The aesthetician Susan Sontag claims that Cage’s attempt to erase authorial intent, in one sense, allowed him to erase meaning altogether. This is also reflected in Cage’s writings:
“New music: new listening. Not an attemp to understand something that is being said, for if something were being said, the sounds would be given the shapes of words. ust attention to the activity of sounds.”
— Cage, Experimental Music: Doctrine, p. 10
But, I don’t believe this to be case. The cultural and historical context of Cage’s works show that they are trying to dissolve the distinction between art and sound. Such contexts allow sounds to refer to themselves, thereby giving them meaning and intentionality.
Plus, one could consider Heidegger’s argument that we do not hear pure sounds:
“What we first hear is never noises or complexes of sounds, but the creaking wagon, the motor-cycle. We hear the column on the march, the north wind, the woodpecker tapping, the fire crackling. It requires a very artificial and complicated frame of mind to hear a pure noise…Likewise, when we are explicitly hearing the discourse of another, we proximally understand what is said, or — to put it more exactly — we’re already with him, in advance alongside the entity which the discourse is about… Even in cases where the speech is indistinct or in a foreign language, what we proximally hear is unintelligible words, and not a multiplicity of tone-date.”
— Being and Time, 163
This means that even the sounds we encounter in ordinary life are never meaningless, pure sounds.
All in all, I admire Cage’s attempt to bring ordinary sounds to the forefront of Western music. I think he exemplifies Heidegger’s claim that art makes the conflict between World and Earth conspicuous. For Heidegger, World is the human environment in which we lead our lives. It includes our tools, houses, values, and so on; in other words, it is the habitat of Dasein. On the other hand, Earth is the natural setting of World; the ground on which it stands and the sources of raw materials for our artefacts. Through his illustration of ordinary sounds, Cage makes apparent the rift between World and Earth: musical sounds vs. pure noise. Interestingly, Cage’s take on this conflict uncovers a naked truth, i.e., the attempt to erase intentionality paves the way for a deeper unconcealment of intentionality and Dasein.
Being and Time, Martin Heidegger
The Origin of the Work of Art, Martin Heidegger
Cage and Philosophy, Noël Carroll