[55. Fêng / Abundance [Fullness] nine in the third place, nine in the fourth place. changing to: 24. Fu / Return (The Turning Point)]
“The past does not influence me; I influence it” – Willem de Kooning
This is the third essay on experimental music in Silence, and as I mentioned two weeks ago, Cage tucked it away in the middle of the book even though it was written shortly after the other two essays, “Experimental Music” (1957), and “Experimental Music: Doctrine” (1955). Cage is less elusive here and decidedly polemic, both in his historicism and in his attack on the European avant-garde. The essay was commissioned by Dr. Wolfgang Steinecke, director of the Internationale Ferienkurse für Neue Musik (International Summer Courses for New Music) at Darmstadt. Heinz Klaus Metzger famously provided a rather mannered German translation in the Darmstädter Beiträge the following year. As Amy Beal has noted, one phrase in particular stood out in the translation. In the English, Cage wrote “The silences of American experimental music and even its technical involvements with chance operations are being introduced into new European music,” and Metzger chose to use the active verb eindringen—to invade or intrude—for Cage’s passive are being introduced to, thus giving the reverse translation of “chance operations are invading European music.”
This hints at the high-minded competitiveness within new music circles in Europe and America, where, following Sayre’s law in academics, politics were most vicious because the stakes were so low. To be fair, there was a considerable amount of political wrangling involved in the Darmstadt summer courses, as Beal has noted in detail in New Music, New Allies, but it is important to note that agency was in many ways removed from the actual actors in “America Houses” and held tightly by the politicians and corporate interests that planted the seeds in the first place. This may be a bit of an extreme statement, and there are certainly contrary examples, but I do believe that political action—actual real political action like a call to arms such as Wagner’s famous tossing of grenades during the 1848 revolution—is a rarity among musicians. However, the ideas are often powerful political motivators, and such political zeal quickly fuels the individual ego of high-minded musical polemicists. At the same time, there has been and always will be a close relationship between political forces of control and the ability or extent of an artwork to incite or provoke. At its worse, a society openly oppresses artists, but oftentimes, especially with modern liberalism, society assimilates or appropriates, thus taking away the inherent power of a work or a statement.
I’ve thought a lot about the recent Occupy protests in conjunction with this project, and it will come up more in the later essays when Cage became more politically active. I am not really an activist, and my general political viewpoints are largely in line with the institutions that support academics. There is (and probably always will be) a general misconception that academics are consistently “liberal” according to the contemporary definition of the word. But it is obvious that this definition of “the left” is far removed from the fundamental tenants of liberalism, which, when taken apart are really more like the centrist position that most successful politicians eventually embrace. In my mind, what really is at issue in contemporary political discourse is a general struggle over the communicative avenues of public discourse, a sort of wrangling over the avenues of contact between individuals in the face of cultural pluralism. The stratification of discourse along a seemingly endless and disparate network of individual platforms (this blog being but one of many), has ignited a desire to solidify and control. Whether we are speaking of political discourse, net neutrality, copyright infringement, or individual privacy, it is clear that there are many social forces at work in contemporary culture that are seeking ways to organize this new system of communication and social interaction in general. I am not a fatalist, and I have enough faith to believe that the end result will be, like most social structures that have emerged from liberalism, pragmatic and centrist—a compromise in the positive sense.
I’ve recently read (or re-read its newest incarnation, since it has been available in dissertation form for a few years), Benjamin Piekut’s new book, Experimentalism Otherwise, which is one of the first of (hopefully) many studies on experimentalism in the United States. The history of American experimental music has largely been dictated by traditional musicological methodology: contextualization of oral histories authenticated through the indexing of archival documentation and justified through musical analysis. In the case of experimentalism, however, we are not dealing with music in the familiar sense, and Ben asks a pointed question: “What was experimentalism?” From its essential formulation articulated by Cage to the proliferation of practices in the 1960s, experimentalism is fundamentally performative, giving it, one would hope, the unique ability to subvert the traditional canonization and cultural assimilation of say, jazz. However, the discourse surrounding the history of experimentalism has relied heavily on Cage’s own historicism. Cage’s proclivity, as Piekut notes, for equating experimentalism with high-art obfuscates many of the concurrent practices and discourse surrounding the “core” group of Cage’s generation, and Piekut’s study focuses in particular on the practice of improvisation, which is wholly ignored within Cagean discourse (although, as he reveals, it was often incorporated in Cage’s “band” of artists and musicians for practical reasons).
This is what makes experimental music studies so interesting. Much like conceptual art, discourse is as much a part of its history as practice. Discourse defines the parameters of discussion, the ground to which we formulate arguments. Piekut examines experimentalism as a network (“a grouping, not a group”) proliferated through discourse (“a series of citations”) that has largely been dominated by conventional studies of canonic definition and style history. Cage’s “scores” for his more indeterminate works such as the transparencies used in the Variations series have been analyzed, documented, and performed with the purity of any traditional score in Western Art Music, despite the implied liberation that they purportedly claimed.
Print it, archive it, and put it in the canon: it’s a piece of Western Art Music?
This is a rather contentious area of Cage scholarship, one that pits a generation of scholars who have tirelessly defended the work of Cage against cultural institutions that once vehemently dismissed his artistic program as, in the words of Adorno, “abstract negation in séances with overtones of [Rudolph] Steiner, eurhythmics, and healthy-living sects,” only to find Cage studies welcomed with open arms under the banner of New Musicology—with the understanding that the various aspects of Cage’s career that were brushed under the table are now open targets. During his life Cage navigated through discourse brilliantly, weaving between institutional support and the energy of the antiestablishment 60s generation. Cage is both Cage and “Cage” in this respect, as I have noted before; we want him to be one thing when in fact he is another.
Piekut reads Cage’s artistic program less as liberatory politics under the general veil of anarchism and more as conventional postwar American liberalism. Having spent considerable time reading through Cage’s personal correspondence and various other archival documents, I have to say I am in agreement. I would add however that, again, there is the difficult issue of reading Cage as he is and Cage as we want him to be. To add to the confusion, Cage certainly wanted us to read him in one way, but that specific way changed over the years. As I said, I am more of a centrist, and am happy to find a common ground between the excellent work of the last generation and the concomitant critical investigations that the nature of the materials warrant. Piekut concludes that Cagean liberalism has one concerning element inherent within the larger discourse surrounding American liberalism:
the “freedom of choice” ideology of liberalism in fact masks a meta-operation of power that defines the terms through which those choices can be made…from this perspective, Cage’s work evidences a peculiar status as both a model and a mirror—a mock-up of utopian anarchism and register of hegemonic liberalism.
This brings me back, in a way, to the occupy movement and Cagean politics surrounding experimentalism. I recently came across, on Melrose and Gower at the very corner of the last surviving RKO pictures building, a wonderful piece of graffiti art that simply read “occupy everywhere, all the time,” which struck me as very Cagean in a way—or, perhaps in the context of this post, what I would like to imagine Cage would ideally have believed. Jason Adams’ recent post on the Critical Inquiry blog perhaps articulated what I am thinking the best, when he noted, “what is most interesting about Occupy now is that it is increasingly complicating static images of space: it is, in short, occupying time.” This approach to the “temporal and tactile rather than the spatial and strategic” is very much in line with a Cagean discourse that is not necessarily liberatory, but is rather along the lines of method or process. Activism in the traditional sense was in a way antithetical to the passive politics of Cage (at least in the 1950s and early 60s), but activism in the sense of experimentalism was in line with many strains of Cagean indeterminacy rhetoric.
|Jonas Mekas at Zuccotti Park|
Adams argues that the “counter-temporality” of Occupy is primarily concerned with the creation of, rather than a response to, situations. The media’s frustration with the Occupy movement's persistent plurality hints at the fundamental idea that such a temporal situation incurs: an awareness of the effect of discursive networks of individual strategies of control and the current (or perhaps ongoing) crisis of individualism. Occupy’s focus on situational awareness in the end likely implies another variance of liberalism, or perhaps even libertarianism, but what is unique is the embrace of disunity and dissensus in the process of engendering debate. I read this dynamic somewhere within Cagean discourse, and I’ll try to articulate it better in the future.
It has become somewhat of a cliché to note that we live in an era of information overload. But it is notable just how quickly information, or content in general, has transformed contemporary culture, and how it has affected our lives in every way. Whether it is the debilitating effect of an incessantly pervasive media culture on traditional negotiations in governmental politics, the rapid acceleration of electronic financial transactions and the inevitable greed that accompanied this newfound productivity, or the basic issues of control and regulation of information corridors and pipelines, information has changed in a fundamental way.
This is one area where I believe Cage studies and experimentalism discourse resonates, and has always resonated, deeply with culture in general. I’ve managed to ramble on with this entire post without spending a minute talking about the content of the essay itself, and to me that is okay. I am not sure where the Occupy movement will go next; I imagine it will eventually follow the path of most movements through assimilation into the conventional strategies of participatory politics, likely by the left in the upcoming election cycle. But I will say that, for a moment at least, it seemed like something very different was happening. The sense in the air was not of revolution, but something else. I’m just not quite sure exactly what that is, but I hope it comes back again.
I am apprehensive to end this post with the quote that really does solidify Piekut’s argument, but I think it is appropriate, and probably necessary:
From “Seriously Comma” (1966):
Privilege of connecting two things remains privilege of each individual (e.g. I: thirsty: drink a glass of water); but privilege isn’t to be exercised publicly except in emergencies (there are no aesthetic emergencies)
PERMISSION GRANTED. BUT NOT TO DO WHATEVER YOU WANT.