[26. Ta Ch'u / The Taming Power of the Great, Unchanging.]
Silence isn’t as generally upsetting as it used to be.
Today I am reading through Cage’s summit statement on “The Future of Music,” a rhetorical trope begun with his influential and often misdated ca. 1940 essay, “The Future of Music: Credo.” Noticeably, this is the last essay from Cage’s published collections that is entirely in essay format, devoid of any precompositional limiting or randomization procedures. It is a direct statement on the state of contemporary music, similar in effect to “History of Experimental Music in The United States” (1958), but written in a less emphatic tone of ethical necessity.
Cage was 62 years old when he wrote this essay, and in many ways I consider it a summit statement on the range and influence of his life and work, at least in the traditional sense. Certainly there are later essays that, through many levels of coding, assert some form of ideological Cagean discourse, but this essay in particular comes at a critical juncture in which the Cage aesthetic had, as Cage himself notes, more or less been adopted by a new cadre of artists—the first of many “post-Cage” generations. And, once again, it is his last published essay in the Wesleyan series that follows a linear narrative structure.
Thus the initial shock of experimental music, as Cage notes in the first few paragraphs, has waned as more and more people adopt and absorb the new intellectual and creative license granted by the neo-avant-garde generation and beyond. “Almost anyone who listens to sound now listens easily no matter what overtone structures the sounds have,” Cage observes, and thus, “we no longer discriminate against noises.”
Cage makes many allusions to racial and social justice in conjunction with this newfound musical and artistic plurality: the ultimate goal of liberal politics, and the summit achievement of Cagean discourse. Out of tune sounds are now identified as microtones, and the notion of “world” music in the early post-colonialist stance has lead to a homogenization of international styles and tastes. Silence, rhythm, harmony and the general notion of process have been absorbed by a diverse range of artists, including La Monte Young, Ben Johnston, Elliot Carter and Conlon Nancarrow (although these two are admittedly from Cage’s generation, yet he seems to want to categorize them in the new expansionism of post-Cagean discourse).
Everywhere Cage seems to situate artists and performers in and around his own social and artistic milieu, as he had done in many past essays. This is certainly not a fault, the essay is meant to summarize the state of contemporary music and possible future directions, and Cage was particularly adept at formulating a specific historical narrative that outlines methods, attitudes, and philosophies within the general trajectory of the neo-avant-garde in America.
On the third page of the essay Cage demurely describes the current state of acceptance as a general attitude of conviviality; minimalist composers in particular, such as Philip Glass, Terry Riley, and Steve Reich, are lumped into a category that Cage seems to want to push away from, although his formulation for a stance in opposition to the minimalist aesthetic is somewhat convoluted:
The difference between closed-mindedness and open-mindedness resembles the difference between the critical and creative faculties, or the difference between information about something (or knowledge even) and that something itself.
This seems to be a formulation similar to the minimalist goal of eradicating illusionism and a priori systems by creating an anti-gestalt object. This, however, overlooks the difference between minimalist aesthetics in sculpture and those in music, particularly Reich’s thesis of music as a “gradual process,” and it seems that Cage was attempting to equate his own notion of “sounds as sounds” with minimalism. This is something that is worth looking into, as several scholars are now realizing, but in the context of this project such an essay would be beyond the project of reading through.
Instead of following through with this inquiry, Cage, as usual, jumps to something entirely different, equating the minimalist aesthetic and open-mindedness with a new cultural plurality that would have many post-colonialists shudder. But, as I have mentioned before, this continues to be a difficult aspect of Cage’s high modernist liberalism for cultural theorists and critical musicologists to parse. Noticeably, on the following page Cage equates cultural plurality with technocratic idealism; it is through advancements in communication and recording technologies that we are given a global sense of musical identity. This again is an academic notion that quickly fell out of favor, although there is a resurgence of global cultural identity in the post web 2.0 millennial age, but it’s too soon to really give this any theoretical grounds.
By the fifth page Cage returns to a familiar notion of what Benjamin Piekut has described as his “hegemonic liberalism,” which I have discussed in the past. Cage’s “freedom of choice” ideology was brought about by advancements in communications, recording, and synthesis technologies, and yet this expansion of opportunity in many circles resulted in a formulation of a new discourse meant to promote a singular version of liberalism, one endorsed by those sympathetic to the fundamental tenants of liberalism in America, and one that continued to exclude many racial and ethnic minorities. Again, it would be difficult and perhaps irrelevant to directly implicate Cage in this complex web of societal change that America went through during the depression of the 1970s, especially when considering the ideological backlash of 1980s conservatism that was soon to come forth after the publication of Cage’s final Wesleyan monograph in the early 80s.
Overall I would consider this one of the most intriguing essays of the “late-Cage” period, primarily for its many contradictions and overt political references. As a cultural artifact it represents the state of Cagean discourse in the 1970s and the gradual adoption of Cagean notions of liberalism in the academy and beyond, creating a platform for subsequent generations to forge their own notions of just what it means to be “post-Cage.” Cage was always elusive and often contradictory, as this essay proves, and it would take more than a blog post like this to truly give the essay justice. To date I have yet to see an in-depth investigation of the post-Cage influence, or of the concept of “late Cage” in general, and in my mind this essay would be an excellent starting point.
In the conclusion Cage cites the infamous anecdote when Henry David Thoreau accidentally set fire to the woods near Walden pond. The fire soon spread to nearby Concord, causing $2,000 in damage ($50,000 in 2010 dollars). Thoreau was for years known as the “woods burner,” an early fumble that could have permanently set his place in history as an eccentric lost in the woods. But as Cage notes, Thoreau embraced the accident, citing the wealth it brought to the forest through rejuvenation of the natural effect of “nature’s broom” on the natural cycles of the forest. In the penultimate paragraph, Cage places a rather stark observation that he very well could have considered similar to his own legacy.
Emerson said that Thoreau could have been a great leader of men, but that he ended up simply as the captain of huckleberry-picking-parties for children. But Thoreau’s writing determined the actions of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Gandhi, and the Danes in their light-hearted resistance to Hitler’s invasion. India. Nonviolence…The change is not disruptive. It Is cheerful.