[55. Fêng / Abundance [Fullness], Unchanging]
“I disagree with almost everything”
“Mosaic” is John Cage’s major essay on Schoenberg, although Schoenberg’s name pervades virtually all of his writings. Cage insistently posited a modernist lineage stemming from Schoenberg’s compositional approach to serialism, and as Cage’s story goes, noise and indeterminacy were the next logical step in the “evolution” of Western art music. You can tell this tale by starting as far back as you like, from modal/tonal relationships in Monteverdi, to the “long-line” of Beethoven, the chromaticism of Wagner, “developing variation” in Brahms, “emancipation of the dissonance” in Schoenberg, etc., but few besides Cage himself were willing to connect the next modernist dot to Cage’s compositional approach, even half a century later.
In my mind, the problem here is that musicologists are simply talking over each other. When we are speaking of Western tonal art music, Cage’s program, and particularly his aesthetic of silence, comes across as something altogether different. To be sure, Cage still utilized the resources of Western concert music to launch his campaign (I am thinking in particular of 4’33”, which is a specific critique of the concert music setting), but in the end he was equally concerned with the relationships between listening, object, and alterity.
Nevertheless, Cage still clung to certain conventions of tonally-structured music, especially later in life when he returned to composing for acoustic instruments, and his relationship to Schoenberg’s thinking consistently returned to the fundamentals. It is notable that, as many scholars have proven, all that Cage likely gleaned from his early studies with Schoenberg were nothing more than this, fundamentals of counterpoint and analysis. I imagine the courses were insightful, and judging from Cage’s recollections, rather curious, but in the end they were really just elementary counterpoint classes that most undergraduates in a music school are obliged to take.
Cage’s favorite anecdote about having “no ear for music” was both a provocation and a veil. Did he literally not know anything about music, and thus resorted to esoteric compositional methods to hide his inadequacies? Most certainly not. To put it the other way, however, that Cage understood counterpoint and harmony well enough to construct a system of an even higher order of complexity than serialism is, in my mind, a bit of a stretch. To be sure, Cage conceived of elaborate mathematical puzzles and systems for ordering events temporally, but none of his systems maintained a constant variable point to base further elaborations on. Schoenberg’s system of serial composition was, in most cases, nested in a late-romantic style relating to form and content, and it was not until the hard-edge serialism of the postwar schools emerged that the system began to look a lot like chance and indeterminacy.
As I have mentioned before, however, these two extreme oppositional poles were the logical extension of one idea: namely the removal of romantic expressionism from the ordering of musical notes, and once this extreme was reached, there was really nowhere else to go. Academic composers still occasionally apply serial techniques in their works, and many downtown composers still look to Cage as a model or a mirror for their own work, but neither camps have resonated deeply enough in modern culture to be appropriately called a living “school” of composition.
That is not a critique of either approaches relative merit or value, it’s rather a historical evaluation. Most of Cage’s works are viewed as fascinating historical artifacts, no different from the eclectic methods of ars subtilior in the fourteenth century. What has lasted and remains a strong cultural force, in my mind, are the profound notions Cage advocated for listening in general, and thus while it is appropriate to trace historical comparisons between Cage and Schoenberg regarding method, I hesitate to advocate for a sweeping generalization of the historical effect of this particular connection.
The second notion that creeps up still today in Cagean lore is the supposed anecdote from Schoenberg that Cage as an “inventor of genius,” and I think it is appropriate to once again set the record straight here. The anecdote arose after Los Angeles impresario Peter Yates sent a note to Cage in 1953. I’ll transcribe the section verbatim:
I have planned several times to tell you—and always forget to—that during my last conversation with Schoenberg I made an effort to find out how much he knew about the work of his self-appointed disciples, especially those in NY. He knew nothing of them, their work or their names, except his few elder friends, not even about his pupils. Until he thought of you, and at once he brightened and explained, to this effect “An inventor! An inventor of genius. Not a composer, no, not a composer, but an inventor. A great mind.” Recognizing that the qualification balances your own estimate of the old man, I think you should be honored and happy that both his esteem and his affection for you remained so vocal and so visible.
-Peter Yates to John Cage, 8 August, 1953. John Cage Collection, Northwestern University, Series I, Box 3, Folder 8, Item 1, p. 2.
The question remains just what Yates meant by “to this effect,” but nevertheless Cage was fond of quoting the anecdote, and scholars continue to cite the anecdote as fact, despite the minimal evidence. Not that it matters one way or the other for most, but it is evidence of the complex notions of lineage that pervade academic, artistic, and social constructions of history.
In many ways this notion of memory and history is reflected in the structure and title of the essay, and it is here that I think Cage is most adept at approaching the act of remembering. As the essay implies, it is a mosaic of ideas surrounding Schoenberg, constructed from snippets of his recently-published correspondence, subjected to I-Ching calculations, and then filled in with Cage’s own memories of his early counterpoint classes. Most of the anecdotes pop up elsewhere in Cage’s writings, and he persistently returns to the relationship between Schoenberg, Berg, Webern and Hauer. I’ll end with a note on the various anecdotes that pervade the Schoenberg legacy, particularly those in Los Angeles surrounding his eclectic demeanor and his fondness for tennis. Here, it seems, we have a character as odd and curious as Cage, and here I see a fine parallel to be made.
Charlie Chaplin, Gertrud and Arnold Schoenberg, David Raskin. Photograph by Max Munn Autrey
|Arnold Schoenberg and Lucca Lehner shaking hands with Gertrud Schoenberg and Felix Khuner at the net, at the conclusion of a tennis doubles game in Los Angeles, in the summer of 1937.|