[29. K'an / The Abysmal (Water); Nine in the Second Place, Six in the Third Place. Changing to: 39. Chien / Obstruction]
[speaking of a recent composition by Ramon Sender]…it made me think of the complexity of Ives and the way one perceives something. Does it emerge? Or do we enter in? I rather think it emerges in his case. And that nowadays we would tend toward doing it ourselves (we are the listeners), that is, we would enter in. The difference is this: everybody hears the same thing if it emerges. Everybody hears what he alone hears if he enters in.
These two statements are the only extensive writings by John Cage on Charles Ives, a figure that looms large over American music history in the twentieth century. Cage deftly works through similarities and differences between Ives and himself, while carefully plotting a bit of lineage between their artistic programs. One of the real strengths of Cage’s writing style is that it rarely if ever comes off as disingenuous, even if it occasionally is. This is particularly true when discussing artistic lineage, which is perhaps one of the touchiest topics in Cage Studies. Cage was enmeshed in virtually every major artistic movement in America midcentury, and one could juxtapose just about any artistic movement or style with Cage’s program merely by arguing for its literal proximity.
Cage himself however was prone to pick and choose which artists directly influenced his ideas, and Ives was never part of this group. However, many scholars, particularly Chris Shultis, have presented very good arguments for an American transcendentalist movement that ends with Cagean poetics. According to this argument, Ives is presented as one part of a large and all-encompassing dichotomy between the Emersonian pull of American intellectualism that complements the driving libertarianism of Thoreau. Like Jackson Pollock, Ives is a sort of yin to Cage’s yang, a force of determined determinacy, while Cage’s passive provocations of nonsubjectivity are a gentle but equally forceful opposition of determined indeterminacy.
Thus it comes as no surprise that Cage would pick apart the determinate elements of Ives’ music, while admiring the indeterminate elements of his bucolic pastiche of nineteenth century Americana. The most often-cited portion of these essays occurs at the end of the second statement, where Cage compares the idyllic Ivesian situation of “sitting on a porch in a rocking chair smoking a pipe looking out over the landscape which goes into the distance,” where Cage “imagines that as that person, who is anyone, is sitting there doing nothing, that he is hearing his own symphony.”
There are some clear parallels between Ives and Cage regarding listening. Both artists sought out a situation of musical cacophony, an immersion of materials and ideas in a single setting. However, Ives’ music, as Cage notes in the quote above, is strictly determinate, meaning that the cacophony that he presents is final and absolute, and evokes a specific memory, namely his own, of the pastoral New England landscape of band music, country tunes, and nineteenth century romanticism.
There are of course contradictions within this dichotomy that one could point to, particularly when questioning the larger notion of indeterminacy and the determinate product of indeterminacy. For example, Cage’s Williams Mix (1952) presents a cacophony of sounds indeterminate in respect to ordering, but determinate in their final arrangement. Yes, the ordering of these sounds was determined by random procedures, but the selection of them was determinate, meaning Cage chose what materials to use and arrange on the splicing table. Thus, the amalgam of sounds that scatter over the sound art composition are not all too different from Ives’ brilliant introduction to the Piano Sonata No. 2, Concord, Mass (1911, 1947). I dug up an old analysis of the opening phrases of the sonata, which is rich with internal references, allusions, and other programmatic tidbits of Americana that make it such a brilliant work.
One could perhaps argue that Ives’ pastiche is not so different from a site-specific work of sound art that captures the materials and emotions of a specific soundscape and all the emotions that such an environment might engender. The standard argument, of course, is that a work of sound art and site-specific sound in general rely on the direct connection between sonic events and their inscription on a recording apparatus, thus making them arguably more “real” and “realistic” than a composer assembling notes on a page to reflect the experience of a specific emotional moment in time. However, the “recording apparatus as truth” argument is quickly losing ground; we realize that even the purest of scientific recording situations are rife with subjectivity, whether it is the placement and accentuation of the microphone, the editing and aftereffects applied to the soundwaves, or the overall presentation in an autonomous setting of seemingly disparate experiences, subjectivity creeps into any attempt to replicate the “real” experience of life, and thus again, the two works are not so different after all.
I’ll add one note here to the structure of Cage’s second essay, which is unique. It is a literal transcription of a prior speech, and instead of editing the content to reflect the style of written versus spoken prose, Cage chose instead to notate the speech inflections through graphic shapes; triangles represent breathing, circles swallowing, etc., and the result is as accurate a transcription of literal sound that language can provide in comparison to a recording. Cage did not really pursue this idea further, but I wish he had, because it represents a very important step in the deconstruction of language in his later works, using symbols rather than letters, and has many affinities with the notations for Song Books.