Books: Silence (John Cage)

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012-09-28 10:00:00-04:00 No comments

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There are two ways to experience John Cage at this point in time: through his work, and through his writing. I had plenty of grounding in the first by way of Indeterminacy and Variations IV and so on by the time I encountered Silence, but even if I had none of those formative experiences I think Silence would have still cracked a good deal of the pavement under my feet.

It has been nearly twenty years since I first read Silence, and I keep it in the small cubby of books next to my desk that is reserved for a few select things I pull out and read whenever I need a moment to see things more clearly. It is the closest thing Cage ever created that amounted to a manifesto, even though he published it in 1961 and spent the next thirty or so years still evolving and mutating. It is the right of any artist, and any human being period, to re-invent himself continuously, but much if not all of what Cage put into Silence serves as an encapsulation of most everything he identified himself with throughout his career.

I am not sure Cage would have appreciated that. He was fondest of the living event, not the artifact that signified it. A recording of music was not for him music, but a recording—it was no more the music than the photo of the Grand Canyon was the place itself. Likewise, his words on paper were nothing more than photos, but all the same there are enough such photos in this book, and from such a diversity of angles, that it’s hard to read it and not feel a first-hand engagement with his way of seeing things. Silence has much of the experience of a performance of his work (bested only by actually attending one, that is), which means that it can be every bit as boring as the real thing—although as Cage once said, do something long enough and you’ll eventually find it’s not boring at all but very interesting.

Silence compiles articles, lectures, the texts of performance pieces, and a great many vignettes (the latter also found in Indeterminacy) from Cage’s career up from 1939 to 1961, albeit in a free-form way. Nothing requires that you read front to back—there’s no attempt to reconstruct a chronology of Cage’s thinking, which is something best left to a biographer anyway. You can dip in at random, something I do a great deal myself, since almost every page contains something worth thinking about. Thinking about does not mean agreeing with, though, and much of what Cage did was designed to force people to think about it without necessarily agreeing with it. If someone rejected his position, it was all the better that they did so articulately, so that all of us could be moved forward together.

The title is itself a tipoff. It was silence, negative space, random operations, and the way we arbitrarily slice life up into “music” and “noise” that perpetually fascinated Cage. His oft-cited (and now disputed) quote about the anechoic chamber at Harvard, where one could hear both one’s blood moving and one’s nervous system firing, appears here a few times, and in a context that allows us to understand why Cage latched onto it so. This was proof that there was no such thing as silence, that everything was music if we listened with the right ears, and that an appreciation for whatever we dared to call music was based on a honing of our powers of audition.

The urge to see things as they are manifested in many ways with Cage, from his courses in mushroom identification—an undertaking which required close attention and the sharpening of one’s senses, since a mistake could mean death—and his ever-present fascination with and intellectual and spiritual debt to Zen Buddhism (courtesy of D.T. Suzuki), with its own insistence on transcending the projection of the ego onto the world. All of these things show up throughout Silence, but as threads in the fabric rather than the stated nature of the cloth itself. There is no essay on Zen per se, for instance, but in his foreword to the book, Cage notes that “What I do, I do not wish blamed on Zen, though without my engagement with Zen … I doubt whether I would have done what I have done.”

Cage championed experimentation in music and art because that served as one of the most powerful ways to see things in new lights and to be original. “History is the story of original actions,” he wrote in “History of Experimental Music in the United States” (p. 75 in Silence), and when he went on to talk about how Virgil Thompson was hissed for speaking of originality, I realized how things had changed since those words were penned. (That or Cage was omitting some vital bit of context, but I doubt it.) Today we speak of originality so freely and unthinkingly that we forget it has to stem from some kind of defiance, some “discontinuity” as Cage himself puts it in the same essay. He was troubled by tradition in music not because it offered nothing to learn from, but because it seemed senseless to simply do what everyone else did before, to make only the most minute of changes to it, and to then have the temerity to call that “original”.

Small wonder Cage found as his heroes people who were inveterate rule-breakers. When asked to write about Erik Satie, he opened his essay with a complaint: “Why in heaven’s name don’t people read the books about him that are available, play the music that’s published?” The rest of that essay consists of quotes from Satie, interspersed with interpretive comments from Cage, in which he spoke of Satie’s ability to create music “springing up always from zero”, a nice antidote to the twelve-tone music that dominated composition at midcentury and which Cage felt did not have enough nothing in it. Small wonder in the essay immediately following, on Edgard Varèse, he lambasted that composer’s imposition of his personality on everything (“Rather than deal with sounds as sounds, he deals with them as Varèse”). It was Satie’s out-of-step-ness that made Cage feel the man was onto something, that he was willing to write music which put its own creator, and even the music itself, into the background and be, for lack of a better word, ego-less. He had similar praise for Robert Rauschenberg, who let his work be its own creature (“He is not saying [anything in his work]; he is painting”), and Morton Feldman (“[A]nything may happen, and it all does go together”).

Much of the text used in Indeterminacy is reprinted in Silence, both as a standalone section in the rear and in the form of interstitial grafs littered throughout the book. Sometimes they surface at the ends of articles, or at the bottom of a page to fill white space, in much the same way old newspapers would pad out the end of a story with a bit of trivia or some headline gleaned from halfway around the world. (Cage himself wanted to produce that feeling.) Those fragments work like any number of windows—or, again, snapshots—into Cage’s life and thinking. This is not simply the man who lectured about the obsolescence of the twelve-tone row or noted how music and dance ought to be integral in the same performance (emphasis on the last word). This is also the man who boiled hog peanuts for Jasper Johns, nearly got poisoned by skunk cabbage, or was it hellebore?, and shared an entirely too eventful car ride to and from New Haven with David Tudor.

Over time a curious thing has happened between Silence and myself. My attitude towards it, and most of what Cage asserts in it, has gone from reverential to combative, although not dismissive. Example: a great deal of what Cage says about any modern music that is not his or that of his immediate peers is frustrating—to him, it amounts to a choice between two different traditions, Bach or jazz, with the former bankrupt and the latter best left to grow uncultivated. I found myself growing annoyed with this attitude over time, because it seemed as parochial as the attitude of those who attended one of his concerts and dismissed it as Dadaism, nihilism, or what have you. It is hard to see him put Varèse next to Satie and not feel as though his aesthetics are little more than a championing of an underdog.

But in turn I found myself grateful for my own annoyance, and for Cage’s ability to spark it within me. Its emergence meant I was not following his ideas blindly (since they were his and his only anyway), but rather putting them to proper use—and that I had found a space where I could respect his ideas without necessarily agreeing with them, or worse yet, idolizing them to the exclusion of any of my own. A friend who can irritate you and yet remain a great friend is a gift. Silence is his gift, and I have taken it in the spirit of keeping my eyes and ears ever open.

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