[47. K'un / Oppression (Exhaustion); Nine in the third place, nine in the fifth place. Changing to 16. Yü / Enthusiasm.]
Varèse is an artist of the past. Rather than dealing with sounds as sounds, he deals with them as Varèse.
This is John Cage’s main statement on Edgard Varèse, the French composer who is viewed by many as the father of modern electronic music. I think this point in itself is notable, because Cage was aware of the pervasive influence of Varèse, both as director of the International Composer’s Guild and for his role in American music in the inter- and post-war periods. Cage’s relationship to Varèse was best described as tenuous, alternating between periods of friendship and hostility. The best example of this conflict is the early use of the term “Organized Sound,” which, as I mentioned last week, has become ubiquitous in the field of sound art.
Sound art theorists generally delineate the generational divide between Cage and Varèse as the foundation for modern sound art, or sound-as-object theory. The narrative generally reads that Varèse treated new musical resources with traditional “composerly” approaches to form and structure, while Cage inaugurated the “sound-as-sounds” aesthetic that utilized new technology to examine the empirical foundation of sound objects, and to remove subjectivity from the phenomenological experience of listening.
In a sense this narrative is Cage’s, and most have tended to, as in many other cases, take Cage’s word as historical truth. This essay is a prime example. Cage was conscientious of historical lineage, and he explicitly outlined his preferred narrative. This trajectory places Cage within the modernist tradition, beginning with his famous "break" with Schoenberg and a transition to new musical resources such as percussion (which, in this narrative, minimizes the influence of Henry Cowell), followed by the discovery of temporal durational structure via Eric Satie, and finally splitting with the historical avant-garde of Varèse and his contemporaries ( I know this is a little reductive, but you get the idea).
That is not to say that Cage dismissed Varèse; on the contrary, I think he realized just how essential he was to this historical lineage. As Cage notes, “he fathered forth noise,” which “makes him more relative to the present musical necessity than even the Viennese masters.” Varèse provided a backdrop for Cage’s artistic program more than any other composer. There was a clear correlation between their interests, but Cage moved forward into the unknown sound hidden beneath magnetic tape, while Varèse adhered to structural principles to the end.
This is an interesting point surrounding Varèse’s own biography, which, in a way like Duchamp, has some glaring holes. Varèse famously destroyed many of his early works, and his surviving output is rather small – you can soak it all up in a double CD set in just one evening. Varèse’s surviving works, however, are incredibly dense, both in their structure and their approach to the general sound field. Varèse is a popular topic for analysts, and analyses such as Jonathan Bernard’s clearly demonstrate the dense complexity of sound structure in his acoustic and electroacoustic works. In general terms, what Bernard observed was a strict correlation in Varèse’s works between orchestration and acoustics. Individual notes and articulations are arranged according to their sonic characteristics, creation projections across the audible spectrum that have less to do with note-to-note correspondences in tonal or serial music, and more to do with the sound-to-sound correspondences.
Cage understood this on a certain level, I think. He noted that Varèse’s music always contained a “characteristic flourish” of a “tone sustained through a crescendo to the maximum amplitude,” which, as Bernard has observed, is articulated through motivic expansion and contraction. Unlike twelve tone treatment of the equal tempered scale, Varèse clearly articulates the acoustic and timbral differences between octave equivalencies, emphasizing symmetrical structures of the complete spectrum of acoustic space available for compositional play. A work such as Density 21.5 focuses of the symmetrical expansion and contraction of interval structures, creating musical form through the articulation of these hierarchical symmetries. The focus on registral expansion and contraction is reflective of the scientific nature of
’s interest in
acoustic space and organizational structures, as he probes the ramifications of
the technological apparatus of the newly constructed platinum flute. Varese
Density 21.5 is a popular example for music analysis due to its literal density of motivic and symmetrical equivalencies. Consider Jean-Jacques Nattiez’s famous semiological analysis:
I'll spare everyone any more of this. I find it interesting, but for most this is a bit much. There is little doubt among theorists that Varèse’s work has a certain compositional profundity, which is a favorite topic for theorists and historians to justify a musical artwork as “good” in an intellectual sense. Cage’s early percussion works displayed a similar level of compositional complexity, culminating in Music of Changes and Williams Mix in the 1950s. Where the real difference arises, I think, is how Cage and Varèse each approach magnetic tape.
Cage notes, Varèse’s famous work Deserts (1950-54), which alternated between orchestral sections and “organized sound” moments of amplified sounds, “attempts to make tape sound like the orchestra and vice versa, showing again a lack of interest in the natural differences of sounds, preferring to give them all his unifying signature.”
Cage is clearly considering this work in opposition to Williams Mix, which as I have mentioned, contains an assault of randomized sounds culled from six categories and spliced on eight tracks of magnetic tape. The difference between the two approaches to magnetic tape composition is clearest in the scores, I think. Both are detailed templates for the editing of sounds, “dressmaker patterns,” as Cage noted, but the difference lies in what those sounds actually are. In Varèse’s score for Deserts, along with Poème électronique (1958), the score outlines the sound characteristics in detail. This is an approach quite similar to Stockhausen’s Kontakte (1958-60), which alongside the notated percussion instruments, outlines the general sonic characteristics of individual sounds on the accompanying soundtrack.
|Score for Williams Mix|
|Detail from score to Poème électronique (1958)|
|Detail from Kontakte|
Cage considers magnetic tape a tabula rasa for sounds to be inscribed and projected, while most composers were interested in crafting specific sonic continuities between moments. This leads to a fairly traditional concept of “organized sound,” which in effect could encompass tonal music as well, which is a reductive form of organized sound that favors specific divisions of audible frequencies and their arrangement within harmonic/melodic structures. Cage’s leap was a big leap, Varèse’s leap was a small one. However, Varèse was cognizant of the listener; he understood that the leap Cage wished to make would be more or less incomprehensible to contemporary listeners. I think the situation today, however, is quite different. The contemporary sonic landscape has expanded exponentially, and sound art discourse has built a listening audience prepared to take the leaps Cage advocated fifty years ago almost with a sense of nonchalance. Listeners may laugh a bit at Williams Mix, but after a lifetime of sonic assaults from every style and genre of contemporary electronic, dance, rock etc., the overall sonic texture is hardly shocking. No one boos a sound art work today the way they did for Williams Mix.
I’ll leave the Varèse discussion there; the essay is not terribly long, and it really only outlines those three main points: artistic lineage, sounds-as-sounds, and magnetic tape. I think it is interesting that Cage followed this essay with a page and a half of anecdotes, and I believe there is a bit of a connection to the essay. There are seven anecdotes, the first a story of John and Merce and a group of schoolchildren at the zoo, the second on Schoenberg, the third on Williams Mix and tape splicing, the forth on Buddhism, the fifth and six on Cage’s childhood, and the final on enlightenment.
All of Cage’s anecdotes are structured like a Zen kōan; some of them are actually kōans lifted from other texts. A kōan is a type of anecdote in that it tells a story, but the primary focus is the turning point, usually toward the end, that presents a strange and unanswerable question or situation. A famous kōan: “Two hands clap and there is a sound; what is the sound of one hand?” Kōans are circular and often unanswerable, in contrast to many anecdotes, which are funny and informative. Cage is pretty good at structuring his kōans with a familiar twist, and each kōan leaves one with a dilemma: what was that supposed to mean, if anything? The Zen answer, of course, is that it doesn’t mean anything in the logical sense; it is meant to enlighten one to a situation. I don’t know if this always gets across with Cage’s statements; some are very autobiographical and disconcerting, especially those that deal with his childhood. Here are the two after the Varèse essay:
Once I was visiting my Aunt Marge. She was doing her laundry. She turned to me and said, ‘You know? I love this machine much more than I do your Uncle Walter.”
One Sunday morning, Mother said to Dad, “Let’s go to church.” Dad said, “O.K.” When they drove up in front, Dad showed no sign of getting out of the car. Mother said, “Aren’t you coming in?” Dad said, “No, I’ll wait for you here.”
A large majority of Cage’s anecdotes recount discussions with friends and colleagues on Zen Buddhism, and they end with a characteristic turn from one of the main characters. In this section, Cage brought up the death of the Buddha, which is a central idea in Zen Buddhism where, if one encounters the Buddha, he must kill him on the spot (because thinking about the Buddha is antithetical to enlightenment). The final anecdote is a common story of someone attaining enlightenment accidentally; a man comes to a teacher to study, but upon arriving received to answer: the man continued to rake the leaves in front of his house. The student left, built his own house, and many years later while raking the leaves, was enlightened.
I dwell on this here because this section contains perhaps my favorite Cage anecdote. It is a rather detailed story that ends with a “twist” or a turn at the end. In keeping with the kōan tradition, the final sentence is somewhat indecipherable, but it characterizes Cage better than any of the other anecdotes:
One summer day, Merce Cunningham and I took eight children to Bear Mountain Park. The paths through the zoo were crowded. Some of the children ran ahead, while others fell behind. Every now and then we stopped, gathered all the children together, and counted them to make sure none had been lost. Since it was very hot and the children were getting difficult, we decided to buy them ice cream cones. This was done in shifts. While I stayed with some, Merce Cunningham took others, got them cones, and brought them back. I took the ones with cones. He took those without. Eventually all the children were supplied with ice cream. However, they got it all over their faces. So we went to a water foundation where people were lined up to get a drink, put the children in line, tried to keep them there and waited our turn. Finally, I knelt beside the fountain. Merce Cunningham turned it on. Then I proceeded one by one to wash the children’s faces. While I was doing this, a man behind us in line said rather loudly, “There’s a washroom over there.” I looked up at him quickly and said, “Where? And how did you know I was interested in mushrooms?”