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.

More of Mode’s Cage Edition reaches Spotify

Mode Records continue to add recordings from their Complete John Cage Edition to Spotify. The always-vigilant Ulyssestone alerted me over the weekend to the latest additions. All are now included in my Complete John Cage Edition playlist. They are:

  • Vol.8 Europera 5 (mode 36)
  • Vol.11 Orchestral Works 1 (mode 41)
  • Vol.13 The Piano Works 1 (mode 47)
  • Vol.15 The Lost Works (mode 55)
  • Vol.17 The Piano Works 3 (mode 63)
  • Vol.38 The Number Pieces 4 (mode 186)
  • Vol.39 The Number Pieces 5 (mode 193) [NB: Mistagged on Spotify as Vol.38]

The total playlist now numbers 33 albums (out of 45), and 426 tracks.

Cage Edition on Spotify – now even more complete

A few more of Mode’s John Cage recordings have recently appeared on Spotify. I’ve added them to the Complete John Cage Edition playlist, in sequence with the rest. They are:

  • Vol.4 Music for Merce Cunningham (mode 24)
  • Vol.7 Freeman Etudes, Books 1 & 2 (mode 32)
  • Vol.9 Freeman Etudes, Books 3 & 4 (mode 37)
  • Vol.45 The Works for Percussion II (mode 243)

The total playlist now numbers 26 albums (out of 45), and 320 tracks.

Hat tip to Ulyssestone for alerting me to these.

Radio Rambler fans: It has been a while, I know, but look out for an update to your playlist in the coming days.

CD review: John Cage: Song Books

Loré Lixenberg, Gregory Rose, Robert Worby | John Cage: Song Books | Sub Rosa SR344

Cage’s centenary year has seen a number of ambitious recording projects. Ranked highly among them must be this first complete recording of the Song Books, released on Sub Rosa. Cage’s two books contain 90 “songs” for solo voice – a total of at least six and a half hours of music, or 317 pages of score. For this 2-CD release the decision has been taken, probably wisely, to accept Cage’s permission to superimpose songs, and a total of seven Song Books Mixes have been made. These are presented alongside 14 individual songs.

It is a gargantuan effort for the three performers involved, Loré Lixenberg and Gregory Rose (voice), and Robert Worby (electronics). Better still, all 90 individual solos are apparently available for download through the Sub Rosa website (although at the time of writing I could not find these).

Presentation-wise, this is an exemplary release. The 24-page booklet includes not one but four essays: two by Cage scholars James Pritchett and Rebecca Y. Kim; two by Rose and Worby providing performers’ perspectives. There are lots of extracts from the scores, in all their variety, and some nice photos of Cage that I hadn’t seen before. The packaging is lovely.

But, ah, Cage. What about the music?

First to say: this is a studio recording, prepared as such. So, for example, the electronic processing was carried out in post-production, not live. The recording acoustic (the Edward Boyle auditorium, St Hilda’s College, Oxford) is dry and silent. Facts like this give the set a polished feel that seems at first far removed from Cage’s chaotic carnival of the voice (“it’s like a brothel” was his own description). There are no glitches, no extraneous noises, and a frankly disconcerting sense of equilibrium, even when several songs are running at once. It sounds distinctly un-Cagelike; except that while listening I began to wonder where that notion originated anyway, and who’s to say they have ownership of it today. In his essay, in fact, Pritchett offers the advice (contrarian for a CD note) that “This is not music to sit down and listen to from start to finish … wandering and exploring is more in order.” Perhaps one needs to listen to the CD as though it is a live performance, so that life can still seep in.

The Song Books themselves are among Cage’s most remarkable achievements. Composed in 1970 in answer to a commission for two sets of songs from Cathy Berberian and Simone Rist, they began with an I ching consultation that stipulated that 56 and 34 songs for each book – 90 in total. Cage had just three months to meet his deadline. The measures he took to deal with the pressure of time lead to the songs’ diversity, and helped him unlock a range of new compositional methods. Pritchett calls it “one of the most intensely creative periods in Cage’s life.”

You’d be hard pressed to find two better singers than Rose, and especially Lixenberg, to perform this music with the required dedication. The virtuosity on show in, for example, Solo no.47 or Solo no.90 is impressive; to have sustained this across a total of 90 separate recordings is staggering. For my taste I had trouble with the electronics, which work closely with the grain of the voices – a legacy of modern-day technology; one for the HIP movement? – rather than against it, rather dulling the expressive edge.

Having said all that, when it works it works very well.  Song Books Mix 2 (actually the final track of the CD 2) keeps 17 songs in a state of pleasing mutual sabotage for 23 minutes. It’s not as abrasive or as extrovert as some Cage performances, but neither does it allow gentleness and elegance to fade into mush.

In an interesting comparison of two recent-ish live performances of Song Books Ben Harper writes, “the closer [Cage’s music] comes to life the better it works as art”. Some will find too little “life” in these recordings, certainly. Nevertheless, this is a remarkable achievement, and one that may take some time to be repeated.

Note: the penultimate paragraph of this review was added shortly after its first publication.

Note 2: The artist Sam Belinfante has made a video of clips from the sessions for this album, which hints at the theatrical authenticity of the recording.

For John Cage

Today would have been John Cage’s 100th birthday.

Two days ago was the 25th anniversary of Morton Feldman’s death.

It seemed appropriate to post this:

I’m also taking the opportunity to dig out some other John Cage-related things I’ve done over the years:

CYBERSPC HMG – this one from The Rambler’s earliest weeks, a sort of hyperlinked aleatoric birthday card for Cage. I can’t remember how I put it together now, but there was a rigorous system.

My Musicircus epiphany – written in 2004, about the Barbican’s 1998 Musicircus.

Cage Uncaged, Barbican Centre, January 2004 – one of my very first reviews. Includes a complete run-down of performers for this incarnation of Musicircus.

are as Much / is not ‘ finitE / Trouble ‘ / and Heavy – thoughts on I–VI and Cage’s speaking voice.

Apartment House 1776 representing Cage in the (unfinished) Music Since 1960 series.

The (incomplete) Complete John Cage Edition on Spotify – playlist of as many of Mode’s series of recordings as I could find.

Silence redux

Richard Osborne has been pondering a Top Ten of silent pieces in the New Statesman this week. As someone who has not long ago written about silence in the post-Cage world, of course I had to take a look.

It’s a nice list, skewed towards pop (befitting Osborne’s own work), but I find it rather one-dimensional in its summary of what silence is or might be. Of the ten pieces listed, seven are political in spirit – as acts of remembrance (West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band) or protest (John Denver, John Lennon x 2, Sly and the Family Stone, Orbital, Slum Village) – and the remaining three are homages to Cage.

Which is not to denigrate the expressive power some of these tracks might have in their context (although, speaking personally, I find Ciccone Youth’s silence simply an annoyance on an album that veers dramatically in quality). As has been observed, there are three basic silences in music, all of them different: the silence before a note, the silence after a note, and the silence between two notes. And there are many more besides these three. Context is everything.

But Osborne’s list does reflect a somewhat limited outlook on the ontological possibilities of silence. Indeed, as Kyle Gann describes in No Such Thing as Silence, Cage’s own revisions to 4’33” altered the silence that it frames. The “silence” of 4’33” does depend quite a lot on which edition you are using. Within the quadripartition of composed music (composer–score–performer–listener) there are numerous points at which the responsibility for creative definition might enter, even when any sounding content has been eliminated or remains incidental, and thus numerous ways in which the nature of that silence might be formulated. Nine of Osborne’s examples were made for and exist only as recordings, suggesting that once you eliminate the score from the equation, you greatly reduce the aesthetic and philosophical possibilities.

In a work like Sergei Zagny’s Metamusica, the score is entirely defined, but the burden of interpretation lies with the listener, who internally performs it as they read. The fact that the score is recognisably based on Webern’s opus 27 Variations for piano – it’s the same piece, but with all the notes taken out, leaving only rests and articulation marks – adds something to that realisation. There is a resemblance here with the first version of 4’33”, which was essentially a series of rests, written on a conventional piano stave. (The length of each of the three movements derived from the accumulation of these chance-determined rests.) As David Tudor has made clear, the act of reading the score in real-time, as it were, contributed greatly to his early interpretations of the piece.

In certain works by Klaus K. Hübler, György Kurtág, Sofia Gubaidulina, Helmut Lachenmann and many others, performance actions are specified that can have no sounding result (by a process either determinate or indeterminate), creating a kind of dumb theatre. Here the silence occurs within a performed (sounding) context, and so might be considered more silent than Cage, since external sounds are pushed beyond the sphere of legitimate audition, and thus ignored.

In other works the boundary between performer and listener is dissolved entirely, with the listener assuming full creative responsibility for its realisation. This might take place in a private sense, as in the case of Metamusica, certain of Annea Lockwood’s River Archive pieces, Amnon Wolman‘s “imaginary pieces,” or David Dunn’s Purposeful Listening in Complex States of Time (all of which take widely different approaches to the level of specification in their scores). Or it might take place communally, as in certain works by Pauline Oliveros. And then there is the work of Peter Ablinger (whose 3 easy pieces, as presented in Prague in 2007, is shown above), in which every conceivable parameter of the “listening piece” is explored.

Quite a lot of these works are text pieces (several of them discovered in Lely and Saunders’ Word Events), but not all. The fact that silence can be composed in words and graphics in itself suggests at least two axes of difference.

When I was writing my NewMusicBox article, I drafted a typology of silent music as a reference for myself. It proved surprisingly difficult. Such was the complexity of performing/composing/scoring/listening permutations available that it took many attempts before I settled on a way of representing the array of scores that I’d gathered on a two-dimensional diagram. There’s a lesson in there about the richness of Cage’s original concept.

If you find this sort of stuff interesting, keep reading. I’m hopefully curating an event next year in London that explores some of these ideas in a more practical way. More details to follow in the coming months.