One of my visual-art colleagues asked me to come into his Art and Technology class today and lecture on John Cage, which I was looking forward to. I actually get to teach Cage very little; someone else at Bard has a course on Cage, and I am not really tempted to devote an entire semester to him, as I have done with Ives and Liszt and Beethoven and have considered doing with Bruckner or Partch or Ashley. But I can certainly fill a few hours talking about him off the top of my head.
Since it was Art and Technology, I started with the 1966 Everest recording of Variations IV, a collage of tapes of musical selections, lectures, conversations played in overlapping juxtaposition. About a minute in, it occurred to me that every student in the room had on his or her computer the software needed to replicate a very similar performance, and that they were not at all likely to be impressed. I tried, but I had no words with which to convey the vast gulf I had crossed over in high school between what the music world seemed like before I heard Variations IV and what it suddenly seemed like after, a half-hour later. I had, in fact, taken that record to play in my high school theory class, where the teacher thought Cage couldn’t possibly be serious and the other students suspected I was mad. That music came from so far out in left field that in 1972 I couldn’t convince any of my acquaintances it was really music. Then the sampler was invented, and many years later my current students were born, and they not only know how to make that music, they regularly hear weirder concoctions on YouTube.
And in fact, the first question I got was, “How did Cage make that? Did he have to cut up pieces of tape that had the music on it?” So I gave a little explanation of how, in the ’70s, we spliced bits of magnetic tape with razor blades and splicing blocks. Then I gave a demonstration of how to churn butter and can your own blackberry preserves. All right, I didn’t really, but it would have felt about the same. That the avant-garde of my youth would be commonplace to today’s students should hardly come as a surprise. But I’ve always got plenty of music they haven’t “caught up” with: Maderna, Ashley, Diamanda Galas, Charlemagne Palestine, and so forth. And in this case, the technology had leapfrogged over Variations IV, so that I struggled to make them imagine a world in which sampling hadn’t even been thought of as a concept yet.
Of course, it can also work the other way. I have a composition student who fills the titles of his pieces with deliberate misspellings and typographical oddities. I took no notice, and he tried to squeeze a compliment for his originality from me by half-apologizing for his roguish whimsicality. I just said, “Contemporary music titles used to be pretty sedate and objective. But then one day David Lang wrote an orchestra piece called Eating Living Monkeys, and since that day it’s been a full-scale competition to see who can come up with the most shocking title, even among people for whom everything else about the music is academic. I don’t even notice anymore.”