Monday, March 23, 2009


Lectures & Writings

by John Cage

To have heard of John Cage is to have heard John Cage. The warm humor, the intelligence, of his most well known musical composition, “4’33,” is evident from its very title. “4’33” draws attention to the finitude, the temporal limit, of a composition, yet the piece itself privileges the boundless reaches of interactive, invasive sound. “4’33” suggests an endless unfurling of possibility, ironically sandwiched into roughly four and half actual minutes. In “Music Lover’s Field Companion,” a wry short essay written for a humor-centric issue of United States Lines Paris Review, Cage writes that he has “…spent many pleasant hours in the woods conducting performances of my silent piece, transcriptions, that is, for an audience of myself, since they were much longer than the popular length which I have had published.” In the essay, Cage lampoons himself and his work, as well as the tradition of musical composition itself. Among other things, Cage here calls attention to the unrestricted potentiality of sound freed from either meaning or purpose. He is talking about bestowing creative autonomy upon each listener. The lectures and essays compiled in Cage’s first collection, 1973’s “Silence,” bemusedly contest the stability of the established boundary – to push further into a country of both individualism and community.

John Cage writes, in his foreword to “Silence,” that his “…intention has been, often, to say what I had to say in a way that would exemplify it; that would, conceivably, permit the listener to experience what I had to say rather than just hear about it.” That doesn’t sound too far off from the aims Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein proposed for their seminal poetry journal, L=A=N=G=U=A=GE. The differences, of course, between Cage and the later Language poets, are in the details, though the affinities further help to map a terrain of American progressivism in 20th Century writing.

Cage’s music and writing is about doing something. Often the course leading to something is through nothing. Of course, Cage’s nothing is a complicated one. Or, it is actually very simple, but only if one perceives it as such. Nothing does not exclude thought, but neither does it predispose it. Well, what then does it do? Nothing allows the eventuality of something to occur – it lets what may happen, in due course. In “Music Lover’s Field Companion,” Cage stratifies the “performance” into three movements. He passes “…the first movement by attempting the identification of a mushroom which remained successfully unidentified. The second movement was extremely dramatic, beginning with the sounds of a buck and a doe leaping up to within ten feet of my rocky podium… The third movement was a return to the themes of the first, but with all those profound, so well-known alterations of world feeling associated by German traditions with the A-B-A.” This “performance” allows serendipity the import usually engendered intent. This is both a satiric joke and an aesthetic outline.

What is it? Something amidst nothing. Something because of nothing, and not in spite of it.

Writing in the American tradition has often investigated two utopian islets – the individual’s utopia as seen in Henry David Thoreau’s experiments in self-sufficiency, and the utopia of the community, incorporating Charles Olson’s conception of the polis as well as the futurist utopianism of philosopher Buckminster Fuller. John Cage consolidates both these tendencies, establishing a peninsula of rarified open allowance. John Cage follows in the tradition of the American Transcendentalists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau in that he proposes a secular imminence – “Before studying Zen, men are men and mountains are mountains. While studying Zen, things get confused. After studying Zen, men are men and mountains are mountains. No difference except that one is no longer attached…” Even Cage’s integration of Western thought and eastern Zen Buddhism as seen directly above finds precedent in Emerson and Thoreau’s investigation of eastern texts such as the Bhagad vita.

Cage envisions this integration as an actualization of America’s utopian promise - he cites Buckminster Fuller, who, “…in his three-hour lecture on the history of civilization, explains that men leaving Asia to go to Europe went against the wind and developed machines, ideas, and Occidental philosophies in accord with a struggle against nature; that, on the other hand, men leaving Asia to go to America went with the wind, put up a sail, and developed ideas and Oriental philosophies in accord with the acceptance of nature. These two tendencies met in America, producing a movement into the air, not bound to the past, traditions, or whatever.” There is the feeling here that America represents an ideal of allowance, one that is not necessary extant but exists in possibility. Cage is writing for an airwards movement as described by Buckminster Fuller; the nothing he so frequently evokes in his writings can often be equated with air, an invisibility which one must open up to acceptance of as such.

Acceptance is an essential component of Cage’s philosophy. It is an allowance of nature and chance. Cage writes “New music: new listening.” That is, a heightened observance informed by an inclusive total range – “…a totality of possibilities, no knowing action is commensurate, since the character of the knowledge acted upon prohibits all but some eventualities.” The purposeless mind Cage writes of is not an inert mind though; “the mind, though stripped of its right to control, is still present.” Giving up control frees the mind of the restrictive and bestows upon the mind an empowerment instead of the nightmare of power itself.

This relinquishment of control also ties in with Cage’s thoughts concerning boredom. Boredom is, with all its wavering diversion, a matter of experience. Cage writes for boredom, he proposes that “…the best way to get ideas is to do something boring. For instance, composing in such a way that the process of composing is boring induces ideas. They fly into one’s head like birds.” This reasoning finds its genesis for John Cage in Zen philosophy, which says “If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, try it for eight, sixteen, thirty-two, and so on. Eventually one discovers that it’s not boring at all but very interesting.” Experience here is a matter of perspective.

Boredom is a state in which one is more receptive to the serendipitous. That is not to deny the possibility of linearity in favor of the obscure – a more conventional progression may occur if that is what occurs, but there is no predisposition for such. Linearity has been stripped of its inert character as an object or thing because of the injection of an over-riding meaning. In addition, this insistence on boredom and whim deflates the concept of genius – one that had for too long exerted its befouling influence on Western thought. “Inspiration is not a special occasion.” Furthermore, “So somebody has talent? So what? Dime a dozen. And we’re overpopulated. Actually we have more food than we have people and more art.” Cage’s healthy skepticism points towards a utopian inclusiveness of individuals interacting more fully with their environment and each other. “Art” per se, the dead thing we see in museums, is not what we need, but rather a new way of listening, a new way of doing – of being in the most direct fashion.

Cage insists “No purposes. Sounds.” Furthermore, “it is not a question of having something to say,” but of simply allowing a saying to occur as it may… or may not, if that is the case. This allows a more direct connection to nature as such. Cage adds that he’s “…never been interested in symbolism; that I preferred just taking things as themselves, not as standing for other things.” He insists “We are rather doing something. The meaning of what we do is determined by each one who sees and hears it.” The primacy of the thing allows a more direct appraisal of the individual as well, whether that individual be composer, performer or audience.

How then, does the person as composer insert himself or herself into the composition? Should they even? Is it inevitability? Cage writes against the composer coercing sounds and words to stand for something other than what they are. A sound, a word, can become worn out through its mitigation as a vessel. Yet, for Cage art and life are only separated by collapsible walls of transparency and transfluence. This is not an argument for the egoism of a Robert Lowell, but an admittance of the person as such – the distinction here is the same as that proposed by Frank O’Hara in his manifesto, “Personism,” where O’Hara writes about putting “…the poem squarely between poet and the person…the poem is at last between two persons instead of two pages.” It should be noted, of course, that O’Hara coins the term “Personism” and not “Personalism” – admittance that poetry is written by people and susceptible to whim and human valiance. The stress is on persons in communication.

Compare O’Hara’s statements with that of Cage in “Silence.” He writes “Personality is a flimsy thing on which to build an art. (This does not mean that it should not enter into an art, for, indeed, that is what is meant by the word style.)” John Cage is a persistence throughout these essays, the preoccupations and ticks of his personality fall into place, though it is important to remember that they are never the point of his writings. Cage’s personality is unavoidable. But Cage does not write to put himself in the piece, it’s just what happened. The writings are a communication, they are in the act of doing. The reoccurring references to mushrooms, to John Cage’s new bedroom in which his window doesn’t open, and to social anecdotes all facilitate what O’Hara terms a person-to-person correspondence. Elsewhere, Cage talks within a contemporaneity in a manner reminiscent of Gertrude Stein, of the preeminence of “…THIS MOMENT/ NOW,/ THIS NOW MOMENT…” It is in this now moment Cage instigates a communion between empowered, equalized individuals. This correspondence is not reliant upon the linear, but in a Zen-derived constant now which reaches out in all directions simultaneously. Not one arrow moving out from a point, but a confluence of arrows shooting out in all directions – extended out to their farthest reach as well as extending ever further. Through a new awareness of sound as sound and the word as its own object, Cage opens the opportunity for communication between individuals as well as that between an individual and their own ecstatic surroundings. A utopia not of place, but person and moment – extant in the eternal of now.

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