Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Notes on John Cage

"What I'm proposing to myself and to other people, is what I often call the tourist attitude - that you act as though you've never been there before. So that you're not supposed to know anything about it. If you really get down to brass tacks, we have never been anywhere before."
- John Cage, 1992

A couple of days ago, I was selling books and sitting in the audience of an event at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts: Kathan was on a panel speaking about John Cage, and afterward there was a concert of his Sonatas and Interludes. As Crown Point and John Cage enthusiasts alike might know, Cage did a series of etchings here at Crown Point Press between 1980 and 1992. His time here was the catalyst for Kathan Brown's book, John Cage Visual Art: To Sober and Quiet the Mind. "The book is in three parts," the press release for this publication reads. "The first is a text written from Brown's own experience. In it, she often uses Cage's words to describe particular works, and she reflects upon how the art can be used in the world. The second is a detailed section that illustrates 'scores' that Cage created for his printers, and explains his use of what he called 'chance operations' in making his work. The third section of the book is pictorial. Cage told Brown that the purpose of art is 'to sober and quiet the mind, so that it is in accord with what happens.'"

GLOBAL VILLAGE 1-36, 1989. Aquatint, roulette and drypoint on smoked paper. 38-1/2 x 26-1/2", on Roma Fabriano Brown paper. Edition: 15. Printed by Crown Point Press.
I thought, since I was at this event, I'd record some of the notes that I took during hour-long series of Cage's musical musings, performed by the remarkable pianist (and Cage specialist) Julie Steinberg on a prepared piano that had bolts, screws and stones, as well as dry-erasers and other objects attached to its strings. I haven't edited much, just thrown down most of what I wrote, in the hopes you enjoy them. As always, feel free to comment - discussion is the root of invention!

1. Human beings need structure.

2. The challenge to the pianist is to try and find the plot in these plotless segments. Cage's widom (in part) was to divide the plotnessness he came upon through chance operations into segments that are at least small enough to be digestible (at most, pure enough to be intelligible).

3. For the [same] sake of clarity, he often repeats a phrase more than once. This is an improvisation trick I also learned from Steve Mackey, who used to tell his improv students (myself included), "when in doubt, do it again," a musical version of the pep talk pointer and 13th Magical Secret, "Own It." Repetition makes sense, in both senses of 'make.'

4. Once in a while an old, familiar form shows up, too, by accident. An example: the weird, little musical formulation that sounds like the bit in the score for "The Wizard of Oz" that belongs to Glinda floating down in her bubble. But reference is certainly not enough, and repetition is only half the battle - it is Cage's organization of these snippets (and the wells of empathy in Steinberg's performance that lend them plot/emotive structure) that keeps the rapt audience rapt. Cage organizes his musical phrases like stones in a Zen garden: each rock is just a rock, devoid of meaning - it is one's own movement amid them that lends them power.

5. It's a question of memory. My own thoughts tend to cycle - a genetic, maybe, or cultural, a sex-linked, nurtured, common, or God-given quirk, who knows. Whatever the reason, while I listen to Cage I find my go-to way of listening is insufficient. Traditional Western music, (take Beethoven for example, or Sufjan Stevens) is constructed for the neurotic. While listening, you can put your mind on temporary auto-pilot, go back to any one element, and be satisfied that it is meant to be a part of the whole: whatever has happened was necessary to bring about whatever is happening now. In Cage's work, though, the music is organized in a totally egalitarian way, that renders this kind of jumping back and forth between memory and immediacy meaningless. I get the unsettling yet somehow deeply comforting feeling that whatever has happened could have been anything else. Although there's no epiphany, like in a great symphony or a really satisfying song, there is something very much like peace.

- Rachel Lyon


Anonymous Anonymous said...


Last evening I heard via National Public Radio a timelapsed recording of the planet Earth. A seismographic recorder in Somerville Mass had sent in the accelerated sound clip. Hearing the many "pops" of seismic activity around the globe reminded me of the work of John Cage. But what was truly wonderful was the underlying "whoosh- wooooshshsh" of innumerable waves crashing on the shores of every continent. I was in New England driving west at the time and for a moment Califonia and environs seemed not so far away. Thank you for the reminder that we have not been here (hear)before ....

3:05 PM  

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