PostClassic: June 2008 Archives

...and that is commercialism as I need it. I have ongoing doubts about the propriety of taking off three months of my life to write a Cage book. I never aspired to be a Cage scholar. By the late '80s so many people were doing excellent work on him that I just bowed out. I have a phobia about competition, and I despise duplicating the work of others. I got a blast from analyzing all of Nancarrow precisely because I was learning so many things no one else yet knew. Years ago Oxford asked me to write a Charles Ives biography. Few things would have given me greater pleasure than spending two years immersed in Ivesiana, but Jan Swafford's superb biography had just appeared, and the idea of taking all that time away from composition to awkwardly paraphrase what Jan had already said so eloquently just wasn't conscionable. Yet here I am, and I have nothing to say about 4'33" that hasn't been said before, and better. If I come up with a single original insight by the time I finish this book, I'll be as surprised as anyone. 

Luckily, the book is intended for a general audience. It's part of a Yale University Press series called "American Icons." The other volumes in process so far concern the Empire State Building, the Superman comic book series, and the Marlboro Man. This last sounds like the one to bet on: the Marlboro Man was invented because Marlboro started out as a women's cigarette, and they started trying to market it to men. But then the Marlboro Man (before he got lung cancer) became a gay icon, so in a sense he came full circle. How much more fun does that sound like than a book on five minutes of silence?

The sad fact is, though, that this book will advance my reputation in musicological circles far more than the postminimalism book I should be working on. As I've noted often before, a musicologist's reputation is proportionate to the square of the fame of the composer he's an expert on. Explaining Mikel Rouse and David First and Eve Beglarian to the world will make me more an oddity than an expert. Writing a Cage book won't put me up with the Beethoven and Bach savants by a long shot, but it will zoom me up near the top of the relatively small 20th-century heap. Quality and content play little part in this dispensation. 

And yet that's not at all why I'm doing it: I'm more doing it in spite of that. I would rather spit in the eye of every musicologist in Christendom than lift a finger to achieve status in such an artificial, unthinking heirarchy. A couple of friends have been kind enough to tell me that I'm a better composer than writer, and I would like to think so. Personally, I believe that my most important contribution to the world is the extent to which I have developed just intonation into a broader musical language, with deep roots in tonal practice and tremendous ramifications for future usage, and if I had my druthers, which I don't, I'd infinitely prefer to be remembered for that. I have no ambitions at all as a musicologist, beyond righting the wrongs that good composers of my generation have suffered. 

So why am I doing this? Because the opportunity arose, offered by an editor who's an old friend, with a generous advance attached, and, in a Cagean spirit, I grabbed it. Because Cage played a tremendous role in my youth and only a peripheral role in my adulthood to date. Because Zen was a wonderully energizing influence on my life in the '70s and early '80s, and I've been too long divorced from it. Because he was a wonderful man, and his personal example laid an indelible imprint on my life. (Among other things, I think I absorbed from Cage the lesson that being a prolific and controversial writer can help augment one's reputation as a composer.) So ultimately my motivations are self-serving, in the deepest possible sense: to get back to my roots, to backtrack over where I came from, to figure out why, at age 17, performing 4'33" in public seemed like such an important thing to do. To revisit those high school days in which I enthusiastically played the Everest recording of Variations IV for my theory class, with my teacher and classmates all terribly dubious as to whether that was actually music. As of June 8 I'm at the beginning of a new 30-year astrological cycle in my life, and I needed to reorient myself. I'm at a lull in my compositional activity, with many large projects just completed and new ones still vague in my mind. And I'm hoping, hoping against hope, that newly understanding 4'33" and the rest of Cage's post-1950 output, as an adult, will propel me, as a composer, in a new and hopefully completely unexpected direction.

June 28, 2008 10:24 PM | | Comments (8) |
As part of my Cage research, I'm reading Aldous Huxley's The Perennial Philosophy (1945), which Douglas Kahn (in "John Cage: Silence and Silencing," in the Winter, 1997, Musical Quarterly) claims Cage read shortly before writing 4'33". I don't recall Cage ever mentioning Huxley in his writings; I'd be interested if someone can point me to an instance. Kahn certainly makes a good case for Huxley's influence, which is similar to Coomaraswamy's in this respect. 

But what moves me to buh-loggg today is a passage in the chapter "Religion and Temperament." The book is a survey and comparison of the great religious traditions, with their commonalities drawn out via copious quotation. As implied, the chapter in question deals with the observation that religious experience is highly dependent on personal temperament; that despite the one-sidedness of certain religious expressions, the path to Truth is not a one-size-fits-all phenomenon. According to Huxley, the world's religions have implicitly acknowledged three types of character. Few people are purely one type, and most of us have a mixture, but here, with their defining characteristics, are the three extremes he outlines, with an exotic terminology from I don't know where:

viscerotonic: "indiscriminate amiability and love of people as such; fear of solitude and craving for company; uninhibited expression of emotion;... craving for affection and social support...."

somatotonic: "love of muscular activity, aggressiveness, and lust for power; indifference to pain; callousness with regard to other people's feelings; a love of combat and competitiveness; a high degree of physical courage...."

cerebrotonic: "the over-alert, over-sensitive introvert, who is more concerned with what goes on behind his eyes... than with that external world... Cerebretonics have little or no desire to dominate... they want to live and let live and their passion for privacy is intense... For him the ultimate horror is the boarding school and the barracks...."

That "boarding school and barracks" line pinpointed me as a stereotypical cerebrotonic in short order. Going through the world's religions, Huxley outlines which ones offer more sustenance to, and are more congenially followed by, each of these three temperaments. All very interesting, perhaps questionable, but what struck me was his closing statement (and remember this was written in 1945, as the war was just winding down):

Nazi education, which was specifically education for war, had two principal aims: to encourage the manifestation of somatotonia in those most richly endowed with that component of personality, and to make the rest of the population feel ashamed of its relaxed amiability or its inward-looking sensitiveness and tendency toward self-restraint and tender-mindedness. During the war the enemies of Nazism have been compelled, of course, to borrow from the Nazi's educational philosophy. All over the world millions of young men and even of young women are being systematically educated to be "tough" and to value "toughness" beyond every other moral quality. With this system of somatotonic ethics is associated the idolatrous and polytheistic theology of nationalism - a pseudo-religion far stronger at the present time for evil and division than is Christianity, or any other monotheistic religion, for unification and good. In the past most societies tried systematically to discourage somatotonia. This was a measure of self-defense; they did not want to be physically destroyed by the power-loving aggressiveness of their most active minority, and they did not want to be spiritually blinded by an excess of extraversion. During the last few years all this has been changed. What, we may apprehensively wonder, will be the result of the current world-wide reversal of an immemorial social policy? Time alone will show. (pp. 160-161, emphasis added)

Time alone, indeed. As an explanation for Bill O'Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, the Bush administration, and the neocons, this is insufficient; it would account for their love of bullying and contempt for perceived weakness, but not their unfathomable venality, mendacity, and hypocrisy (where were "courageous men of aggressive action" when New Orleans was drowning?). But the rhetorical emphasis on "toughness" is certainly an oversized component of our political discourse, and I think we as Americans - especially since Reagan's 1980 election - have often been made ashamed to loudly voice sympathetic or altruistic impulses. And I can imagine Cage, a self-described "sissy" who was so often beaten up by bullies as a child, finding personal resonance here.

June 21, 2008 12:29 PM | | Comments (8) |
Composer Jim Altieri sends me a photo of his tattoo. Now that's commitment to the avant-garde. (For those who don't get it, that's the 1961 score to Cage's 4'33".)
June 14, 2008 11:40 AM | | Comments (4) |
The best way to kickstart a new book is to blog it, right? I have tried, since age 15, to reread John Cage's Silence every few years, and I'm always amazed at how different it seems time after time, how many new meanings I get from it and how many old ones seem no longer there. But now, researching my 4'33" book, I'm gaining a much clearer picture of Cage than I had in my youth. I'm now the age Cage was in 1964-5, and his work of the 1940s and '50s seems to me much more transparent than it used to, though not particularly less admirable. 

What strikes me in rereading through vast swaths of Cage is how subjective his viewpoint is. He was always advocating pure objectivity, getting away from his likes and dislikes, but his underlying reasons for such advocacy seem to boil down to: he just liked it that way. This is not the impression I took away at 15. Cage was so tied into Marshall McLuhan and Buckminster Fuller and Joseph Campbell and everything hip that he seemed to be laying the groundwork for a permanent new paradigm shift - and woe to the loser who didn't get on board. By upbringing and happy accident Cage preferred optimisim to pessimism, nature to personality, acoustics to metaphor, and therefore we must all prefer them too. But now I'm noticing how often his recipes for the new music ultimately get attributed, frankly, to his personal taste. I've started a running list of his comments in which he justified his mandates subjectively. Take the following passage, written in defensive reply to a negative 1956 review by Paul Henry Lang, and oft-quoted these days in explication of 4'33":

For "art" and "music," when anthropocentric, (involved in self-expression) seem trivial and lacking in urgency to me. We live in a world where there are things as well as people. Trees, stones, water, everything is expressive... Life goes on very well without me, and that will explain to you my silent piece, 4'33", which you may also have found unacceptable.

Well, I'm with him when he rejects self-expression as a major artistic motivation. But then he takes a speciously logical but nevertheless flying leap onto the extremely thin ice of equating self-expression with anthropocentrism. What, to deal with human concerns in my music means I'm merely "expressing myself"? The only possible escape from narcissistic expression of one's momentary emotions is to leapfrog over the entire human race altogether and write music from the standpoint of rocks and trees? This catapults out a considerable army of babies with relatively few liters of bath water. 

Now, the attempt to de-anthropomorphize music was a fascinating project, and for a few decades it vastly enlivened the experimental music scene, as a fertile source of new processes and perceptions. I have nothing whatever to say against it. Nevertheless, most music is made by humans for the purpose of being listened to by other humans, and to posit that there is now something unworthy or inauthentic about embedding anthropocentric concerns in one's music would be to impose stringent limitations indeed. But so it goes, with Cage endlessly elevating his personal preferences into universals, quoting Thoreau and Coomarasamy and Meister Eckhardt to mean things they never would have supported in a million years. Thus, after 1955, a painting can only be truly "modern" if it is not destroyed by the presence of dust and shadows, and only music can be truly of our time that is in no way interrupted by the noises of traffic or a crying baby. Yet I possess an otherwise wonderful 1982 Harold Budd recording rendered unlistenable by a crying baby, and I know very few composers, even ones tremendously grateful to Cage, who wouldn't be upset by having one of their recordings marred by outside noises.

I don't in any way mean to imply that Cage was dishonest, or even presumptuous. It is every artist's prerogative to make a public case that his or her own aesthetic is currently the best or hippest one on the market, and more power to him or her for being a good salesman. It was the style of the time to draw universals from one's personal preferences (something that the more relativistic composers of my own generation have noticeably refused to do). Boulez elevated his personal concerns into formulations of a new law, so did Stockhausen, so did Babbitt. If Cage's case differs from theirs, it was in that the aesthetic he pompously attempted to impose on the world was so much more cheerful, humbler, less authoritarian, so much more open to amateurs, so much more accepting of everyday life, that one felt almost churlish in opposing it - though in the end it was every bit as subjective and contingent. That was the source of his incredible presuasiveness. His cheery, out-of-left-field openness made one yearn to agree with him, even when his pronouncements provoked an internal reaction of, "Yyyyyyyyeah, wellllllllll, buuuuuut...." His justifications provoked smiles, but didn't, in themselves, allow for the fact that historical pendulums, having swung one way, swing back, and that the variety of human psychology is infinite. His objectivity came as a breath of fresh air after a subjective era, but to draw the seemingly invited implication that humans didn't need both sides would have been ridiculous. 

And actually I believe that Cage, as a person, recognized this. After the 1990 premiere of my I'itoi Variations - as un-Cagean a piece as one might care to write - he came up and complimented me warmly. The sometimes austere desiderata expressed in his books did not limit his personal relationships. 

All I'm saying, in fact, is that Cage was in no way what he has so often been called: a philosopher. He created a remarkable illusion that he had reached some kind of Ground Zero of artistic experience. But the illusion that his new "philosophy" now exposed Beethoven, Mahler, and jazz as frauds was one that very few people ever fell for, and it is difficult for a music lover today to avoid noticing the eccentricity of his preferences. In his music he scoped out large new areas that composition had never before occupied, and in his writings he justified his explorations with stunning articulateness. But actually, it was the MUSIC that justified his explorations (when it did), not the other way around. He made no ongoing objective survey of the philosophy or psychology of musical experience; instead, he wrote the music he felt compelled to write, and then wrote with astounding beauty about why he wrote it. A philosopher would have had to account for the attractiveness of music for which he had no sympathy. I'm more of a music-philosopher than Cage was, as was my late colleague Jonathan Kramer. A philosopher starts with some objective survey of aesthetic experience and, from it, derives musical principles. Cage, like most composers (and there is no reason to judge him harshly for it), went the well-traveled opposite direction. And, since he never claimed to be a philosopher, it is no reflection on him that he did not succeed in becoming one.

My own evaluation of Cage as a composer is that he has been somewhat overrated by his champions, and, of course, infinitely underrated by his detractors. There are pieces I'm dearly attached to from every Cagean period: In a Landscape (the permanent theme song of Postclassic Radio), Dream, The Seasons, Experiences Nos. 1 and 2, the 1950 String Quartet, Hymnkus, 74, Europeras 1 and 2. Some pieces are a blast to hear live: Credo in US, Imaginary Landscapes No. 4 (which I once conducted as a student at Oberlin). Others I just don't care for at all, notably Atlas Eclipticalis and some of the late "number" pieces. I'm not a huge Sonatas and Interludes fan, but I respect it and am always glad to hear it. Variations 4 is an unforgettable paradigm for audio collage, while 4'33" and Music of Changes are historic landmarks (like Le Marteau and Gruppen), arguably more exciting to think about than to listen to. Etudes Australes is remarkably fun to play. In short, Cage was a composer, one of astonishing variety (and the usual unevenness). 

As for his writings, the technicolor mushroom-lined road they mapped out for us all was really only for himself alone, though he made it sound so inviting that many like-minded individuals signed up for part of the journey. He introduced me to the I Ching and opened me up to an entire world of irrationality and natural complexity. (A random-number generator plays a walk-on role in a piece I'm writing right now.) His personal ethical example left a deep, deep mark on me, though his road itself proved too breezy a route for my darker, more solitary temperament. "He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?" But a philosopher? Not consistent enough. Not objective enough. Not rigorous enough.

June 11, 2008 11:16 AM | | Comments (18) |
Friends are beginning to inquire whether I'm OK, so I guess it's time to blog something. The end of the semester is always a whirlwind, complicated this year by a performance of my son's beautiful orchestra piece and the arrival of relatives to hear it. Afterward, only one day's rest intervened before I was whisked off to Wilmington, Delaware to make the first half of a recording of my 70-minute suite The Planets, with the intrepid Relache ensemble and a brilliant young sound engineer with a great ear, Andreas Meyer. (Andreas runs a new CD label called Meyer Media, some of whose offerings are now up on Postclassic Radio.) 

Once back, I plunged into my summer project, a book on Cage's 4'33" for Yale University Press. I'm hip deep in Cage, Rauschenberg, Daisetz Suzuki, Coomaraswamy, and the 1950s, and for perhaps the first time since I've started this blog, I'm inhaling a lot more knowledge than I'm exhaling. The bulk of my Cage obsession took place between ages 15 and 20 (I performed 4'33" in Dallas in May 1973), and there's been a tremendous amount of startlingly good Cage scholarship in the last 15 years that I hadn't seen at all - he seems to bring out the best in musicologists of all stripes. So I'm going back deeply into Cage and getting a tremendously cleaned-up perspective on him which I anticipate being creatively affected by. In my teens I became too overwhelmed by Cage's influence and had to finally get away from him. Now I've got a much stronger artistic backbone, and can pick and choose, criticize and admire, whatever I fancy. He wasn't a philosopher, and any musician who calls him that just doesn't know what philosophers are or what they do. But he was an innovative composer with an original personality and an incredibly elegant and memorable flair for words, which latter did a tremendous amount to promote his career.

One note, though - in case it occurs to you to write in with a wisecrack that a book on 4'33" will be full of blank pages: you're not the first to come up with that joke. Nor the 2nd, nor the 12th, nor the 50th. The fact is, I brace myself for it now, and am growing weary of it.

I had quite a few performances this spring, and the last two were by student ensembles: Bard's chorus performing Transcendental Sonnets and the Williams College Symphonic Winds playing Sunken City. What struck me is that student ensembles really, really rehearse - and that there is NO substitute for rehearsal. The Williams College musicians, many of them non-music-majors (the flutist is going on to grad school in microbiology) worked hard from February to May, and the Bard chorus had begun rehearsing last fall. The wonderful effect was that those kids had the total sound of those pieces in their heads, knew and could anticipate every chord, every rhythmic quirk, every melody. They weren't playing "new music," but repertoire they knew virtually by heart. Several superb professional groups have played my music lately with considerable élan after only a few hours' rehearsal, and I'm grateful to them. But the performances that truly gelled, that sounded the way they sounded in my head, were the ones rehearsed for months and months, and apparently that kind of luxury is only available in academia these days, with student ensembles. It gives new meaning to Milton Babbitt's characterization of the university as "our last hope, our only hope."

The version of Sunken City now uploaded to my web site is the Williams College one:

1. Before (Brian Simalchik, piano)
2. After (Noah Lindquist, piano)

There are many fewer mishaps here than in the otherwise heroic premiere performance by the Orkest de Volharding, which was the only recording I had previously. I was flummoxed by the ease with which the Williams College kids negotiated the constantly changing meters of 17/16, 7/8, and so on, but conductor Steven Bodner told me his secret: "Never admit to them that what they're doing is difficult."

June 7, 2008 4:00 PM | | Comments (7) |

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This page is a archive of recent entries written by PostClassic in June 2008.

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