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John Cage hard at work at Wesleyan University, 1960
Silence, (Middleton, CT: Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1961)
Since this is the first entry it what is bound to be a very scattered blog, I thought I would begin with the forwards to each of the main texts. At times explanatory and at others cursory, and they read like journal updates on the progress of Cage’s career. Peppered with anecdotes, politics, and textual explanations, Cage not only introduced his readers to the eclectic format, layout, and style of his prose, he introduced a persona, a lifestyle, and a philosophy – for better or for worse. So what better place to begin?
The famous music critic Alfred Frankenstein described Silence as “a story of how a change of mind came about,” a fitting description of the overall impression one gets in “reading through” Cage’s forewords. Skimming through the first few pages of each volume is an interesting act in itself, bringing about a fresh perspective on the progression of Cage’s thought through the years. His adulations, misgivings, and explanations are always personal and his language affective; it’s like receiving a personal update and a lecture at the same time.
Silence, (Middleton, CT, Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1961)
To Whom It May Concern:
The foreword to Silence introduced a generation of readers to John Cage. First published in 1961, I can imagine the effect that such a strange work would have had on early readers. I have heard many “first encounter” stories of artists and academics from this generation, and the layout alone would have been enough to confound early readers.
I find it interesting that, from the outset, Cage begins with the concept of exemplification. As he explains, “My 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.” At the same time, Cage admits that several essays were written “to be seen rather than heard,” and to me this presents an excellent dichotomy for examining the texts. As visual works, these volumes are often stunning, and there is a progression in his writings toward a model of exemplification that seems most mature in the final Norton Lectures. The concept of exemplification is something I hope to explore most in these ruminations, as I feel it gets to the heart of many facets of Cage’s program, especially surrounding the aesthetic of silence.
From a critical standpoint, Cage points directly to another element of Silence that I will be exploring in-depth: Neo-Dada, or Neo-Avant-Garde. Recent publications, such as the catalog to The Anarchy of Silence: John Cage and Experimental Art at MACBA (Museu D’Art Contemporani de Barcelona ), edited by Julia Robinson, and especially the work of art historian Branden Joseph, have taken on the subject in-depth. Much of this comes from critic Peter Bürger’s 1974 Theory of The Avant-Garde, where the activities of postwar artists like Cage, in particular the Dada elements of experimental music, are read from a materialist and social criticism that views their recapitulation of the prewar, or “historical” avant-garde strategies as an institutionalization of the societal critique that the original works were meant to attack, arguing that, “in a changed context, the resumption of avant-gardist intentions with the means of avant-gardism can no longer even have the limited effectiveness the historical avant-gardes achieved.”
Cage seems to have intuitively noticed this critique long before Burger’s English translation reached the halls of academia in the early eighties. He notes, “what was Dada in the 1920’s is now, with the exception of Marcel Duchamp, just art.” later noting that “Dada nowadays has in it a space, an emptiness, that it formerly lacked.” But at the same time, underlying this argument is a comparison with Dada and Zen, two elements that were the easiest to discern from Cage’s artistic program in the early 1960s, and perhaps the two ideas most misunderstood by critics and theorists. I am reminded of a now famous anecdote highlighted by Amy Beal of a confrontation between Theodor Adorno and David Tudor in 1961 at Darmstadt. As Christian Wolff recalled, Adorno’s relationship to the American avant-garde was marked by hostility and confusion. After a concert in which he and others “did our shenanigans with these tubes and stuff,” Adorno lectured for ten or fifteen minutes, looking to Tudor for a response. I will quote the whole passage from Beal:
It was…this constant difference between the European mode and mentality and an idea out of and an idea which would fit – which somehow could be derived from, needn’t repeat but could be derived from – the European intellectual heritage, in his case, primarily Hegelian and Marxist. And David Tudor was constantly sort of evading or, as it were, thwarting every effort on Adorno’s part to do this. I mean, they discussed the score and everything like that, and finally Adorno thought he had it and made this rather long disquisition, a very complicated, abstruse – you know, interesting in some respects as far as I remember it, but complicated. And at the end of it – it was a good long thing, fifteen-minute lecture perhaps, and when he was finished, David Tudor turned to him and said: “You haven’t understood a thing.” And we all just sort of figuratively dropped through the floor. I mean, here was this eminent figure, and David Tudor just…but that was his objective view of the situation.
- Wolff, interview with Ev Grimes, undated, OHAM (Oral History, American Music Series, Yale University), repr. Amy Beal, New Music, New Allies (Berkeley, UC Press, 2006), 127.
I can’t help but also think of Adorno’s other famous notes on Cage in “Vers une musique informelle,” which I will certainly return to later. But in a sense, what Tudor meant by this response is, I hope, one of the biggest questions this blog will explore.
A Year From Monday (Middleton, CT: Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1967)
To us and all those who hate us, that the U.S.A. may become just another part of the world, no more, no less.
The foreword and afterword to A Year From Monday are very personal, and I consider them the framing arguments for the concept of “reading through” that I intend to pursue over the next year. AYFM is in many ways a continuation of Silence, as Cage himself admits, and the structure of the book is essentially the same, consisting of lectures and statements on other artists interspersed with personal anecdotes at the end of each item. The significant change is the first in a series of installments of the “Diary: How To Improve The World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse),” which departs in a new direction. The discipline of the diary marks the next phase of Cage’s writing, leading toward the mesostic technique in the subsequent publications.
The tone of AYFM is noticeably more political, stemming from Cage’s involvement with Marshall McLuhan and Buckminster Fuller, among others. However, I have certain contentions with the amount of influence these writers had in Cage’s overall aesthetic, much in the same way that other writers such as David Patterson have about the Asian-derived rhetoric in his earlier work. The breadth of Cage’s source material for the endless aphorisms and anecdotes is impressive in its own right, but I feel it is necessary to separate the sources and the writing to an extent in order to clarify the often misunderstood boundaries of Cage’s ideas and those of others. This is not an easy task, and is one of the central facets of the reading through project that I hope to explore.
This tension is beneath the surface of the foreword, as Cage tries to explain how his thought is and isn’t changing. By the time AYFM was published, Cage was arguably at the peak of popularity; the success of Silence and the sudden interest in Cagean political and social activism caught on quickly with a new generation of composers, artists, and intellectuals. This was a mixed blessing, as he spent the majority of the decade simultaneously embracing and defending interpretations of his ideas. One has to only look to the tense interview with Richard Kostelanetz at the beginning of John Cage; An Anthology to get a sense of Cage’s feelings at the end of the 60s.
I have already discussed the meaning of the title and its relationship to this blog in the “About this Blog” section, and I will say just one more thing about the forward to AYFM. As the dust jacket notes emphasize, and as Cage was always keen to point out, perhaps the most redeeming quality of Cage throughout his career was this: a sunny disposition. Many have discussed Cage as a character himself, Kenneth Silverman has gone to great lengths to describe this personality in his recent biography, and intellectuals have pored over the mountain of “Cagean lore” as it relates to autobiography and persona, intellectual strategies I will at times adhere to and at others defy (this blog does after all celebrate Cage to a certain extent). In my opinion, Cage’s sunny disposition was at all times juxtaposed against a certain destructive brilliance in the aesthetic of silence that created a wonderful molding of destruction and celebration around every corner, a personal division of the psyche evident in every facet of his personality, work and legacy.
M: Writings ’67-’72 (Middleton, CT: Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1973)
To us and all those who hate us, that the U.S.A. may become just another part of the world, no more, no less. (1967, repeated 1973)
The foreword to M is the longest of all of Cage’s major writings, containing several explanatory notes on Cage’s newest writing techniques, a diversion into Maoism (which many Cage scholars and aficionados have done their best to brush under the table), and an extensive critique of contemporary musicians and performance practice. Within the subtext of these seemingly disparate elements rests a tension in Cage’s own career, marked by the significant shift back to acoustic instruments with Cheap Imitation (1969).
But first, the title: M. As is often the case with “asking” the I-Ching, surprising results come around every corner (just look at the reading for this introductory blog). Cage found the title by “subjecting” the alphabet to a chance operation (something often taken for granted to the casual observer, depending on the circumstances, these were often elaborate constructions laid out over many pages), Cage arrived at M for the title, and he noticed many names that shared the letter in his life, and perhaps most significant, the title of Mureau, the first in a series of adventurous approaches to syntax based on the writings of Henry David Thoreau (much more on this later). Then there are the “mesostics” Cage’s invention, similar to an acrostic, but aligned center on a page. As Cage perfected this technique, he imposed increasing restrictions on syllable, word, and letter repetition. This, combined with the new approaches to syntax and content organization in Mureau, mark the turning point, instigated in part by the Diary, of a nondiscursive approach to language organization that emphasized the sonic characteristics of language, bringing Cage’s poetry and prose in line with his approach to musical/sonic construction and performance. Cage gives notice to the many sound and concrete poets that explored these techniques before him (Jackson Mac Low, whose personal correspondence with Cage is some of the most touching yet disheartening that I have read), Clarke Coolidge, and, most importantly, Norman O. Brown. Here we get some interesting literary criticism as Cage describes the dematerialization of language in sonic poetry and its effect on grammatical and syntactical structure, something which fascinates me, but admittedly is beyond my area of expertise and thus may be limited in this blog.
The section on Mao, combined with a number of proclamations by Cage in interviews and other material, is as I mentioned, a difficult part of Cage’s career for many to parse. Critics and defenders alike admit that this was, like many of Cage’s inquiries, a passing interest. Not to defend him too much, but Mao in the late 1960s and 70s was a popular topic for middlebrow artistic ruminations (think of Godard and La Chinoise), only to be crushed by the economic devastation of the 1970s in America and the startling revelations of the Cultural Revolution in years to come. But this naïve optimism coupled with cultural anxiety represents many facets of American life and Cage’s own biography in the 1970s, and the moment of impasse read beneath this text reflects a similar turn. I am happy leaving it at that (there is only so much time in the day), as are many other critics, but if you are so inclined, attack away….
Empty Words, Writings ’73-78 (Middleton, CT: Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1981)
To the students in the school from which we’ll never graduate.
The forward to Empty Words is the shortest, and by this point Cage’s audience was well-prepared, if not well-trained, for what was to come. By the early eighties Cage was permanently established in many circles as the guru of American experimentalism, and I imagine many preorders for these later volumes. The title of course has a mixed message: Cage’s poetry has lost most of its grammatical or syntactical meaning, and is in this sense, truly “empty” – but at the same time, so is the world. This is the dawn of postmodernism, brooding in the mind of Jameson as he cruised around California (although, as Rebecca Solnit put it, “drive-by shootings, rogue cops and actor politicians, amnesia and fluidly changing identities, were nothing new. They were Western heritage.” – remember Cage was a native Californian who grew up during the Great Depression). Cage’s lamentations are quite literal, explaining that Fuller has moved “from a prophet of Utopia to Jeremiah,” and as he explained, his Diary “remains unfinished.”
X, Writings, ’79-82 (Middleton, CT: Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1983)
I’ll wrap it up here, as this post is getting pretty long (congrats to those who made it this far – way beyond the attention-span of the average internet reader, as many cognitive studies have argued….). I will return to Anarchy later, which is technically beyond the scope of Cage’s “primary” publications. The title X was determined in the same matter as M, signifying as Cage sees it, “the unknown, where poetry lives, tomorrow, I hope, as it does today, where what you see, framed or unframed, is art (cf. photography), where what you hear on or off the record is music.”
I will note one thing here regarding the later writings. Despite the discursive nature of Cage’s many allusions and references, throughout his career there are a number of core beliefs that never changed, even as Cage was in his seventies. Here and elsewhere, Cage returns again to the idea of exemplification, the physical characteristics of sound, and method. I’ll end with this:
X, then, as I write in the Diary (CCXXIV, 6th remark), is one book, the most recent, in an ongoing series: to find a way of writing which comes from ideas, is not about them, but which produces them
I can only hope that this project does something similar.
Los Angeles, CA
September 5, 2011