A single, numb note enters the room. It wavers ever-so-slightly, flickering for only a moment before steadying itself. Then, the twangs and flutters of conjured strings and winds join it, darting in and out before giving the note space to deepen. The pianist reaches inside his instrument and plies the wires with his hands. A man slips a thin microphone into his mouth and clicks wetly. The frontman of legendary rock band Sonic Youth scrabbles like a raccoon at a guitar lain flat across his knees.
This is “Electronic Music for Piano,” an unassumingly-titled composition by avant-garde composer and music theorist John Cage, and the capstone to a week of Cage-centric events put on by The Claremont Colleges Library. “Cage at Claremont,” as the week was designated, consisted of a series of lectures, workshops and classes discussing John Cage, and applying or examining his theory.
Cage, who died in 1992, enrolled in Pomona College in 1928, but he dropped swiftly out in 1929. It was an English class that disillusioned him so. Believing that a class where everyone read the same book was a “waste of people,” he shirked the assigned reading and ingested books as irrelevant to the subject matter as he could find.
“When the time came for examinations, I got an A,” he said. “And that’s why I dropped out of college.” Pomona professor of English and director of the newly opened Humanities Studio Kevin Dettmar quoted Cage’s anecdote with amusement while speaking for the Cage at Claremont opening panel Sept. 24.
Dettmar had the unique privilege of personally communicating with Cage. At the time, Dettmar was a graduate student, and Cage one of the most renowned composers in the world. But Dettmar wrote to Cage anyway, fascinated by the relevance of Cage’s theory to Dettmar’s own studies of James Joyce.
At the panel, he remembered the letters Cage wrote back as “kind of wonderful — or rather, kind and wonderful.” Cage’s warmth, generosity, and joy shone through, though Dettmar wishes that he had done more in his correspondence.
“I would very much enjoy talking with you,” Cage wrote to Dettmar once. “Conversation is so rare.” Dettmar never steeled the nerve to visit, and then Cage was gone.
Cage’s theory and art are still here, though. Cage maintained his objections with institutional teaching styles throughout his life, even as a professor at Wesleyan University. He recoiled from lionizing ideas of individual greatness of virtuosity, evident in the tightly controlled nature of his music that subordinates both performer and composer to the art itself.
Cage’s most famous work, “4’ 33”,” is a piano piece that requires the pianist to do nothing for four and a half minutes. But even it features unheard internal movements of minute precision that the performer must follow to the letter.
Friday’s performance of “Electronic Music for Piano” bucked and updated some of Cage’s original intent. An iPhone, for example, appeared pointedly amid the instruments partway through the show.
Dettmar, a Sonic Youth fan, said that frontman Thurston Moore centralized the stage in a way he imagined Cage, no proponent of virtuosic art, might not approve of. Dettmar added that he was unsure whether Moore was truly drawing attention, or whether Dettmar was distracted by Moore as an avatar of Sonic Youth.
Nathan Freide PO ’22, a Sonic Youth (and John Cage) fan, agreed that he paid somewhat more attention to Moore than the other musicians — in fact, he attended the concert for Moore — but not so much that he felt distracted from the concert as a whole, which he loved.
“I think pretty much everyone has the same experience with John Cage,” Freide said. “They hear about 4’ 33”, they say ‘this can’t possibly be real,’ and then [slowly come] to terms with the fact that 4’ 33” is a real piece of music.”
Ably listing off scores of postmodernist contemporaries and counterparts to Cage, Freide said, “I don’t think Cage is by any means accessible, but I do feel that his music is accepting to the naïve approacher.”
That said, some approaches may be too naïve. During the concert, one man departed about 40 minutes through with his elementary-age daughter in tow.
Freide also mused that much of the value in Cage’s music comes from the theory it enacts. “Electronic Music for Piano,” for example, was born by placing musical bars across a sheet of cheap typing paper to turn spots of wood pulp into notes. On aesthetics alone, however, his work may seem more challenging than welcoming.
Or, in the words of one Pomona sophomore who attended, “What fresh hell is this?”
The weeklong celebration of Cage seems nearly oxymoronic in light of Cage’s postmodern philosophy and his abbreviated time spent in Claremont. “It’s kinda curious the interest the college takes in a dropout,” Dettmar said in an interview with TSL. “I mean, he didn’t find what he needed here, and he left.”
Dettmar noted that Pomona College Magazine refers to Cage as “John Cage PO-32,” tying him to the graduating year of the class he dropped out of.
Ultimately, however, Dettmar praised the impact of the week’s events.
“I love the small scale [of Pomona], and I love that we stay connected to people who have come through here,” he said.
Pomona’s eagerness to celebrate Cage — a posthumous and perhaps unrequited love — has had a concrete upshot. Cage at Claremont illuminated a fascinating thinker and artist whose relationship with Pomona could perhaps continue to guide the future of the institution.