Sound Ecologies

Sound Ecologies

Sitting in the midst of a faculty meeting at a Japanese university, as I am at this moment, I hardly feel that anyone here has a particular reverence for the silence immortalized by the likes of poets such as Basho, et al.

how professors drone
that famous haiku silence
pure cliché

That’s a bit harsh perhaps, and certainly not good haiku (even as my first effort), but it is true that the Japanese soundscape, whether in the office or outdoors in the neighborhood, is neither particularly silent nor even relatively quiet—it’s full, rich, and for the most part quite noisy. When you are out on the street, you notice a barrage of sounds from many directions, and unlike the cacophonies of New York or Bangkok, which may surpass Tokyo in pure sound pressure level, I’m willing to bet that Tokyo has the most intentionally introduced sounds. They come at you in the form of announcements, cautions, signals, musical catch-phrases, buzzers, and aural directors. There is a chaotic, unplanned quality in the soundscape, just as with the architectural landscape here. And if its charms are not appreciated by all its citizens, to these two ears, the street sounds of Tokyo are delicious.

Even as a relatively new arrival to Tokyo, I suffer nostalgia over sounds that once were prominent, even emblematic of the city, now gone. The amazing sing-song vocalizations of the ladies whose job was to announce the floors in a department store elevator, are, in a few years time, now vestigial. When I first came to Japan, every train station had at least one or two people (sometimes many more), whose job would be to sit at the wicket and rhythmically punch the paper tickets of those entering and exiting. As a pure function of scale, when thousands of people are streaming into a large station at rush hour, the volley of paper punches made an amazing sound, somewhere between Reich and Xenakis. It’s now gone from the soundscape forever, replaced by automatic turnstiles. Some sounds, while not gone, have evolved as relentlessly as a super-bug bacterium. A few years ago, all the pachinko parlors consisted of the roars of 10,000 metal balls caroming through their machines, with Sousa marches pumped in at top volume so as to keep the gamblers playing. Now most of the games are electronic, full of beeps, buzzes, and 8-bit game sounds, and the added music, easily as loud as the front row of a Merzbow performance, has morphed into hard techno.

Sound ecologists like R. Murray Schafer tend to regard these types of sounds as aberrational events and have even dubbed them schizophonia. But Schafer’s book The Tuning of the World is more than a plea or strategy of defense to fight noise pollution. What is called “acoustic ecology” seeks to accentuate the balance between organisms and their sonic environment. Schafer is seemingly anti-Cagean in his unwillingness to embrace all the sounds in an environment, yet Cage, when asked to name a great music teacher, reportedly answered with little hesitation, “Murray Schafer of Canada.”

Just as Cage never achieved the absolute silence he famously pursued in the anechoic chambers of Harvard, the concept of silence in Japan is decidedly not just the absence of sound. In the words of musicologist and soundscape researcher Keiko Torigoe, “Silence…exists as a synesthesia comprising our total sensations.” It was Torigoe who designed a contest, called the Nerima Silent Places Contest, which was designed to work “as a new type of socio-audio performance art,” and asked people to find and describe their favorite “silent places” in one of Tokyo’s 23 wards. She further explained that “when it comes to ‘sound culture’ we have to consider not only the sounds we create or we hear, but also the sounds of which we are not conscious, or which we think we do not or cannot hear. Sounds of the past, sounds of the future, sounds in our memories and dreams—all these kinds of sounds should be included.”

Okay, finally the sound which I have been dreaming of: “Meeting adjourned.” Thanks for letting me stream some thoughts while sitting here. I’ll be on the road next week, so let me herewith wish those of you reading NewMusicBox in the U.S. a happy Thanksgiving. See you in two weeks!

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

30 thoughts on “Sound Ecologies

  1. rtanaka

    Pachinko is just really another gambling exercise, and it’s been a big problem in Japan because people ruin their lives on it on a routine basis. People go there as a way to blow off stress from being overworked, and at times, they borrow money from their spouses in order to feed their habit. In a lot of cases, people just don’t know what else to be doing with their free time.

    The “noise pollution” is symptomatic of bigger social problems that exist in that society, and I don’t know if its really a good idea to be “accepting” of everything. Is the genocide in Darfur going on right now — is that art? Sure, why not? But it doesn’t mean that it’s a good art or a good idea.

  2. dalgas

    Ryan wrote: Is the genocide in Darfur going on right now — is that art? Sure, why not? But it doesn’t mean that it’s a good art or a good idea.

    Careful, Karlheinz…

  3. rtanaka

    Well if you want to argue for the virtues of gambling addiction and genocide, by all means, be my guest. I don’t have any problems casting judgements on things that seem so obviously wrong beyond reasonable doubt. Some things are really just beyond being controversial — the challenges mainly lie in its application.

    Most of Cage’s ideas aren’t really good or bad…they’re just sort of there, not doing much of anything. Very Existential. (Existence preceeds essence, et al.) I guess it wouldn’t be quite as silly if its proponents wern’t always claiming how radical his methods were. The philosophy of the status quo, indeed.

  4. carlstone

    Wow. Nice catch, docker. I had heard about the singing roads, and I even read a mention about something similar being done in ancient times by dragging sticks across bamboo, but I always thought it was an urban legend. Will have to investigate further, maybe make a trip up to Hokkaido. What songs would be good for them to “program” for the roads of Hokkaido? How about “Expressway to Your Heart” by the Soul Survivors, or perhaps “Slow Down, You Move Too Fast (Feelin’ Groovy)?” by Simon and Garfunkle.

    More seriously, ryantanaka makes some very provocative points. Let me say that I hadn’t really considered pachinko as a social problem, to the extent that it may be one, in evaluating its merit in the ecology of sound. If somehow the gambling problem in Japan were to be solved, and the pachinko parlors were to disappear, should we be nostalgic for the sounds that may have contributed to social disruption, however fascinating they might be?

    The ideas around noise pollution – what is it made of, is it the problem some people say it is, does it even exist – are things that merit an entire column and discussion at some point in the future. Let’s ust say that some artists – Francisco Lopez comes to mind – have some pretty provocative ideas of their own and it will be interesting for us to explore them at a a later date.

  5. rtanaka

    The main problem I (and a lot of people) have with the Cageian aesthetic is that it lacks intentionality and interaction. For me, in order to consider it music (or art, in a general sense) there needs to be communication. Two people practicing different things in different practice rooms might produce some interesting layers of sound, but since the sounds are autonomous and do not interact in any meaningful way, it’s mostly just noise. Two people rehearsing together in the same room, however, can be considered music.

    Unfortunately the lack meaning, lack of intentionality, and lack of interaction (therefore resulting in naturalism replacing humanitarianism) seems to have become a virtue among some circles so debates about these matters tend to go in circles. But as the late Lucky Mosko said in class one day, “there’s nothing there,” no matter how hard you might look into it.

    Lucky claimed that the problem was that people went into concert halls expecting for something to happen. Umm…well, isn’t that what we pay to go see/hear?

  6. William Osborne

    I understand what you are saying about the lack of intentionality in Cage’s theories, Ryan. On the other hand, his work was all about listening, a form of neutral listening uncolored with one’s own judgments. This becomes the well-spring of the most important and valuable forms of interaction. True listening is the source of all compassion and all humanism.

    Pauline Oliveros took many of Cage’s theoretical ideas and formulated them into her conceptions of “Deep Listening” which are profoundly and consciously humanistic. I’ve written an article that focuses on this aspect of Oliveros’ work entitled “Sounding the Abyss of Otherness.” See:

    William Osborne

  7. rtanaka

    Yes, I understand that people have taken his ideas and turned it into something different at this point. It’s rather complicated, because Takemitsu cites him as a reason of inspiration, despite the fact that he gradually distanced himself from the experimental camp as time went on.

    I think there’s too much mysticism surrounding his name, though, and we should be more honest about what he actually did with his works. His music was largely about destroying syntax, using pre-existing elements and applying random processes to obscure its coherency. So now we have a division between composers who believe in music as a language (which also includes improvising musicians who are not represented in this place) and those who think sound should exist for sound’s sake.

    The latter has a tendency to lead to interpretations of sounds that divorces itself from its context. So instead of hearing the wit and humor behind Haydn or Mozart’s works, you only hear shifts of timbres and pitch frequencies. Sometimes the message is lost and music then gets turned purely into an intellectual exercise. There are really a lot of journal articles that are floating around right now of that variety. These are just extreme examples, but they do exist.

    Course the idea of listening to your environment is nothing new — it’s been around for centuries, even in Western culture. There is something very safe about environmental sounds, though, because you know that even in its complexity it will not talk to you, intrude on what you’re doing, question you, or hurt your feelings. Dealing with people, on the other hand, is much more difficult. But personally I find the realism of it much more intriguing, which is why I decided to dedicate my studies to improvisation. I mean, as musicians here we’re all probably a little bit socially awkward, but I don’t know if its such a good idea to divorce yourself completely from the social context.

    Then there’s Cage’s misunderstood readings of Zen, but maybe that’s for another topic. Zen is other-worldly, but essentially its a humanistic philosophy. There’s a short video clip of a Zen master disparaging his understanding of the philosophy in Sukiyaki and Chips: The Japanese Sounds of Music if anybody is interested. At least Cage was very honest about the fact that he was not a practitioner, but it seems that some people turn to him as some sort of Zen guru, even though his knowledge in that area is very tenuous. There hasn’t been a substantial critique in regards to this issue, despite the fact that the inconsistencies are often glaring. I wonder what’s the problem? One of these days I may have to take things into my own hands and write one myself.

  8. Trevor

    I don’t buy the notion that the composer decides whether there is communication. If someone records the sounds of two musicians practicing in different rooms, or one of Cage’s most radical pieces, or anything really, and then plays it for me, who’s to say I won’t find it emotionally engaging, viscerally moving, or in some other way affective? Am I simply wrong if I hear a message in what Ryan regards as mere noise, or what Cage regarded as mere process?

    No, I’m not in error, because the communicative intentions of the piece ultimately lie with the listener. To take an example from the art world, last night I went to an open studio and found myself drawn to a particular painting. My friends and I all had our various interpretations, but when we asked the artist what her communicative goal was, it had little to do with what any of us had thought. That didn’t make it a bad work – it was the one I enjoyed the most all night – but it did illustrate how the work can only speak for itself, and it might not be saying what the artist/composer intended. In the end I walked away with my own understanding, which spoke much more directly to me than the one I was supposed to have received.

    So as fashionable as it might seem for the modern day reactionaries to bash people like Cage for their lack of communicative goals, just keep in mind that their work has been deeply affecting for a great many people, whether it was intentional or not. It is the ultimate in arrogance anyway to tell someone that his or her emotions toward a piece of work are invalid. All sounds have meaning, but music is ultimately not a language because those meanings are different, either subtly or greatly, to every member of the audience. The composer usually only controls the sounds produced in some way – every other communicative or interpretative element is brought to the table by those listening.

  9. William Osborne

    I appreciate your criticism of Cage, Ryan. His ideas can be very problematic, and some might be plain wrong. Historically speaking, aesthetic theories are always over-extended into deadening orthodoxy, and Cage probably did this even with his own ideas. But surely you would agree that he also opened our minds to many concepts that are deeply valuable.

    A lack of intentionality in auditory and visual stimuli can sometimes be very beautiful. Why do we so love the rhythmic sound of wind chimes? The rustling of leaves? The chaos of a flock of birds singing? Why do the random patterns of the stars in the sky so please us? What would handmade clay pots be if they didn’t look handmade? Without elements of chaos much of what we perceive as beauty would not be possible.

    And think about music. Why do the imperfect, organic rhythms of humans playing instruments often seem so much more humane than the mechanical perfection of computers? Why are no two notes a human plays ever alike?

    And what about the great jazz musicians? Even though we can discern the profundity of this music, its is often exquisite exactly due to its chance elements. Music, by its very nature, contains elements of chaos that are often beyond analysis or definition.

    Non-intentionality also brings into being many aspects of human consciousness that are fundamental to artistic expression, such as certain kinds of religious experience, as well as the irrational sides of our human psyche, like dreams and emotions.

    Non-intentionality is not opposed to humanism; it is actually a fundamental part of our humanity. Without elements of non-intentionality music as we know it, create it, and love it, could not exist. So is it completely invalid for at least some artists to explore regions of non-intentionality in art?

    William Osborne

  10. rtanaka

    There is a huge difference between the indeterminacy of Cage and the spontaneity of improvisation, and Cage’s dismissal of jazz really reflects the uglier sides of his aesthetic, I think. If people are interested in the subject, I would suggest reading George Lewis’ highly influential Improvised Music after 1950: Afrological and Eurological Perspectives which I think I have mentioned before.

    There are numerous problems with Cage, probably too much to cover here, but one of the most obvious contradictions in the aesthetic is the fact that the composer takes credit for the “results” despite claiming not being involved in it. This really is quite silly, because if the intention was to remove the composer from the work then the obvious thing to do would be to remove his or her name from it — write something anonymously, or perhaps just improvise and let the music disappear into the ether.

    But that kind of music is really not about that — it’s about permanence, leaving one’s “mark” in history, which is why after a while performances became longer and longer, while the conceptions and graphical aspects of the scores began to take president over the actual result. The temporariness of music performance probably proved itself to be too much, so during Cage’s late years you have these sort of charts that have the theoretical possibility of lasting forever. On a lot of levels, it really just is an exercise in self-indulgence.

    For what its worth, though, I think that Cage probably had to be done — he’s credited, at least, for “breaking down” the boundaries between the artforms, which made it easier for interdisciplinary projects to occur. But his methodologies are mostly destructive, not creative, so its to be taken with a grain of salt. Randomization has never known to produce any useful information — its only practical function as a communicative device is encryption, to obscure, not clarify.

  11. Colin Holter

    So now we have a division between composers who believe in music as a language (which also includes improvising musicians who are not represented in this place) and those who think sound should exist for sound’s sake.

    A. Music, although it has language-like characteristics, is not a language. Its meaning is 100% subjective. The “language” in it lies in the evocation and subversion of convention and in the capacity for various sorts of quantitative perceptual comparison, neither of which are sufficient to make it a language.

    B. No one thinks “sound should exist for sound’s sake.” Sound already exists. Consult Ryan Tanaka’s Big Book of 1001 Modernist Straw Men for more details.

    There hasn’t been a substantial critique in regards to this issue, despite the fact that the inconsistencies are often glaring. I wonder what’s the problem? One of these days I may have to take things into my own hands and write one myself.

    I can’t cite a particular monograph or article, but I am certain that someone has interrogated Cage’s grip on Zen, which everyone agrees was not strong. The point is not that Cage didn’t understand Zen, but rather that he misunderstood it in a manner that allowed him to write ground-breaking music.

    First Adorno, now Cage. . . what musical thinker of the twentieth century will you set your critical crosshairs on next? I don’t want to know.

  12. rtanaka

    No one thinks “sound should exist for sound’s sake.” Sound already exists. Consult Ryan Tanaka’s Big Book of 1001 Modernist Straw Men for more details.

    Why is this so necessary that sounds should be just sounds? There are many ways of saying why. One is this: In order that each sound may become the Buddha. If that is too Oriental an expression, take the Christian Gnostic statement: ‘Split the stick and there is Jesus’.” John Cage, Silence (1959)

    Self-explanatory, I think.

    As for the language thing, if I write down a B flat on the page, you’re probably not going to be able to say that its not a B-flat. Music is subjective, but saying that its 100% subject is just wrong, because we create agreements that certain things represent certain things, much in the way we’re communication right now. Hear a siren on the street? It means, “get the hell out of the way”. This is not subjective, unless you want to get into trouble.

  13. Colin Holter

    There’s a major difference between asserting that “sounds should be just sounds” and “sounds should exist for no reason.”

    Also, a Bb on the page is not music, experientially, nor is a siren on the street: One is a blot of ink that tells a performer what to do, and the other is a sound that has a specific practical function. Admittedly, you may find a siren to be a “musical” sound–but unless you hurry your ass out of the concert hall to avoid the incoming ambulance whenever you hear Ionisation, I don’t buy that it can be both warning and music.

    Also, honestly, how many hard-line Cageians do you know? Although I’ve met a great many musicians who value Cage’s music very much (as do I) and were influenced by him in some way, I don’t think I know anybody who subscribes to his aesthetic philosophy–a philosophy which, it must be said, does have authoritarian overtones.

  14. rtanaka

    Well anyway, as predicted earlier, this argument is going to go in circles because of the linguistic divide. If you don’t believe that music has any vernacular qualities (despite evidence to the contrary all across the globe) then there’s nothing to be said. But as far as Cage goes, his quote, “I have nothing to say, and I am saying it” basically sums it up.

    Whether he was aware of it or not, Cage’s methods specifically circumvent the idea of what’s normally thought of as coherence. (One example, out of many — here he does it explicitly with text.) As Lucky Mosko said, the problem was that people went into concert halls expecting something to happen. Seems kind of abusive to me — taking people’s money and giving them nothing back — but at least its honest.

  15. Chris Becker

    “You have no idea how academic music is, even the most sublime. What is calculated is for me academic. Chance is the most academic procedure yet arrived at, for it defines itself as a technique immediately…”

    “Is noise actually so easy to arrive at? On the one hand sound is comprehensible in that it evokes a sentiment…But it is noise that we really understand. It is noise which we secretly want…”

    “Sound is all our dreams of music. Noise is music’s dreams of us.”

  16. William Osborne

    Ryan, even though this is just an email discussion and one has to be brief, I worry about the facile way you brush aside the arguments in support of Cage. Oliveros’ work illustrates the humanistic side of Cage’s thought, exactly because it contains humanistic elements. And the myriad forms of indeterminancy in art illustrate why in depth explorations of chance in music can be worthwhile. I think a critique of Cage’s work would be most effective if you considered and presented both its positive and negative sides. Why meet zealotry with more zealotry?

    Your understanding of Cage might also be enhanced if you more closely considered his historical context. By the late 19th century, concepts of “intentionality” in music had become almost Faustian. Romantics were often blinded by impulses toward grandiosity and fanatic forms of cultural nationalism. Many people do not realize the extent to which this intellectual climate contributed to events such as the Third Reich. Here is a quote of Hitler that illustrates the extreme forms of “intentionality” and demagogic communication that were a typical part of artistic thought:

    “Art is an exalted mission requiring fanaticism. He who is chosen by providence to reveal the soul of a people around him, to let it sound in tones or speak in stone, suffers under the power of the Almighty as a force ruling him, and will speak his language, even if the people do not understand or do not want to understand. And he would prefer to take every affliction upon himself than even once be untrue to the star that guides him internally.”

    Symphonic music was considered the most German of arts, and people had long been conditioned to believe that its artist-prophets “suffered under the power of the Almighty”, and that they rose above the mundane world in an “exalted mission” to “reveal the soul of a people”–a mission culturally isomorphic with that of their Führer’s. A close look at Adolf Hitler reveals that a 19th century aesthetic of Radical Will, ultimately accompanied a 20th century morality of Radical Evil.

    To a considerable degree, the twentieth century modernists continued to model themselves on the image of the nineteenth century artist-prophets they claimed to oppose. A form of romantic and modernist demagoguery evolved in art based exactly on the concepts of intentionality and captivating the public you describe.

    In this climate, Cage began to question musical syntax and obsessive forms of intentionality. As we all know, he suggested that all sound could serve as the material of music, which could be presented in aleatoric forms independent of the artist’s will (and especially the radical will characteristic of modernism.) Due to the historical context, this had a profound effect. War ravaged Europeans knew that the Third Reich was, in part, a manifestation of their cultural values, and this former student of Schönberg offered a new world, an emancipation of sound freed from a genocidal past.

    This is also one reason why continental Europeans have so thoroughly rejected American neo-romanticism. For them, neo-romanticism represents forms of radical will that gravitated toward grandiose, demagogic patriarchy and social conservatism. They haven’t forgotten what those forces did to their society. Cage was also a radical, but it was probably a necessary stance considering the historical forces he was facing.

    I appreciate your questioning the major thinkers of our time, but as a scholar you will want to present discerning and differentiated arguments.

    William Osborne

  17. William Osborne

    One other thought. Your observation, Ryan, that the indeterminacy in jazz is very different from the way Cage uses it is very valid. Most composers that use indeterminacy create contexts to control chaos. The chance elements in their scores are confined within certain parameters. Cage, on the other hand, felt that chance could not be controlled. For him, chance was all or nothing. In the preface of one of his books (I think it was “M”, but I am not sure) he even takes Stockhausen to task for his attempts to control chance – or to create it within set parameters.

    Perhaps that is what you are really looking at. Why did Cage hold a totalizing philosophy about chance? What was wrong, or right, about that approach? Can there even be a pure form of chance? Even drawing notes on the fly specks in paper, as he did in one of his works, is a system.

    I think this approach might narrow your argument and save you from having to paint with such a broad brush, which can be rather thankless task.

    William Osborne

  18. rtanaka

    I did try to keep an open mind about things, but after spending some years performing and doing research and debating about the subject, my opinion of his works just aren’t getting any better. I can now at least understand why someone might enjoy doing Cageian works, but for those striving for clarity in presentation like myself, there really isn’t any use for it. People who know me well will tell you that I’m a pretty open person, but I just don’t believe that Cage really offers any real solutions to the problems that exists in today’s society.

    Unfortunately as these discussions show, most people composers of the avant-garde variety aren’t really interested in discussing historical aspects of where these sentiments might be coming from, or where their ideas exist in relation to philosophical trends. They are rather dismissive of the parallels — often very clearly defined — that exist within their works and what goes/went on in philosophy and history. The idea of preserving the individual’s subjectivity, for instance, derives from New England Transcendentalism and also shares correlations with some of existentialism’s (Heidegger, Sartre) epistemologies that advocated similar things.

    There are some uses to these types of approaches, but it is totally unproductive to be unaware or dismissive about where these sentiments come from. There seems to be an attitude that music is somehow special and the rules of the greater social and intellectual climates somehow don’t apply to it, which is patently untrue. Anyway, the main thing I wanted to point out is that most of Cage’s ideas have their own lineage and historical antecedents if you look hard enough. I’m merely suggesting that his “radicalism” and “progressiveness” is often over-stated, and I do believe that a well-balanced overview of the literature tends to support my point of view, and I do believe that current scholarship is also moving in that direction, especially in realms of musicology and ethnomusicology.

    Perhaps the only thing I can leave right now is a draft of my paper that I’ve submitted for review — I wanted to save it up until I got it published, but it might as well come up now since I’m here. I’ve always had trouble with the English language and it takes me forever to edit things, so you may find a few grammatical mistakes at this point:

    Transcendentalism and Materialism: Classical Music and Improvisation in the United States (Part 1)

    So a couple of quotes just for an overview:

    What is popularly called Transcendentalism among us, is Idealism; Idealism as it appears in 1842. As thinkers, mankind have ever divided into two sects, Materialists and Idealists; the first class founding on experience, the second on consciousness; the first class beginning to think from the data of the senses, the second class perceive that the senses are not final, and say, the senses give us representations of things, but what are the things themselves, they cannot tell. The materialist insists on facts, on history, on the force of circumstances and the animal wants of man; the idealist on the power of Thought and of Will, on inspiration, on miracle, on individual culture. These two modes of thinking are both natural, but the idealist contends that his way of thinking is in higher nature. (Emerson, 18)

    [Thoreau] sang of the submission to Nature, the religion of contemplation, and the freedom of simplicity — a philosophy distinguishing between the complexity of Nature, which teaches freedom, and the complexity of materialism, which teaches slavery. (Ives, 51)

    As one can see, Emerson’s clear rejection of Materialism, which he defines as “experience”, “history”, and “facts”, will find itself in various forms throughout American history, including that of Ives and Cage. Cage was also highly influenced by Transcendentalism, as shown in the Mureal work above, paying homage to Thoreau…he became a lifelong member of the Thoreau Society since 1968.

    And the idea that history and experience can be dismissed, well, is all over the place and tends leads to a lot of discussions that go in endless circles, which is why I’m wary of talking about these things with some people. I just want people to know that this is something that I’ve grappled with for a long time and have done an intense amount of research on, and it is not something I conceived on a whim, whether you agree with me or not.

  19. Chris Becker

    “Art is an exalted mission requiring fanaticism. He who is chosen by providence to reveal the soul of a people around him, to let it sound in tones or speak in stone, suffers under the power of the Almighty as a force ruling him, and will speak his language, even if the people do not understand or do not want to understand. And he would prefer to take every affliction upon himself than even once be untrue to the star that guides him internally.”

    There are plenty of contemporary artists who are not fascists, who are horrified by Hitler and who are not egomaniacs (at least to the extent one can be an artist and not be somewhat self-centered…) who can identify with this quote. And I think using it in the context of this discussion is a cheap shot. I reads like you are implying that anyone who can express some nuanced reservations about the legacy of John Cage and (God forbid) disagrees with you on some points about this legacy…is somehow similar to a Neo Romantic inadvertently composing music that Hitler would like. It’s ridiculous.

  20. Colin Holter

    Unfortunately as these discussions show, most. . . composers of the avant-garde variety aren’t really interested in discussing historical aspects of where these sentiments might be coming from, or where their ideas exist in relation to philosophical trends.

    It must be nice to know how “most. . . composers of the avant-garde variety” wish to discuss these things. I bet it makes communicating with them much easier.

    Insofar as there still exist composers of an avant-garde variety, I guess I am one–and I am absolutely interested in discussing “historical aspects of where these sentiments might be coming from,” just not with you. I feel like I say this every week, but I refuse to carry on a debate with you just to validate some cartoonish avant-garde stereotype from the fecund recesses of your imagination. If you think you’ve been damaged by composers of difficult music, file a lawsuit or embark on a cross-country revenge fantasy, but don’t keep making fallacious generalizations, and more importantly, don’t keep misreading important aesthetic philosophies. You would be doing my blood pressure a real service.

  21. rtanaka

    Colin, you’re always the one jumping into the discussion, trying to turn it into something personal. Of course I am making generalizations, and I have said this a number of times — but these “caricatures” are manifested in some of the more extremely minded of people, and yes, they do exist. I’ve avoided talking about specific people because I’m more interested in critiquing certain attitudes instead of turning it into an ad hom fest. If none of what I said applies to you, then you should not be offended, nor should anybody else. Feel free to ignore my posts as well, if it’s bad for your blood-pressure levels.

    Anyway, it’s good that you’re interested in the historical aspects of things, but I think you might be considered an exception than the rule. The de-emphasis on history and experience is something that has its own lineage (as shown in my paper) and these attitudes do exist, even if its partial, in some people. As an example, I brought up the issue of the similarities between Derrida’s deconstructionalism and some of Cage’s works, but it was immediately dismissed as being a casual connection. Upon later research, historical parallels of the two were made fairly obvious, and Cage even mentions himself that he “knows there’s a connection”, even if he wasn’t quite able to articulate it in specific terms. It’s quite frustrating dealing with people who dismiss such obvious things under the name of subjectivity. There is such a thing as beyond reasonable doubt.

    Unless you want to argue that randomness somehow generates coherence, then my main point largely still stands. Cage utilized chance methods as a way to destroy syntax, therefore coherence — and as a result, we have something that eliminates memories that exist in the past. Hence, distancing one self from the past = progress, which became somewhat of a mantra of the avant-garde during its high-modernist periods.

    Thankfully more and more people have become more skeptical of this notion, and it is also being reflected in the music and in scholarship. But I think it helps to remind people once in a while that there is a whole ‘nother world that exists outside of the Western classical contemporary music world, which can be very stifling and very narrow-minded if you take it too seriously. This quote below, I think, explains much of the divisions that exist right now between classical and jazz practices in the States:

    The elimination of memory and history from music, emblematic of the Cageian project, may be seen as a response to postwar conditions. Seen in historical terms, the decline of improvisation in European music in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries would seem to preclude any identification of exclusively or even primarily European antecedents for Eurological improvised music. In such an atmosphere, the postwar modernist emphasis of musicians such as Cage on “the present,” deemphasizing memory and history, would appear to be a natural response to the impossibility of discovering such antecedents on the part of those from whom the preservation of European purity of musical reference would be a prime concern.

    On the other hand, the African-American improviser, coming from a legacy of slavery and oppression, cannot countenance the erasure of history. (Lewis, 233)

  22. William Osborne

    Chris, I am afraid you misinterpreted my comment completely – though that is understandable, since one has to be so brief in these sorts of messages. Please know that I question Cage’s theories as much as anyone else. They don’t work for me. And I do not equate artistic passion with Fascism.

    Many composers feel a sort of consuming fire to create, myself included. But for the first couple decades after the war, the role of the artist in society was deeply questioned, including their propensity toward obsessive, idealized passions about their work. (This questioning was probably much more common in Europe than in the States, because Europeans suffered far more from the war, and were directly involved in its crimes.) It was in that climate that Cage drew his conclusions about intentionality, syntax, and will (or radical will) in art. People were horrified at what Western culture had produced, and were looking for entirely new definitions of what art and artists could be.

    Cage usually addressed issues like these in vague terms, such as when he said he heard the sounds of marching drums in words. If I remember right, he was also referring to something similar that Thoreau said. I think Cage found something authoritarian, not only in Western music, but even in language itself.

    You might be interested in this quote of Carl Jung, who was anything but a Nazi:

    “The artist’s life cannot be otherwise than full of conflicts, for two forces are at war within him – on the one hand the common human longing for happiness, satisfaction and security in life, and on the other a ruthless passion for creation which may go so far as to override every personal desire. There are hardly any exceptions to the rule that a person must pay dearly for the divine gift of creative fire.”

    I think a lot of us know what Jung was talking about. And I think most of us also know there are times when these passions can go terribly wrong. Examples range from the old obsessively abusive conductors and composers, to musicians destroying their bodies through obsessive practicing, to driven musicians suffering drug addictions, to artists like Van Gogh who cut off his ear and then killed himself. The “ruthless passion for creation” can be a burden for which we can indeed “pay dearly.”

    Anyway, I think we might see how someone like Cage might have searched for another model, especially in the first couple decades after the war.

    Just one other thought, I don’t have a problem with Ryan’s posts. He often takes rather idiosyncratic stances on issues, but they are just ideas. No reason to get one’s blood pressure up. If you think Ryan’s bad, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

    William Osborne

  23. William Osborne

    I realize I didn’t fully address an important issue Chris raised: the rejection of American neo-Romanticism by continental Europeans. As I mentioned, they often associate romanticism with forms of radical will that gravitated toward grandiose, demagogic patriarchy, and dangerous forms of social conservatism mostly revolving around cultural nationalism. Strauss was President of the Reich’s Music Ministry, Orff wrote a non-Jewish “Mid Summer Night’s Dream” at the request of the Nazis, Pfitzner was a rabid anti-Semite and advised the regime on racial cleansing in the music world, Resphigi was a devotee of Mussolini and an entire section of the “Pines of Rome” is a portrayal of Il Duce’s march on Rome, etc., etc. And to make matters worse, nationalist anti-Semites like Wagner were easily appropriated by the National Socialists, as were orchestras like the Berlin, Munich, and Vienna Philharmonics. The extent to which Fascism corrupted the European music world was astounding. Vienna discretely practices racial/ethnic ideologies to this day.

    It is thus surprising how clueless Americans can be about why their neo-Romanticism has been rejected by the Europeans – though if I hadn’t lived here for the last 28 years, I wouldn’t understand either. Americans simply do not surround romanticism with the same associations. A striking example was Alex Ross’ commentaries about the negative Viennese reaction to the premiere of John Adams’ “A Flowering Tree.” In one commentary, Ross was so exasperated and confused by the negative Austrian reactions to Adams’ work and the festival organized by Peter Sellers (of which the Adams was a part) that he literally wrote, “Come on people!” Since Americans have very little understanding about how Europeans frame romanticism, they have trouble understanding why Europeans hold so strongly to objective, modernist approaches like Spectralism and the so-called International Style.

    I think there is currently a wider gap between continental European and American music than has ever existed in history. This needs to be examined. As for my own views, I am caught in the middle, perhaps because I am an American, but have lived here in Europe for so long. I can understand the European view, but I can also see how Americans would have a very different association with Romantic music. Through my many years of contact with the Munich and Vienna Philharmonics, I have seen first hand how deeply these conflicts run in the European soul. Unfortunately, I am much more interested in using my time to compose than for musicology or journalism. This would be a tough article to tackle. I hope someone knowledgeable will try it.

    William Osborne

  24. rtanaka

    Just one other thought, I don’t have a problem with Ryan’s posts. He often takes rather idiosyncratic stances on issues, but they are just ideas. No reason to get one’s blood pressure up.

    Story of my life, basically. I think I’m finally getting used to it, though.

    If you want to get your blood pressure up high, I would recommend having political debates with racists, right wing nationalists (of any country), or objectivitsts of the Randian variety. In comparison, everything else on the internet is a very pleasant discussion.

  25. philmusic

    I disagree- Ryan’s position is quite clear—that the acceptance of any “Universalism” either Cageian or Communist, or anyone else’s that denies the past would be cultural suicide. As quoted:

    “ the African-American improviser, coming from a legacy of slavery and oppression, cannot countenance the erasure of history. (Lewis, 233)” …”

    I believe that the words “never forget” are familiar to some of us.

    My problem with Ryan’s postings is that he does not stress this important main point, but rather tends to “bate” folks, who perhaps see the world differently, and to nibble around the edges arguing minutia.

    Phil Fried

  26. rtanaka

    I disagree- Ryan’s position is quite clear—that the acceptance of any “Universalism” either Cageian or Communist, or anyone else’s that denies the past would be cultural suicide.

    There is the idea of “looking backward, moving forward”, which is usually how real progress is made, especially in the realm of politics. “Looking foward, moving forward” sounds nice, but it can be mere escapism (which modern works are often accused of being of) if it doesn’t actually deal with issues that exist in reality. Cage is anti-idealistic, but because it really can’t be said to contain too much elements of realism in it. His works are often contrasted with social realism, for example.

    I believe that the words “never forget” are familiar to some of us.

    How is this idea reflected in Cage’s music, then? I would like to hear an explanation of this. Maybe we should clarify what these “most important issues” are, because I was not aware that there were such things. Maybe it’ll help to focus the discussion a little better.

  27. Colin Holter

    In what sense is Shostakovitch more realistic than Cage? Shostakovitch’s music is fraught with affective conventions that are supposed to resonate with the audience in such a way as to confirm that audience’s perceptions of the world–not to be realistic per se, but to convince people through emotional manipulation that the ideology of its creators is reality. This is socialist realism (social realism is not so far removed). Cage, on the other hand, is hyperrealistic insofar as he worked throughout his career to eliminate the frame between life and art. When you see a performance of Variations II, you are watching a carefully prepared slice of configured reality. Cage does not propose an alternative to reality except by making it actually, physically real in performance, whereas “realist” artists of the sort to whom I assume you refer (you don’t supply examples) demand that their subjects adopt a certain subjectivity (in the case of Shostakovitch and friends and enemies for the purpose of maintaining an oppressive politics).

  28. rtanaka

    “Realism”, as defined here, is what arises out of life itself. Experience, history, narrative. Again, this is all covered in my paper, and there is a philosophical term for it called materialism. If you can find any sentiments by Cage expresses the importance on either of those things, I would like to know, because I have not seen any.

    Your use of the word “experience” can be construed as an attempt at art to replace life. You’re not talking about everyday experiences like waking up in the morning or paying your bills, but the concert-hall “experience” of listening to Cage’s work. Very different things, and I don’t think its helpful to create a equivalency between the two. It seems like you see it as something of a physical experience. I really just don’t — I’m more interested in what the artist has to say, rather than “feeling” their presence.

    A lot of these types of works, in many cases, can also be very instrusive and abusive — say, I knew a few people who’re going around town “performing” works out in the middle of the street. There’s also a fluxus work where the “piece” was to completely destroy a piano, which was replicated around the L.A. area a few times.

    Art is usually seen as a reflection of happenings of life, and this is normally where its “realism” is derived. The most relevant example I can think of right now is probably the style of social realism, which can be looked up anywhere on the net so I won’t go too much into that.

    The big divide right now, and this is reflected in the visual arts as well, is the divisions between representational and non-representational art. In representation, the symbols and gestures “mean” something to the audience, like say this, “:)”, where you cannot help but see it as a smiley face. So while it’s not actually there, it represents something, and if used skillfully it can be used to convey messages to and audience, assuming that the artist know what their audience might be responsive to. Non-representational art, however, does not have any of these qualities. Representational art is infinitely more accessible by the way, if that sort of thing matters to you.

    Schostakovich, mostly against his will, worked within the Soviet regime. His works represent something about that environment, having to work his way around the censors, but he has done well in providing subtle criticisms of the regime right under their noses. For this reason, his works are documentations of important happenings in history.

    Just for the record, though, I do think that Cage’s works represent something as well. Angst, dispair, confusion, staring into the abyss of nothingness — very dreary type of existentialism. I can be very interesting up to a certain point, but another reason I don’t listen to his works very much is because I just don’t share that level of pessimism as he did. Humanity can suck, sure, but it’s not all hopeless.


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