Silence in the Rearview Mirror

By Kyle Gann

Presented May 16, 2012 at the Cage100 Symposium, Lublin, Poland

All I mark as my own you shall offset it with your own,
Else it were time lost listening to me.
----- Whitman, Song of Myself

My intention is to address some logical fallacies in John Cage's early writings, particularly in Silence. I must begin by contextualizing this intention. I reassure my hearers that I have no desire to discredit Cage, nor to in any way diminish his stature. I discovered Silence, and the Everest recording of Variations IV, at the age of 15. I became a fanatical Cage disciple and remained one for the next four years, until my best friend warned me that I had gone rather over the edge and was in danger of losing my own identity. Like the sculptor Richard Lippold, whom Morton Feldman describes moving out of Cage's apartment building as Feldman was moving in, I had found Cage "just too persuasive." I made a conscious intention to stay away from Cage's writings over the next several years, though I continued to enjoy his music, and always treasured my occasional encounters with him, the first of which occurred in 1974 when I was eighteen.

Thirty-five years later I was asked to contribute a Foreword to the 50th-anniversary edition of Silence. It was one of the great honors of my life, and I threw my heart and soul into it. For the first time in many years I reread Silence from cover to cover, going over and over the words I had read so many times. By this time I was older than Cage was when Silence was published, and I felt more free to challenge him and take exception than I had when I was young. Certain passages, I realized, bothered me, and the Foreword to a new edition of the book was not the place to engage them at length. And so I'm happy to have this additional opportunity to talk back to Cage, as it were, and let him know where I think he ran off the rails. I have always had a feeling that my early hero worship of Cage stood in need of revisionism, that if I was going to absorb his influence entirely and intelligently, offsetting what was his with my own, that I would have to someday separate out what was questionable in it from what was valuable. So I hope this somewhat carping lecture will be taken as a sincere and well-intended attempt to humanize a thinker and musician whom I have sometimes had to treat with a healthy skepticism, but whom I have never ceased to venerate.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

There are two Cage quotations on the back cover of my copy of A Year from Monday so off-putting that I'm surprised Wesleyan Press thought they would help sell the book. One, which surfaces in our musical discourse rather frequently and with perennially upsetting intent, is "a composer is simply someone who tells other people what to do. I find this an unattractive way of getting things done." Well, if you're going to take this tack, a painter is someone who tells other people what to see. A novelist is someone who tells other people what to imagine happened. A film director is someone who tells a whole lot of people what to do. And in context of the Preface to A Year from Monday, Cage tells us, in explanation, that what he wants us all to do is make our music more anarchically. Some of us would find this an unattractive thing to be told to do. The concept of authority is certainly one to be approached carefully. Imposed authority, dictatorial authority, unearned authority are among the great evils of the world. But Cage's Indeterminacy is full of stories about Zen novices who seek out great teachers in order to be told what to do. "Stay for three more days," one says, "and if by the end of that time you're not enlightened, commit suicide." While I am composing, I am not, in fact, telling anyone what to do. In my capacity as a composer, I am never put in a position of power that allows me to tell anyone what to do. Quite the contrary, when I write pieces that I cannot perform by myself, my status as composer makes me a supplicant, dependent on what one might call the charity of performers. I do sometimes find this an unattractive way of getting things done, now that I think about it, but not for the reason Cage attests.

Cage had already pursued this line in Silence. In his 1958 essay "Composition as Process," he writes,

The function of the performer in the case of the Music of Changes is that of a contractor who, following an architect's blueprint, constructs a building. The Music of Changes is an object more inhuman than human, since chance operations brought it into being. The fact that these things that constitute it, though only sounds, have come together to control a human being, the performer, gives the work the alarming aspect of a Frankenstein monster. This situation is of course characteristic of Western music, the masterpieces of which are its most frightening examples... The function of the instrumentalists is that of workmen who simply do as they are bid. (pp. 36-37)

The obvious inference one might take from these musings, had anyone other than Cage made them, is that the author prefers improvisation to composition. But we know that Cage was dubious about improvisation as well, and on the same back cover page we find, "Music as discourse (jazz) doesn't work. If you're going to have a conversation, have it and use words." Now, to say that "music as discourse doesn't work" is an intriguing thought, perhaps leading us to some discussion of the divergences between actual language and music understood as a language. But to slyly stick the word jazz in there in parentheses as an apposite to music as discourse is, I submit, a rather stunning feat of intellectual dishonesty. It is, in fact, a kind of unacknowledged synecdoche, a (mis-)taking of a part for the whole. One presumes that Cage is referring to a practice known as "trading eights," or "trading fours," in which bebop soloists of the 1940s would take turns playing eight- or four-measure phrases over a series of chord changes. Perhaps Cage heard someone say, or read somewhere, that "trading eights" in jazz was something like a conversation. From this facile platitude we take a breathtaking leap to "(jazz) doesn't work." I need not bother, I'm sure, to spell out why I and much of the music world would, and should, recoil from this ill-considered formulation.

One of Cage's references to jazz in Silence involves a similar synecdoche. In "History of Experimental Music in the United States" from 1959, Cage writes, "Jazz per se derives from serious music. And when serious music derives from it, the situation becomes rather silly" (p. 72) As any jazz scholar would immediately counter, the harmonic elements of early jazz are indeed taken from a vernacular derived from European practice, but they are mixed with rhythmic and performance practices which are not European, and thus not "serious" in this context, in origin. So far Cage is merely inaccurate. But when he states, with no supporting argument, that it is silly to suppose that two parallel streams of music might benefit from trading ideas back and forth as they develop, he himself is merely being silly, and it is time to invoke Xenia Cage's childhood rule: "no silliness."

Likewise, when Gita Sarabhai told Cage that the purpose of music is to "quiet the mind and render it susceptible to divine influences," Cage recounts Lou Harrison saying he had found an identical saying in Thomas Mace's Musick's Monument, though one will look through that tome in vain for any very similar statement.

A more similar parallel appears in Cage's defensive reply to a negative review from critic Paul Henry Lang in 1956: "For art and music," Cage writes, "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...." There is an ancient and honorable aesthetic tradition, which Ananda Coomaraswamy propounded in several of his works, which Cage cites frequently as an authority, that self-expression is a trivial artistic end and not something that a true artist would aim for. So far Cage is on defensible ground. But here he takes involved in self-expression, once again in one of his mischievous parentheses, and uses it as a definition for, or apposition to, the word anthropocentric, as though to concern oneself with the affairs of humans was somehow narcissistic, as though Homer in writing the Iliad was merely expressing himself.

There is a common tendency that runs through most of these examples, a kind of facile and recurring syllogism. It takes the form:

A can be said to be somewhat metaphorically similar or analogous to B;
B and C overlap in content;
Therefore, A equals C.

And, frequently, this speciously asserted equivalence of A to C is the basis on which we must reject C, or accept C, as the case occasions, depending on how we feel about A. It's a kind of guilt by ideational association, deliberate imprecision as a rhetorical strategy, and also a kind of intellectual bullying. When you come to it at age 15 with your opinions still greatly in flux, it can be pretty damn persuasive.

Silence is a collection of writings that Cage wrote over some twenty years, and the range in style and viewpoint of its essays is part of what makes the book so mercurial in the reader's memory. David Patterson has aptly complained that the non-chronological arrangement of Silence's essays, which was deliberate on Cage's part, creates a false impression that his views throughout the book remain consistent, whereas they actually evolved quite dynamically; to allay any such confusion I am here going to provide the year for each article I quote from. As anyone knows who has tried to paraphrase Cage's language, it is extremely difficult to extract a linear narrative from his elegant rhetoric. Many of us will have had the experience of taking away an idea from Silence, going back to document it, and being unable to find it again. The articles seem to shift their shape from one reading to the next. Part of Cage's brilliance as a writer is his elusiveness, the fact that he can so vividly evoke ideas without ever quite stating them as quotable assertions. Like the I Ching he did so much to help popularize in the West, he is sometimes a Rorschach test, a net to catch the subconscious musings in the back of the reader's mind.

But stringing together recurring thoughts from several of the articles, an overall argument can be divined running through Silence that is possibly the weakest part of the book. The core of this argument is found circuitously threaded through two articles, "Experimental Music: Doctrine" of 1955, which first appeared in The Score and I.M.A. magazine, and the 1957 lecture "Experimental Music," delivered to the Music Teachers National Association in Chicago in the winter of that year. In these articles Cage wants to say that something has changed in the history and collective perception of mankind, so that he can evoke a historical necessity for his own creative path. We can summarize his argument in four steps as follows.

Step 1: The development of magnetic tape, which became commercially available around 1949, made it clear that we were no longer in a discrete situation in which we had only 12 pitches and rhythms which must be played in relation to a felt beat. Instead, magnetic recording tape "reveal[ed] to us that musical action or existence can occur at any point or along any line or curve or what have you in total sound-space" (p. 9). This argument today seems absolutely uncontroversial, and has been abundantly verified in the years since Silence. Cage was one of the first musical writers to emphasize this new realization, and perhaps the most insightful at drawing out its ramifications. The emphasis on tape in the mid-1950s dwarfs Cage's previous concerns with percussion music and the prepared piano. Silence contains only twelve mentions of the prepared piano, ten mentions of percussion, and just two of 4'33"; the word tape, usually prefaced by the qualifier magnetic, appears 43 times.

Step 2 is intriguing, but less self-evident: Now that the use of silences is no longer limited to notated musical phrases, but can occur in a non-discrete situation in the course of a sequence of sounds and silences on electronic tape, the ambient sounds we hear during those purported silences on the tape must be taken into account as part of the music. In "Composition as Process" of 1958 Cage writes that "Formerly, silence was the time lapse between sounds, useful towards a variety of ends, among them that of tasteful arrangement, where by separating two sounds or two groups of sounds their differences or relationships might receive emphasis; or that of expressivity, where silences in a musical discourse might provide pause or punctuation" (p. 22). Now, however, in the age of magnetic tape, as he writes in "Experimental Music," silences "open... the doors of the music to the sounds that happen to be in the environment" (p. 6). Cage writes at times as though it is the inherent nature of magnetic tape that has made this inevitable, but in fact, he occasionally gradually segues into the fact that it was his own experience in the anechoic chamber that drew him to separate sounds into "those intended and those others (so-called silence) not intended" (p. 14). And so already we're arguing from two separate premises, one objective and available to everyone (magnetic tape) and one particular to Cage's experience (the anechoic chamber). Cage conflates these premises without acknowledging the fact.

Step 3: If ambient or unintended sounds now need to be considered as having the same status as the intended sounds in a piece of music, then a true or authentic piece of new music can not be considered as interrupted by any ambient sounds that may momentarily drown it out or distract attention from it. One of the clearest of many statements of this thought appears in the 1954 lecture "45' for a Speaker":

The way to test a modem painting is this: If
it is not destroyed by the action of shadows
it is genuine oil painting.
A cough or a baby crying will not
ruin a good piece of modem music. (p. 161)

Step 4: If a piece of music cannot accommodate itself to interruption by unintended sounds, then it is outmoded, rendered obsolete by history, and, in one of Cage's favorite phrases of the 1950s, "no longer necessary." In my most recent readings of Silence, I found it odd how frequently the words necessary, unnecessary, and necessity recur: 59 times altogether. To his credit, at first Cage writes in "Experimental Music" (1957) "Whether one uses tape or writes for conventional instruments, the present musical situation has changed from what it was before tape came into being. This also need not arouse alarm, for the coming into being of something new does not by that fact deprive what was of its proper place. Each thing has its own place, never takes the place of something else; and the more things there are, as is said, the merrier" (p. 11). This is comforting, but later he tends to be more severe, as in this 1961 statement from "Where Are We Going? And What Are We Doing?":

We can tell very easily whether
something we're doing is com-
pletely necessary. The way
we do it is this: if something
else happens that ordinarily would
be thought to interrupt it
doesn't alter it, then it's work-
ing the way it now must...
...And so
the doing not destroyed by
simultaneous simisituated
action. It must then have no
objective, no goal. Time must be of
little - I was going to say
no - consequence. (I pray one
day I may.) pp. 238-240

Additionally, the word experimental is introduced as a tacit synonym for necessary. Twice, at the beginnings of both "Experimental Music: Doctrine" and "Experimental Music," Cage himself admits some doubt about the word experimental. For instance, the latter begins, "Formerly, whenever anyone said the music I presented was experimental, I objected. It seemed to me that composers knew what they were doing, and that the experiments that had been made had taken place prior to the finished works" (p. 7). In the next paragraph, however, he continues, "Now, on the other hand, times have changed; music has changed; and I no longer object to the word 'experimental.' I use it in fact to describe all the music that especially interests me and to which I am devoted" (p. 7). Furthermore, throughout Silence two definitions of the word experimental, one explicit and the other implicit, weave around each other in counterpoint. The famous explicit definition is that experimental music is "an act the outcome of which is unknown" (p. 13). But Cage also uses the word appositely to describe music which consists of sounds not understood psychologically, and therefore of music that cannot be interrupted by ambient noises. In "History of Experimental Music in the United States" (1958) he comes close to conflating the two: "What is the nature of an experimental action? It is simply an action the outcome of which is not foreseen. It is therefore very useful if one has decided that sounds are to come into their own, rather than being exploited to express sentiments or ideas of order" (p. 69). This may be useful for Cage, but it is hardly self-evident.

As a result, particularly in the 1959 "History of Experimental Music in the United States," we find a litany of composers whose works have been discredited or at least rendered obsolete. The change brought about, explicitly, by magnetic tape, and implicitly, by Cage's encounter in the anechoic chamber, becomes the rationale for historicist mandates. In this article Cage writes, "I would ask this: 'Why, if everything is possible, do we concern ourselves with history (in other words with a sense of what is necessary to be done at a particular time)?' And I would answer, 'In order to thicken the plot'" (p. 68). He's quoting, here, a story from Sri Ramakrishna, who, once asked, "Why, if God is good, is there evil in the world?", replied, "In order to thicken the plot." Here Cage seems to be revealing a little guilt he feels about the evil he is doing to other composers, most of them still living.

"[M]uch of... [Charles Ives]," Cage writes, for instance, "is no longer experimental or necessary for us... He did do things in space and in collage, and... indeterminacy which is so essential now did enter into his music. But his meters and rhythms are no longer any more important for us than curiosities of the past like the patterns one finds in Stravinsky." (p. 70)

"Cowell's present interests in the various traditions, Oriental and early American, are not experimental but eclectic." (p. 72)

"Elliott Carter's ideas about rhythmic modulation are not experimental. They just extend sophistication out from tonality ideas towards ideas about modulation from one tempo to another. They put a new wing on the academy and open no doors to the world outside the school" (p. 72).

"Carl Ruggles... works and reworks a handful of compositions so that they better and better express his intentions, which perhaps ever so slightly are changing. His work is therefore not experimental at all but in a most sophisticated way attached to the past" (p. 71).

"Otto Luening and Vladimir Ussachevsky call themselves experimental because of their use of this new medium. However, they just continue conventional musical practices, at most extending the ranges of instruments electronically and so forth." (p. 74)

"What is unnecessary in Varese... are all his mannerisms, of which two stand out as signatures (the repeated note resembling a telegraphic transmission and the cadence of a tone held through a crescendo to maximum amplitude). These mannerisms do not establish sounds in their own right. They make it quite difficult to hear the sounds just as they are, for they draw attention to Varese and his imagination" (p. 69). Parenthetically, I've always found this a peculiar criticism of Varese's music, and have also wondered how Varese and Cage could continue to amicably socialize in the 1960s, as I am told they did, after Silence was published.

Again: "Nor is [Varese's] use of tape relevant, for in Deserts he attempts to make tape sound like the orchestra and vice versa... [H]is need for continuity does not correspond to the present need for discontinuity (discontinuity has the effect of divorcing sounds from the burden of psychological intentions)" (p. 83).

"That [Varese] fathered forth noise... makes him more relative to present musical necessity than even the Viennese masters, whose notion of the number 12 was some time ago dropped and shortly, surely, their notion of the series will be seen as no longer urgently necessary" (p. 84).

Now, it is hardly unusual, nor is it unethical, for a composer to downplay the relevance of the music of his contemporaries in favor of his own. Charles Ives, that great recluse, did so in, Essays Before a Sonata. I've certainly done it myself. It can even be entertaining and instructive. At some small expense to the feelings of one's fellow artists, it enlivens our musical discourse. Nor, by any stretch, are Cage's criticisms uniformly unwarranted, particularly his apt complaint about the domestication of the Theremin. What's worth noting in the case of Silence is the implicit conflation of premises and the cherry-picking of arguments used to make Cage's rationale look more objective than it is. First there is, as I've mentioned, the conflation of the terms experimental and necessary, and also the conflation of the advent of magnetic tape with the realization of the anechoic chamber. It is as though Cage, having discovered magnetic tape and Zen at virtually the same time, wants to say that the changes in our listening that result from magnetic tape will necessarily result in a type of Zen listening, that because those changes came at the same time for Cage, so must they for us all. That the widespread accessibility of recording media would change the world was an incontrovertible argument. That ambient sounds were now part of music because Cage heard his heartbeat in an anechoic chamber was a little tougher sell. Cage's rhetorical sleight-of-hand fused the objective with the subjective. It is, I think, the flickering alternation of these unrelated criteria that makes certain sections of Silence difficult to bring into focus, and perhaps intentionally so on Cage's part. This is not necessarily to fault Cage, for an inability to bring into focus may well release creative misreadings.

Further, though, it is curious that, to make his argument, Cage is forced to exclude and excoriate the very purpose for which magnetic tape and its audio recording descendents would be most commonly used: the recording of live-performed music. Cage famously hated recordings and wouldn't listen to them or collect them. In the 1958 article on Satie he says of records "it would be an act of charity even to oneself to smash them whenever they are discovered. They are useless..." (p. 77). Cage wants to restrict magnetic tape, which has ushered in a new era in human consciousness, to the creation of new music made specifically for the tape medium. Interestingly, Cage's mentor Henry Cowell had made a similar argument. In a 1931 article "Music of and for the Records," Cowell mused on new recording technology, and instead of philosophizing on what impact the new medium might have on listening, prescribed that new music ought to be specifically written for recordings. "A record of a violin tone," he writes, "is not exactly the same as the real violin; a new and beautiful tone quality results." It seems more than likely that Cage and Cowell would have discussed this idea in the 1930s.

One of Cage's most questionable rhetorical devices comes in his "History of Experimental Music in the United States" of 1959. He quotes Christian Wolff's 1958 article "New and Electronic Music" in order to say what he himself wants to say. "What is, or seems to be, new in this music?" Wolff writes.

One finds a concern for a kind of objectivity, almost anonymity - sound come into its own. The 'music' is a resultant existing simply in the sounds we hear, given no impulse by expressions of self or personality. It is indifferent in motive, originating in no psychology nor in dramatic intentions, nor in literary or pictorial purposes. For at least some of these composers, then, the final intention is to be free of artistry and taste. But this need not make their work "abstract," for nothing, in the end, is denied. (p. 68)

Cage, at the time of his article, was 47, and quoting an article that his protege Wolff had written at the age of 24 as though it were an authority from which he could deduce objective principles. Subsequently Ives, Varese, Ruggles, and other composers are dismissed on the basis of their failure to come up to the objective standards posited by an unknown 24-year-old composer in a now-forgotten magazine called Audience.

Now, it's interesting that the dates of all the articles I've quoted from are between 1954 and 1959 - interesting because already in the "Lecture on Nothing" and "Lecture on Something," which Cage apparently delivered around 1949 or 1950 at the Artists' Club, he was already presenting a more balanced viewpoint. In the "Lecture on Nothing" he asks, "Should one use the materials characteristic of one's time?" (p. 115) and his autobiographical response traces the relativity of his changing preferences for intervals of first a fifth, then sevenths and tritones, and finally for noises. He talks about how, during World War II, he preferred quiet sounds because they seemed related to the small things in society and opposed to the activities of governments and large corporations. He seems more interested in that period in owning the subjectivity of his choices. The "Lecture on Something" takes "Judge not lest ye be judged" as a theme, and continues, "It is quite useless in this situation for anyone to say Feldman's work is good or not good… If you don't like it, you may choose to avoid it. But if you avoid it that's a pity, because it resembles life very closely, and life and it are essentially a cause for joy... [T]he important questions are answered by not liking only but disliking and accepting equally what one likes and dislikes" (p. 133). This is a more generous, less polemical, and more profound tone than one finds in the later articles with "Experimental" in the title.

One of my favorite stories in the "Indeterminacy" series is the one about the Zen service conducted at a house on Riverside Drive. "And then the hostess and her husband," you'll remember, "employing an out-of-tune piano and a cracked voice, gave a wretched performance of an excerpt from a third-rate Italian opera. I was embarrassed and glanced towards the Roshi to see how be was taking it. The expression on his face was absolutely beatific" (p. 6). Clearly Cage was impressed with this Roshi's ability to find joy in even the most wretched music. As a thought experiment, I've always wondered how the story might have gone if the Roshi had been treated to a beautifully-performed Beethoven symphony? Or a piece by Stockhausen? Or something by Varese with all his alleged mannerisms intact? Or, heaven forbid, some jazz?

Christopher Shultis finds that Cage's attitude toward his music was changed by his visits to Europe, particularly the one in 1954 in which he considered himself and David Tudor being treated "like clowns." One might speculate that this, along with his growing but still controversial celebrity, brought a more truculent tone into his writings of the late 1950s, which then made their way into Silence with the more even-tempered earlier and later writings. (Parenthetically, I also find the late 1950s a relatively dry period in Cage's music, far preferring his works of the 1940s and '60s.) What Cage didn't need to do, I think, was provide an objective basis for his new listening paradigm, and he certainly didn't need to try to prove that, due to magnetic tape and the anechoic chamber, the old music was now obsolete. He could have sprouted wings in that anechoic chamber without making a dent in the popularity of Mahler or jazz. Cage's interest in Zen, combined with his sunny subjectivity, was enough to add new vistas to the world of 20th-century music. By upbringing and happy accident he preferred optimism to pessimism, nature to personality, acoustics to metaphor, and he wanted us to prefer those things too. It was a wonderful and enlivening new viewpoint. It didn't need to be propped up with quasi-scientific mandates.

It is every artist's prerogative to make a public case that his or her own aesthetic is the best or hippest one on the market. Boulez elevated his personal concerns into formulations of a new law, so did Stockhausen, so did Babbitt. One certainly thinks of Boulez's infamous 1952 pronouncement about the "uselessness" of any musician who hadn't jumped on the twelve-tone bandwagon, and must wonder whether Boulez's "useless" emboldened Cage's ever-so-slightly gentler "no longer necessary." If Cage's case differs from that of the serialists, 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 putting up resistance to it - though in the end it was largely just as subjective and contingent. That was the source of his incredible persuasiveness. His cheery, out-of-left-field openness made one yearn to agree with him. His one-sided justifications, however, didn't allow for the fact that pendulums, having swung one way, swing back, and that the variety of human psychology is infinite. And I feel confident that, later in his life, Cage would have agreed. His thinking was not static, he was not the same person in the 1970s he had been in the 1950s, and he was capable of appreciating a far wider range of music and experience than some of his writings of that earlier era might imply.

I am passing over, because I wrote about it in my introduction to Silence, most of what I continue to love about that book, particularly its wide-ranging attempt to free music from what we might now refer to as left-brain analytical frameworks. I will only add that a few weeks ago, in the little town of Sint-Niklaas, Belgium, I heard musicologist Maarten Beirens read the "Lecture on Nothing" in a performance space in a bar with a lot of people drinking, and with other performances going on in the building. The silences in his talk drew the slightly chaotic ambient sounds into it and erased the implied separations between all the various activities. The repetition of "If anyone is sleepy let him go to sleep" in that atmosphere was a cosmic mantra leading to the center of existence. Magnificently simple and simply magnificent, Cage's lecture created in me the all-attentive state of mind that Cage writes around in Silence, but which cannot be fully stated in words because it inherently lies beyond language. For all this kind of richness that Cage brought into our lives, he can easily be forgiven if language at times proved inadequate to his purposes.

Copyright Kyle Gann 2012

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