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.


22 thoughts on “In which I take Daniel Asia’s bait

  1. Tim as usual you’re right on the money. That Asia also chooses to “dis” Schoenberg also blows my mind. Additionally, as you know, Cage was the right man at the right time, especially at places like Darmstadt, when composers wanted to get away from the fascist connotations, the patriarchy of tonal/post romantic music that was identified with the Nazis. Asia is so wrong on many points, that your criticism is just scratching the surface.

  2. He’s a composer at the University of Arizona. His website says he is “One of a small number of composers who have traversed both the realms of professional performance and academia with equal skill,” so I’m surprised you’ve not crossed paths, Richard 😉

  3. Tim, you might be surprised at some of my path-crossings, but I’d never come across this individual before. I’ve just listened to a movement of one of his symphonies on Youtube which seemed actually to draw inspiration from Cage: “if something is boring after two minutes, try it for four,” and so on.

  4. A better response than the article deserved, Dr. Rutherford-Johnson. As for Mr Asia’s music, well, I’ll quote Morton Feldman here: “You, Sir, should be so boring.”

  5. I wouldn’t waste time getting angry (Mr Asia’s propensity for opinionated and uninformed utterance is his problem I’d say), but I’m glad you shared what seems to me to be a wholly reasonable response. Of course, he misunderstands Cage, particularly with regard to his suggestion that if something is found boring at first, keep with it and eventually you will find it interesting, but my particular gripe is with the ‘thousand years’ bit. If tonality evolved from the polyphony of the renaissance and began its terminal decline towards the end of the 19th century, then I’d make it 500 years at most, and yes, it’s a ‘blip’. I suspect that he uses the terms ‘harmony’ and ‘tonality’ to refer to music that he thinks sounds pleasant and comes that closer to fulfilling his apparent need for music to create an emotional response first and foremost.

    I often wonder why so many people, many of them well educated and talented musicians, are so obsessed with their emotions and why so many require little other than an emotional ‘fix’ from a musical experience. Somehow, it reminded me of Sir Thomas Beecham’s famous dictum about the British, but that could be applied to most card-carrying ‘music lovers’ and possibly to Mr Asia; “They don’t care for music, they just like the noise it makes”.

  6. this year there were John Cage centenary concerts & festivals all over the world. can’t speak for elsewhere, but the ones here in New York (where he was based) were quite well attended, and mostly by a younger & more enthusiastic audience than is typical for contemporary music.

    it seems rather odd to dismiss Cage’s music as “unlikely to survive” when it so clearly HAS survived, & is attracting more of an audience than the “traditional” composers like… well, Daniel Asia.

  7. I too had the biggest jaw drop with the thousand years reference. He also doesn’t seem to know that much about Schoenberg. The Cage quibbles are too adolescent to bother with. That he is the head of a composition department is depressing. I did know Daniel a little when he lived in NYC – he was part of the “uptown” scene, think he even had a group, whose name I can’t remember. He didn’t seem so strident then, though.

  8. I like Asia’s post minimal/neoromantic music (his second and thied symphonies held my attention for some years now) but i like Cage, Reich, Glass, Carter, Kagel, Schoenberg, Hindemith…you get the idea. But I find many composers to be limited as critics. And I find such conservative ramblings boring. Good for you calling him out. I won’t be reading his commentaries with much interest but I will be listening to the music he writes at least once.

  9. Bad polemics makes for really disappointing reading, doesn’t it? I’d go for some legitimate criticism, but I suppose that would require actually listening to music or looking at scores. Perhaps even both. Better to construct hilariously bizarre formulations, such as:

    Cage was terrible at harmony, Schoenberg even said so. And Schoenberg was terrible, even though he was one of the most important composers of the 20th Century.

    But we should really be listening to Stravinsky.

    As the kids say: Fail.

      1. Cage was not “terrible at harmony.” He admitted honestly that he had no “feeling for harmony”, which is a very different statement. He was, in fact, a good student of harmony, completing his exercises to the teacher’s satisfaction in Schoenberg’s Structural Functions class (which Schoenberg allowed Cage to attend without formally enrolling) as attested to by both Leonard Stein and Pauline Aldermann.

  10. This is what I wrote in response to it
    The most resonating part of the article and the only part that I have something to say about is how Mr. Asia is claiming that the lack of seriousness of our current culture is reflected in John Cage’s music. I would disagree. What he calls unserious I would call lost, frustrated, searching for transcendence or answers to questions, much like science seeks to answer questions that have been formed over the nature of existence. I look at much of the 20th century as having a peculiar blend of freedom and oppression; a vague awareness of the possibilities of the vastness of life while living in the rigid constructs of society where conventional and traditional values are promoted in spite of everything else. This peculiarity has produced this kind of experimental musical groping for something more than the ‘laws’ we are told exist unequivocally.
    Obviously everyone has the right to their opinion, and really, appreciation of music is nothing more than surface level pleasure. There’s no need to read into it any more than that. Mr. Asia doesn’t get John Cage. I do. What does that say about us as people?
    I think Mr. Asia is really just commenting on the phenomenon of people liking music that he doesn’t like. It would be similar to be writing an article about how Nickleback sucks. All I would be accomplishing is drawing attention to the fact that I don’t understand why people have different tastes in music.

  11. Glad to read this. You articulated well the questions flying through my mind. As you said, my problem with the article was not that Asia questions Cage—that in and of itself is testament to the strength of Cage’s art—but rather Asia’s assumptions about music, life, culture, etc. I fantasized about writing a response that looked just like this, questioning his points one by one. Well done.

  12. In response to Adam, Cage himself recounts the story of being interviewed and telling the interviewer that he was planning on writing a piece called “Atlas Eclipticalis and the Ten Thunderclaps.” The interviewer expressed surprise that Cage would reveal the title and plans for the work, meaning that someone might steal the idea from Cage. Cage replied that if someone else wrote the piece, they would merely save him the trouble of doing it.

  13. I’m just throwing this letter around at various blogs I enjoy and respect that have taken the Asia bait! 😉

    Dear Professor Asia (if you happen to be following this),

    As you can imagine, your HuffPo article disparaging the work and philosophy of John Cage has disenchanted a significant number of 21st-century composers, musicians, and listeners.

    Contrary to what you say, John Cage’s music is intently–and intensely–structured and disciplined.  Your insistence that Cage’s music lacks structure reflects a willful reluctance on your part to study his work, to immerse yourself in his music and writings, the way that you might immerse yourself in Stravinsky’s music and writings, for example. (If you have experienced inadequately structured performances of Cage’s music, it is most likely because the performers involved do not truly understand Cage’s philosophies about performance and music-making. Too bad you can’t coach them on that.)

    What you describe as “directionless[ness]” is actually a quality of many seminal 20th- and 21st-century works that are moving, emotionally engaging, and trend-setting.  Directionless music is no longer put aside as some anomaly or considered a radical gesture. Think of American composers like Meredith Monk, Pauline Oliveros, [early] Steve Reich, [early] Philip Glass, Eve Beglarian, Frederic Rzewski (okay, admittedly an expat, but still…), Ingram Marshall, David Lang, Julia Wolfe, and so many more. There are also countless younger composers with whom you may not be familiar, but something tells me I shouldn’t bother you with their names, since you seem to be fairly disinterested in the musical trends of our current century.

    And I’m curious: Why would you dismiss John Cage for thinking beyond his discipline of music?  Do you, as a professor, wish to churn out a bunch of mediocre composers who can’t be bothered to think beyond their own areas of expertise, to explore other forms of art-making, performance practice, belief systems, and philosophies? I hope music and composition students who attend the University of Arizona are exposed to other professors who don’t share your limited scope and willful ignorance of John Cage, who is arguably the most important American composer of the late 20th century. And I hope you eventually figure that out for yourself.

    Corey Dargel

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