I Have Ears and Can Hear

john cage “attempts to let sounds be themselves in a space of time.”

Merce Cunningham and John Cage, 1963.

For “art” and “music,” when anthropocentric (involved in self-expression), seem trivial and lacking in urgency to me. We live in a world where there are things as well as people. Trees, stones, water, everything is expressive. I see this situation in which I impermanently live as a complex interpenetration of centers moving out in all directions without impasse. This is in accord with contemporary awarenesses of the operations of nature. I attempt to let sounds be themselves in a space of time.

There are those, and you are no doubt one of them, who find this activity on my part pointless. I do not object to being engaged in a purposeless activity. Like Debussy on a spring day I would prefer walking in the country’s fields and woods to going to a concert. Nevertheless, I do go to town now and then, and I do pass through Times Square, with which for many years I was unable to make my peace. With the help, however, of some American paintings, Bob Rauschenberg’s particularly, I can pass through Times Square without disgust.

And, similarly, having written radio music has enabled me to accept, not only the sounds I there encounter, but the television, radio and Muzak ones, which nearly constantly and everywhere offer themselves. Formerly, for me, they were a source of irritation. Now, they are just as lively as ever, but I have changed. I am more and more realizing, that is to say, that I have ears and can hear. My work is intended as a demonstration of this; you might call it an affirmation of life.

— John Cage, Letter to Paul Henry Lang, chief critic of the New York Herald Tribune, 22 May 1956 (quoted in Tim Page, “John Cage’s Gift to Us,” New York Review of Books, 27 October 2016)

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