Monday, January 31, 2011

Talking Out of Turn #12: John Cage (1982)

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show, On the Arts, at CJRT-FM in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to artists from all fields. In 1994, after I had gone to CBC, I had an idea to collate an interview anthology from some of the more interesting discussions I'd had with guests from that period. Since they all took place during the eighties, I thought I could edit the collection into an oral history of the decade from some of its most outspoken participants. The book was assembled from interview transcripts and organized thematically. I titled it Talking Out of Turn: Revisiting the '80s. With financial help from the Canada Council, I shaped the individual pieces into a number of pertinent themes relevant to the decade. By the time I began to contact publishers, though, the industry was starting to change. At one time, editorial controlled marketing. Now the reverse was taking place. Acquisition editors, who once responded to an interesting idea for a book, were soon following marketing divisions concerned with whether the person doing it was hot enough to sell it.

For a few years, I flogged the proposal to various publishers but many were worried that there were too many people from different backgrounds (i.e. Margaret Atwood sitting alongside Oliver Stone). Another publisher curiously chose to reject it because, to them, it appeared to be a book about me promoting my interviews (as if I was trying to be a low-rent Larry King) rather than seeing it as a commentary on the decade through the eyes of the guests. All told, the book soon faded away and I turned to other projects. However, when recently uncovering the original proposal and sample interviews, I felt that maybe some of them could find a new life on Critics at Large.

One section of Talking Out of Turn included a chapter examining the role of the experimental art on eighties culture. Contemporary composers like Philip Glass, R. Murray Schafer and John Cage were now having their music felt in pop circles. Cage was perhaps the most influential of those avant-garde composers. He had a huge impact -- both artistically and philosophically -- on popular music (including Frank Zappa, Cabaret Voltaire, Yoko Ono and Brian Eno).

Born in Los Angeles in 1912, Cage studied music with serialist composer Arnold Schoenberg and later with Henry Cowell to develop the notion of aleatoric music (or chance compositions), such as 4'33", where a pianist sits at the piano for that length of time without playing while allowing the ambient sound to form the basis of the composition. He also wrote piano pieces where the piano strings themselves would be "prepared" with applied wood blocks, or screws, to change the timbre of the work. In short, Cage made us aware of the role of sound in the conception of a composition.

When I spoke to Cage in 1982, he was in Toronto to perform a relatively new work at Convocation Hall called Roaratorio (1979), a work of ambient surround sound recorded in the streets of Dublin and played through multiple speakers while he read from James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake. The eighties would be his last decade with us (he died in 1992) and in this interview he seemed to be in the process of summing up his work.

kc: How influential do you feel you've been on popular music?

jc: I don't like the notion of influence. Let's say someone is struck by something I've done, or something that someone else has done, then if he really does something that is lively himself, he'll have to translate that thing into his language. In that way, it'll come out true. You can't just be influenced. A person has to grow it in themselves.

kc: So a person has to open a different door for themselves much like you did when you decided to tamper with the piano?

jc: That's right. Just like my teacher Henry Cowell did before me. I frequently held the piano pedal down while Henry would run behind and play his banshee. I also once saw him use a darning needle on the bass strings of the piano to get a glissandi of overtones. So it was perfectly reasonable for me, after he opened that door, to put screws and weather stripping between the piano strings. The only change was that all the things that Henry did were mobile on the strings. For me, the main characteristic of the prepared piano was that they're stuck to the strings (laughs). And by the last work that I did for prepared piano, those pieces that had time length by title were grouped by the different objects I inserted -- like wood blocks. That way, the preparation was in constant transformation.

kc: This is one of the areas that fascinates me about your music. You not only see music as an evolution of technique, but also an evolution of our ability to accept different kinds of sounds as part of the music composition.

jc: You see, I was well aware early in my life, after I studied two years with Arnold Schoenberg, that I had no feeling for harmony. He was aware of this, too. And he told me that I would never be able to compose. I asked him why and he said that I would come to a wall that I could never get through. Now two years before I studied with him, I had promised to devote my life to music and composing. Since I felt obliged to continue, I figured that I would just have to hit my head against that wall (laughs). And what I think I've done in my work is to show alternatives to tonality and harmony as the structural means of music.

Arnold Schoenberg
kc: What kinds of alternatives did you discover?

jc: On the one hand, the alternatives I discovered opened the doors to noise which tonality doesn't do. And the way it does this is by taking time as the basis of composition thereby replacing pitches and tonality and harmony. And time is hospitable to everything, whether it's musical, or not musical. So I would say that if you can hear something, it's natural for music.

kc: That would include hearing a pin drop, or someone coughing at a concert...

jc: Well, in New York, we now have concert halls where you can hear trucks passing by outside unlike others where formerly they made the architecture so you couldn't. Maybe the first music place where you heard extraneous noises was the Museum of Modern Art where you could always hear the subway going underneath (laughs).

kc: Many have claimed that you caused an upheaval in music with the prepared piano and your aleatoric pieces that were right in tune with the musical upheavals of the previous century when Schoenberg and the serialists challenged the excesses of Romanticism. True?

jc: What happened in Europe musically around the turn of the [20th] century was that you had the emergence of both Stravinsky and Schoenberg -- not to mention Bartok. And music then divided itself into streams. What I chose was the stream of Schoenberg because his notion of the twelve-tones struck me as an open sesame. I got the notion that the twelve-tones were equal in importance to having just one tonal center. And I preferred that to the notion of major and minor scales where one tone is more important than all the others. I took that notion of equality and extended it to the world of noise and all sound.

Christian Wolff, Earle Brown, John Cage, Morton Feldman.
kc: Wasn't there a group of you that worked together reshaping music in this manner?

jc: Yes. It was much later in New York. There was Morton Feldman, David Tudor, Christian Wolff, Earle Brown and myself. And we saw many possibilities. It was Feldman who created music on graph paper that listed the number of tones to be sounded. That was the first piece composed with the intention of being genuinely indeterminate. I found it very inspiring to a great deal of my work.

kc: What kind of audience did you originally attract to your music?

jc: Suitably, it wasn't other musicians, but painters. You see, the upheaval in painting had already taken place, so that they welcomed this upheaval in music. We never had large audiences -- maybe 120 people could be counted on to come to one of our concerts -- but they were all visual artists. There were only a few exceptions. Henry Cowell, of course, and also [the electronic music composer] Edgard Varèse.

Erik Satie
kc: You might not want to think of the influence that you have on contemporary composers, but it still exists. How could we think of Brian Eno and his ambient music without what the group of you did?

jc: Yes. But what would the group of us have done without the furniture music of Erik Satie? He thought of music that should be in the environment and which could be ignored. Of course, no one ignored it (laughs). He did at least suggest that we could.

kc: Are we to expect then that musical standards are always being created to be broken down?

jc: When we least expect it, a new idea will come to us. We seem to be surrounded by possibilities that get into our awareness and we act upon them. It happens when you least expect it. I remember a book by Alan Watts. He wrote a great deal on Zen Buddhism. In one book, he put a bunch of scrambled letters on a page and suggested to the reader that we try to figure it out. What did those letters mean? Naturally, you couldn't figure it out if you tried, but if you forgot about it, the answer would come to you. The mind can block us from doing the next thing that we don't yet know. It does it by the means of our memory and our tastes. So if we can free ourselves, as Duchamps once put it, by reaching the impossibility of transferring from one image to the like image -- from one Coca-Cola bottle to the other -- by eliminating our memory imprint of the former image, each Coca-Cola bottle will be new to us. And from a Buddhist point of view, each one would be at the center of the universe. But also at a different center because the light doesn't fall on two Coca-Cola bottles in the same way. Therefore, they do look different.

John Cage playing prepared piano.
kc: I see. It's just like Schoenberg's twelve-tones where there's no tonal center.

jc: That's right. There's a multiplicity of centers. At least, that's the view I find most refreshing.

kc: What has been the greatest benefit for you by opening up the world of music to noise?

jc: My own experience, now having opened the doors to that music, is that I really enjoy the noise -- almost more than any music. It's sufficient for me.

kc: Do you think that even now at 70 years of age there are still new areas of music for you to tap into?

jc: I'm sure that not only that there are, but there always will be. I really don't think we'll come to the end (laughs). Life consists, for many people, of opening doors. Perhaps there are some people who prefer to have them shut, but I'm not one of those. I like to open a door. And if I don't do it today, I hope to do it tomorrow.

-- Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. Beginning in January 2011, Courrier will be presenting a lecture series on Film Noir (Roads to Perdition) at the Revue Cinema in Toronto. He will also be facilitating a film series called Reel Politics at Ryerson University beginning on February 13th.

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