” because we have learned the basic major scale. If “F#-G#-A#” follow instead, this may remind us of our experiences involving modern music (with positive or negative connotations). For example, when we decide that the music which has just started on the radio is a blues piece, we expect to hear a voice with specific characteristics to come in. If the voice turns out to be different than the anticipated, we either “like” it as a pleasant surprise or “dislike” it as a bad surprise. The main reason why John Cage decided to use chance operations in structuring his compositions (starting in 1951) was to eliminate this second level as much as possible.


And, I will call the third level “the matrix level,” consisting of all the determinants around the presented sounds.

We can and, I think, should ask certain questions about a viewer/listener attending an artistic event, such as, “Why has this person come here, instead of so many other places s/he could have gone to?” And, “What is it about this event that makes it worth attending for this person?” And, “What does s/he expect to achieve by attending this event?” And so forth.

Answers to such questions, that is, all justifications for the attendance hint at the factors that determine how the viewer/listener relates to the event. Those and other “off-subject” factors such as the location, time, manner and purpose of the occasion, which we can call “the matrix,” control and determine the perception. I use the term “matrix” to point at the environment that produces, develops and surrounds something – a more inclusive concept than “context” or “circumstance.”

It is important to note that when the presentation at the first and second levels are impenetrable or unidentifiable or incommunicable, the perceiver becomes more dependent on the information “around” it. And, in very many cases, the matrix can become the subject-matter itself and turn the supposed subject-matter into a pretext for the event to take place. For instance, experiencing the ritual of going to a jazz club can become the main goal as opposed to going to listen to some specific music, in which case the music functions as a component of the matrix only, as long as it sounds like jazz music.

I will try to summarize the above three levels with an example:

Let’s say that I go to hear a pianist play Bach. As someone who deals with music, I can somewhat follow Bach’s choices, preferences and decisions, but I don’t need to go to a concert to do that, I can do it at home too by listening to recordings or by examining the score. The reason why I go to that concert (at least theoretically) is to hear how that individual pianist will produce those sounds in that environment. The word “how” implies my assessments in accordance with the samples I have stored in memory and the criteria I have learned.

Yet, it doesn’t end there: I experience this event in a specific time and place with others and the connotations of that “social frame” subjectify my listening and evaluation quite strongly. For example, I may be feeling upset that the well-dressed, wealthy-looking people in the room, most likely with no musical education, can easily pay the expensive ticket price, unlike me. I may have expressly dressed in shabby clothes, kept my longer hair uncombed and my face unshaven: a uniform to show those fellow listeners that I am different, an “artist” who “knows” music. The point in the music where the galloping suddenly slows down and the harmony switches to a minor chord, which I may have found interesting until then, may sound like a “cheap trick” when those people I dislike sigh and show signs of melancholy.

Let’s go back to the 103 concert: 

At the “sound level,” we heard the simplest sounds that can come out of the instruments – playing a straight B on a cello for twenty seconds does not require virtuosity. The composition gave no opportunity for the musicians to show their skills. Because there was no melodic, harmonic or rhythmic structure, the sounds we heard were just what they were, they did not guide us to the connotative level. At times, atonal clusters, created by incidental overlaps, could have called some modern music works to mind and that was it.

However, the matrix was very determinate in this concert. First of all, we were participating in an event organized to commemorate John Cage on his 100th birthday. Knowing the hardship of bringing 103 musicians together and knowing that that was why the piece was not performed in New York before made the event even more remarkable. Moreover, the feeling of commitment and camarederie between the participants who had braved the awful weather conditions and arrived to actualize an anomalous event had a big role in the prevailing concentration. Dispersal of 103 musicians in the hall and the close distances between the musicians and the audience, which even allowed us to see some of the written music in front of the musicians, created an atmosphere of “collective experimentation.”

I saved the most important point for the end:

Let’s assume that the above described work was not composed through chance operations and each musician was asked and allowed to play whatever single sound s/he wanted, whenever s/he wanted within ninety minutes. If none of the musicians decide to act silly or disruptive (which have been seen often in Cage concerts), the resulting sound wouldn’t be that different from the sound of the performed 103.

Indeed, such improvised “tone concerts” are being organized and they are often justified by their similarity to the “result” achieved by John Cage. People who attend these concerts either think that they are participating in a mystical, meditative experience or want to be part of an environment labeled “anti-status quo” or “modern.” They either do not know or pretend not to know much about Cage’s rationality and his opposition to improvisation, affectivity and taking easy ways out.

Cage aimed at eliminating or limiting the choices of the performer by letting the chance operations structure the work. This was a way of inhibiting the communication between the composer, the performer and the listener and, thus, suppressing the connotative dimension. The purpose was to facilitate an objective and observational listening to all forms of sound and to help create an awareness of the universe we exist in, where things happen coincidentally.

Behind all of John Cage’s compositions there have always been three factors that justified the work: (1) a critical opinion, (2) a systematic method of production formed as a result of that opinion (chance operations), and (3) a serious, intensive and disciplined labor putting that method to use. These aspects were present even in his most indisciplined and chaotic-looking compositions or events, constituting a “meta” dimension which has made John Cage’s works and ideas so remarkable and influential in the modern arts.

In that respect, I believe that it is very important that the listener/viewer of the works of John Cage be aware of the factors I have listed above. And this brings us to the term “experimental art,” which seems to be used in two different senses:

Some label their work as “experimental” to indicate noncompliance – often using it as a shield to secure themselves against the possibility of irritating the audiences or failing to communicate with them. As a result, the audiences see “experimental” work as “only an experiment,” not as something intended to be serious.

In its other usage, “experimental art” suggests a laboratory environment. It targets the testing of certain new ideas of which results can be observed by all participants, including the presenters themselves.

John Cage is considered to be the initiator of the “experimental music” concept, with the second usage of the term in mind. He defined the “experimental” as activities of which results are not known by either the presenters or by the perceivers. Yet, to repeat myself, I believe that all participants in the event need to be aware of the concept for the intention to find its target, in order to achieve the desired observational situation (as was the case in the 103 concert I have described above).