[59. Huan / Dispersion [Dissolution]. 6 IN THE THIRD PLACE, NINE AT THE TOP. Changing to 48. Ching / The Well.]
I’ve decided to listen to Cage’s String Quartet in Four Parts (1950) while writing this post. Cage started working on it shortly after “Forerunners of Modern Music” was published, but nevertheless, I believe the work is similar in tone to this essay—it contains a sense of transition between new ideas and old.
Cage spent the majority of 1949 in Europe on a Guggenheim fellowship (his first after several applications), where he met Pierre Boulez, discovered Satie’s Vexations (mentioned in this post), and expanded on the idea of the “gamut” technique in the String Quartet. As I look back over my notes, I realize that James Pritchett made the same observation, linking “Forerunners,” “Defense of Satie,” the String Quartet, and “Lecture on Nothing” (which I’ll examine next week), with the notion of stillness and static time, or, in one of Cage’s favorite aphorisms “to sober and quiet the mind.” Likewise the I-Ching reading has a notable connection – the two hexagrams are opposite sides of the trigram images of K’an, or water, and Sun, or wind. In the primary reading, the image is that of dispersion or dissolution, of wind driving over the water, dissipating or thawing, with implications of individual dissipation in the changing lines, while the inverse in the Well, transforms the image of water over wind, which is then read as wood, giving the image of a wellspring, and in this reading the well is:
…the symbol of that social structure which, evolved by mankind in meeting its most primitive needs, is independent of all political forms. Political structures change, as do nations, but the life of man with its needs remains eternally the same-this cannot be changed. Life is also inexhaustible. It grows neither less not more; it exists for one and for all. The generations come and go, and all enjoy life in its inexhaustible abundance.
“Forerunners” is a strange essay, written in choppy language with a host of scattered ideas, many of them flowing from section to section without any discernable logic. Cage admitted that this essay represented a “concentration of all that I [was] aware of at the time,” and the style is very much like a series of claims. In fact the final section even takes on the legalese of a patent specification, with section headings and footnotes. I feel it reads much like a David Foster Wallace essay, with countless allusions and terse citations or references to contemporary ideas, leaving the reader to decode the logic (or lack thereof) while parsing the essay.
The essay was written for a short-lived journal, The Tiger’s Eye, edited by Ruth and John Stephan in Greenwich Village, and it represents just one of the blossoming literary and artistic journals emerging from the New York School. Like the 8th street Artist’s Club and the Cedar Tavern (which I’ll say more on next week), these small print art journals helped to solidify the aesthetic positions of many artists within the small lower Manhattan community. It was not until the famous 9th Street exhibition by Leo Castelli in 1951 that the group received any outside notoriety, and by this point Cage and his circle were already beginning to depart from the fundamental tenants of mainstream Abstract Expressionism.
One interesting earlier contribution, the single issue entitled Possibilities (1947-8), was edited by Cage alongside Robert Motherwell and art critic Harold Rosenberg. This volume is notable for first introducing the drip or pour technique of Jackson Pollock, followed by a detailed essay on mythology by Andrea Caffe, and an early incarnation of Rosenberg’s definition of “Action Painting.”
In “Forerunners” Cage picks at three basic ideas. The first is a continuation of his material definition of music, echoing the earlier sentiments in “Defense of Satie” and “Grace and Clarity,” and repeating once again the “four characteristics of sound: pitch, timbre, duration, loudness, etc.” Cage reiterates many of the problems with atonality and neoclassicism (“The twelve tone row offers bricks but no plan. The neo-classicists advise building it the way it was before, but surfaced fashionably”), and then stops at an interesting midpoint—a pivot if you will—to the next section. Here he inserts an “Interlude” consisting of a single quote from the 13th century Christian mystic Meister Eckhart:
“But one must achieve this unselfconsciousness by means of transformed knowledge. This ignorance does not come from lack of knowledge but rather it is from knowledge that one may achieve this ignorance. Then we shall be informed by the divine unconsciousness and in that our ignorance will be ennobled and adorned with supernatural knowledge. It is by reason of this fact that we are made perfect by what happens to us rather than by what we do.”
It is hard to tell if this quote has any direct bearing on the other arguments in the article, or if it was simply a striking passage that Cage was pondering at the time–I am inclined to think the latter. James Pritchett argues that the passage must be understood in the larger context of the specific Eckhart sermon Cage is quoting. By ignorance, Eckhart refers to a state of indifference or detachment from the inner will, a poverty of the mind that allows for a spiritual awakening, where silence and stillness allow for a moment of epiphany—hence “sober and quiet the mind.” This explains the following section, to an extent, where Cage reviews the concept of rhythmic structure in the context of stillness. In between, however, Cage jots down a number of ideas in a section titled “at random,” that point to the scattering of thoughts at this moment. Here are a few of the most relevant:
Music means nothing as a thing.
Imitating either oneself or others, care should be taken to imitate structure, not form (also structural materials and structural methods, not formal materials and formal methods), disciplines, not dreams; thus one remains “innocent and free to receive anew with each Now-moment a heavenly gift.” (Eckhart)
Then Cage states a new problem: “Before making a structure by means of rhythm, it is necessary to decide what rhythm is.” Pritchett argues that this is a key turning point in the concept of structural rhythm. Whereas before, rhythm was maintained as a ratio or divisibility of parts in conjunction with a gamut of sounds or collection of phrases (such as the connections to dance choreography mentioned earlier), here Cage points to an all-encompassing definition of rhythm in relationship to nature and time. The following passage hints at this new definition:
In the case of a year, rhythmic structure is a matter of seasons, months, weeks, and days. Other time lengths such as that taken by a fire or the playing of a piece of music occur accidentally or freely without explicit reference of an all-embracing order, but nevertheless, necessarily within that order. Coincidences of free events with structural time points have a special luminous character, because of the paradoxical nature of truth is at such moments made apparent. Caesuras on the other hand are expressive of the independence (accidental or willed) of freedom from law, law from freedom.
It seems that Cage was at a tipping point here to move into a metaphysical or ontological realm again, but the final section outlined in the “claim” section reverts to a technocentric notion of sound and silence—the ever-present opposite pole of spiritualist rhetoric inherent in Cage’s aesthetic. Here he gives an early definition of the aesthetic of silence:
Any sounds of any qualities and pitches (known or unknown, definite or indefinite), and contexts of these, simple or multiple, are natural and conceivable within a rhythmic structure which equally embraces silence.
Cage points out that “such a claim is remarkably like the claims to be found in patent specifications for and articles about technological musical means.” But how? Is a scientific definition of acoustics similar to a spiritual definition of ontological being?
The last section focuses on several ideas surrounding the synthetic or virtual space of music, which is what I think Cage was trying to articulate, but was not really ready to voice a clear opinion on. He mentions the work of Norman McLaren, the Canadian filmmaker who constructed abstract films and worked with sound phonography and other means of artificially producing sound, and he hints at the nascent magnetic tape technology—which I will focus on later. But one point stands out like a sore thumb in this final section, something that only recently has really been examined by art historians. Cage mentions briefly “sand-painting,” in reference both to a lecture he gave at the Artist’s Club in 1949 and to the repeated theoretical arguments surrounding Harold Rosenberg’s critique of Jackson Pollock. In the footnote to this comment, Cage says the following:
This is the very nature of the dance, of the performance of music, or any other art requiring performance (for this reason, the term “sand painting” is used: there is a tendency in painting (permanent pigments), as in poetry (printing, binding), to be secure in the thingness of a work, and thus overlook, and place nearly insurmountable obstacles in the path of, instantaneous ecstasy).
The “thingness of a work” is a crucial point here, as painters, particularly Pollock, were beginning to dissolve the grammar and medium-specificity of the actual act of painting, moving it into a performative environment. Pollock’s technique was in direct confrontation with Cage’s artistic program, presenting an opposition to the aesthetic of silence by positioning the individual self expression of action, motion, environment and space into an imprint on canvas; in essence a recording of an action or event that had many parallels to recording technology of sound—hence the concern with the virtual space of performativity or action. I’ll leave it at that for today, and end with my favorite example of “action painting,” the 1950 documentary on Jackson Pollock by Hans Namuth, with a very Halloween-esque score by none other than Morton Feldman (just imagine the Times review in 1951 that coined the term “Jack the Dripper”).