Beyond Asia


Last week I rather took Daniel Asia to task for his Huffington Post article on John Cage. I’m returning to the subject today because I’m interested in moving this debate beyond just Asia, or even Cage.

As Lauren Redhead noted at the time, Asia’s article is merely symptomatic of how much writing on contemporary music is lazy. (Although, admittedly, snarky line-by-line put-downs like mine are hardly the epitome of industrious journalism.)

Much of the feedback to my post so far has been positive, for which I am very grateful. Where there were disagreements, however, I was sad to see that they often quickly distilled into a perception of “this camp” vs “that camp” – that Asia belonged to the Cage-haters, and that those, like me, who disagreed with him, belonged to the equally blinkered Cage lovers.

Well, yes, I do love Cage. (You may have noticed.) But a difference of taste isn’t my argument with Asia, or with the many other examples of lazy writing and thinking that his post represents in this context. Listen to what you like: I don’t care. My problem is with a sloppy, hand-me-down ideology of what 20th-century and contemporary music was/is, and its deployment in discourses such as this. These discourses are not harmless, and they play a role in musicians’ access to a dwindling number of available funding streams (and therefore their livings). That sort of thing needs to be treated responsibly.

If there is enough unchallenged drip-drip-drip of a certain discourse’s values, audiences will begin to accept as fact that some composers – Cage, Stockhausen, Carter – were simply wrong-headed. Foolish. Unmusical. That the effort required to listen to challenging music like theirs simply isn’t worth it. Lots of smart people have told me it’s a waste of time. Why even try?

And that’s when you lose an audience. (It’s just a hunch, but I wonder if the average audience member isn’t actually less inclined towards the postwar musical avant garde than those who were hearing it for the first time 60 years ago. Something like a “Washington consensus” is crystallising around our narrative of postwar art music, and like its neo-liberal cousin in economics, it points to what Joshua Clover, after Fukiyama, calls an “end of historical thought … [an abandonment of] a conception of ongoing historical processes, of alternative arrangements of daily life”.)

And the thing is, there are plenty of intelligent ways to critique Cage’s music and ideas, even if one is sceptical about its basic premises. His exploitation of Zen, and the kind of orientalist mysticism he fostered around his music, is problematic, for example. So is his relationship to authorship and ownership. The same extends to any discussion of the post-war avant garde: the conversation gets much more interesting (and more inviting) if it takes place at the level of the music itself, and not at that of loggerheaded ideologies.

Stuff like this should be the responsibility of those who are placed in the role of expert commentator, like Asia was in this instance. As Richard Kessler remarked in a comment to the original HuffPost article:

one might expect a composer to be a bit more open minded, and to have spent a bit of time explaining why Cage’s music is different and the role boredom plays within the framework Cage had invented.

Indeed, that’s exactly what any reader might reasonably expect from such a byline. (Any student too, one should add.) The absence of such engagement from an article like this doesn’t only reflect a paucity of intelligent debate within contemporary music, it enacts it for others outside to see.

It’s 2013. Let’s try to be a bit better at this.

Photo by winkyintheuk.

In which I take Daniel Asia’s bait

I probably shouldn’t have, but I’ve allowed myself to get a bit cross about Daniel Asia’s frankly embarrassing article on John Cage in the Huffington Post.

Yes, as one commentor points out, Asia, and anyone else, is free to dislike whatever they want, and to do so as stupidly as they like. However, when that person is writing for (and being paid by?) a very prominent news source, they are responsible to the facts. The editors of that news source should also pay a little more attention.

First up: John Cage was born in 1912; the Rite of Spring was premiered on 29 May 1913. So even allowing that this article was written and published around the cusp of the New Year, we can only be celebrating one centenary or the other. Not both.

That’s just the first sentence. So much of the remainder is unsupported assertion, even accounting for differences in taste.

Stravinsky and Schoenberg are certainly the two most important composers of the 20th century

Says who? By what criteria?

Music appeals to the mind, emotions, and body.

Perhaps. But does all of it do all three, all of the time? Is it necessary for it to do so to qualify as music? Define “appealing to the mind/emotions/body”.

The greatest music thus in some way taps into the listener’s life experience, which is of course a journey over time, from birth to death. It is no surprise that music, and the tonal enterprise broadly interpreted, manifests a similar arc.

NB: Listener’s life experiences differ. The “tonal enterprise” is neither historically, geographically or socially universal. Actually, it’s a blip.

Quite simply, harmony, and thus counter-point, has been central to Western music for over a thousand years, and it is one of the glories of Western Civilization, and is a creation of that culture.

Woah, woah, and thrice woah. This is such a mess I can’t even begin …

It has allowed for some of the greatest artistic achievements of mankind.

Mankind has, however, achieved many, many other wonderful things without it. Even in music. Some of those things even happened beyond the paternal reach of Western Civilization. Golly!

His philosophical understanding that guided his first works was that music is to sooth the soul and calm the mind.

Cage was an imperfect disciple of Zen, but that’s a pretty offensive summation of Zen philosophy. (I assume you’re not talking about the serial pieces of the mid-1930s, like Composition for Three Voices, Metamorphosis, and so on, that were his actual “first works”.)

In Cage’s latter and final chance period, by the way, matters only got much, much worse in regards to all of the above.

That’s quite a generalisation of 50 years of hugely varied creative output. (Also: “final chance period”?)

“If you think something is boring, try doing it for two minutes. If you still think it’s boring, try it for four. If you still think it’s boring, try it for eight, then sixteen, then thirty-two, and so on and so forth. Soon enough you’ll find that it’s really not boring at all.” I think not, as boredom simply wears you down.

You’re right! Why even try?

And alas, life is too short to waste in boring activities.

No, it’s not. We all do boring things every day (brushing our teeth, feeding our kids, cleaning the house), and we’re OK with that. We do them because we judge the end result (good teeth, a happy family, a clean home) worth the time spent on the boring activity itself. We have an idea of sacrifice and reward, of satisfaction, gratification, achievement. We’re not 18 months old any more.

the Western tradition … its supposed patriarchal and masterwork approach

I think that supposition is fair – cf “Western Civilization,” “greatest achievements of mankind,” above.

In a few years time, Cage will be a small footnote to all of this, remembered if at all, for his self-advertising, whimsy and smile, and love of mushrooms. But for his music, not a chance.

Cage’s critics have been saying this for decades now. When does it stop being true? Please tell me.