Hearing John Cage: An Approach to Introducing Ambient Music

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Brian Current, Music

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2000

John Cage (1912–1992) presents an attractive challenge to a music GSI teaching a class of non-majors. As much an idea man as a pen-on-paper composer, Cage proposed through his writings and artistic approach that all sound, whether deliberate or accidental, whether inside or outside of the concert hall, is in fact a macro-series of musical events. In effect, according to this way of thinking, all ambient sound is music. Considering the way most of us have been brought up to think about music, this is a significant imaginative leap as well as an important door to open for those who might not come across the idea elsewhere.

It began on a whim during one particular session: while the students were busily at work on an unrelated quiz, I took dictation from the auditory environment in the classroom. That is, I wrote down (as one might write down music) the inadvertent sounds made by the students as they wrote the test. This is a sound world familiar to all teachers: the students, suddenly resolute, are anxiously scribbling away and producing involuntary sounds: sighs, grunts, low moans, inhalations, ruffling, pencil-clicks and chair-squeaks. Incorporating the low hum of the ventilation system, I compiled the sounds into a neat musical score by drawing the sounds as they occurred over a twenty-second time span. I then titled my piece “Twenty Seconds of Music 20A Taking a Quiz.”

The following week, at a strategic point in a discussion on Cage’s works and ideas, we listened as a class to the ambient sounds surrounding us in the room. As always, the variety and richness of these sounds was surprising. I asked them: “Is this music?” Most said no. I then handed out photocopies of my score discussed above and posed my question again. At this point, there was some discussion: now that there was musical intent in my creating a piece, about one third of the room felt that these sounds were in fact “music.” Finally, we recreated the ambient sounds I recorded by “performing” the piece as a class. Dividing the parts up as one would for a choir, we assigned some students as the “chair-squeakers,” some as the “sighers,” some as the “inhalers,” and one (who had been the student who had clicked his mechanical pencil during the actual dictation) as the “pencil-clicker.” With myself as conductor, we proceeded to perform our twenty seconds of music, producing a sound world not unlike that which I had heard the week before. Posing the question again: “Is this music?,” I was surprised to find that two thirds of the class now believed these sounds to be a musical composition, mostly due to the fact that we were creating them deliberately. An interesting discussion then followed concerning the role of intention in art, and the fact that we changed our minds over the course of the class regarding material that was essentially the same throughout.

The results of our discussion returned to me in the form of an assignment handed in two weeks after our session. Their instructions were to find somewhere outdoors with interesting ambient sound, to notate and describe these sounds as accurately as possible and to ask themselves in an brief essay whether or not they felt that these sounds were music and why. The papers were unexpectedly creative, ranging from graphic scores of sounds found on hiking trails to vivid descriptions of sounds occurring within a freeway tunnel at rush hour. One student fastened a tape recorder to the bottom of her Volkswagen and drove down Telegraph. Many thought that their discovered soundscapes were true musical compositions while others adamantly did not. However, nearly all advanced the idea that they now held a new awareness towards the ambient sound that is always around us, and would be a more attentive audience towards this music in the future.