Signal to Noise

Signal to Noise

I promised myself I wouldn’t take the bait dangled by Dan Asia’s screed against John Cage, but it’s turning out to be hard to resist. So instead I’ll try to write about it in the most oblique way I can without being too obtuse.

When a work is interpreted, it experiences a death, a closing off of possibilities. I am not saying that this death is a good or bad thing–more like an inevitable, necessary part of observation and interpretation.

When you say that a work of art must simultaneously nourish the mind, body, and emotions, you are imposing a very strict definition that excludes a great deal of value. What if music could express things other than what we already know it to express? If we allow this possibility, we must also accept the value of experimentation, even in the face of failure.

And even if you refuse to question the holy trinity of mind/body/emotion, it is completely nonsensical to consider it a basis for objective evaluation. To do so requires believing that the mind is situated outside the mind and the body is situated outside the body. As if emotions were free-floating abstracts, little clouds of vapor that drift from person to person.

As attractively fanciful as this notion is, it isn’t particularly rigorous.

I think I know what is at the root of these recurring rants, these rashes of irascibility against Cage et al. We have a massive signal-to-noise ratio problem. Cage prefigured this problem to an extent, though I suspect he underestimated the extent of its repercussions.

There are far too many things to listen to, so our listening must be curated. We can choose to take a role in this curation, but our range of action is limited by our attention span, our reserves of vigilance. So many things are constantly demanding, cajoling, pleading for our attention–many of them with questionable ulterior motives. The Western canon and its implied values, for example.

The haters see Cage as exacerbating this problem, as cluttering the already cacophonous landscape. For me, he brings that problem into sharp relief, making it more manageable. When I am listening to a good performance of a Cage piece I feel that I have agency, that I have control over my body, mind, and emotions. Or at least, that the possibility exists.

I am pretty sure that Cage would not have approved of this sentiment, or this phrasing.

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One thought on “Signal to Noise

  1. Rod Jones

    Perhaps Cage would have approved. In that notorious interview with Wim Mertens at New Music America ’82 (the one with the contentious remarks about Glenn Branca and fascism) Cage said, “To be able to move one’s attention from one point to another without feeling that one had left something important behind is the feeling which I enjoy having, and which I hope to give to others. So that each person can place his intention originally rather than in a compelled way, or in a constrained way. So that each person is in charge of himself.”


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