[43. Kuai / Break-through (Resoluteness), Nine in the Second Place, Nine in the Third Place. Changing To: 17. Sui / Following]
Does dance depend? Or is it independent?
Today I am reading through three essays on the (anti)choreomusical aesthetic of John Cage and Merce Cunningham. The first two essays are from the “4 Statements on the Dance” collection in Silence, and as I mentioned in an earlier post, I waited to finish the second two essays until I reached this point in the project, when I got to “Where do We Go From Here?” This third essay marks a transition in A Year From Monday from statements on individual artists to the final large theoretical essays at the end of the volume, which I’ll be tackling over the next few weeks (skipping “Julliard Lecture,” which I covered in conjunction with its period-specific texts here). As I mentioned before, Cage did not compose a statement on Cunningham in the same fashion as those of other artists in the inner sanctum of the neo-avant-garde. True, he did write a series of mesostics on Cunningham in M, which hopefully I’ll get to in this project, but these statements are in many ways, literally and figuratively, deeply coded—for obvious reasons.
These three statements outline the core tenants of the Cage/Cunningham (anti)choreomusical aesthetic. In the earlier texts on the dance, we saw Cage move in a direction similar to his compositional approach. Beginning with a temporal-mathematical structure, Cage outlined duration for musical events to occur. In his earlier works, the succession of musical noises or events were determined at times by choice and others, such as First Construction in Metal (1939), by a limiting procedure whereby a gamut of ideas, motives, etc. occur; upon “discovering” the I-Ching, Cage then applied various randomization procedures to the selection and succession of musical ideas, and the rest is history.
From this analytical perspective, one can note that duration, or large scale ordering, remained paramount to the ontology of the musical artwork according to Cage, and this structure formed the basis of Cage’s earlier approaches to dance accompaniment, which I discussed in the earlier post. Blocks of time were prearranged with the choreographer, whereby the music—anything that Cage felt like composing—would fit within the pre-structured time lengths of the dance. At this point, the notion of “accompaniment” became obscured, because the choreomusical relationships were in general quite random. Following this, the whole point of musical accompaniment started to fall apart, and Cage being Cage, he and Cunningham embraced the idea that anything whatsoever could simultaneously happen concerning the sounds and the dance within the timeframe of the work. Here we arrive at the Cage/Cunningham aesthetic: dance and music simply occur at the same time in the same space, nothing more, nothing less. The choreography is self-referential, intrinsic rather than extrinsic, and the same for the sounds that occur in the space.
Dance scholars and musicologists, such as two colleagues of mine, Daniel Callahan and Paul Cox, have challenged this biographical narrative, citing archival evidence that, in several cases, such as Credo in US (1942) and Cheap Imitation (1969, alongside Cunningham’s Second Hand), Cage and Cunningham derived an explicit narrative internal and essential to the work. In the latter case of Cheap Imitation, this would seem to contradict the entire Cage/Cunningham aesthetic; however, the volume of works that do adhere to the anti-choreomusical aesthetic far outweigh these examples, and to dismiss their entire program because of a few contradictions is something neither scholars have done. I am always reminded of this wonderful short excerpt from the Cunningham repertoire, accompanied by Satie, Septet, from 1953, a work as poignant and expressive as any choreography can be:
Thus we have another very simple formulation that, like the negative aesthetic of silence, is very tricky to parse. Dance and music occur at the same time, nothing more, nothing less. “People and sounds interpenetrate.” Easy to explain, much harder to understand. In contrast to Cage’s sounds-as-sounds thesis, this one has a number of associative problems that the human mind rarely gets over, and I believe this was built in to the anti-choreomusical aesthetic. The term I’ve mentioned before, synchresis, coined by Michel Chion in his writings on film sound, is relevant here. Synchresis is the “indelible weld” that occurs between sound and image on the screen, and the associative mind immediately, and perhaps instinctually, associates an action with its concurrent sound, even if the sound has little to do with a sound that would occur in reality. Sound designers take advantage of this phenomena by utilizing a wide variety of objects to create sound effects on a Foley stage—think of pumpkins and wood being smashed to mimic someone being punched, when in real life a punch is usually accompanied by an anticlimactic and generally inaudible soft thud.
In terms of choreomusical relationships, especially when the music is music as defined by Cage, the happenstance moments when sound and action correspond immediately set the mind to making associations. Cage, and Cunningham, would kindly ask that we ignore these moments, but in the end, this is an instinctual response, one closely related to the fight or flight instinct deep in the oldest recesses of our troublesome craniums, and it simply will not go away. This is where the Cage/Cunningham aesthetic really shines: if we really do celebrate these instinctual responses, rather than think about them, we can truly appreciate the multimedia audiovisual haptic and kinesthetic artwork that is the Cage/Cunningham dance experience. In this case it is all about instinct, not intellect, that we are reveling in. The mind jumps to make associations, and we let it, we just don’t think about it or assume it means anything.
This is the idea that is gradually developed in these three essays, I believe. In the first, written in 1956, Cage begins by taking the easy way out, by defining the “meaning” of the Cage/Cunningham experience in absolute terms:
We are not, in these dances and music, saying something. We are simple-minded enough to think that if we were saying something we would use words. We are rather doing something…there are no stories and no psychological problems. There is simply an activity of movement, sound, and light…the activity of movement, sound, and light, we believe, is expressive, but what it expresses is determined by each one of you—who is right, as Pirandello’s title has it, if he thinks he is.
Here Cage is referring to Pirandello’s 1917 play, Right You Are! (If You Think So), which aptly summarizes the solipsistic or skeptical argument in philosophy: We cannot know what is going on in anyone else’s mind, ever, and thus the problems of philosophy, of the mind, meaning, or interpretation are all internal, a battle within ourselves, played out in jumbled words, jumbled blog posts, polemics, aesthetics, idealism, politics, etc.
Cage realized quickly that he should probably avoid the term “expressive,” and thus the latter two essays speak in even more vague terms about the ontology of the Cage/Cunningham artwork, and the other fun problem of philosophy: how do we define the indefinable? The answer according to Cage, as I have discussed, is through negation: we define it according to its opposite. In the interim essay, “2 Pages, 122 Words on Music and Dance,” Cage takes recourse to a version of the sounds-as-sounds thesis: we look directly to the object, whether it is a sound or an action, and define it according to itself, and nothing else:
[this is an approximation of the beautiful layout of the text]
To obtain the value
of a sound, a movement,
measure from zero. (Pay A bird flies.
attention to what it is,
just as it is.)
Points in Activities which are different
time, in love happen in a time which is a space:
space mirth are each central, original.
The emotions tranquility are in the audience
anger The telephone rings.
disgust Each person is in the best seat.
So at this point the recourse is to the intrinsic, to the associations within the mind, whatever they may be, that keeps the thinking mind thinking. If we follow Cage, and accept the actions just for what they are—moments in time, unique to the occasion and irreproducible—then we have come that much closer to the great ideal of philosophy, the thing-in-itself, or in Cage’s terms “nature in her manner of operation,” that prickly elusive thing we just never seem to be able to grasp with our feeble minds. This is not necessarily the best way to go, because as I mentioned before, time and again philosophy has argued for and against such an ideal, and in the end it is nearly always concluded that this ideal is just that, an impossibility; at some point we are going to fall back on our habits and start thinking of relationships between things, ideas, objects, sounds, movement, etc.
So, Cage asks us in the third essay, “Where Do We Go From Here?” More than any other writer on music in the twentieth century, Cage phrases his ideas in the form of a question, opening up the debate and sending the mind spinning, and at this point, my mind is spinning. Where do we go from here? Where are we going? Are sounds just sounds, or are they Beethoven?
Cage opens the essay with the quote at the beginning of this post: “Does dance depend? Or is it independent?” He follows with another formulation of the “sound field” thesis, which is integral to the sounds-as-sounds ideal, and quickly rushes through a host of ideas relating the Cage/Cunningham aesthetic to, suddenly, politics. This is a strong undercurrent in the latter half of A Year From Monday, and it really peaks in M, when Cage seemingly moves to leftist extremes. This is really not a surprising turn, for Cage’s negative aesthetics ultimately led to the one real political confrontation that the arts have been dealing with in the latter half of the 20th century and beyond: now that we opened the door for the “what is art” question, the step many people began to take was: “what do we pay for, or support, and what is its value?” Naturally any artist scoffs at this question, but it was and is a very real question, one that highlights the dirty connection between arts, commerce, and politics. And it’s not going away any time soon.
In between these political wranglings (which are footnoted, yet the footnoted material is placed in line with the text rather than at the bottom of the page) is an interesting elaboration on the sound-as-sounds thesis, emerging from the sound field idea, toward what Cage calls a “space-time arts.” Sound is ostensibly just a vibration within a space, audible to the human ear, and thus space, environment, and architecture are included in this conception of a new kind of art, one more in line with multimedia, or, in the popular sixties term “Intermedia.” On the last page of the essay, after recounting his famous anecdote of the first time he met Morton Feldman (which seems a bit out of place considering the context), Cage highlights an important new direction for the Cage/Cunningham anti-choreomusical aesthetic, one he would discover in about a year:
We’re no longer satisfied with flooding the air with sound from a public-address system. We insist upon something more luminous and transparent so that sounds will arise at any point in the space bringing about the surprises we encounter when we walk in the woods or down the city streets. Thus music is becoming a dance in its own right and has, of course, new notations.
Cage is referring here to a project that he started in 1962 with the sculptor Richard Lippold, who was commissioned by Pan American Airlines to construct several sculptures in its new high-tech, glossy behemoth corporate headquarters in Midtown Manhattan, the infamous Pan Am Building (later bought out and renamed the MetLife Building). Lippold, a close friend of Cage for many years (and about whom I have written extensively in other contexts), tossed out an idea to the architects to commission Cage for lobby music rather than utilizing the dreaded Muzak that Cage famously scorned (as I discussed HERE). To his surprise they accepted the proposal, and Cage began work on perhaps one of the first commercial sound installation sculptures. He proposed that the floor be embedded with contact sensors that would cue a large sound system of prerecorded sounds from the environment—a far cry from Muzak and a wonderful idea far ahead of its time. However, once he started discussing the idea with engineers and architects, they realized the project would be far too costly, and far too avant-garde for the guys upstairs, and they went for the Muzak. Corporate America: 1 Cage: 0 (but who’s counting at this point, really).
However, the project did spark something in Cage. He was in the midst of his infamous “Variations” series at the time, and many point to Variations IV, which premiered the following year, as a major turning point. In addition, the idea of using contact microphones and sensors to cue electronic equipment opened up a new direction for the Cage/Cunningham choreomusical aesthetic. So, in a sense Cage was on the cusp of answering his own question. Where do we go from here? Here: