Monday, July 23, 2018

an Ethan Hein post that I wrote about has gone missing, the one about John Cage

Over the last seven years the various times in which I blogged about something and linked to content that vanished "normally" was something that I quoted in the media archives of Mars Hill, often something published with Mark Driscoll's name attached, that might vanish within days of a commentary I made using statements made in the Driscoll media.  As mark Drsicoll Ministries has kept moving forward some of those sermons reappear but substantially redacted so that large swaths of material I quoted from their originally published forms has been removed.
I haven't run into cases most o fthe time in which I reference a blog post on the topic of music that is up one month and gone the next.  But, sometimes, it happens.
Here was the blog post I wrote.
This was the blog post I was writing about that is now gone
This is the cached form of the page.
or ..
There was a direction some comments were going in as discussion went along I could sort of appreciate but didn't quite agree with.  Naomi had comments about the latently racist element of Cage's rejection of popular African American musical styles.  Cage was dismissive toward jazz throughout his life.  I am less certain that was indicative of Cage being a racist, not that I can establish that Cage was or wasn't racist because 1) I'm not a big Cage fan and 2) I'm certainly not a Cage scholar.   With those caveats out of the way I am still not convinced that the default mode we should take in criticizing Cage's dismissive views of popular music in general and jazz in particular should be construed through racial narratives.
What if, for instance, John Cage was a highbrow snob who disliked popular music because he distrusted commercial music regardless of skin color issues?  Cage could have been a snob who just didn't like pop music.  To put things another way, Cage may not have made it into the canon in his life but to invoke criticisms from Maoists like Cardew it isn't hard to imagine a criticism of Cage proceeding from a question about what class he served.  To be simple about it, Cage may not have disliked pop music because of racial issues but because he was having to cater to or pander to a patronage class and if that class had no use for popular musical styles Cage could ill afford to just declare that anything went, i.e. anything goes so far as using as much popular musical materials as you want. 
For instance ... :
naomi says:
Cage’s rejection of/lack of interest in black/african-diaspora musical traditions is an unfortunate blind spot given his own aesthetic interests. For ex. some of the later Coltrane stuff, such as Meditations & Ascension, or Coleman Free Jazz & so on, is just as rigorously constructed, experimental, & sonically grating (or “disinterested in the listener” or whatever) as anything Cage ever wrote. And Cage was not that invested in the classical music world either, which didn’t take him seriously during his lifetime. But his social circles were very much “high art”, specifically the fine arts—Rauschenberg, Rothko, Pollock, Duchamp et al—and he is taken much more seriously within the fine arts even today (there are drawings by Cage in art galleries around the world). That entire distinction between high and low art and all its latent white supremacy is therefore something he had to cling to to remain part of his community. Which is also unfortunate for musicians & listeners…. a Cage + Ornette collaboration would have been something to hear.

Also that’s fair enough re McClary—I didn’t read this specific article, but it’s a reasonable argument to make. I generally like her work, and appreciate her tireless trolling of the established academy, which has felled many a musicologist who, whilst attempting to retort angrily to her, revealed himself as an inveterate racist or sexist or homophobe et cetera >.>
Having linked to an article on sumptuary codes and online debates about cultural appropriation, it's not really a surprise if I suggest that I think what Cage did was more indicative of elitism or class vetting than a white supremacist thing.  High and low distinctions are not that hard to find in non-white cultures.  The caste system in India springs to mind.  For that matter the tiered status categories of pacific Northwest Indians springs to mind.
Nor does it seem to hold good that invoking a high low divide in which folk or popular art being distinct from high/classical art applies exclusively to whatever "white" culture is supposed to be.  Traditional Thai music (i.e. "classical" Thai music) can't be construed as defaulting to white supremacist ideology.  Since I've been reading up a bit here and there on Pacific Northwest Native American cultures and practices in the last few years strict rules about who can and can't perform X or Y song, or even hear it, doesn't have to have anything at all to do with latent or even explicit white supremacy.  I find it slightly annoying that contemporary scholarly discourse so swiftly defaults in some circles to assumptions that high/low distinctions might default to white supremacist views.  Maybe in some cases, sure, but the defaults taken up in online discourse have me doubting whether it's good to have such a literally and figuratively black and white set of polarities on these topics.   I'm not sure I buy a number of claims common in what seems to be the new musicology any more than I buy defensive claims made by "modernists" or even "traditionalists".
Since I mentioned Pacific Northwest Native American cultures on the topic of songs and who could hear them ...
When Dr. Ida Halpern recorded Pacific Northwest tribal songs she could establish that chiefs and others in the tribes owned slaves and could note that Pacific Northwest tribes had some strict rules about who could hear songs and share songs.  It was when the men and women who knew the songs realized the younger generation didn't want to learn the songs and that these songs would die with the generation that knew them that they agreed to work with Halpern to record the songs for posterity.  We can't forget at any step of that process that these were, within tribal terms, people of high status or, if you will, kinds of aristocrats. 
The assertion that high and low art has latent white supremacy might make some kind of sense if we only confined ourselves to a particular era of European history but, honestly, I don't take as given that high/low dualisms are latently white supremacist.  There can be dualisms about what music is appropriate to sing in church or a bar and fans of African American music may not need much reminding about how within African American music some music was considered inappropriate to sing for those who sought to spend a lot of time singing in churches.  That hardly means Son House or Charley Patton couldn't (let alone didn't!) record both sacred and secular song.  Breaching previously observed prohibitions about what was and wasn't appropriate to record or perform in the wake of new technological advances in recording and presenting music has been with us for millennia. 
It's possible to argue that Cage was too committed as a matter of branding and public relations to taking a low view of popular musical culture as part of catering to his patronage base without simultaneously insisting that this had to indicate racism on Cage's part at an implicit level; it is also not necessary to invoke latent white supremacist views for Cage's patronage base.  Some of them may well have been white supremacists but there are plenty of other ways to find fault with Cage without invoking statements of presumed white supremacism.  Xenakis' complaint about aleatory and indeterminacy was couched in terms of pointing out that your improvisers or going to improvise what they already know.  A Charles Mingus variation might be that you can't improvise on nothing, you're going to improvise on something. 
Now I did read the Lewis article Ethan linked to and it was an interesting read.  The definitions for Afrological and Eurological are much narrower and time-specific than online reactions tended to convey.  What sticks with me is that Cage comes across as though he was loathe to call improvisation improvisation as a point of class rather than race but it's a fair question why Cage and his associates seized upon aleatory and indeterminacy when they could have used the term "improvisation".  The arguments that improvisation in jazz was based on permutations of existing lexicons of formal and gestural clichés doesn't convince me.  I enjoy too much Baroque music to buy that kind of line.  Inventively manipulating conventions and received riffs is too central to the entire span of Baroque music for me to see a reason to drop that, and a similar observation can be made about jazz ... but partisans for one or the other style or era can tend to dig down into established critical/scholarly narratives in a way I just don't feel any obligation to do myself. 
Cage, however, did seem to find some necessity for using terms like aleatory and indeterminacy rather than improvisation.  Improvisation might be freighted with the baggage of being done within the context of an identifiable style.  Cage and others may have been committed to the old Romantic trope of tearing up the rulebook and figuring things out.  I've never been interested in tearing up rulebooks myself.   
The more I study music the more I get the sense that when 19th century pedagogues said what the guidelines were before admonishing students to not feel beholden to the rules there was a scholarly double bind at play.  On the one hand there were rules laid down as to what a good sonata was or what a good fugue was.  The presumption was that whatever Beethoven or Bach did was what was being conveyed ... though at this point jokes about the gap between what 19th century theorists prescribe and what J. S. Bach actually did are too numerous to need to do anything more than allude to.
On the other hand, artistic genius was held to be above pedantic rules and the genius was expected to break free of the conventions of scholasticism.  But the 19th century portrait of what musicians in the 18th century did was ... a bit skewed.  The rules that a student might be admonished to break were not necessarily rules that were laid down by 19th century composers or theorists so much as guidelines that emerged from within 19th century pedagogy.  Chopin could write what Hepokoski and Darcy called a Type 2 sonata in his B flat minor sonata and while contemporaries could sniff that he was too beholden to old school norms, didn't some consider the sonata too weird to make sense of it?  But that this "Type 2" sonata was, in fact, pretty normal can be established not just by reference to the famous Chopin sonata, a survey of early 19th century guitar sonatas shows that a Type 2 sonata form could show up as often as a "textbook Type 3 in Hepokoski and Darcy's taxonomy of sonata forms. 
Which is a roundabout way of saying that just because a range of scholars and writers think of Cage's disdain toward popular music reflected latent white supremacy is not a reason to consider that the case. If someone can prove from Cage's own writings that he was a white supremacist let them.  At the moment it seems we could propose that Cage was a snob and needed to be one based on the patronage class he needed to appeal to without getting anywhere near the idea that Cage or his patronage base were white supremacist as construed in 21st century scholastic or polemical terms.   
For my time and interest Coltrane and Coleman are way, way more fun to listen to than Cage!  Their work marks the end point for me in terms of the jazz I find fun to listen to.  I admire a lot of jazz from Armstrong up to Coltrane and Coleman and after that I, well, I really do like some George Russell stuff into the 1980s and 1990s but I guess I'd say that I couldn't get into Third Stream, Weather Report-type stuff and the Marsalis-type stuff.  If I had to think of some reason why that was it might simply be because by the 1970s and 1980s the boundaries between popular song and jazz as a self-identified art form became as non-negotiable and impermeable as the boundaries between "classical" music and popular song had already been for a generation or two.  A lot of what I love about a composer like Haydn, as I read the scholarship on his work and consider my own enjoyment of his music decade after decade, is that he treated the boundaries between "high" and "low" as more permeable than later theoreticians and music historians seemed willing to do with the rise of German idealism.
Which is a very roundabout way of my suggesting that we do a full frontal assault on German idealism rather than just assume that white supremacism is automatically involved. 
Cage as the apotheosis of Romantic ideology completely separated from any stereotypically Romantic musical sounds seems easy enough to establish but I figure I've probably written enough on this topic by now.  I don't have any complaints if people have complaints about Cage as composer or Cage as philosopher or Cage as musician but ... I do hope we can go back through contemporary criticisms of Cage to see that there were more ways to critique his work than a riff (however understandable, within a range of perspectives) that would say that Cage's dismissal of jazz reflected the latent white supremacism of "high" and "low". 
But then the whole post is gone from Hein's blog, just around the time I was finally getting around to writing some more thoughts about some things I agree and don't agree with about ways to proceed in criticizing Cage's stance on jazz.


Ethan Hein said...

I took the post down because it's not doing the job I wanted it to do, and it's alienating more people than it's convincing. I'd like to come back to it after I figure out how to articulate my argument better, beyond "Cage sucks." (Which, he does, but I want the blog to be more substantive than that.)

Anyway, I'm happy to continue to discuss it here! I agree with you that the high-low divide doesn't always map onto the white-black divide, but in the context of the United States in the 20th century, it's a reasonable equation to make. American popular music is pretty much coextensive with black music, and "art" music is coextensive with European music, at least until recently. It's true that smart people regard raga and gamelan music as "high," but that's a comparatively recent development. It's also true that Western notions of "high" art come out of German idealism, but German idealism was plenty white supremacist.

Cage did some of his most-quoted writing about how distant his work was from jazz when he was living in downtown New York City in 1961. He was within a stone's throw of the clubs where Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman were all at the peak of their game. To think that that music was too "popular," or not intellectual enough, is so shockingly ignorant that I can't square it with Cage's intellect and eclectic listening. He didn't have to like jazz, but his disdain is unfathomable unless there's a racial component. The class component may have been a bigger factor in his mind, but that's not adequate to fill the gap. I'm not saying that Cage was any more racist than any other typical white person of his generation, but he wasn't less racist either.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

Fair enough. I've taken down a few posts over the years that had unforeseen consequences.

Taruskin's criticisms of Cage seemed persuasive, though he borrowed the idea of Cage as the apotheosis of Romanticism as an ideological stance from Leonard B. Meyer, I think (Music, the Arts and Ideas, also Style and Idea). Taruskin doesn't really disguise his likes and dislikes even when he thinks he is, and fans of Cage or of New Complexity have little regard for Taruskin as a scholar or historian because of his agendas.

Which has me thinking about how in the case of Cage in particular I've read criticism of him and his work from the left by Maoists (Cornelius Cardew and John Tilbury in their book Stockhausen Serves Imperialism) and by religious right pioneer Francis Schaeffer (The God Who is There). What both sides agreed on about Cage was that his ideas are the sort that sound good presented from a podium about music but that he ideas as things you can lie by, that's another story. Certainly plenty of people wouldn't agree with either Maoism or quasi-theonomistic Presbyterianism but it's interesting that from both these directions the criticism of Cage during his lifetime was "you may be able to make music with these ideas but you can't live by them on a daily basis." Taruskin's variation was to question why Cage might say there's "just enough" suffering in the world and to raise a question about whose suffering that was, if memory serves. It might not, but it sounds like you've got access to Taruskin's writings on Cage already.

I hesitate to regard American popular music as being coextensive with black music ... unless you mean to propose that in a Venn diagram there's so much overlap between the two categories it's relatively safe to describe influences from black music on American popular music. Woody Guthrie or Pete Seeger or Hank Williams Sr. or the Carters and varieties of bluegrass come to mind. Now having mentioned those styles and people I think working class white and black musical traditions have more in common with each other than the highbrow against which they were often set.

Raymond Knapp's monograph on Haydn called Making Light got a little bit into minstrelsy and Broadway musicals as regions of camp that were distinguished by their stances against German idealism. His proposal that these musical traditions have been so defined by the racist element (which he doesn't suggest we ignore) or the queer/camp post-Sontag element (which he proposes is too narrow a conception of musicals and he also proposes that we need to recover a pre-Sontagian possibility of camp). Knapp's proposal was that the baggage about race and sexuality for minstrelsy and musicals can distract us from other elements that could explain the popularity and longevity of this traditions and he proposes that these traditions, alongside operetta of the Offenbach and Gilbert & Sullivan variety, represent a centuries long legacy of popular musical idioms that implicitly and even explicitly set themselves against German idealism.

But he proposed something interesting about what kinds of popular music became credible to scholars. The styles that became grist for scholarship were the kinds of rock and pop music that could, paradoxically, be most readily assimilated into and explicable in terms of German idealism.

It was less about Haydn than I was hoping it would be but Knapp sold me on the proposal that German idealism played a significant role in ignoring Haydn in the wake of Mozart and Beethoven, who fit the heroic mythologies of German idealism better; and in proposing that in Haydn's era his relationship to high and low idioms was ambiguous and that his work can be understood as a type of camp.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...


Knapp's book used to be available on an open library format but that little window has, alas, closed. Since one of my personal composer projects is using Haydn's work as a prototype for a contemporary experiment toward fusions of styles (a la Leo Brouwer's comments about fusion as the movement across genres academics have tended to skip past) I'm naturally interested in scholarly work that attempts to look at how Haydn's intercontinental popularity and influence waned in the wake of German idealism. I didn't know how much of his popularity came because people kept pirate-publishing the scores for his string quartets, for instance. Turns out Haydn was, to put it in modern jargon, one of the more bootlegged composers of his era. Charles Rosen believed that Haydn and Mozart demonstrated that, however rare and miraculous it seemed to him in historical terms, a fusion of high and low was possible. That was, arguably, what Wagner aspired to but he put all his eggs in the opera basket ... but I digress, as I tend to do when Haydn is my topic ... .

Since I'm not a Cage fan if it turns out he had a white supremacist streak it wouldn't break my heart since I only actually enjoy his prepared piano music.

1961 ... not that I have to name the jazz albums in which great musicians participated across color lines ... but it's striking that Cage distanced himself from jazz when he did.

I think you saw the other post I did on Cage and I found the Cardew/Tilbury and Xenakis criticisms of aleatory and Cage to be interesting contemporary reactions. Taruskin's work is interesting but he basically summarized comments that were made by the above-mentioned and by Meyer decades earlier. I happen to AGREE with those complaints. )

The weather's not the most pleasant for the region up here in Seattle so I only feel so inspired to write this week. But thanks for coming by and commenting. I hope it's not too oppressively hot where ever you live.