The Natural

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John Cage




The Natural by Marjorie Perloff

Cage, so long associated with the New York avant-garde, now strikes me as quintessentially Californian, and more specifically, Angeleno.

November 2nd, 2011 reset - +

IN 1961, WESLEYAN UNIVERSTIY PRESS published a set of "Lectures and Writings" by John Cage called, simply, Silence. "It's the book I've reread most often in my life," writes the composer-critic Kyle Gann in his illuminating foreword to the 50th anniversary edition. I know exactly what Gann means: With each rereading, Silence seems as charming and challenging as ever, but also somehow different — not quite what we thought it was. In the sixties, it was Cage's "scandalous" ideas that were most influential: his rejection of melody and harmony (indeed, all traditional elements of music) and his declaration that "there is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time," with its corollary that all sounds we hear must be understood as equal. "Wherever we are," we read in the book's first essay, "what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating." The "very life we're living" is "so excellent once one gets one's mind and one's desires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord." Sunny and serene, Cage was known as the composer who introduced chance operations generated by the I-Ching into music, and, soon enough, into poetry as well.


Fifty years later, and almost two decades after Cage's death, we know very well that he did not let life "act of its own accord." There is, to the contrary, a distinctively Cagean musical sound (now known primarily from recordings), just as Cage's essays, lectures, and poetic texts are immediately recognizable as no one else's. Aesthetic arguments and aphorisms, as he conceived of them, are not philosophical nuggets to be taken as essential truths, but provocations designed to force people to think. (After all, most of his "theorems" are formulated as questions; Part III of "Composition as Process" for example, has 11 pages of them.)

As for the little Zen stories scattered throughout Silence, they no longer strike me as sunny and serene; on the contrary, some are downright sinister. And the book's structure, which I once took to be intentionally anarchic — its parts presented in no particular order — now impresses me by its careful construction. To say Silence was ahead of its time is thus not quite right: more properly speaking, Cage's mix of manifesto and commonplace book, typographical experiment and tall tale, diary and aesthetic theory, is one that perpetually confounds its time, whatever the time may be that you happen to pick it up.

Two other features of Silence not much talked about at the time of its original publication now seem quite prominent: First, as Gann notes, Cage was not just a composer who also happened to write prose on the side but a "brilliant writer, with a distinctively elegant style and a comic delight in paradoxes." Second, Cage, so long associated with the New York avant-garde, now strikes me as quintessentially Californian, and more specifically, Angeleno, in that his cheerful disrespect for the canon of classical music went hand in hand with a fascination for the European avant-garde.

Born September 5, 1912 in downtown L.A. (the centenary will be celebrated next year), he graduated as valedictorian from Los Angeles High School on Olympic Boulevard and attended Pomona College before dropping out to study art and architecture in Europe. Back in L.A. in 1931 — the depth of the Depression — he made a living lecturing on the arts to housewives in Santa Monica, and studied with Henry Cowell and Arnold Schoenberg. Among Cage's first performed works was the score for a water ballet performed by the Synchronized Swimming club at UCLA.

In the early forties, Cage and his lifetime companion, the choreographer Merce Cunningham (whom he met at the Cornish School of Arts in Seattle), moved to New York, which became the new permanent base for their global travel. But Silence, like Cage's later compositions, bears testimony everywhere to those early, formative years in Los Angeles, where the rules for artists were far less rigid than on the East Coast, even as the influence of the Austro-German émigrés who moved there to escape Nazi persecution was at its height. Cage's circle, as Thomas S. Hines describes in his excellent essay, "Then not yet Cage: The Los Angeles Years, 1912-38," included architects R. M. Schindler and Richard Neutra, art patron Galka Scheyer, who disseminated the work of the "Blue Four" painters (Kandinsky, Klee, Feininger, and Jawelensky), and filmmaker Oskar Fischinger. Even the future composer's first music teacher, Richard Buhlig, had studied in Vienna.

A second major influence on Cage — and one that has received more attention — was Eastern philosophy, especially Zen, which he encountered only after taking up residence in New York. (There is a valuable overview essay on the subject by David W. Patterson in the MIT collection discussed below.) But despite all the talk of Suzuki, Sri Ramakrishna, and various Zen masters, my own sense is that the aesthetic put forward in Silence is largely a fusion of transplanted European avant-gardism and a freewheeling Californian spirit of experimentation, at once utopian and — here perhaps we see the influence of Cage's Methodist upbringing — moralistic. In his foreword to Silence, Cage defines the "lecture" as itself a transformational event, a kind of poetry:


When M. C. Richards asked me why I didn't one day give a conventional informative lecture, adding that that would be the most shocking thing I could do, I said, "I don't give these lectures to surprise people, but out of a need for poetry."

As I see it, poetry is not prose because poetry is in one way or another formalized. It is not poetry by reason of its content or ambiguity but by reason of its allowing musical elements (time, sound) to be introduced into the world of words.


The definition of poetry as something involving "musical elements," as some form of repetition and number, is perfectly traditional. But to conceive of a lecture as a poem is not conventional at all: A lecture, after all, is, by definition, an expository form designed to transmit content. It is, moreover, a one-way discourse that involves a speaker addressing an audience that is a separate entity — and a silent one. Despite their emphasis on "unimpededness and interpenetration," on the indeterminate, the fluid, the decentered, the non-hierarchical, Cage's lectures rely heavily on what traditional rhetoricians called "the ethical argument": the presentation of a self both authoritative and trustworthy that can win over its audience.

The transfer of what was originally talk to the written page creates further demands. Throughout Silence, Cage uses typeface and spatial design to make his points, as when he opens the first piece in the book, "The Future of Music: Credo," with a capitalized sentence that is suspended until after Cage has inserted an indented paragraph of "normal" text:


I BELIEVE THAT THE USE OF NOISE

                                                                     Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating. The sound of a truck at fifty miles per hour. Static between the stations. Rain. We want to capture and control these sounds, to use them not as sound effects but as musical instruments. Every film studio has a library of "sound effects" recorded on film. With a film phonograph it is now possible to control the amplitude and frequency of any of these sounds and to give to it rhythms within or beyond the reach of the imagination. Given four film phonographs, we can compose and perform a quartet for explosive motor, wind, heartbeat, and landslide.

                                                                                                     TO MAKE MUSIC


"The Future of Music" continues in this dialectic mode for the rest of the essay, the irony being that the capitalized, suspended sentences enclose others that make the same point: that "electrical instruments" will soon "MAKE AVAILABLE FOR MUSICAL PURPOSES ANY AND ALL SOUNDS THAT CAN BE HEARD, PHOTOELECTRIC, FILM, AND MECHANICAL MEDIUMS FOR THE SYNTHETIC PRODUCTION OF MUSIC." Although the content is repetitive, the visual layout creates a new, more nuanced reading experience: "THE PRINCIPLE OF FORM," as Cage puts it, "WILL BE OUR ONLY CONSTANT CONNECTION WITH THE PAST."

Form, for Cage, meant generic and tonal juxtaposition, in the manner of cinematic montage. Grand proclamations, like the capitalized sections of the lecture reproduced above, are regularly undercut by narrative in the form of short stories based on the Zen koan. Here is the first one, following "The Future of Music: Credo":


It was a Wednesday. I was in the sixth grade. I overheard Dad saying to Mother, "Get ready: we're going to New Zealand Saturday." I got ready. I read everything I could find in the school library about New Zealand. Saturday came. Nothing happened. The project was not even mentioned, that day or any succeeding day.


When I first encountered this story, I was impressed with how the simple, matter-of-fact anecdote becomes, what John Ashbery once called, with reference to Gertrude Stein, an "open field of narrative possibilities." In my 1981 book, The Poetics of Indeterminacy, I wrote:


Perhaps the child must learn that his father's statements are not to be taken literally, that it is just a manner of speaking. On the other hand, perhaps the child is right: people should mean what they say ... [Or] is the father perhaps speaking in code, referring to a secret between himself and his wife? Does "going to New Zealand" mean making love?


What I didn't note, however — and this is how Silence seems different in the more dystopian world of the present — is that, no matter how we construe the "facts" in question, there is something very sad about Cage's little revelation. Communication with his parents seems minimal, and young John, an only child, never seems to know what they are thinking. Story after story spells out this child's isolation in a world of slightly menacing adults:


Once when I was a child in Los Angeles I went downtown on the streetcar. It was such a hot day that, when I got out of the streetcar, the tar on the pavement stuck to my feet. (I was barefoot.) Getting to the sidewalk, I found it so hot that I had to run to keep from blistering my feet. I went into a five and dime to get a root beer. When I came to the counter where it was sold from a large barrel and asked for some, a man standing on the counter high above me said, "Wait, I'm putting in the syrup and it'll be a few minutes." As he was putting in the last can, he missed and spilled the sticky syrup all over me. To make me feel better, he offered a free root beer. I said, "No, thank you."


Read in the context of these stories, a bravura piece like "Lecture on Nothing" (1959), with its carefully worked out rhythmic structure, takes on a different aura. The refrain line, "I am here / and there is nothing to say / and I am saying it / and it is poetry" underscores an insistence onindependence, hard-won by the young boy who refused that consolation can of root beer. It is this independence that consistently produces surprise, and makes it impossible to pigeonhole Cage:


One day while I was composing, the telephone rang. A lady's voice said, "Is this John Cage, the percussion composer? I said, "Yes." She said, "This is the J. Walter Thompson Company." I didn't know what that was, but she explained that their business was advertising. She said, "Hold on. One of our directors wants to speak to you." During a pause my mind went back to my composition. Then suddenly a man's voice said, "Mr. Cage, are you willing to prostitute your art?" I said, "Yes." He said, "Well, bring us some samples Friday at two." I did. After hearing a few recordings, one of the directors said to me, "Wait a minute." Then seven directors formed what looked like a football huddle. From this one of them finally emerged, came over to me, and said, "You're too good for us. We're going to save you for Robinson Crusoe."


I've read this story many times, and I'm always startled by the composer's immediate and unqualified response of "Yes" to the question of prostituting his art. And then comes the second twist: However willing Cage may be to sell his work out, he can't because of its inherent difficulty and difference. Indeed, and this is, I think, the subtext of Silence: Cage, the tireless experimenter and guru of "purposeless play," was a conscious aesthete.

One can see this aesthetic at work especially in the essays on composers and artists — here Erik Satie and Robert Rauschenberg in Silence, and, in the 1967 volume A Year from Monday, Schoenberg and Jasper Johns. "On Robert Rauschenberg" (1961) anticipates much of the conceptual writing prominent today: It is made up largely of citations from Rauschenberg's own works and paraphrases of conversations or overheard remarks. In order to write this ekphrastic composition, Cage immerses himself completely in Rauschenberg's work; he knows the early "combine" paintings inside and out:


The goat. No weeds. Virtuosity with ease. Does his head have a bed in it? Beauty. His hands and his feet, fingers and toes long-jointed, are astonishing. They certify his work. And the signature is nowhere to be seen. The paintings were thrown into the river after the exhibition. What is the nature of Art when it reaches the Sea?


The reference is to Rauschenberg's famous assemblage Monogram (1959), which consists of an unlikely set of materials: a stuffed angora goat, a tire, a police barrier, the heel of a shoe, a tennis ball, and paint. There are "no weeds" because this goat is taken out of its natural habitat and turned into an urban artifact. "Beauty," as Cage puts it in the next paragraph, "is now underfoot wherever we take the trouble to look." In recreating the collaborative spirit of the Cage-Rauschenberg-Johns circle, he writes, "I know he put the paint on the tires. And he unrolled the paper on the city street. But which of us drove the car?"

Throughout this essay — more properly a prose poem — Cage ventriloquizes Rauschenberg's thoughts and motives, even as he remains slightly aloof, just outside the picture frame:


The blind can see again. Blind to what he has seen so that seeing this time is as though first seeing. How is it that one experiences this, for example, with the two Eisenhower pictures which for all intents and purposes are the same? (A duplication containing duplications.) Everything is so much the same, one becomes acutely aware of the differences, and quickly ... Out of seeing, do I move into poetry? And is this a poetry in which Eisenhower could have disappeared and the Mona Lisa taken his place? I think so but I do not see so.


Here Cage is speculating on the relationship of Rauschenberg to the artist who came to mean the most to Cage himself: Marcel Duchamp. Factum I and II of 1957 each have two images of Eisenhower placed near the top, seemingly — but not quite — the same. These paintings, which juxtapose other near-duplications, are essentially conceptual works. But, Cage is saying, they are not quite readymades like Duchamp's mustached Mona Lisa either. "One becomes acutely aware of the differences, and quickly." The contemplation of difference leads to a consideration of Rauschenberg's all-black and all-white paintings, which embody Cage's own axiom that there is no such thing as an empty space. "Left to myself," he concludes, "I would be perfectly contented with black pictures, provided Rauschenberg had painted them."

¤


The careful dissection of Rauschenberg's work testifies to the paradox at the heart of Cage's aesthetic: "Permission granted, but not to do whatever you want." Or again, "One does not then make just any experiment but does what must be done. ... One does something else. What else?" These words, later echoed by Jasper Johns ("Take a canvas. Do something to it. Do something else to it.") have often been misunderstood. The latest collection of essays on Cage's work, for MIT's October Files series, is a case in point. In an essay called "Chance and Ideology," originally published in 1967, the German music critic Konrad Boehmer produced a blistering Adornoan critique of Cage's use of chance operations, declaring that "nothing in Cage's work lends itself to analysis — chance producing nothing that can sustain musical scrutiny." Indeed: "The confusion between nature as the purely objective, and freedom, which in Cage's music assumes the shape of sheer arbitrariness, positions this author, at least according to his philosophy, in the proximity of those social ideologies" that come dangerously close, Boehmer warned, to Fascism.

This critique of what is taken to be Cagean indeterminacy and lack of principle is still common enough today, but it is based on a small subset of the composer's statements, taken out of context. Similar criticism has been leveled at Duchamp, who is often declared to have held the view that anyone can be an artist, that "anything goes." In the case of both artists, of course, nothing could be further from the truth. To study Cage's writings or analyze his chance-generated works is to learn that he was always in control. His talk of performance variations shouldn't blind us to the fact that his compositions and their performances were closely monitored by the composer-artist who, in one instance, forced the printer to shred the first copies of his 1983 collection X: Writings '79-82 because the serial images of the window that recurred throughout were judged by Cage to be too gray. Far from "confus[ing]" nature with freedom, Cage imposed elaborate sets of constraints and rules on everything he did. "Nature" was never good enough for him.

Julia Robinson, the editor of John Cage, seems to have chosen her contributors with an eye to attacking the soft spots of Cagean ideology. Writing in 1981, the filmmaker and choreographer Yvonne Rainer admits how much she learned from Cage, but takes issue with the famous sound bite about "waking up to the very life we're living which is so excellent once one gets one's mind and one's desires out of its way." To that she says, "Let's not come down too heavily on the goofy naiveté of such an utterance." The problem, Rainer posits, is that the avant-garde critical establishment has not taken Cage seriously enough to produce a meaningful critique, and that Marxist and Freudian theory would help us draw out "the implications of the Cagean abdication of principles for assigning importance and significance."

This is precisely what the volume goes on to do. Robinson herself, in her essay "John Cage and Investiture: Unmanning the System," attempts a Foucaultian analysis of Cage's career choices, implying throughout that the apparently gentle Cage was on an extended power trip. Why, for example, in his music for Cunningham's dance pieces, did he insist on the "necessity of separating the music and the dance even as they happened simultaneously"? Most critics have regarded this particular innovation on the part of Cage and Cunningham as one of their central contributions to 20th century dance: the liberation of music from its traditional role as accompanist in favor of tension and juxtaposition. But Robinson cynically views this separation as wholly strategic, a ploy on Cage's part to avoid "spend[ing] his composing career being dictated to by choreography."

Anyone familiar with the Cage-Cunningham collaboration and its extraordinary mutual respect and admiration will recognize how wrongheaded such thinking is. As we know from Carolyn Brown's memoir of Cunningham's troupe, the dancers competed with one another; no doubt Cage was often competitive with other composers, especially early in his career. But Robinson's argument that the separation of music and dance was Cage's attempt to outshine the choreographer, his beloved lifelong partner, seems curiously tone-deaf.

Or again, Robinson writes of Cage's need, in the 1940s, to


[come] to terms with his outsider position in an oppressively heteronormative society as he divorced his wife [Xenia] and committed to a relationship with Cunningham. The challenge of functioning outside the sanctioned symbolic order of the patriarchal American society of the 1940s cannot but have affected his urgent ongoing efforts to "organize" his position professionally.


Cage's scheme, if Robinson is to be believed, was to give up the percussion he had used to launch his career and move on to the "prepared piano ... the emblematic invention that would define him as an original / originating figure." But surely, if Cage had really been choosing his media and modes of production so as to get ahead, there would have been easier ways to do it. As it was, like the Picasso of Gertrude Stein's famous portrait, Cage (who, incidentally, had had relationships with men long before he married Xenia) "was always working." His was not a struggle against anything as abstract or clichéd as "an oppressively heteronormative society" or "the sanctioned symbolic order" of patriarchy. Rather — and, one might say, more ambitiously, — he seemed to want nothing less than to transform the arts of his time. In this endeavor, there is now no doubt that he succeeded.

The best essays in the MIT collection — Branden W. Joseph's on Cage's complex and compromised relation to Modernist glass architecture, and Liz Kotz's detailed and informative study of the derivation of Fluxus event scores from Cagean aesthetic — are important critical studies. But given that these and three of the remaining essays (i.e., five out of eight) are reprints from the journal October and hence readily available, the collection seems oddly redundant, its 200-plus pages less useful than Gann's masterful, revisionary, 28-page foreword to the anniversary edition of Silence.

To reread Silence today is to see how complex, playful, but also deeply ironic Cage's seemingly upbeat and casual aesthetic really was. "Given the impact Silence had not only in music but in the other arts," writes Gann, "it is odd to note how musically technical some of the articles are." This is an important point: Cage's obsession with the minute particulars of time intervals and pitch definition was such that, two decades after his death, the much fabled "freedom" of performing his pieces can be seen as largely illusory. Like such Cunningham pieces as Oceans orWalkaround Time, now recreated by the soon-to-disband Cunningham Dance Company with all the care and research usually reserved for museum pieces, Cage's musical compositions turn out to be astonishingly designed. As Cage put it, citing his friend and fellow composer Morton Feldman, "Now that things are so simple, there's so much to do."

 

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