[32. Hêng / Duration, six in the fifth place, six at the top. Changing to 44. Kou / Coming to Meet.]
QUESTION: But, seriously, if this is what music is, I could write it as well as you.
ANSWER: Have I said anything that would lead you to think I thought you were stupid?
The next three essays I am mulling over are quite a contrast from the last three weeks. Whereas the Something/Nothing/Julliard triptych formed a mosaic of performative ideas, the essays at the beginning of Silence concerning experimental music are informative and explanatory. It is from these essays, along with ”History of Experimental Music in the United States” that scholars have culled many of the fundamental definitions of experimentalism in the United States (experimentalism at least according to Cage). It is odd that Cage chose to put the first two essays at the beginning of Silence, following “The Future of Music: Credo” (1940), and to tuck “History” further back after “Forerunners of Modern Music.” It seems that Cage was hoping to create his own triptych at the beginning, linking his ideas from the 1930s to those in the late 50s. Here we would have a logical progression: 1.) an early proclamation on electronic music (“Credo”), 2.) an examination of the concept of experimentalism in practice (“Experimental Music” (1957), and 3.) a question and answer session in “Doctrine.”
However there are many problems here. First, as I mentioned, the dating of “Credo” is incorrect, and there are many reasons to question its final publication format. Presenting these three essays in succession alludes to a logic of continuity in what, as I have noticed with this project, is a continuous yet scattered progression of ideas from the 1930s to the 50s. Moreover, the following triptych, “Composition as Process” was if anything an overtly polemic assault against the Darmstadt hard-edged serialism dominating the European front in the 1950s. To take this a step further, the first 75 pages of Silence could be read as a direct provocation of European serialism, supplanting it with a laudatory definition of American compositional approaches to contemporary music, technology, method, and philosophy.
Theories like this make academics tingle, but that is not exactly what this project is about. What I find most revealing in the “Experimental Music” essays are the subtexts alluding to Cage’s thought process. As with almost all of his theoretical writing, I get a sense of Cage grasping around for theories, philosophies, and ideas to help pin down a very complex theoretical platform. Add to this the difficult and scattered chronology presented in Silence, I am presented with a challenge to rather meticulously extrapolate, if you will, some sense of a theory of the aesthetic of Silence.
To begin with, there is the basic statement: “There is no such thing as silence.” Even the title of the book, Silence, alludes to something that is an absence, yet the pages are full of ideas. To put it another way, there is no way to define silence, other than through a negation. We can think of nothing as not-something, or whatever the opposite of something is, but it can never actually materialize: it is only an idea, and hence it exists only abstractly. And yet, the process of thinking this through—to “think through the negative," as French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty famously posited—is as much a part of the idea as the idea itself. If anything, that is what the idea is: a process. Take the opening paragraph of “Doctrine”:
Objections are sometimes made by composers to the use of the term experimental as descriptive of their works, for it is claimed that any experiments that are made precede the steps that are finally taken with determination, and that this determination is knowing, having, in fact, a particular, if unconventional, ordering of the elements used in view. These objections are clearly justifiable, but only where, as among contemporary evidences in serial music, it remains a question of making a thing upon the boundaries, structure, and expression of which attention is focused. Where, on the other hand, attention moves towards the observation and audition of many things at once, including those that are environmental—becomes , that is, inclusive rather than exclusive—no question of making, in the sense of forming understandable structure, can arise (one is a tourist), and here the word “experimental” is apt, providing it is understood not as descriptive of an act to be later judged in terms of success and failure, but simply as an act the outcome of which is unknown. What has been determined?
Cage defines experimental music as “an act the outcome of which is unknown,” a statement that formed the basis of Michael Nyman’s 1974 study Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond, and, much like Reich’s dictum of “music as a gradual process” in minimalism, remains to this day one of the fundamental tenants of the movement. Nyman refines Cage’s statement by noting: “Experimental composers are by and large not concerned with prescribing a defined time-object whose materials, structuring and relationships are calculated and arranged in advance, but are more excited by the prospect of outlining a situation in which sounds may occur, a process of generating action (sounding or otherwise), a field delineated by certain compositional “rules”.
Cage’s formulation is elegantly simple and precise. If he were an ordinary language philosopher he could have called it a day. But Cage was a bit of everything: modern, romantic, vitalist, oriental, phenomenologist, analytic, transcendental, etc. - you name it, it’s somewhere in his writings. I think there is little question that at this time Cage was skimming several other contemporary philosophers, but he deliberately avoided direct citations because they were, well, Europeans. The most obvious candidate here would be French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness (although not for this essay, as the first English translation was not released until 1956). Existentialism was all the rage in the Abstract Expressionist world, however, so for Cage to admit any linkage in his work to such thinkers would be antithetical to the neo-avant-garde crusade.
But it’s not just that Cage avoided mentioning someone like Sartre, I think. He often provided a dash when discussing nothing, i.e. no-thing, meaning no thing in particular, rather than absence or void, and this is the real dividing point (and I find it amusing that spell check has highlighted “no thing” as grammatically incorrect). I am reminded of a section from Cage’s famous interviews with French philosopher and musicologist Daniel Charles (who was largely responsible for introducing the aesthetic of silence to French intellectuals). During a discussion of Cage’s study with Daisetz Suzuki, Charles asked Cage for a more specific definition of the term nothing, particularly in regard to the French translation of his works of either “rien,” or “le rien,” nothing or nothingness. Cage’s response was ultimately more concerned with what he described as the “nothing in between” which moves beyond the distinction between Being and Nothingness, in favor of a reciprocal terminology outside or beyond the relationship between Being and Nothingness.
He went on to explain that ”each time we establish a relationship, each time we connect two terms, we forget that we have to go back to zero before reaching the next term. The same goes for Being and Nothingness! We talk about and try to think through these notions – like sounds in music – and we forget what really happens. We forget that we must always return to zero in order to pass from one word to the next…when we think, we continually return to those opposed pairs, sound and silence, Being and Nothingness. We do this to simplify experience which is far beyond that simplicity. Ultracomplicated and not at all reducible to the number two.” Following this argument, Cage again presents chance composition as a way to “reject exclusions, radical alternatives between opposites.” Cage also likened this to an “alternating current” of perceptual activity, the cycle between positive and negative fluctuation, which, while reaching into alternate depths, never reaches a point of absolute.
The “alternating current” metaphor has already come up in the Something/Nothing lectures, and I think it is a better metaphor than many of the South Asian and Zen dictums that Cage defaulted to in his essays, primarily because it links Cage’s technological rhetoric of “sound as sounds” back to the notion of silence. It also has interesting parallels to the anechoic chamber anecdote, which by now was a central metaphor in Cage’s philosophy. For anyone unfamiliar, I will repeat it from next week’s essay, “Experimental Music.”
For certain engineering purposes, it is desirable to have as silent a situation as possible. Such a room is called an anechoic chamber, its six walls made of special material, a room without echoes. I entered one at Harvard University several years ago and heard two sounds, one high and one low. When I described them to the engineer in charge, he informed me that the high one was my nervous system in operation, the low one my blood in circulation. Until I die there will be sounds. And they will continue following my death. One need not fear about the future of music.
|Anechoic Chamber at Harvard University|
Current flows within the nervous system, blood is pulsing through the body, and these things are audible in the inner ear, but more so as feeling sensations than regular audition. Yes we “hear” these things, but not in the same way that we hear things outside our body, so to speak (think of the way you hear your own voice). To accept bodily sounds as sounds admits a certain degree of separation between the mind and the body, which is an idea I simply do not agree with, and with which Cage seemed to fluctuate. To hear an object is to identify its existence. The famous anecdote Cage culled from German animator Oskar Fischinger of the indexical relationship between objects and sounds is apt here. The anecdote from Fischinger involves a eureka moment in his own work, when his wife dropped a key in the adjacent room, and Fischinger realized that the sound was of one particular key and no other – it defined the existence of the object through aural sensation, and thus contained its own “spirit”- an idea that was inextricably linked to Cage’s concept of sound-as-sounds.
This point never varies in Cage’s writings, and it has to do with the linkage between scientific, or empirical, definitions of objects and matter. Noticeably, what it avoids, except for the anechoic chamber metaphor, is our own bodies, identities, and to an extent identity in general. This was the dividing line between later “post-Cage” artists and Cage. The body is complicated, it has problems, deformities, it is constantly in a state of disrepair and renewal, emotions are constantly ruining things, and it’s very animal existence is far less elegant than a pure sound. Here is what Cage thinks of sounds in “Doctrine”:
A sound does not view itself as a though, as ought, as needing another sound for its elucidation, as etc.; it has no time for any consideration—it is occupied with the performance of its characteristics: before it has died away it must have made perfectly exact its frequency, its loudness, its length, its overtone structure, the precise morphology of these and of itself.
Sounds are not ideas, they do not prescribe, they are inhuman. Musical expression is human. It reflects the emotion of the individual, relaying the affect of an individual voice, exposing the inner psyche and conjuring up new images of whatever may be, given cultural surroundings, mood, or, as Cage would say what I am planning on cooking for dinner. But Cage wants us to listen in a different way, to avoid messing with sounds, because it would make them human, expressive, and culturally specific. He goes on:
Urgent, unique, uninformed about history and theory, beyond the imagination, central to a sphere without surface, its becoming is unimpeded, energetically broadcast. There is no escape from its action. It does not exist as one of a series of discrete steps, but as transmission in all directions from the field’s center. It is inextricably synchronous with all other, sounds, non-sounds, which latter, received by other sets than the ear, operate in the same manner.
If we just stay out of the way, sounds are sounds, right? Again, this is what makes the Experimental music definition so elegantly precise. Cage goes on:
In view, then, of a totality of possibilities, no knowing action is commensurate, since the character of the knowledge acted upon prohibits all but some eventualities. From a realist position, such action, though cautious, hopeful, and generally entered into, is unsuitable. An experimental action, generated by a mind as it was before it became one, thus in accord with the possibility of no matter what, is, on the other hand practical. It does not move in terms of approximations and errors, as “informed” action by its nature must, for no mental images of what would happen were set up beforehand; it sees things directly as they are: impermanently involved in an infinite play of interpenetrations.
As a final note for this week, I should mention that the subtext of both of these essays involves Cage’s involvement with magnetic tape composition and the resulting aesthetics involved with recorded sound manipulation. Cage was quite familiar with Musique concrète and the theories surrounding the French engineer and sometime composer Pierre Schaeffer. However, it must be stressed that all of these essays do have a very anti-European backlash to them, and thus the final links are only found in Cage’s unpublished writings, which are a bit beyond this project.
As one last point, I think it is important to note that, like many ideas coming from analytic philosophy, in the end we are really only talking about very simple yet precise formulations, and the rest of the world might as well only exist in the mind. As a result, the conclusions are just as simple and precise:
QUESTION: Then what is the purpose of this “experimental” music?
ANSWER: No purposes. Sounds.