Out from the Ghetto

For 18 years I’ve written for the Village Voice, about Downtown music, for a Downtown audience and those who love Downtown music. In that milieu, I could always shout, any time I wanted, “Geeez, ya wanna know what sucks?! 12-TONE MUSIC!!” And I’d never get any response more threatening than, “YEAAHH, woo!!” Because nobody Downtown gave a damn about 12-tone music. Glenn Branca isn’t going to exclaim, “Omigosh, he can’t say that about poor Schoenberg!” It’s more like, “Schoenberg!? Oh yeah, that guy.”

Now, on the internet, I apparently reach a broader readership. This isn’t what allegedly happens. One pervasive concern about the internet, especially before the last election – excuse me, “election” – was that it was becoming an echo chamber, that the search function made it not only possible but overwhelmingly likely that people would end up talking only to people with the same interests and views. But I seem to have had a far narrower, more focused audience in my print medium than I do on this blog. So I’m learning to say instead, “Geeez, ya wanna know what mostly sucks?!”

One respondent linked my points about 12-tone music to Cage’s chance music, and I replied, “Ouch!” Because Downtown music has a couple of Achilles’ heels, and one of them is chance music. Cage is a Downtown icon, and we loved him dearly. Typically, we love his Constructions for percussion ensemble, his prepared piano music, his use of recordings in Credo in US, his Imaginary Landscape for 12 radios, his 1950 String Quartet, even the fantastic, ever-ready 4’33”. But a lot of Downtown composers will quietly admit that they’re not into the chance music he started writing after 1952.

Now, I will defend down to the last troll Cage’s works of the 1960s and ’70s and ’80s that apply chance methods to theater: Variations IV, Songbooks, Europeras. Those sopranos flying across the stage, blimps wheeling over the audience, different recordings played at the same time, people delivering lectures from ladders: tremendously creative stuff, hilarious, breathtaking. But there is a stage in his music from the 1950s on in which his idea of sounds became isolated single notes, and in which his method became chance dispersal of same. And I realized today while teaching it that that period begins with the Concerto for Prepared Piano of 1951. And of course, in 1950, Cage had his famous encounter with, on the same day, Morton Feldman and the Webern Symphony, Op. 21.

(By the way, thanks to all who wrote in to inform me of various performances of Op. 21 in New York they had heard or knew about. Turns out, far from being rare, readings of that piece fall so thick and fast in Manhattan that you’re lucky if you can zip into the city and out again without hearing a couple. At Christmas it’s even worse, with all the neighborhood sing-along Op. 21’s.)

I think that Cage took from Webern the idea of the isolated single note, and the resulting exploded texture, and that this begins a problematic period in his output. My least favorite mature Cage piece has always been (to the great consternation of some Cage aficionados) his orchestra piece Atlas Eclipticalis, a pointillist field of random notes, lasting up to – in the elegant new S.E.M Ensemble recording – two hours. Couldn’t quite warm up to it when I discovered Cage as a teenager, still can’t today. Other atomized works I’m more ambiguous about: Music of Changes for piano, Etudes Australes for piano, Winter Music for multiple pianos. Since Cage got famous by publishing his 1960 book Silence, that then-recent work was the first music a lot of people associated with him. And its analogy with average, normative 12-tone music is the feeling that it needs to be listened to with a certain attitude. With 12-tone music you trust that the music is very cohesive and integrated on some level, though you can’t necessarily hear how. With Cage’s 1950s chance music, you “let the sounds be themselves,” you surrender yourself to the random interplay of notes, and sometimes you start wondering – “Why am I listening to these rather than some other sounds?”

It varies. Music of Changes I’ve studied, and I know that there are some repeating figures in it because Cage was still working with figures as well as single notes, and I can get a little extra from it by concentrating. I played a little of Etudes Australes in my youth, and I appreciate the choreography of the two hands if I see it live. And in the right mood, I can find this nondemanding music very soothing. The Arditti Quartet’s recording of Four is as calmly lovely as Walden Pond. But even as I was writing my disquisition on 12-tone music, it flashed through my mind that we Downtowners have our own body of music that is an acquired taste, difficult to defend to outsiders. I listen to it; some days I love it; but I never try to sell anyone else on it. And I’ve talked to enough Downtowners about it to know that I’m far from alone in that feeling. So to the respondent who caught me on it: Touché!