I think that one “mistake” John Cage and many others have made and continue to make is in the way in which they focus on finding what they consider to be, in the manner of Zen teaching, a path toward the simplification of sound-composition and production. As I understand it they see such simplification as a new movement of directness, as a means of fighting the obfuscating chaos of standard harmonic systems. And as I interpret it (primarily, but not only, by way Kay Larson’s recent and excellent book, Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists), Cage rejected harmony as a distraction from real life, as the method by which typical musical composition had pulled away from human centers of being, meaning and natural consciousness. Cage, from what I have read, disliked even jazz improvisation as being too predictably predicated on tonal schemes and systems of scales and triads; he thought pure sound, stripped of harmonic encumbrance, brought music closer to life (something with which I would conditionally agree), particularly when the creation of such was organized as a series of questions rather than as finalized answers.
Yes, music (and all art) should ask new questions; but the problem I see with Cage (and with a number of non-vernacular composers from his generation who seemed to continually be seeking new, neo- American, forms) was his near complete blindness to the African American grain of American sound, and to the musical accomplishments of thousands of obscure yet very visible folk. Those things which he found to be too densely domineering in classical music as well as in vernacular and popular song and jazz -triadic harmonic clusters, the near-irresistible force of post-African tonal and rhythmic gravity, the clashing blue tones of the Americanized African Diaspora, the bursts of ad hoc polytonality and internalized dissonance in such diverse improvisers as Charlie Parker, Lennie Tristano, Thelonius Monk Bud Powell – all effectively contradict his sense that harmony was something imposed from outside of nature, as a restrictive intellectual covenant coercively organized to deny natural and ego-less sound and tonal resolution. Not to mention Cage’s deluded sense that he was, by, initially, emphasizing spontaneously-composed percussion works, acting in some kind of revolutionary manner. African American performers had been spontaneously composing (it’s called improvisation, see above), using both drums and tempered-scale instruments in percussive ways, for hundreds of years before he came up with the idea.
And why must one accept nature as being, in its most profound and Zen-like state, orderly and focused in the way that quiet and solitude are orderly and focused? The sound of, for only one example, African American storefront gospel singing, is a richly creative, liberating chaos of scale and chord, a paradoxically triadic expression of modal gravity, I would say – as is much of the blues, hillbilly music, folk and classic ragtime, quartet singing, jazz, rhythm and blues, and rock and roll (to name only a few of American pop’s aural artifacts ). Such things are as chaotic as life, as disorderly yet self-preserving as the unconscious, as conflicting as not only the mind but the American system of race, politics, and economics. There is no way, for many of us who play and compose, around those things. Not to mention that the African-American grain that I mentioned previously so perfectly, in its Progressive Age flourish, predicted the modernist ideal of new levels of post-rational consciousness – especially as reflected in the infernal racial conflicts of the 19th and 20th centuries, the battle between white supremacy and black form, the legal, racial, social and psychological battles that fused master and slave in ways that have bound them together, inextricably, ever since. African American expression is nothing if not a canny fusion of the practical and the impenetrable, of the black and of the black as understood by the white. Something which Cage should and could have recognized.
The problem with Cage and with occasional-generations of musicians who have followed him is that music for many of them has become a form of rhetoric – an ironic turn of events, in which deeply intellectual explanation of method and meaning replaces action and development. Talk has become more important than creative activity (otherwise why would I be writing this?); which is not altogether foreign to Cage’s intent, as he was , more than anything else, a great and effective teacher. So was that really his point? To abandon the old ways of so-called personal artistic development as being outmoded and self-destructively and egotistically elitist, in favor of constant and un-ending query? If so, and given my own propensity for questioning everything and anything, than maybe any criticism I make vis a ve his methods and results is completely and ironically irrelevant. And if that’s so, than John Cage has succeeded in doing that which not just every artist but nearly every human being has always wanted to do, which is to make themselves immune from critics and criticism. In which case, you may disregard all of the above.