“There is too much there there.”
There is all the time in the world for studying music, but for living there is scarcely any time at all. For living takes place each instant.
“45’ For a Speaker” returns to the performative genre, and I think I’ll spend some time working through the idea of “reading through” that I initially proposed as one of the goals of this blog. It is fairly easy to approach John Cage’s technical or biographical essays from an analytic standpoint, but essays like “45’” present a very “musical” challenge. This is a performative and temporal piece, and its real ontology lies in hearing and seeing it performed rather than studying the “score” or written text. The greatest challenge of musical discourse lies in the relationship to written text and aural experience. We use words to describe a temporal aural experience, but there is really no direct relationship between the two. Metaphor serves to bridge the link between experiences, and oftentimes we resort to discussions of structure and form when describing a piece, leaving the “interpretation” up to the listener. Historical background, likewise, is an easy realm for musical discussion; these are facts about the piece, but not necessarily about the music “itself.”
At the same time, “45’” does contains a fair amount of “facts” in the sense that it describes compositional techniques Cage was interested in at various points, as well as a considerable amount of metaphor via Zen or East Asian heuristics and anecdotes. Equally, “45’” is densely structured; every element of succession and duration was devised according to a complex precompositional rhythmic structure coupled with a strict gamut technique for content.
So here we are left with a question: What “is” “45’ For A Speaker”? What boundaries, if any, can we ascribe for a performative piece? It is both a lecture and a musical composition, in my mind. It exists in a “score” form, and like a musical recording, it has another boundary of its original performance (The Composers’ Concourse in London and later at Donaueschingen in 1954), and in another sense, it exists in every subsequent reading, but that still doesn’t really tells us what it is.
This is a difficult but important question that I feel scholars need to address, particularly when discussing performative texts such as “45’.” It is admittedly a slippery slope of analytical investigation, but it gets quite close to the heart of Cage’s own ontological investigation on the nature of sound, listening, and experience, and it seems fitting that we apply the same methodology to his written words. This is especially important in later works that dissolve basic syntax and grammar, leaving us only with fleeting connections between sounds and specific ideas, symbols, or objects.
So let’s start with the easy descriptive work. “45’ For a Speaker” was delivered as a lecture in 1954 in conjunction with 34’ 46.776 for Two Pianists. 34’ 46.776 and was (and is) a part of what James Pritchett describes as the “Ten Thousand things” series in the mid 1950s. After completing Williams Mix in 1952, Cage began a new project, which he described:
From time to time ideas come for my next work which as I see it will be a large work which will always be in progress and will never be finished; at the same time any part of it will be able to be performed once I have begun. It will include tape and any other time actions, not excluding violins and whatever else I put my attention to. I will of course write other music than this, but only if required by some outside situation.
The collection of works that resulted from this project include two pieces for piano, two for strings, one unfinished work for voice, one for percussion, an unfinished project for magnetic tape, and “45’ For A Speaker.” The most famous work from this series was 26’ 1.1499” for a string player (1955), made famous largely due to the controversial performances by Charlotte Moorman in the 1960s (performances which Cage famously decried as “murderous”). The unifying element of these works is a similar strategy to Cage’s micro-macrocosmic form from his early percussion works. I’ll spare the minute details, but suffice to say there is a unifying element here of rhythmic structure related to the number “10,000,” which represents infinity in many Taoist and Buddhist writings. If you are interested in the details, I will defer to James Pritchett’s detailed discussion of the works.
Cage explicitly outlines the method involved in constructing “45’” in the introduction, so let’s get that out of the way now too. The performer reads the text in strict clock time following the timing marks on the left margin (although I am confused as to why Cage explained that each line should take two seconds, yet there are six lines in each ten-second margin grouping), loudness is indicated by typographical means, and noises and gestures that are to be performed are indicated in the right margin. Finally, the content of the lecture was decided via a gamut technique. After tossing the coins or using other star chart or constellation chance procedures, Cage went through the following procedure: 1.) speech or silence, 2.) duration, 3.) new material or old, which led to the following two choices, 4.) if old material, from which lecture and from which part, or 6.) if new material, he chose from 32 different subjects.
This gave Cage an consistent way to “write through” that he would refine in the coming decades. Once the process is set up, he could return to the writing or composing project with no concern for previous or future content; the act of writing could be set in motion at any given time. This is why Cage explicitly noted in this and many subsequent written works that they may be performed alone or together in any combination, and that segments can be taken separately and performed in any order. This was not an effort to get away from any sense of continuity or provide an example of “pure” indeterminacy, it was merely a mirror of the compositional process employed in creating the pieces themselves. They never really existed in any final form since they were composed with an automated means, and thus their ontological status need not be defined with any sense of totality.
Thus “reading through” this work presents another level of circularity central to the Cagean aesthetic. This is in essence a mosaic of ideas and aphorisms related to Cage’s compositional style and various philosophical statements, and the thinking mind inevitably goes about making analytical connections between statements, history, individual pieces, literary theory, art history, musicology, etc. etc.; we cannot stop the thinking mind from thinking, especially when there are hints of ideas that evoke our own personal understanding of Cage’s life and history, our own aesthetic and creative dilemmas, or any other host of ideas that float in and out of the mind in any given setting. To make matters worse, the content of many of these small gamuts of ideas are explicitly involved in describing that very intellectual circularity: we are thinking about what we are thinking about while it happens over time. In my mind this is something akin to the phenomenological reduction that attempts to get at the “thing itself,” which, itself, is a central concern of modern philosophy. Phenomenology is more concerned with “essences,” or the fleeting sense of something rather than the concrete, since it is impossible to perceive just what that is in time; it’s sort of like glancing over your shoulder, or the cold feeling of déjà vu.
So how do I “read though” this piece? Do I start from the beginning with a stopwatch and read it aloud according to the instructions? Do I read it in the normal succession of page after page, or do I skip around and read sections at random? (which is admittedly what I end up doing after having already read the essay all the way through and filling the text up with notes) When ideas come to my head while reading, do I ignore them, or do I make connections between different sections of the work; its structure or its relationship to the gamut? Have I heard this idea before; is it part of a previous essay? If not, what does it mean? In my mind, these are the same questions that inevitably occur when listening to Cage’s music; it’s just that here, “content” is more explicit. They are ideas or anecdotes, while small musical figures are just that, musical figures. They have, as Cage would say, no “content” other than their actual existence.
These are important questions to address, especially with “45’ For a Speaker,” and the other purely performative lecture, “Where are We Going? And What Are We Doing?” (1961 – which I’ll discuss next week), which together constitute almost half of the “content” of Silence. What do we “do” with these essays, if anything? I am amazed how often analytical arguments quote from the small sections of these essays, as if they were quoting from a segment of a logical argument presented in the normal succession of written texts. The individual ideas gradually functioned as part of the greater “Cagean” discourse on many levels. Cage repeated many ideas in interviews or lectures, and thus the ideas gradually developed a life of their own, which in turn problematized essays such as this as time went by and a larger network of indeterminate discourse developed.
With essays like this it is tempting to “put the pieces back together” by categorizing the individual segments according to the original gamut of subjects. Thus we could tear apart the essay and collect all of the old ideas in one group alongside the new ideas divided according to the 32 subjects. We would then have a linear discourse that would accurately describe many of Cage’s ideas in a coherent way. Even without literally doing this on paper, I tend to construct such a grouping as I “read through” the lecture. But who is to blame me for doing so? Cage tempted us in the beginning by explaining the gamut process quite clearly. If he would have just printed the essay with no explanation, it would be perhaps easier to just read the essay and not think about structure and division. In a way the essay is like an interview; the discussion wanders between many different disparate topics, Cage chiming in with familiar aphorisms, occasional jokes, and circular arguments that evade moments of intellectual clarity.
I think I’ll end today by doing what many people do: open to a random page of the lecture and find a quote that seems to summarize my ideas at this very moment. If I were to do it tomorrow, it would be a completely different page, a different idea, and this essay would have a different structure. But it is not tomorrow, nor is it yesterday; it is this moment right now, and this particular anything whatsoever.
This work has no score. It should be abolished. “A statement concerning the arts is no statement concerning the arts.” It consists of single parts. Any of them may be played together or eliminated and at any time. “To me teaching is an expedient, but I do not teach external signs.” Like a long book if a long book is like a mobile. “The ignorant because of their attachment to existence seize on signified or signifying.” No beginning no ending. Harmony, so called, is a forced abstract vertical relation which blots out the spontaneous transmitting nature of each of the sounds forced into it. Form, then, is not something off in the distance in solitary confinement: It is right here right now. Since it is something we say about past actions, it is wise to drop it.