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The “New Music” in John Cage’s Thought
University of Bucharest
(The text continues from Part II)
Another significant innovative contribution was what would become known later as happening or performance art. In 1952 at Black Mountain College, an avant-garde institute in North Carolina – Asheville, Cage organized the first happening – Untitled event – a multilayered and multi media performance event. Happenings were for Cage theatrical events that abandon the traditional concept of stage-audience and occur without a sense of definite duration. Instead, these actions depend on chance or indeterminacy. They have a minimal script with no plot. A happening occurs in the present attempting to arrest the concept of passing time. Cage believed that theater was the closest route to integrating art and real life. That is why he manifested a deep interest in theater from the very beginning as we mentioned before. Theater was for him “the multiplicity of simultaneous visual and audible events all going together in one’s experience, producing enjoyment”.
Since 1953 onward – he composed music for modern dance and Merce Cunningham adopted chance procedures too. He also taught classes in experimental music, which became sources of inspiration for Fluxus movement (an international network of artist, composers and designers).
John Cage tried also to explore, especially during his last years of life, plastic art and media art. He was innovative again even in this domain as he used fire as one of his instruments of artistic production. He also produced some works as an artistic dialog with Marcel Duchamp.
In 1959, his first book Silence was published. It contains the Lecture on Nothing, which we are going to resume and comment in the following pages.
Here is a short abstract of the most significant ideas which are expressed in this lecture and which reflect John Cage’s understanding of what would mean silence and nothing for him.
“What we require is silence but what silence requires is that I go on talking…
There are silences and the words make, help make the silences… I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry as I need it. This is a composed talk
For I am making it just as I make a piece of music. It is like a glass of milk. We need the glass and we need the mild. Or again it is like an empty glass into which at any moment anything may be poured.
We possess nothing. Our poetry now is the re-alization that we possess nothing. Anything therefore is a delight.
What I am calling poetry is often called content. I myself have called it form. It is the continuity of a piece of music. Continuity today, when it is necessary, is a demonstration of disinterestedness. That is, it is a proof that our delight lies in not pos-sesing anything.
Structure is simple because it can be thought out, figured out, measured. It is a discipline which accepted, in return, it accepts whatever...even those rare moments of ecstasy. How could I better tell what structure is than simply to tell about this, this talk which is contained within a space of time, approximately forty minutes long? That forty minutes has been divided into five large parts, and each unit is divided likewise. Subdivision involving a square root is the only possible subdividion which permits this micro-macrocosmic thythmic structure, which I find so acceptable and accepting. As you see, I can say anything. It makes very little difference what I say or even how I say it.
We are passing through the fourth part of a unit which is the second unit in the second large part of this talk.
Now begins the third unit of the second part.
Now, the second part of that third unit… Now, its third part… Now, its fourth part…
You have just ex-perienced the structure of this talk from a microcosmic point of view. From a macrocosmic point of view we are just passing the halfway point in the second large part. The first part was a rather rambling discussion of nothing, of form, and continuity. (p. 112)
This second part is about structure: how simple it is, what it is and why we should be willing to accept its limitations. Structure without life is dead. But Life without structure is un-seen. Pure life expresses itself within and through structure.
I also had the pleasure of hearing an eminent music critic ex-claim that he hoped he would live long e-nough to see the end of this craze for Bach. A pupil once said to me: I understand what you say about Beethoven and I think I agree but I have a very serious question to ask you: How do you feel about Bach? Now we have come to the end of the part about structure.
We are now at the beginning of the third part. It’s the part about material… Structure has no point, form has no point either. Clearly we are beginning to get nowhere… The technique of handling materials is on the sense level what structure as a discipline is on the rational level: a means of experiencing nothing.
As a child I loved all the sounds even the unprepared ones. Later on I gradually liked all the intervals. Modern music fascinated me with all its modern intervals: the sevenths, the seconds, the tritone, and the fourth and always, every now and then, there was a fifth, and that pleased me. Sometimes there were single tones, not intervals at all, and that was a delight. There were so many intervals in modern music that it fascinated me rather that I loved it, and being fascinated by it I de-cided to write it.
I found that I liked noises even more than I liked intervals. I liked noises just as much as I had liked single sounds.
Noises had been discriminated against and… I fought for noises… when the war came along I decided to use only quiet sounds. Quiet sounds were like loneliness or love or friendship. Permanently I thought values, independent at least from Life, Time and Coca-Cola… I begin to hear the old sounds, the ones I had thought worn out, worn out by intellectualization. Obviously they are not worn out. Thinking had worn them out. Suddenly they are fresh and new.
Here we are now, at the beginning of the third unit of the fourth large part of this talk. More and more I have the feeling that we are getting nowhere. Slowly as the talk goes on we are getting nowhere and it is a pleasure.
Here we are now at the beginning of the fifth unit of the fourth large part…
Here we are now at the middle of the fourth large part of this talk…
Here we are now at the beginning of the ninth unit of the fourth large part…
Originally we were nowhere and now again we are having the pleasure of being slowly nowhere. If anybody is sleepy, let him go to sleep…”
This lecture, a musical-poem (in a rhythmic structure) is a poetic definition of anti-music (or non-music in a classical meaning). The nothing is in this case what is different from the classic music. Plato, in his dialogue The Sophist, 255 a-e gives us the definition of the non-being (to me on) as what is different (heteron) from the being. The non-being together with the movement (kinesis) and what is different (heteron) assure the becoming in Plato’s ontology. They represent the five megistos genos together with the being (to on) and the identity (to auton). In our opinion, this kind of negation represents a certain alterity, namely what is complementary to the musical sound of the classic music representing what is present in our daily life – especially non-musical sounds, noises. Cage opposes classic music to single sounds, modern intervals and especially noises. He opposes harmonical music to the dissonances of the daily life sounds and also to the dissonances of the new music composed by Schonberg. Dissonances are not present only in contemporary music; we can find them in all the contemporary arts as Gilles Deleuze remarks in his study on Cinematography (Deleuze 2012: 31-79).
Cage’s nothingness as difference, as dissonance, helps to unveil the continuity or the unstoppable flow of life, which could be the pure continuity as Bergson’s la durée which does not refer to the chronological, quantitative aspect of time but to the qualitative one. It is composed of different rhythms, it is intensive and it is a continuous production, an unstoppable source of the new, says Bergson in his Durée et simultanéité (Bergson 1922). In his Introduction to metaphysics, Bergson opposes the intuitive knowledge to the scientific one, which is reductive and analytical. The first one, the intuition is instead able to unveil what is movement and becoming and it supposes direct participation, individual experience. Only intuition can unveil the movement of life (Bergson 2013). Cage suggests that the music lasts in a qualitative way supposing also the emotional and subjective intuition of time. “But when I hear traffic, the sound of traffic – here on Sixth Avenue, for instance – I don’t have the feeling that anyone is talking. I have the feeling that sound is acting. And I love the activity of sound… I don’t need sound to talk to me”. This activity of sounds is continuous and it expresses the flow of life.
Not only musical sounds are combined in rigorous structures but also noises, says Cage. This category of nothing or difference can be thus organized. But “it is useless without life and life without structure is un-seen” says Cage in his Lecture on Nothing. Or, the work of art as a structure is the way pure life expresses itself. The pure life could be the Bergsonian élan vital – a fundamental impulse supporting the dynamics of any reality and which supposes the most significant value of freedom and indetermination (see especially Bergson 1907).
This product of “nothing” unveils us that art is able to liberate us from the chase of interests; art is a demonstration of “disinterestedness” meaning the fact of “not possessing anything or of possessing nothing and this could mean possessing only “the delight” or the aesthetic satisfaction (in the Kantian expression) produced by art. Not being dominated by interest means exploring a catharsis experience, a cathartic feeling of being nowhere and however possessing much more in a spiritual, affective way, meaning the delight or aesthetic satisfaction.
This meaning of nothing as difference or indeterminancy should be considered especially in an ontological perspective, as noises do not exist for classic music, they belong to the musical nonbeing or to the anti-music but which however exists in its way of being.
Finally, we would also add that John Cage’s music represents the new concept of “open musical work” in an original sense. It supposes a strong connection with practice. It rejects the essentialist and traditional theory and is based on the theory of free will of the artist. Lidia Goehr, in her study The Imaginary Museum of Music says that the open concepts do not accept absolute definitions, and are intentionally incomplete. They are unlimited, accept modifications of meaning but do not lose their identity (Goehr 1992: 23-25). In Cage’s case, any of his inventions represents open concepts and support changes of meaning. These features make these innovations resistant and favorable to modifications. For instance, the concept of prepared piano was already over passed by another one, the fluid piano. It is based on the principle of microtonal tuning before and during performance. This concept was launched in 2009 by Geoff Smith and it was developed and built by Christopher Barlow in Somerset, England.
In the end, we would say that this Lecture on Nothing is based on the dialectic of negativity as it was developed by Theodor Adorno in his work expressing hence the spirit of the 20th century.
1. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Cage: All quotations that follow containing John Cages’ words are from this site checked on November 22, 2021. Our underlining.
2. Henry Cowell was a composer and also a music theorist who made many experiments in rhythm, harmony and instrumental sonorities, which were considered as very courageous. He was a famous musician in America during those times.
3. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Cage. Checked on November 22, 2022.
5. John Cage about silence: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pcHnL7aS64Y. Checked on November 22, 2021.
6. Laszlo Moholy Nagy was a famous artist and Professor at the Bauhaus School of art. He was influenced by the constructivist movement and was deeply convinced about the necessity of modernizing art by technology and industry. He left Europe at the beginning of the Second World War and went to the USA.
Adorno, Th. 1962. Philosophie de la nouvelle musique. Paris : Gallimard.
Bergson, H. 1922. Durée et simultanéité. Paris : Felix Alcan.
Bergson, H. 2013. Introduction à la métaphysique. Paris : PUF.
Bergson, H. 1907. L’Evolution créatrice. Paris : Felix Alcan.
Deleuze, G. 2012. Cinema. Bucharest: Ed. Tact.
Goehr, L. 1992. The Imaginary Museum of Music. An Essay in the Philosophy of Music. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Kandinsky, W. 1993. Spiritualul in arta [Spirituality in Art]. Bucharest: Meridiane.
Schelling, F.W. J. 1992. Filosofia artei [Philosophy of Art]. Bucharest: Meridiane.