Sunday, October 14, 2012


September 5 was the 100th anniversary of the birth of the composer John Cage, and August 12 was the 20th anniversary of his death. So I, along with many others around the world who consider Cage a mentor, have naturally had him in mind quite a bit this year.

There have been many concerts and conferences celebrating his centenary, and it's been a great time to remember how important he was for so many of us. Along with revisiting his own music and writings, I’ve been reading a bunch of other recent Cage-related books: Kyle Gann’s No Such Thing as Silence, about Cage’s famous “silent” piece 4’33”; Kenneth Silverman’s massive (and slightly trashy) biography of Cage, Begin Again; Carolyn Brown’s Chance & Circumstance, a hefty memoir of her twenty years dancing with Merce Cunningham (Cage’s creative and life partner); and Kay Larson’s Where the Heart Beats, about Cage’s often misunderstood relationship to Zen Buddhism.

All of these had their revelations and shortcomings, but I keep coming back to this one quote from a 1968 interview with Cage by Richard Kostelanetz in The Theater of Mixed Means:

Why do you waste your time and mine by trying to get value judgments? Don’t you see that when you get a value judgment, that’s all you have? They are destructive to our proper business, which is curiosity and awareness… We waste time by focusing upon these questions of value and criticism and so forth and by making negative statements. We must exercise our time positively. When I make these criticisms of other people, I’m not doing my own work; also, the people and their work may be changing.

It has been pointed out to me how far short of this position Cage himself fell, that we all constantly make judgments and this is simply part of life, it’s what humans do. True enough, Cage was only human and contradiction is inevitable. Cage tried to minimize or sublimate his personal taste by using chance operations and indeterminacy, in order to achieve musical results that were (he hoped) independent of his own tastes, and to create conditions in which resulting sonic phenomena could emerge that would be unknown to him. Yes, his decision to do so was itself a choice and so an expression of his taste – a paradox. But I still find his intention and effort exemplary, and this statement is for me one of the most direct embodiments of the buddhist values he brought to his work. I also believe his effort in this regard is one of the most radical yet overlooked aspects of his work. There are few things most artists cling to more than their own taste and opinions, and to abandon that is about as iconoclastic as you can get. Off hand I can think of few (ie, zero) other artists who have held such renunciation at the center of their practice.

In the original context of the quote, Cage is scolding Kostelanetz for getting him to make critical comments about the work of other artists. And in light of the buddhist concept of “right speech” Cage is correct to resist; there is really nothing to be gained by trashing the efforts of others beyond shaming them as a way of shoring up our own ego in order to compensate for our own insecurities. Our liking or disliking anything does not change the thing itself, or account for the fact that others may respond to it quite differently. Things simply are whatever they are, and our response is a matter of personal choice, not fact. In this way our opinions are completely empty. But this constant judging becomes so tiresome, and ultimately perpetuates suffering for all concerned.

However, I believe Cage also attempted to apply this same principle to his own work, and that is what I find so inspiring and challenging. Minimizing value judgments about external things in daily life is hard enough, but it is especially difficult to achieve in one’s (my) own creative endeavors. We are so close to our own work, and have so much of our selves wrapped up in it. And even if we are immune to the opinions of others, we are constantly exerting our own opinions and judgments in the process of creation: “I don’t like how this is going. This is better.” To some extent this is a necessary form of self-discipline, holding ourselves to higher standards, not letting ourselves slide too easily. In a positive sense, this can be distinguished as discernment. But it can also become pathological and get in the way of allowing other things to develop that are new and perhaps unfamiliar. When our opinions of our own work are based too strongly on our established preferences, we can become stuck in old patterns and habits and close our minds to new possibilities that are unfamiliar. And how often are these opinions subtly colored by our past experience of what others have deemed acceptable, and so tied in with our own anxiety about praise and blame? The underlying foundation of all of this would seem to be fear.

So this is what I am confronting now, as I encounter these found objects and try to use them in ways that I find aesthetically satisfying. But “satisfying” based on what? I find that my own judgments about what is “good” or not are as much an obstruction as anything, and yet it is so hard to let go of them. I know what I don’t want to do, but I have little clarity as to what I want to actually accomplish. There is no clear goal in sight, and what little of it I can grasp offers no assurance at all. What becomes apparent is the need to suspend judgment and simply allow myself to engage with these materials in a free and spontaneous way, and see what happens.

One of the classic examples of Cage’s inability to get beyond his own opinions and prejudices was his rejection of improvisation. He felt that most improvisation was too much based on the player’s memories and habits, and too concerned with self-expression. While I am much more sympathetic to improvisation, I’m inclined to agree with him that this is frequently a shortcoming. But here’s another quote (from Conversing with Cage, edited by Kostelanetz) in which he suggests some possible ways around these problems:

What I would like to find is an improvisation that is not descriptive of the performer, but is descriptive of what happens, and which is characterized by an absence of intention. It is at the point of spontaneity that the performer is most apt to have recourse to his memory. He is not apt to make a discovery spontaneously. I want to find ways of discovering something you don’t know at the time that you improvise—that is to say, the same time you’re doing something that’s not written down, or decided upon ahead of time. The first way is to play an instrument over which you have no control, or less control than usual. The next way is to divide empty time into rooms, you could say. In those rooms try to make clear the fact those rooms are different by putting different sounds in each room.

His first solution is somewhat implicit in my present situation: I only have so much control over nails and staples and styrofoam plates. But Cage was always a strict formalist at heart, no matter how "random" some of his music sounds, and his second solution was structural. He elaborates further:

One of the ways I’ve found I call “structural improvisation.” Given a period of time, I will divide it. Say we have eight minutes. We’ll divide it into sections of either one, two, three, or four minutes long, or three parts—four minutes, three minutes, one minute, in any order—or whatever. Then, if I have ten sounds, I can find out through the use of chance operations which of those ten sounds go in the first section, which go in the second section, and which go in the third. Then I improvise using the number of sounds that have been determined for the first section, the number of sounds for the second and the number of sounds for the third, and I will have an improvisation which is characterized by a change of sound at those different times, no matter what I play.

This is essentially how he scored the later “number pieces” of his that I’ve seen, such as the percussion quartet Four4. Cage hardly invented structured improvisation. There are of course many ways this idea has been approached, and I’ve used some in the past myself. But so far I’m finding it hard to apply any kind of structural restrictions to what I’m doing here. It could be that it is still too early in the process. And there is still a part of me that wants to find a way of improvising without any formal guidelines that is not objectionable. Which brings us right back to judgment. Sigh...