“John Cage, or, the Pleasure of Emptiness” (1977)
Roberto Calasso
Translated by Joseph Sannicandro

For almost twenty years I have seen John Cage booed: first in Darmstadt, where the followers of Neue Musik themselves booed, frightened by his intrusion that ruined all their Beautiful Structures (and in fact his arrival did signal the end of Darmstadt, which has no longer been the place of the new music); then in festivals and concerts in various European cities. He was booed by acidic colleagues and dignified ladies, organic intellectuals and members of the moderate avant-garde, waxy bureaucrats and defenders of Values. The few who applauded it were instead, for the most part, those who did something because they think it should be done; for a leaner share, those musicians and listeners who were grateful to Cage for the exhilaration and dissolution of the faint breath he had been able to circulate among the sounds. Therefore they did not applaud him only (or in the first place) as a composer.

Cage, in fact, is above all an inventor (as his teacher Arnold Schonberg was able to see). And his specific invention was to discreetly, childishly introduce a bit of Emptiness [Vuoto] into music, and therefore into our life. Now, that Emptiness has a healthy function for us all, like a breeze for the asphyxiated. Because one of the most serious diseases we suffer from is that of the Full [Pieno]: the disease of those who live in a mind continuously occupied by a whirlwind of broken words, of stolidly recurring images of useless and unfounded certainties, of fears formulated in a sentence before as emotions. All this produces many disasters, especially one, from which I derive the highs: the lack, the inability to pay attention.

Cage, after all, did not say anything as shocking as the following obviousness: that music is the world of sound, therefore something that does not begin and does not end in the concert hall but accompanies us in every moment of life. In an acoustically insulated room we do not listen to silence (which is, if anything, a metaphysical category) but to the almost imperceptible sound of the circulation of our blood. Cage invited his listeners to turn their ears to this reality.

But, to do so, it is not so much to exercise the ear as the mind to build a bit of Emptiness within it in which to welcome sounds. This calm proposal can easily provoke a violent reaction, because many are pathetically glued to their fullness (otherwise — they rightly fear — they would not know what to cling to). So, I think, Cage is so often booed.

But the perfect demonstration, paradoxical, and perhaps insuperable, of the mechanism in question, I have seen only now, at Cage’s recent concert at the Milan Opera. An audience of perhaps two thousand people, mostly between the ages of fifteen and thirty (the more mature intellectuals were not present, evidently they considered the evening not worthy of their attention), had flocked to hear this legendary “critical” and “alternative” name. But they didn’t have to know, or have understood, much more of him than the name. In fact, after a few minutes, the evening turned into a gallant psychodrama, which had as its silent object the desire to beat up the illustrious musician.

Cage, alone on stage, attentive and concentrated in an incongruous reading of syllables, managed to cause a blackout for two hours and put it on two thousand listeners, made them reveal themselves as no psychoanalyst, as no political educator would ever know. If they wanted so much to express, it must be said — alas — that they are expressed. And what did these young people express from all Militances, all Deviances, all Emarginations, all Differences? First of all, they reflected that they hate what is really strange. Because Cage is precisely one of the rare truly strange people one can meet. Down for his appearance, for his gesture, for the style, for the example of his invincible laugh, which has the sound of dry leaves. Then they revealed, having the total availability of a theater for two and a half hours, what their mental theater is: with truly trite inventions, far from the irony that they should have rediscovered.

Finally, using everything around them as percussion, they created moments of true tribal fusion: but it was like a dilation of the spirit of ‘let’s join the tables’ in mountain boarding houses on rainy days. With the addition of an explicit violence that was released moment by moment, nourished by a cordial solidarity in the desire to beat those who could not defend themselves anyway. So many seemed to invoke certainly not the usual chimerical Liberation, but a more uniform, and therefore more equitable, Oppression.

At one point a group of about ten people gathered around Cage. One tried to blindfold him with a black band – and he was afraid he did not know that at that moment he was repeating the ancient gesture with which the musician is elected a pharmakos, a fascinating and miasmatic victim, who must be expelled from the city, as Plato told in the Republic. It was the symbolic gesture of the beating. They didn’t beat him because Cage – even a few centimeters away – in his inflexible stillness he continued to act as the Exterminating Angel. But symbolic gestures, you know, always mean a little more than the facts.

At the end of the piece, Cage got up from his chair, bowed to the audience and hugged, smiling — with his admirable Empty smile — the two boys who were closest. Then he went out amid the roar of applause of the many who had insulted him and the few who were grateful to him for having provoked this small and atrocious game of truth.

The helpless had disarmed the fiery crowds. And I believe that at that moment he won the admiration of someone who until recently had looked at him, foolishly, as an enemy. Perhaps only then did we realize that everything had taken place as in Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel: the doors were open, but until the end no one was able to leave (and it would have been a reasonable reaction in front of such a show of maddening monotony). Hundreds and hundreds of people had watched, hypnotized, that man alone sitting at his table, the insults had crossed him like a transparent sheet, they had retraced their steps and had illustrated to everyone what they deeply desired: sad things, mostly.

However, those spectators did not want the thin breath of Emptiness that accompanies Cage: their minds were too full of verbal debris for them to recognize that they were faced with something that perhaps they had never met: a person completely devoid of hostility towards them, because he is free of rancor in general.

Roberto Calasso. 1977. “John Cage o il piacere del Vuoto.” La follia che viene dalle Ninfe,. Milan, Adelphi (1977), 2005.   Pp. 71-76.

Originally published in Panorama, December 30, 1977.

Read more reports of this infamous event here.

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