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Before, Beyond, Beware: Books on Noise and Music

In the words of biographer Richard Kostelanetz, John Cage (no relation) was so full of original ideas that he begged to be misunderstood. He did for music what Duchamp and Warhol did for art: His work questioned and critiqued the establishment in which it existed. Infuriating to many, inspirational to others, his place in the history of art, music, and other creative acts is undeniable. As Kostelanetz (1989) wrote, “Even though these ideas usually attract more comment than commentary, more rejection than reflection, he is, to an increasingly common opinion, clearly among the dozen seminal figures in the arts today” (p. 47). Ironically, his most famous composition 4’33” consists of no written music or planned sound whatsoever: It’s four and a half minutes of silence.

Excerpt from John Cage’s “Water Music” circa 1952.

As a matter of course, there can be never be real silence in human endeavor, which was Cage’s whole point (To wit, one of the many recent books on Cage and his work states it plainly in its title: No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage’s 4’33” by Kyle Gann; Yale University Press, 2010). The idea that any sound — be it ambient, noisy, environmental, whatever — can be music is the core of Cage’s aesthetic belief. As he wrote in Silence (1961), “I believe that the use of noise to make music will continue and increase until we reach a music produced through the aid of electrical instruments which will make available for musical purposes any and all sounds that can be heard” (p. 3-4). We’ve seen this play out in everything from turntables and tape machines to Moog synthesizers and laptops. Musical rules create similarity. Serendipity comes from difference. For Cage, making music was a matter of making music strange.

John Cage: Music, Philosophy, and Intention, 1933-1950 edited by David W. Patterson (Routlege, 2002) is the only book out that concentrates on Cage’s early career, and it includes contributions from an international collection of art and musicology scholars. Insights into his early years are rare, and this book is full of them, insisting correctly that revisiting his early years proffers up a deeper understanding of his later work and philosophy. For instance, his time in my adopted home of Seattle marked an oft overlooked turning point. Cage lamented the move to an increasingly urban society until he learned to listen to it — as music. This transition was paramount to his abandoning traditional composition, his shift to a percussive composition style, and his move squarely into the avant-garde.

There has been much writing about John Cage’s music, by him and by others. For the uninitiated, the editor’s introduction does a nice job not only of placing this book in its historical context but also of providing an overview of the writings about and by John Cage.

Though his work was arguably as groundbreaking and influential as Cage’s, Iannis Xenakis is a lesser-known and written-about composer. Like Cage, he used strange maths in his compositions. His own book, Formalized Music: Thought and Mathematics in Composition (Pendragon, 1971), set out to, well, formalize his mathematical approach, and it illuminates much of his work in the process. In Xenakis: His Life in Music (Routledge, 2011), James Harley sets out to do the same. A composer himself, Harley studied with Xenakis and completed two compositions on the UPIC (Unité Polygogique Informatique de CEMAMu), Xenakis’ computer system “based on a graphic-design approach to synthesis” (p. x). This background obviously informs his writing, but his aim is to give the reader an entry point into Xenakis’ complex techniques and compositions, as well as his intellectual history and his contributions outside of music. I can’t claim to know if he succeeded — math and music both look like alien linguistics to me — but in its updated paperback from, Xenakis should help spread the word about Xenakis’ work and help secure his place in the history of experimental music.

Paul Hegarty’s book, Noise/Music: A History (Continuum, 2008), follows experimental music and noise from the aforementioned John Cage to Japanese noise artist Merzbow (who remixed a track from Xenakis’ Persopolis in 2002), illustrating the vast influence of the former, and if you already think progressive and experimental music is too nerdy for you, then Hegarty and Martin Halliwell’s new book, Beyond and Before: Progressive Rock Since the 1960s (Continuum, 2011), is not a book I would recommend. If you’re interested in an overly academic treatment of a selected history of prog rock, then this might work. I feel especially nerdy critiquing a book so nerdy (I have my twenty-sided die at the ready), but there are a few things about this text that need to be addressed.

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There are always differences of opinion as to what should be included or excluded in a book about a particular genre or subgenre, and the authors admittedly were not trying to be comprehensive; however, mentioning The Decemberists (in an already questionable chapter about folk) and completely omitting the mighty Mogwai is a glaring oversight and downright reprehensible in a book about progressive music, a book that also discusses Black Metal at length. And while I’m at it, what about Neurosis (one record is mentioned here in passing), Isis, Jesu, Godflesh, Pelican, and Cave In, as well as the many progressive Hip-hop acts (e.g., dälek, Anti-Pop Consortium, El-P, New Flesh for Old, DJ Spooky, New Kingdom, Techno Animal, et al.)? At least a brief discussion of prog-core and progressive Hip-hop seems appropriate. The authors’ close reading of prog’s nerdy bits and album art is not only chronically annoying but also regularly myopic, often leaving them blind to the bigger picture when it matters most.

Even if it misses some key trajectories and follows others too closely, Beyond and Before does a fine job of placing progressive rock in its historical context. Their discussions of the core artists of this movement (e.g., Pink Floyd, Genesis, Yes, King Crimson, Emerson Lake and Palmer, Rush, et al.) is solid as well. As I said, the authors weren’t trying to be comprehensive, they run skimpy on Brian Eno and David Bowie (giving Kate Bush as much space as the glam rock dual pillars; prog-pop stalwart Todd Rundgren doesn’t garner a mention at all), but their treatment of Peter Gabriel is worth mentioning. His work is discussed throughout the book, as it should be. He’s been active, innovative, and successful as long as anyone else associated with progressive music. Their inclusion of a chapter on the women of prog is as commendable as it is contemptible (when will female artists cease to be categorized as such and be considered in their own right?). Whereas neo-prog group Porcupine Tree finds a solid home in these pages, Hegarty and Halliwell seem hesitant to classify Radiohead as same, but spend a lot of ink discussing their work, deservedly so (who’s keeping the progressive torch burning brighter than those guys?).

Here’s John Cage performing “Water Walk” in January, 1960 on the TV show I’ve Got a Secret [runtime: 9:23]:


The peripheries of music are always sliding outward as the universe of sound continues to expand. If you’re bored with your current listening, follow Cage’s own advice that one shouldn’t listen to music that one no longer hears. Make music strange and find your limits. These books discuss a few of the major artists going postal with the envelope.


Cage, J. (1961). “The Future of Music: Credo.” In Silence: Lectures and Writings. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.

Gann, K. (2010) No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage’s 4’33″ . Newhaven, CT: Yale University Press.

Harley, J. (2011). Xenakis: His Life and Work. New York: Routledge.

Hegarty, P. (2008). Noise/Music: A History. New York: Continuum Books.

Hegarty, P. & Halliwell, M. (2011). Beyond and Before: Progressive Rock Since the 1960s. New York: Continuum Books.

Kostelanetz, R. (1989). On Innovative Musicians. New York: Limelight Editions.

Xenakis, I. (1971). Formalized Music: Thought and Mathematics in Composition. Oakland, CA: Pendragon.