John Cage 1912-1992
"American Masters" John Cage: I Have Nothing to Say and I Am Saying It (1990)
Vivian Perlis (writer)
TV Series: "American Masters" (1983)
Original Air Date: 17 September 1990
Country: UK
55 min

John Cage On His Way With Sound
New York Times
Published: September 17, 1990

Perhaps the most striking thing about John Cage is his ability to reduce just about anyone in his vicinity to a gentle smile. For more than 50 years, the distinguished, influential and often provocative composer has been challenging audiences with his work and his ideas. All the while, his primary goal has been disarmingly simple. Mr. Cage is interested, as he puts it, in ''increasing one's enjoyment of life, to become more open.''

The man and his philosophy are delineated skillfully and with warm admiration in ''John Cage: I Have Nothing To Say And I'm Am Saying It,'' a film directed by Allan Miller of the Music Project for Television. Vivian Perlis is the writer. The hourlong documentary, being presented as part of the ''American Masters'' series, can be seen at 9 tonight on Channel 13.

Mr. Cage, who was born in Los Angeles in 1912, became a student of the composer Arnold Schoenberg. The pupil soon realized he had absolutely no feeling for harmony.

Schoenberg was not encouraging: ''You'll come to a wall. You won't be able to get through.''

Mr. Cage was unfazed. ''Well, I'll bang my head against that wall,'' he said.

He then went on to defy most of the standard notions concerning serious music. He experimented with theories of chance. For Mr. Cage, one sound, or noise, was as useful as another. Is the sound of a moving truck musical, he says, then adds with characteristic impishness, ''Which is more musical, a truck passing by a factory or a truck passing by a music school?''

Using a format that is less chronological than thematic, the documentary homes in on the most important aspects of Mr. Cage's career, most notably his longtime collaboration with the choreographer Merce Cunninham. The two men are seen working together and their are clips from several dances, demonstrating how the music and the choreography proceed independently of each other.

Mr. Cunningham says two things are actually happening, ''not necessarily connected or disconnected.'' Meanwhile, amplifying everything from the plucking of cactus to bird-calls for his scores, Mr. Cage says he finds all noises ''as useful to new music as the so-called musical tones, for the simple reason that they are sounds.''

Several of Mr. Cage's compositions are sampled in performance. One work, described as central, is performed nearly in full (for some reason there is a slight cut). This is the famous 1952 piece ''Four Minutes and 33 Seconds.''

That's precisely how long the pianist, in this instance David Tudor, sits at a piano reading the score but never playing a note, leaving the audience to listen to the room's ambient sounds.

During the program, Jack Rockwell, a music critic for The New York Times, says, ''What Cage is doing is letting the listener contemplate art as life.''

And that is the point of Mr. Cage's art and life. The writer Calvin Tomkins says the composer is really a missionary, eager for us to be artists and wake up to the world around us. The performance artist Laurie Anderson notes how he is always encouraging others ''to just see what's right in front of them.''

This consistently insightful film leaves Mr. Cage in a country setting looking for mushrooms under a bed of autumn leaves.

''Our intention,'' he says softly, ''is to affirm this life.'' Here's to gentle smiles all around.