The Influence

John Cage’s groundbreaking philosophical writings about sound are an abiding inspiration for percussionist Matthias Schack-Arnott. By Neha Kale.

Matthias Schack-Arnott

The cover of John Cage’s book Silence: Lectures and Writings, and Matthias Schack-Arnott (below).
The cover of John Cage’s book Silence: Lectures and Writings, and Matthias Schack-Arnott (below).
Credit: Marion Boyars Publishers (above), Gregory Lorenzutti (below)

For artist and composer Matthias Schack-Arnott, percussion is less about mastering a certain instrument than it is about embracing a sonic philosophy. He started out playing drums in his primary school rock band. Since then, Schack-Arnott, winner of the 2016 Melbourne Prize for Music, has moved seamlessly between forms and disciplines. He often collaborates with choreographers and designers. His work, which has been presented widely, from the Sydney Festival and The Unconformity to Arts House and the National Gallery of Victoria, exists in the space between live performance, installation and public art. 

When we speak, Schack-Arnott is preparing for The Cage Project, a collaboration with pianist Cédric Tiberghien, co-commissioned by Musica Viva Australia, Perth Festival, Adelaide Festival and the Naomi Milgrom Foundation. Schack-Arnott first came across Silence: Lectures and Writings – a 1961 book by the work’s inspiration, the experimental composer John Cage – as a young musician. He’s been reflecting on it ever since. 

Silence: Lectures and Writings explores the nature of music and the power of incorporating chance into what is perceived as an ordered art form. It’s also written with such clarity and wit. Why did it resonate with you?  

When you are studying percussion, one of the places you start is John Cage because his early works were so seminal for the medium. John Cage revolutionised the way we think about music. I first read Silence: Lectures and Writings in the library at the Victorian College of the Arts as an 18-year-old. As a young musician, it was very galvanising to come into contact with this radical philosophy of sound. He introduced a non-hierarchical, very open approach to sound. He places just as much emphasis on the incidental sounds of a car passing as the rarefied tone of a violin. That kind of expansiveness was very inspiring for me.

Classical music is so linked to status, especially in the European tradition. Cage was influenced a lot by Zen Buddhism. 

He was really one of the first to open the door to found objects in a music composition, at least in the Western world. He composed essentially what would be considered trash – the objects one might find in a car yard, the brake drums from cars, tin cans. He wrote for the radio as an instrument. He really opened the door to radical new ways of thinking about instrumentalism.

There’s a quality of attentiveness that comes when we listen to things that we are maybe not conditioned to listen to. 

For me Cage is still radical and is still relevant. Even just his expanded notion of listening feels more pertinent than ever. It speaks to the idea of listening during this time we find ourselves in. [There’s the] climate crisis, other big issues that we are tackling. The idea of listening to the non-human and expanding our notion of what’s worth listening to – how to be alongside the non-human. That is all there in his thinking but just in a different way. 

Silence opens with a poetic treatise on the role of noise in our everyday life. How did it make you rethink the relationship between music and noise? 

I think John Cage opened up my definition of music to include noise, to include incidental sound and to think about the act of music-making as being just as much about the act of listening. Also, to think about sounds having a life of their own, that as a maker you can draw a listener’s attention to. That’s really what I strive to do with my work. 

I like to create systems within which sound has its own ways of emerging and interacting with a space or an audience or me as a performer. It isn’t always about hearing a musical idea that was crafted by me – maybe it is about a dialogue between me as a performer and a sounding system. 

I love the idea of breaking that barrier between a performer and what they are performing.

A big part of my journey has been about rethinking that relationship between performer and instrument. In my case, the drum that is struck to elicit a particular rhythm. I’ve started thinking about my instrument as something that has a life of its own, that has its own ways of moving and sounding that I have to meet halfway.

Cage is known for really pioneering explorations of both indeterminacy and chance. Early on, he had the realisation that he wasn’t interested in composition as a form of expressing one’s own ideas and thoughts and emotions. He wanted to think about composition differently. I think he described it as creating a space for experiencing the divine. It was very much the opposite of expressing an interior emotional world. 

One of John Cage’s earliest musical innovations was his prepared piano. According to one story, it came about when a metal rod accidentally fell into his piano at a Seattle dance class. The composer rigged his instrument with bolts, screws and bits of rubber to invent a new kind of sound. How did Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano inform The Cage Project? 

Basically, it’s at the heart of the project. Cédric Tiberghien, the incredible French pianist, plays the piece really beautifully. It’s almost as if I have created this secondary layer of sound that floats above the piano that is gradually activated by his playing. It starts like a piano recital with him sitting at the piano and beginning the piece. And then this very large-scale kinetic mobile starts to move in synchronicity with the music. 

A prepared piano involves 45 prepared strings. So 45 of the strings of the piano have been modulated using screws and nuts and pieces of rubber. And in my response to the work, I had to add a secondary layer of preparation using 45 objects that are suspended from above. For each prepared note, there is an equivalent object in the kinetic mobile that has a little robotic striker on it that is activated during the course of the piece.

That sounds difficult to set up! 

I have gotten quite good at setting up the prepared piano – it takes a while: two or three hours. What’s interesting is that Cage wrote the Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano before he had his initial ideas about indeterminacy – and he described that piece as his gateway into indeterminacy. At first, he would be very exacting and demanding. But then, over time, because it is such a popular piece, he was able to come to performances and hear the piece [played by others]. With slightly different bolts, a slightly different position on the strings, it is a completely different sound and he started to embrace that. 

One of the things I find really inspiring about the prepared piano is, again, how it expands this notion of instrumentalism. Or letting the world in, so to speak – it is such a poetic example of that. You have the piano, which is so symbolic of Western music – a rarefied world that is so controlled. And then, in between the strings, you have the world of found objects making their way in. It’s so fascinating and beautiful. One of the goals for the piece is to give it a kind of physical life that extends out of the piano. But to do it so it feels in keeping with Cage’s particular way of thinking about sound in the world.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 29, 2022 as "Matthias Schack-Arnott".

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