Revisiting John Cage’s music for seed pods and cactus needles

‘Child of Tree,’ from 1975, speaks to today’s environmental crises

Composer John Cage, photographed in 1981. (AP Photo/Bob Child)
Composer John Cage, photographed in 1981. (AP Photo/Bob Child)Anonymous/Associated Press

Sunday, in Lincoln, the Sonic Liberation Players perform a concert steeped in the 20th-century American experimental tradition, including a work making literal music’s pastoral tradition: John Cage’s 1975 “Child of Tree,” which uses plants as instruments. It extends into the natural world Cage’s campaign to bring unorthodox sounds under a musical umbrella. But the work’s process and intent reveal Cage’s complicated and even contradictory regard of nature.

The score for “Child of Tree” consists of a set of often-cryptic instructions written out in Cage’s hand. The writing is messy, with numerous strikethroughs and emendations. For sounds, Cage specifies the amplified needles of a cactus, along with the rattling pod of a poinciana tree, but leaves the other eight plant-based instruments up to the player. The length of the piece is fixed — eight minutes — but the structure is randomly determined, different for every performance. The performer is directed to “clarify the time structure by means of the instruments.”


The score’s puzzles and the unfamiliarity of the instruments aim to create a genuinely spontaneous improvisation, divorced from the performer’s “taste and memory,” as Cage put it, free of psychological, societal, cultural habits. “I attempt to let sounds be themselves, for a space of time,” he once said. As Cage grew older, that goal increasingly was applied to nature itself. He envisioned amplifying a city park’s worth of plants, having children play them, then periodically shutting off the amplification to highlight the ambient sonic environment. He dreamed of “a piece of music performed by animals, and butterflies.” He thought that the kind of Zen-inspired strategies he used in his music could force people to perceive nature without their own presence.

But, of course, all of these works and ideas are contingent on human imagination, intervention, and participation. And the use of chance operations still imposes a human-fashioned framework. “Even though [Cage] was committed to freeing his nonhuman collaborators from human intention,” scholar Benjamin Piekut has written, “the world makes a much more uncertain contribution than the mere application of laws of chance.” Cage could limit human intention, but, perhaps, not fully harness natural agency.


Then again, current crises of environmental destruction and climate change are as much about the survival of humanity as that of nature. In that context, Cage’s nature pieces offer a source of possibility and clarity. To resolve the difficulties of “Child of Tree” is to practice resolve. It’s how Cage once justified his music’s technical and conceptual challenges: “We tend to think that the situation is hopeless and that it’s just impossible to do something,” he said. “So I think that this music, which is almost impossible, gives an instance of the practicality of the impossible.”


At Bemis Hall, 15 Bedford Road, Lincoln, Nov. 3. $15 at the door, sonicliberation.com

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.