Caged Heat

Caged Heat

A composer rebels against a lack of artistic boundaries.

Written By

Jennifer Higdon

Art and the Family: Higdon, with brother and dad.

“John Cage’s creations are not music!”
“Cage says that all sounds are music!”

This was an ongoing argument that I used to have with my dad…the constant attempt to define what constitutes music and what qualifies as noise. With me being the composer and my dad being from an earlier generation, one’s assumption would be that the first statement was uttered by a skeptical parent and the second from the experience of a composer. But alas, it was actually the reverse: my argument, held forth at a young age, was that Cage’s works did not qualify as music; dad had the opposite opinion, that everything qualifies.

From around the age of five, I had a chance to experience all sorts of art, although at the time, I certainly didn’t think much of it qualified as art. In the 1960s and early ’70s, my hometown of Atlanta was a bustling city of young creativity. That’s when Midtown (the neighborhood of the Woodruff Arts Center) used to be known as Hippietown. There were lots of experimental film and animation festivals going on in the city. The art school located at the Woodruff Center had “happenings”…those events that were the precursor of performance art. Put on by the art students and faculty members, the performers would be dressed in costumes (like black outfits with white feathers attached) and would be onstage with a film as a backdrop, moving objects around, speaking bizarre phrases that had no connection to anything. There probably was some sort of sonic background to all of this (maybe some form of electronic music; perhaps scratches on the soundtrack of the 16-millimeter film), but strangely enough I didn’t notice, because as a young mind, I was so distracted by how silly the adults seemed on stage that I wasn’t paying attention to the musical or Cage-ian sound world that enveloped these happenings.

During this time period, I got a large dose of a wild array of art in more forms than I probably cared to experience. My child-like mind needed a little more structure and clearer boundaries; meanwhile, the art students were looking to get back to a more child-like state. It was obvious that we needed opposite things in our art. One day, as we were exiting the Woodruff Art Center, I can remember my brother and I standing in front of a canvas that was either blank or painted completely white and whispering to each other, “How can this be art if I can do this?” (We both spent a lot of time looking at each other conspiratorially and wondering just what was it these adults were attempting to do…neither of us was very impressed.) I don’t know if it ran counter to my kindergarten teacher’s admonishment to fill empty pieces of paper with some form of scribbling, but having seen so much of this sort of thing at such a young age, I developed a need to have a little more form and control in what my six-year-old self was willing to call art.

This is where the Cage argument came in. The disagreement between my dad and I started many years later, when I was in high school and just getting started in music. My father had read some of Cage’s books and had found his writings to be a reflection of his own artistic philosophy. I’m sure all of my early exposure to experimentation made me define art a little differently, and thus the intense discussions. I will say that the arguments succeeded in making me think a lot about the fact that if you’re going to create art, you’d better think about what in that art is going to communicate, and to also consider the effectiveness for all levels of perusing (the question of how much experience, knowledge, or background someone needs in order to understand what a piece of art is trying to say).

The best lesson out of all this was that I needed, as a developing artist, to find my own boundaries in order to justify a creation…otherwise there would be no way to figure out what fit and what was too far out of context to make any sense. Without realizing it, I was showing all the signs of the influence of the experimentation of those Atlanta years. I needed boundaries in place because I needed to find a more definitive definition. It would take years of working on having those boundaries before I realized that recognizing them would also allow me to move beyond them and to create new ones.

Now, after 20 years of composing, I have a bigger picture in my head for viewing Cage. I especially appreciate the re-definition of sound that Cage made us consider. Without his composition style, I might have raised a lot more eyebrows when I altered the interior of a piano and used glasses and Chinese reflex bells in my work blue cathedral. I needed this expanded sound palette in order to create a certain sound that represented for me a passing of time and the sound of the heavens.

That leads me to admit that all sounds can be music. Every sound that we have developed out of something that was once considered an unorthodox sound. I’m sure the first string players who had to play behind the bridge were a bit scandalized by the idea.

Doesn’t a composer work to manipulate sound in the creation of music? Okay, so I can admit that Cage was right on many levels, even for me. But I also realize that I need a different level of organization of sound for it to be interesting for me. At different times in my development, I’ve needed different types of pieces from the classical canon to feed my soul and thirst for music, just as I’ve needed different types of rock and roll at various stages of my life. My dad, on the other hand, delights in going onto the Internet to find sound files of environmental sounds (he recently played me a recording he had made of insects in Japan along with downloaded sounds of all kinds of insects from around the world). The greater gain of our ongoing discussion has been realizing that there are all sorts of forms of art and that it takes different kinds of art to speak to the wide variety of people that populate this planet. We don’t all have the same background and needs, and we’re all very different, so just as we have lots of different languages for communicating, we need different forms of art to speak to our own individual experiences. Art is an expression of the human experience. Hmmmm…does this mean my dad was right about Cage all along? You bet!