This morning, I was privileged to talk at Northwestern University about John Cage. The 30 minutes of the talk was just enough time to scratch the surface of what his work means to me and to my group. The over-arching point of my talk was that to many, Cage is still an outlier, a kind of prophet in the wilderness who we all agree was singular and important. But to us as percussionists, he is foundational. He actually created the artistic world that I now inhabit.
While preparing for this talk, I experimented with writing a lecture in Cage's style, using chance operations to cut up material. I hoped it might reveal connections and new ideas that I hadn't thought of. It certainly did that.
In the end, I thought it would be more interesting for the group at the conference to hear about how So Percussion uses Cage's music to stimulate creative programming and recording. But I wanted to put the text down on e-paper, as I've been doing with other writings recently.
During the effort to emulate Cage, my text became very personal. For as much as I proselytize for him, I actually have a very complicated aesthetic relationship to his work. I suppose I take him seriously enough to be troubled and provoked by some of his conclusions and directions.
Those who dismiss(ed) Cage as a joker or clown are avoiding these issues entirely. When you become intimately acquainted with his work, he is impossible to dismiss in this way.
I may turn this text into some sort of performance piece, measured out in time and accompanied by tasks and percussion sounds. But I'm going to leave it for awhile, and see if the unintended juxtapositions spark other ideas.
Here's a video of my talk at NU:
Here's a video of my talk at NU:
Here’s what I mean…
If we take time and duration to mean structure as Cage thought,
Where do we place our emotions?
I am not interested in Zen, although obviously I am interested in it.
Duration contains both silence and sound,
Though silence does not exist here…
So duration actually contains the sounds
Intended or not intended
But the sounds “intended”
Are genus or species
And not the sounds themselves
For only the sounds themselves
Can be the sounds.
The intention of a sound
Is the intention of a generality.
And the question of emotion is trite,
As we all know.
Placing emotion is manipulative
It is the bullwhip of corporations
Detachment is honest, trustworthy
But I have my emotions
And I like some of them
And I feel them when I play
John Cage’s music.
To speak of Cage’s originality
It is vast
But Art is social
And nobody creates in a vacuum
I found out that Marcel Duchamp made chance music
Decades before Cage.
It takes nothing away from him
Actually it enhances everything.
I plan to use chance in this talk
Because it is about Cage.
But I will change it
If I don’t like the outcome.
I am not yet at peace with the world
I do not accept everything as it is.
I believe Art is freedom.
We percussionists had nothing to lose.
We don’t tear down power structures
We brush them aside
And embrace freedom
Melodies are sounds in sequence
I’m not tired of Schubert
Not at all
To speak of a melody
As pleasing or not
But you can’t disqualify…
We hear sound on a line:
But if we say it is not “music”
We are caught defining music
I simply think that chance may be better
At combining things
Than I am
And I tire of my own train of thought
Imagine if I subjected you to it as well!
I desire urgently to communicate with you…
This discussion makes me uncomfortable.
Back to duration:
We feel experientially that we can measure it
Control it, quantize it
It is a hammer
Leveling the great arc
Beethoven died, after all
Trying so hard to make something different
It’s a worthy impulse
But why shouldn’t we be connected?
The limits of our view
All of a sudden our thoughts form
Weapons from the past
Cage penetrates the bubble.
To speak of theater…
I know nothing of theater
To speak of music
Is to speak of sound
But to speak of silence
Is to be un-silent
And to be silent is merely
To move towards the sounds
You haven’t yet considered.
Walk into a crowded room
Look intently at somebody else
Who doesn’t know you’re listening
As they speak.
Their words come into radiant focus
In your mind.
So it is with the wall clock
The radiator hum
But to speak of Beethoven
As Cage did
Makes very little sense now
So I will speak of Cage.
Again to emotion
The theater is a box,
Just like the Silent Piece
What we call theater
I am totally unable to do
In terms of craft.
As a box for examining life
I am enthralled.
We all have different tools.
The urge to ritualize
And frame life
Is all that’s needed.
Catharsis is obviously temporary
And I suppose that’s the point
But I can’t abandon my emotions
But arrival at stasis…
I’m going to keep using this word “freedom”
Because I hope I can make it taste different in my mouth
After the 2000’s
We are not supposed to worship the man
We are not supposed to do anything
That’s the point.
I’ve heard some music dismissed as “derivative.”
I know I’m supposed to understand what that means
But nobody ever tells me exactly what it’s derived from
Or why they dismiss the source
Which was itself inevitably a complex derivation
Of something else
Modernism was a cleansing
In many ways healthy
But locked and trapped in the past it resisted.
It must not have been original.
It seems to me that the only original act
was the creation itself.
Everything else is a derivation
I only run into trouble
When I try to be somebody else.
But as myself
I create theater in community
I suspend the tiresome
But necessary rules
I am still myself.
This brings me back to freedom
Not lonely freedom from the community
But freedom together
We can all change the rules.
Stasis need not be boring
It can be commitment
A small powerful thought
If my thought is powerful
Why leave it quickly?
What contrast do you require?
Are you listening,
Or are you apprehending?
I don’t mind either
But apprehending from a book makes sense
Because, temporally speaking
It is malleable.
Give yourself license
To hear the world as it is
Now to speak of pitch
Or really frequency
How slow or fast things vibrate
I still believe that sounding these vibrations at the same time
Can be divine
You will build better connections than I
Or at least, I’d like to allow for it.
I haven’t composed a piece of music until 33 years of age
Because of this thought.
The question is not “this” or “that.”
When things vibrate at the same time
We are alive.
Cage wanted us to see it larger
And more clearly.
Every noise has frequencies
Sometimes many simultaneously
Cage said something new
Because of who, where, when, why…
And because he was courageous.
He turned our ears.
This is supremely social.
My talk is derived from Cage’s methods
It is highly unoriginal.
I can’t believe that he meant for us to set him aside
With extreme permission
And just continue on as we were.
We don’t need to swing the pendulum
This way and that.
But I don’t know what that implies
Because it was fun.
But Cage lets it be.
I don’t reject the past.
In fact, I embrace it so well that I’m left inert.
I suspect it’s the same for some of you.
I’m not overcoming anything
Because Cage doesn’t require me to defeat him
If I use chance, I simply use chance.
If you consider me unoriginal
I enthusiastically agree
But I want to make sound.
And I want to speak with you.
The consequences are not what you think…
I can’t proclaim revolution against him
Even if I wanted to
Which I certainly don’t
I am unworthy of this style
Of this voice
Of this courage
But “the only rule is work.”
He stands, in a sense
To be honest, I can
Understand those who think (and thought)
That it’s a little bit ridiculous to stand for everything
Duration is an illusion, to be sure
But it’s concrete enough for us
And I have no time for mysticism
I recently read
“Once the point (of 4’33”) is grasped
Do I really need to sit and listen to it?”
But then the point is surely not grasped
Back to freedom
It is of course another paradox
It can only be experienced within strict limitations
Such as duration.
The “Freedom” of endless decision points
Endless spinning out
Is a tyranny.
Pitches are rhythms…
My emotions are touched by pitches
Which is to say rhythms
My emotions are attachments
I am attached to the world.
I’m not fighting against anything…
But it needed to be done.
There is nothing wrong with the keyboard per se
The keyboard is just a pattern
Any pattern becomes oppressive
When it’s enforced.
And so it is with new patterns
Built to replace the old.
I won’t tell you what John Cage stood for
Because of John Cage
A cactus or a branch is a newfound instrument each time
And you paid, and I’m dressed up.
What I urgently want you to understand
Is that this is not a joke
But it can be funny.
I don’t want you to “get it.”
I want you to try it on.
You may find yourself a little lighter.