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Get Out of Whatever Cage: Avant-Garde in the Natural World

© David Rothenberg

published in Musicworks 58, Spring 1994

John Cage, composer, writer, experimenter with and across the arts. His lives and works are a series of stories, bound between contexts, from the city to the country, over all the world. Pieces follow each other, and chance encounters are celebrated. Defender of accident, champion of the happening, general anarchist, patron saint of the avant-garde, what did such a man want from nature? He placed his work in the context of our time, and so alluded to the limits of his world. In the end, nothing is random. Nature stands behind everything he did. Each fragment means something to all the others. Glimpses of his own thoughts reflect unto our own. That is why the natural way to write of him is this:

"My composing is actually unnecessary.
Music never stops.
It is we who turn away.
Again the world around.
Sounds are only bubbles on its surface.
They burst to diappear."

"I have come to the conclusion that much can be learned about music through devotion to the mushroom."

A man is walking delicately down the summer wooded road. It is north of Viitasaari, central Finland, ten years ago. He and I are supposed to meet in this sharp lighted place, where the sun won't set for a month. But we are each a day early. There is no one else here as we approach each other on the road. He's carrying a potted plant with long, drooping leaves. I carry nothing, and strive to remember the sound.

People grow into their rightful ages and hold the pose which we identify with them until they die. John Cage seemed a smiling, gently wry old man from at least age fifty to nearly eighty. All along he was either older or younger than himself, like the Tao, like the Flow, like the ineffable silence he was inspired to search for until he smiled the knowledge that it could not exist at all.

Silence. Three movements of it. 4'33" set aside on the program of time. This is what John Cage is most famous for, an insolent quiet. A composition entirely without musical sound is a defiant act, civil disobedience against musical convention, but it is not a joke. He wanted us to listen to the surroundings so the Earth might be saved.

Get out of whatever cage. Forget what hems you in. This is the message to all who need to escape the bounds of stifling limits. For Cage, this view comes after years of observation and question of one thing and one place: the imitation of nature , not in appearance, but in manner of operation.

The idea is stronger because it never came out of nowhere. Cage got it from art historian Ananda Coomaraswamy, who spoke near the last century's turn of process as what we can most learn from the world that surrounds. And the notion is much older than that: it is already there in Aristotle when he says our art completes the clues nature has left for us. This is an old and venerable message. Yet spoken by Cage it is part of the shock of the new.

(To write with nature, you think nature. And first throw away the barriers of language that you have been taught. In favor of space, isolated lines, emptiness before and after words.)

His inspiration speaks from music but beyond as infusion to all the other arts. This way his influence on our time has been at least as great as that of any other composer. He offers not just music to listen to but a method to conceive of the ecology of sound. The world holds together as vast composition, a symphony of the human noise and the unknown rustle of the Earth and its leaves.

"Everything in the world has its own spirit, and this spirit becomes audible by setting it into vibration." To express tranquility in discourse is not the same as reflecting peace as art in sound.

Cage seduces those who follow him into the joy of randomness, and the chance of encounter in any unknown place with someone or something you might or just might not have met on the path of life's way. He resists the planned critique, favoring aphorism or anecdote. Yet to latch onto his method is the easiest way out. He wants you to accept the chance to find the method that is most right to you, that you can honestly represent as key to the sensing of the world. I hear all these stories of him as the light between music and nature through the cry to all of us to "Listen!" aware of each chorale of the world as we go.

(I want to write about him through fragments, which is the way he told stories about himself. Still, I cannot rest the way he could with randomness. I want there to be order here. I will look all around for whatever patterns may come. Though once found, I intend to hold them. Cage might ask me to let go.)

Those who heard of his exploits imagined Cage to be an arrogant resister to the draft of convention. "Have you no sense of order, or tradition?" they might want to ask. Upon experiencing him, this view would change. Here was a man who projected discipline before all else. An order he found in the process of chance, in the systematic stripping away of all decision making made on the basis of mere like or dislike.

Glimmers of the theme cross my page as I go. I take hold of the potted plant, we turn together and follow the trail back, talking of musical worlds near and far. On that path back from East to West, amidst the sounds of a language neither one of us knows. One singular choice for a life's path, at play with the century.

Deep into a chamber to shut out all sound. Inside the anechoic room at Harvard in 1952, set up for research into the physics of sound and its lack, Cage still heard two distinct but exactly clear rumblings inside him emanating into the room around. The high sound the whirr of the body's nerves, the low one the thrum of the blood in motion. The body moves, and we will never find the coveted silence.

There is also a Tibetan wind music that is said to represent the tremulous continuity between high and low that our minds will hear when all other sounds are stripped away.

It was initially through mushrooms that Cage found his specific route to nature's ways. When he moved from New York City to the country in 1953, he began to explore the edibility of the surrounding fungi. It became a bit of an obsession. In 1962 Cage and a few friends founded the New York Mycological Society. He never saw this hobby as any kind of breather far away from music. As a matter of fact, the word mushroom comes just before music in the simpler of dictionaries.

At a reading in Kentucky in 1967, Wendell Berry introduced Cage to the writings of Henry David Thoreau.

From Norman O. Brown he learned the desire for "an environment which works so well we can run wild in it."

From Buckminster Fuller he learned what technology can do to the impossible.

He always took care to mention his friends.

In teaching he told students to use art to compose the environment:
"Imagine that the music you are writing is not music but is social relationships, and then ask yourself if you would like to live in that kind of society that would be that kind of music."

So he admits us into his new country, formed by instructions that combine and dismember sound. There is a special kind of aesthetics then to judge the composed place: let it call forth a community, and put yourself inside it first as a listener and then as just one more sound. The musicmaker as anthropologist gone native, settling in to a sudden place inthe unknown culture. The previous rules for music no longer hold. Cage smiles as he opens his window for me above the cats and plants in the Chelsea district of Manhattan. Cars honk hopelessly at each other below. "This," he says, "is all the music I need."

"The reason I am less interested in music is not only that I find environmental sounds and noises more useful aesthetically than the sounds produced by the world's musical cultures, but that, when you get right down to it, a composer is simply someone who tells other people what to do."—Music as useful works, awakening us to each other and to the accidental exactness of the world.

On a quiz show in Milan, Lascio o Raddopia, Cage appeared for several weeks and became an Italian TV personality as he was poised to answer the two million five hundred and sixty thousand lire question. Mike Bongiorno announces: "We give you an envelope containing seven color photographs of mushrooms. You have to tell us: which of them represents poliporus frondosis? Is it edible or not? Does it grow on the ground, or on trees?" A tense silence. Cage answers without hesitation: "It's photo number seven. It's an edible mushroom and it grows on wood." His first financial break. Bought him a Steinway and a station wagon.

Against the social vision, the triumph of the virtuouso. The old split between individual and community. "I became interested in writing difficult music, etudes, because of the world system which often seems to many of us hopeless. I thought that we a musician to give the example in public of doing the impossible that it might inspire someone who was struck by that performance to change the world."

Music performed all day and all night, even with no one to make or to hear it. Sounds and texts, empty words, where music is no universal language, but a realm beyond language, where words can be sounds, and their meanings are far from their sense. These ecological pieces written in the seventies: Branches, Inlets, Child of Tree. This is the time Cage finally accepts improvisation. Before then it seemed to drag intention into the moment. Now at last encourage multitudes.

That awful pain before change. Something has to be done. Music so important because it has so little effect on the situation. Equally art is no consequence of life. Existing so apart, it cannot be considered. This is neither philosophy nor poetry.

Cage as writer may admit more intention than as composer. Not because words encourage more ambiguity, but because they are more generally understood. He must try even harder to disperse them.

The final experiments, the lectures where content is replaced by the serial swirl of empty words. Where language is returned once more to sound, and there are ways still to shock those of us most jaded.

Absence of place in his work? So it may be at home everywhere? Don't be fooled. He always knew exactly where he was and how to respond to it, if not where he would be next.

I don't want to shock you into respect for John Cage. You might not yet know who he is, or feel he has much to do with any real kind of reverence for Earth. I can assure you he does. He taught us to hear the forest for the trees. And not to judge what belongs there over what does not.

I have long been troubled by Cage's misleading use of the I Ching. He used it solely to pick random numbers between 1 and 64, spreading intention thin across his work. But the hexagrams are exact, describing a geometry of the world of relation-states. Each one implies a meaningful shift from harmony to dissonance, rise to rest. Score for the music of our changing human moods, sixty-four basic categories for ways we can attest to the whole. I asked him if he ever considered composing according to the wisdom of this book of changes. He said "no, but one certainly could."

I wish I was more willing to write with randomness. John would never wish me to. It might not be my way, and one must be true to the way that is our own. The random has had its chance. What we hear when we shut intention out is never devoid of plan.

John Cage, Inlets: complete score (©C.F. Peters)

Seattle, Sept. 1977
Any length of time. 12 water-filled conch shells. 3 very large; three medium large; three medium size; three small. Each player uses 4 shells, producing gargles contingent upon a shell being tipped this way or that. Any of the 4 shells is the first (and least) to be played. The next shell (any of the others) is to be played a longer period of time. Etc. (All the rest of the time is spent with the 4th shell; the piece "settles down.") Halfway through an agreed-upon time length a silence is developed in which a tape recording of pine cones burning is faded in. (If possible this should be live.) Once the fire sound is clearly audible, the gurgles come back. Then at any point post-central in the total time, the conch used as trumpet is to be played for as long as the player can hold a single tone. The gurgles of the shells must be amplified using three microphones (Neumann KM84 with Phantom power supply); it is best to have a hall with very high ceiling and good acoustics.

And you ask: why not more instruction? What, no specification of the sound. There could of course be greater detail, but the liberation lies in asking the performer, and the audience, and the place, for just this much, and no more.

then again, not all his music is like this

Thoreau, from his Week on the rivers:

It were vain for me to endeavor to interpret the Silence. She cannot be done into English. For six thousand years men have translated her with what fidelity belonged to each, and still she is little better than a sealed book. A man may run on confidently for a time, thinking he has her under his thumb, and shall one day exhaust her, but he too must at last be silent, and men remark only how brave a beginning he made; for when he at length dives into her, so fast is the disproportion of the told to the untold that the former will seem but the bubble on the surface where he disappeaed. Nevertheless, we will go on, like those Chinese cliff swallows, feathering our nests with the froth which may one day be bread of life to such as dwell by the seashore.

A difference: Thoreau, transcending, moving toward the universal. And Cage, preparing the individual, allowing the universal to move toward you. And yet, and yet, wanting to transcend the self who likes and dislikes. They both, together, there, paring all down to the essentials, and then, to celebrate life in all its wonder.

you see cloud iN sky
mountAin stream
or up and abouT
the thOught of coming home
to bE not there but here
previous yeAr
where is the mUsic

The form here, christened by Cage mesostic, does not intrude on the sound. One need not judge the mix of words and shape, but only read through them slowly, pausing where appropriate, distilling sound out from sense. The words will touch shards of our memories, and they have been taken from everywhere: Walden, Wittgenstein, McLuhan, the morning news. It does not matter if our faculties have already been cut to pieces. We have heard too much, we know too much, we have forgotten how to tell what we should hold onto or ignore. No need to panic, this is only where we are.

Influence? How does a composer have influence? Here was one who wrote a philosophy of art through response to nature. He blew apart logic by not being afraid to let the sense of place into his ideas through sounds into instruction or into words. He made music into a way of perceiving the world, an openness to the happenings around that would tell us how to live. So maybe he alone made the radicalism behind contemporary music accessible to all. In no way does this mean he cast away discipline or assent to the details. (Although I thought it did mean this for years. Now I'm recovering.) Time and the details—what a man lost in the dark does remember:

"When others left for nearby lake, refused to leave. Arranged to meet on road at 4:00. 3:30 hurried back. 4:00 hurried. 6:30 lost. Yelling, startled moose. 8:00 darkness, soaked sneakers; settled for the night on squirrel's midden. (Family of birds; wind in the trees, tree against tree; woodpecker.) Fire. Roasted L. aurantiacum. Thought about direction (no stars). Where is north? 5:30 sky overcast. 6:00 aiming for solid dry spots, angry (7:00): full circle back again Goal: walk in one direction. Mushrooms. 9:00 heard horn. Shouted. Received reply! Don Reichert and Rick Shaller picked me up. Friendship vs. nature (distinguished between sounds and relationship of them: no sounds)"
Before music, men and women are men and women, and sound and silence are sound and silence. While studying music things are not so clear. After music things are themselves again. Because we have now heard, and still survive

On commitment:
"There's the example of someone devoting himself to one square foot of Earth, hoping before his end of time to learn what he could about everything in that small plot. (Apparently at no point in time or space is the wall impenetrable. Push or not, and the door opens.)…. We are as free as birds. Only the birds aren't free. We are as committed as birds, and identically."

So list the commitments:
"Many doors are now open (they open according to where we give our attention). Once through, looking back, no walls or doors are seen. Why was anyone for so long closed in? Sounds one hears are music. Mushrooms: we see them everywhere even when we're driving along in the night at sixty miles per hour. The same with world improvement: now that we hunt for signs of practical global anarchy, such signs appear wherever we look. Renunciation of competition. World-enlightenment. Not a victory, just something natural."

Two monks came to a stream. One began to cross the stream by walking on the surface of the water. The other became excited and called to him to come back. "What's the matter?" said the water-walker. The other said: "That's not the way to cross a stream. Follow me." He led him to a place where the river was shallow and they waded across.

Splash! Who wants an easy way over?

breaking the branches
If Zen was music how would it sound?

I walk from my place in Soho toward Cage's place in Chelsea, on one of the incipient spring afternoons, in the busy and sudden increasing heat, trying to keep track of the sounds. First the slam of my door into the street noises. A skateboard swerves by, chafing the pavement. The din of a whizzing motorcycle. A concerned delivery truck peals warning signals as it backs up. Screams inside a handball game. Smidgens of many languages not my own. (Baudelaire asked for anywhere, anywhere out of the world) Someone humming walks by. Or is it me disguising my quest? Cars switching by at every street crossing. Pigeons making love high above. A crowd of onlisteners observe a woman taunting (or training?) a huge great Dane. She says "Mama!"—the dog breaks into a contorted howl. Jumping up. Repeatedly. Babies giggling in prams. A kitten lost on high. Brakes, horns, air on asphalt everywhere. It's too much, I've only gone a block, usually I ignore this great din, now it's overwhelming. I try to separate the sounds of nature from human ones. It is hopeless. Beyond the cheeping of sparrows we humans are now everywhere. Take me anywhere, anywhere out of this world. Underground, unfocused rumblings. The buildings shake. Who hears them? Another drunk bellows for more. I run into a drummer friend in from Pennsylvania. He tries to talk to me, but I am already taking in too much, the cacophony of the busy neighborhoods as the season changes. Leaves rustle in potted plants outside a brand new store. I faintly hear someone bite into an ice cream just beside. I am asked the time, and wish that I didn't know. A man holds a small captured bird in his hands. It is a ruby-crowned kinglet, and it says nothing. I soon reach the familair door. The booming, buzzing confusion is all around. I press the old buzzer. There will be no answer.

Then suddenly I walk down the road back in Finland, in the trees with a plant in hand. It's far from the Manhattan grid, and long away from the mushrooms of the present, distanced from the wash of fat sound. Memories are silent, they are as close to the pulse of the heart and the nerves we can get.

breaking the branches on the stage
breaking them according to a random but picked plan.
It's all part of the show.
This is the way the piece was meant to be.
we have passed through the period of chance but this is not the end.
This is our nature, the disappearance of sounds toward an unreachable silence, where humanity wishes a home
a symphony of the possible unfolds

John Cage 1912-1992. Listen in Peace.

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