Saturday, August 11, 2012

20 years ago: The death of John Cage

On August 12, 1992, American composer John Cage died at the age of 79, just a few weeks short of 80. Mr. Cage was known for “compositions” such as 4’33” (four minutes, thirty-three seconds) (1952) that illustrated his belief in the existence of an impersonal universe and blind chance, rather than an infinite and personal God. American musicologist and critic Sigmund Spaeth, in his book The Art of Enjoying Music (1949), defined music as “the organization of sound toward beauty,” thereby implying that there is such a thing as beauty that we can appreciate. Mr. Cage’s “compositions” wouldn’t qualify as music according to Mr. Spaeth’s definition.

Francis Schaeffer, in his book The God Who is There (1968), devoted several pages to Mr. Cage as an example of modern mysticism:

If God exists and we are made in His image we can have real meaning, and we can have real knowledge through what He has communicated to us. If this is taken away we are left only with man and his finite self-expression. At his point all one has is the expression of the individual man. But Cage quite logically sees that this will not do, and so he carries man’s dilemma further, smashes self-expression and leaves chance speaking. This is the basis of his music…

…Back in the Chinese culture long ago the Chinese had worked out a system of tossing coins or yarrow sticks by means of which the spirits would speak. The complicated method which they developed made sure that the person doing the tossing could not allow his own personality to intervene. Self-expression was eliminated so that the spirits could speak.

Cage picks up this same system and uses it. He too seeks to get rid of any individual expression in his music. But there is a very great difference. As far as Cage is concerned there is nobody there to speak. There is only an impersonal universe speaking through blind chance.

Cage began to compose his music through the tossing of coins. It is said that for some of his pieces lasting only twenty minutes he has tossed the coin thousands of times. This is pure chance, but apparently not pure enough; he wanted still more chance. So he devised a mechanical conductor. It was a machine working on cams, the motion of which cannot be determined ahead of time, and the musicians just followed this. Or as an alternative to this, sometimes he employed two conductors who could not see each other, both conducting simultaneously; anything, in fact, to produce pure chance. But in Cage’s universe nothing comes through in the music except noise and confusion or total silence. All this is below the line of anthropology. Above the line there is nothing personal, only the philosophic other, or the impersonal everything.

There is a story that once, after the musicians had played Cage’s total chance music, as he was bowing to acknowledge the applause, there was a noise behind him. He thought it sounded like steam escaping from somewhere, but then to his dismay realised it was the musicians behind him who were hissing. Often his works have been booed. However, when the audience boos at him they are, if they are modern men, in reality booing the logical conclusion of their own position as it strikes their ears in music.

Cage himself, however, even though he continues to compose such chance music, is another example of a man who cannot live with his own conclusions. He says that the truth about the universe is a totally chance situation. You must live with it and listen to it; cry if you must, swear if you must, but listen and go on listening.
(pp. 71-73)
Mr. Schaeffer then quotes from a profile of Mr. Cage by Calvin Tomkins in the November 28, 1964 issue of The New Yorker where it states that Mr. Cage had become so interested in the mushrooms growing near his home that he had become one of the best mycologists in the United States. Mr. Cage admitted that when it came to identifying mushrooms, he couldn’t approach them according to his ideas of chance, because it would kill him. Mr. Schaeffer comments:

In other words, here is a man who is trying to teach the world what the universe intrinsically is and what the real philosophy of life is, and yet he cannot even apply it to picking mushrooms. If he were to go out into the woods and begin picking mushrooms by chance, within a couple of days there would be no Cage!

We have said before that the ideas of modern man are destroying what man is himself. But not only that, their views cut right across what the existence of the form and structure of the external universe would indicate as well. As we see in the dilemma of Cage and his mushrooms, they cannot live on the basis of a consistent application of their views in regard to the universe, any more than they can in regard to man.

However, while Cage is forced into a hopeless dichotomy with his mushrooms, with his music he has continued to live consistently with is position, even though his music is nothing more than noise or silence. He has resisted the pressure to dress up impersonal Being in connotation words or sounds. Most modern men have not had this much courage.
(p. 74)

No comments:

Post a Comment