Which makes it ironic that he has disputed the legitimacy of teaching hip hop in musicology in higher education because ... well, somebody has been articulate enough on why he has no use for John Cage or sonic art over at his blog.
Does John Borstlap have a deep-seated hostility toward mid-twentieth-century modernist composers? Guess what, so does Ethan Hein! I just read his post on Cage and it seems worth posting about. Looks like we've both read Richard Taruskin's argument that Cage ideologically is the apotheosis, rather than the rejection of the mystique and cult of Beethoven. Hein's most recent post (unless he's posted a new one in the last four hours I haven't seen yet) is about Cage and sound art.
I’m similarly skeptical. I’m on board with Pauline Oliveros and deep listening, but there’s something about Cage’s spin on the idea that rubs me the wrong way.
The most articulate (if not, for me, entirely persuasive) explication and defense of John Cage's aims and means has come from Kyle Gann.
I blogged a little about that over here.
That Cage was reacting to Muzak needs to be kept in mind. Now Cage's disdain toward popular music isn't really something I share. We can get to that later, maybe. But Gann's explanations of Cage can be expanded by a larger historical process that he's alluded to by way of reviewing Douglas Shadle's Orchestrating the Nation.
Kyle Gann riff on Orchestrating a Nation (a book), an accounting of the double bind American critics and concert organizers used to sideline American symphonic music
Cage and other "American mavericks" in the orbit of Cowell can be thought of as rejecting a canon defined by and confined to a post-Beethoven German idealist designated since of higher and better stuff. I was writing about the stifling effect of German idealism and Germanic canon in my write-up on Raymond Knapp's Making Light: Haydn, Musical Camp, and the Long Shadow of German Idealism. Knapp managed to unpack the extent to which music pedagogy and institutional power favored the German idealist legacy and how many popular and vernacular musics arrayed themselves against German idealism in a variety of ways, most particularly in terms of camp aesthetics as mediated through traditions as varied as minstrelsy and light opera/operetta and the Broadway musical.
Since I wrote about that plenty already I mean just to allude to that book as a component of a larger argument I've seen presented in writing about music and the dilemma of the American relationship to the 19th century autonomous music canon. When all the pedagogy is geared toward explaining the substance and significance of instrumental music and everything that has staying power in American culture can be thought of in terms of song then the pedagogical paradigm we have about concert music seems to be at odds with the reality on the musical ground. Haydn scholars don't have to work too hard to appreciate that the boundaries between high and low were negotiable in his era; Haydn's use of folk music is well-known. But I digress on Haydn stuff.
What I'm trying to get at is that Cage's music, even if I'm not much of a fan, is understandable in the sense that he and others in his generation got sick enough of the inescapable double bind in which anything not German enough was lightweight but anything that sounded too German was uninspired and derivative that they rejected the entire canon and terms of discourse that drew from German idealism and a Germanic canon. I wouldn't even say the problem is really the canon itself but the pedagogy that emerged around that canon. The tricky part is that Cage and others may have created a body of work that has evolved into a kind of canon of its own.
Now here's the part where an amusing irony emerges. Hein wrote the following:
Alex Ross and writers like him devote a lot of column inches to the mystery of why intellectual hipsters like me are so much more interested in modern art than modern music. In my case, I think I react so negatively to the music because I don’t consider it to be music at all, but rather miscategorized sound art. I don’t listen to sound art for pleasure, necessarily, but I certainly approach it with a more receptive mindset. A lot of that has to do with context. You approach art voluntarily, and you can walk away at any time. Music in the concert hall is not like that.
Now if it were up to me (and I'm sure plenty of people are glad it's not!) I'd say we can gently set aside John Cage and Elliot Carter and Milton Babbitt and the mid-20th century avant garde from America. I wouldn't say remove it altogether but it treat it as the ultimately marginal and probably irrelevant movement that it seems to be. I mean, to be polemical about it, Carter was the descendent of a silk merchant and a good chunk of what was avant garde in the Cold War era got bankrolled indirectly by the CIA in the mid-20th century.
Couldn't we just propose that that music served its political/polemical purpose and that since the Cold War ended we don't really need to spend as much attention and time on Carter or Babbitt as we could on Ellington, Monk, Stevie Wonder, Motown and a host of other types of American music that people didn't have to go to a grad school to learn about? I can think of any number of Whitney Houston numbers I'd rather listen to than Elliot Carter string quartets if it's a matter of choice. Thomas Commuck's contribution to the shape-note tradition as a Native American seems more interesting to me than spending time on serialism or set theory.
Byt at the same time, I can understand Cage's reaction to the Germanic legacy being what it was. That is part of music history. The paradox is that Cage's formal stance arguably belied his embodying the legacy he was ostensibly against. This is something Hein gets to:
Not all of Cage’s music is unbearable. Some of it is even attractive. I love a lot of the moments in the prepared piano pieces [agreed!] , even if the lack of medium-scale structure leaves me cold [and also agreed].
STYLE AND MUSIC: THEORY, HISTORY AND IDEOLOGY
LEONARD B. MEYER
THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS
COPYRIGHT (C) 1989 BY LEONARD B. MEYER
footnote 7. page 220
In the ultimate music of Romanticism--for instance, that of John Cage--there are no norms in terms of which the individual can be known or personal experience defined. [emphasis added]Originality remains. But it is defined not through play with and deviation from prevalent, and usually conventional, norms, but through the devising of categorically novel means. As such it becomes an important (at times exclusive) basis for criticism.
In ideological terms Cage is the apotheosis rather than the antithesis of Romanticism and post-Beethovenian art religion, just at such a meta-level it would seem to those adherents of 19th century arts that everything in the canon was rejected. The letter of the law, maybe, but the spirit lives on!
Taruskin grasped this, too, when arguing that John Cage is the ideological embodiment of the ideals of Romanticism and also of Beethoven, despite formal repudiation of either or both by Cage himself.
But there was another sort of criticism that could be made. Taruskin made a criticism that Cage's way of "asking questions" rather than "making statements" can come across as an epic case of passing the buck. Somebody has to do all the actual work of preparing the music for performance and in a way a John Cage performance is a performance but not necessarily of John Cage's music so much as John Cage as brand.
Which gets to another kind of critique of aleatory music that was made by Iannis Xenakis, not necessarily directly addressing John Cage.
FORMALIZED MUSIC: THOUGHT AND MATHEMATICS IN MUSIC
IANNIS XENAKIS (PENDRAGON REVISED EDITION)
Copyright 1992 by Pendragon Press
Before generalizing further on the essence of musical composition, we must speak of the general principle of improvisation which caused a furore among the neo-serialists, and which gives them the right, so they think, to speak of chance, of the aleatory, which they thus introduce into music. They write scores in which certain combinations of sounds may be freely chosen by the interpreter. It is evident that these composer consider the various possible circuits as equivalent. Two logical infirmities are apparent which deny them the right to speak of chance on the one hand and "composition" on the other (composition in the broad sense, that is):
1. The interpreter is a highly conditioned being, so that it is not possible to accept the thesis of uncontrolled choice, of an interpreter acting like a roullette game. The martingale betting at Monte Carlo and the procession of suicides should convince anyone of this. We shall return to this.
2. The composer commits an act of resignation when he admits several possible and equivalent circuits. In the name of a "scheme" the problem of choice is betrayed, and it is the interpreter who is promoted to the rank of composer by the composer himself. There is thus a substitution of authors. [emphasis added]
The extremist extension of this attitude is one which uses graphical signs on a piece of paper which the interpreter reads while improvising the whole. The two infirmities mentioned above are terribly aggravated here. I would like to pose a question: If this sheet of paper is put before an interpreter who is an incomparable expert on Chopin, will the result not be modulated by the style and writing of Chopin in the same way that a performer who is immersed in this style might improvise a Chopin-like cadenza to another composer's concerto? From the point of view of the composer there is no interest.
On the contrary, two conclusions may be drawn: first, that serial composition has become so banal that it can be improvised like Chopin's, which confirms the general impression; and second, that the composer resigns his function altogether, that he has nothing to say, and that his function can be taken over by paintings or by cuneiform glyphs.
So a complaint can be registered that the alleged aleatory isn't able to come from a vacuum. Your musicians probably specialize in something and get their ideas from somewhere. If you find a Chopin specialist and draw glyphs and paintings as a score then what your specialist will improvise will reflect Chopin if the specialist is a Chopin specialist. Xenakis believed that abdicating the prerogative of the composer to tell the concert performer what to play was abdicating the proverbial nature of the game. This wouldn't be a point applicable to traditional Greek Orthodox chant or popular music or folk music, it's a particular polemic regarding "classical music" that is proposed to introduce aleatory in mid-20th century terms. Either admit the performer is a co-author with you if you claim to be the composer, or actually write something out that can be played and ask the performer to play it. The kind of intellectual dishonesty that seems indicted by Xenakis above isn't relevant to popular and vernacular music but it's a critique that seems worth considering for Cage and aleatory that has emerged in the wake of his work. It's possible to appreciate why he felt a need to react to the Germanic canon and pedagogy dominating the American musical scene on the one hand while not subscribing to his disdain of popular music or imagine that his philosophy (which Leonard Meyer described as a kind of transcendental particularism) is an appealing path "forward".
And there is, of course, a Marxist/Maoist critique that has been made of John Cage by way of Cornelius Cardew and John Tilbury.
Stockhausen Serves Imperialsim
Originally published in 1974
by Latimer New Dimensions Limited: London
SBN 901539 29 5
Series Editor. Kenneth Goldsmith
John Cage: Ghost or Monster?
There is a contradiction between the toughness of Cage’s music and the softness of his ideas. ...
Introduction to John Cage's Music of Changes
Let us begin with the facts of the piece. The Music of Changes was written in 1951 and is the embodiment, wholly or partially, in musical expression of Cage’s view of the world. By that I mean that before Cage can function as a musican he has to live as a man, and not as abstract man, but historically as a real man in a particular society. ...
... Technically, the result of Cage’s application of this method is brilliant - the way in which the piano is used as a sound source to be explored rather than an instrument to be played, the extensive use of the third sustaining pedal to achieve a wide range of colours and textures, the subtly changing resonances obtained, the overall pianistic clarity; and artistically, the effect is of stylistic coherence and originality.
But this is not all - in fact it is only half the story. For there is no such thing as an artistic conscience which is not governed by world outlook. ...
And try as he may, Cage can no more resolve the contradictions of contemporary composition than he can the contradictions of contemporary capitalism. For to resolve a contradiction it is necessary to grasp the laws of motion and change, and act in accordance with them. This is something Cage is patently unable or unwilling to do.
Setting aside what the laws of motion and change would constitute for Marxists (since I only just finally finished reading Adorno's Aesthethic Theory and Philosophy of New Music in the last few weeks) the salient point, I hope, is simple enough--John Cage's supposed forsaking of individuality was simply the shtick with which his individuality could be identified. A Richard Taruskin could spot this and a John Tilbury or a Cornelius Cardew could spot this. What they could all identify as a potential (or actual) weakness in Cage's ideological and aesthetic stance is that it could be construed as asocial or even anti-social and as the embodiment of bourgeois art religion from the 19th century rather than its repudiation. As we saw in Leonard B. Meyer's quote earlier, it is possible to perceive in Cage's sound art and philosophy what merely appears to be anti-Romantic in stance but is, in fact, the apotheosis of Romanticism, its pure ideology of anti-conventionality that has shorn itself of every convention except the pure, distilled essence of Romanticism as an ideological stance.
Which seems like a good time to get back to what Hein wrote:
All music is social, even if it pretends not to be. Susan McClary explains this well in her ethnomusicological essay, Terminal Prestige: The Case of Avant-Garde Music Composition.
McClary, like Taruskin, sees smooth continuity between the 19th century concept of absolute music and the supposed autonomy of 20th century avant-gardists. None of this would matter to me, except that the avant-gardists set the tone for university music programs.
and someone else over here ... had some comments about Straus and 20th century music pedagogy being defined exclusively in post-Webern/Schoenberg type terms.
Now, of course, serialism and Cage are not the same thing but since I've bothered to quote Cardew and Tilbury the jocular way to formulate all this is to ask if we can maybe gently sideline rafts of avant garde music theorizing and pedagogy that could be construed as being in any degree dependent on direct or indirect patronage from the CIA. :)
But I have found it interesting to use pseudo-dodecaphonic methods of gestural manipulation as long as I'm applying them to blues riffs. I think that Schoenberg may have had legitimate reason to feel that German music was "spent" and that he came up with a remarkably inventive way to work within the constraints of equal-tempered chromaticism ... it's just that there's a whole swath of composers who figured we're not obliged to even stick to twelve tones across the octave, whether it's Ivan Wyschnegradsky or Alois Haba or Harry Partsch or Ben Johnston or Easley Blackwood or ... etc. Not that I compose microtonal music myself. I play a standard six-string guitar, but Schoenberg's short-term solution for what he felt was the inescapable kitsch cul de sac of post-Romantic German music doesn't have to be ours and if there's any singular wrong call Adorno made it was espousing that path as "the" legitimate path in the wake of a musical cultural crisis that was arguably a German and French one rather than Spanish or Italian or Russian or English, let alone American identity crisis, at least for the musicians and composers if not for critics, journalists and scholars.
When I advocate for pop music norms and values in music schools, I get people arguing that we need to protect “art” composers, because they are being true to themselves, free from the demands of the marketplace. Meanwhile, the mass audience’s preferences can be disregarded, because they aren’t authentic–pop listeners are manipulated into thinking they like what they like by the cynical machinations of the music industry. [and boy, oh boy, was Theodore Adorno beating that drum!] This might be true to an extent, but McClary points out that however artificial pop tastes might be, tastes in avant-garde art are even more so. What is music school if not an institution devoted to inculcating a particular set of tastes?
My own impression has been that by the 21st century we are back to the song as the dominant form of musical art, and it was arguably vocal music that was the prevailing musical idiom back in the Renaissance (whichever numbering there of you want). The ideal of a German canon in which autonomous instrumental music expressed yearning for the infinite and "universal" values pretty clearly did not do any such thing except to those already ensconced in that pedagogical and concertizing milieu.
Which is why, in a way, we could gently set aside John Cage as having played a part in formally defying that range of ideological and pedagogical options while paradoxically embodying them in his own legacy. Merely because you or I or "we" can't directly hear manifestations of the artist as seer-prophet-philosopher who guides us to the truly human path a la European art religious impulses in the 19th century, and this merely because Cage said "Beethoven was wrong", doesn't mean Cage's work doesn't embody the social stratum that embraced that ideology and found a new and distinctly American way of embodying it.
In the sense that John Cage disliked popular music we could perhaps invoke Raymond Knapp's arguments about the nature of camp as the self-identified antidote or alternative to German idealism as the winking and self-aware "fake" range of entertainment in popular music that took the ideals of German idealism off the pedestal its advocates have tried to keep it on. In Knapp's case he was arguing that Haydn fell out of favor because his music is camp, if not exactly camp in the stereotypically gay way people tend to use that concept post-Sontag, which Knapp has proposed is a whole scholarly discussion that is probably worth bringing up.
I have skimmed through the comments and one or two jump out.
There were some coments about how sound can be about sound. Regular readers of this blog probably know that I've been reading a bunch of Jacques Ellul and the premise that sound expresses itself rather than having emotional or extra-musical symbolic freight sounds like the kind of thing Ellul would say reflects societies that have prized technique as a kind of ideology unto itself--art always expresses something about the human condition in traditional terms and if in the West there has been a trajectory of each wave of avant garde art developing techniques to refine techniques it stops being about the human experience more generally and more a kind of self-examining trade guild of academics who are basically making things so that theorists can theorize about them. Ellul was hardly into pop culture himself but it's possible to appreciate where a person can go with this kind of polemic. The people who say their music has no emotional content just have to pretend that we don't have emotional responses to sound when we do. It's possible to attach different modes of extra-musical symbolic association to sounds across cultures, certainly, but to say that this symbolic association doesn't happen in sonic art or avant garde trends in the last half century in Western arts is hard to buy.
Hein had a short comment about how Cage and his fans aren't the "enemy" but he wished he could have spent his grad school time and money studying something else in the place of that module of study.
There's a back and forth between Hein and a Dewald that stuck with me because of a comment.
Gahlord Dewald says:
July 3, 2018 at 10:10 am
I guess I just don’t it. On a blog in which pretty much every post that I’ve read (which is to say all of them for at least the past two years) is so excellently inclusive and forward thinking we get this one post of derision, and it turns out your problem with the heirarchical structure of academic music, the stuff that should be ejected from the dept because it’s taking up too much space is… wait for it… experimental music.
Why pick on the the most marginalized corner of most music depts? What is there to gain from this?
The most marginalized corner of most music departments is experimental music ... or sonic art?
As a guitarist let me put things this way. Richard Taruskin's Oxford History covers Ferneyhough and Xenakis and Cage and Schoenberg and Lutoslawski and Partsch and Reich and Messiaen and Ives and Cowell and a variety of advocates of experimental music across the five volume set.
How many guitarists did he mention? Just Berlioz, long enough to say that Berlioz was unusual for having learned music as a guitarist and the guitar is basically an instrument outside the Western literate musical tradition.
Really? I mean, I can produce a few thousand words about structural and thematic patterns in early 19th century guitar sonatas. I can even show that the themes in early 19th century guitar sonatas have so much in common with early 20th century ragtime that it takes very little compositional reworking to transform some Giuliani and Diabelli and Carulli guitar sonata themes into ragtime. But in Taruskin's telling of the history of Western music the guitar doesn't even rate. That was a useful and vivid reminder of what relatively recently departed guitarist and publisher Matanya Ophee once said about the marginal place the guitar has in the academic scene.
... We find it necessary to apply to our instrument the adjective “Classical,” with the hope that by so doing, we would somehow convey to our colleagues that we are not to be confused with balladeers, rock’n’rollers, gypsies and mariachi. Violinists and pianists have no need to use the adjective “classical,” even though the piano is still the instrument of choice of many jazz players and one can find it in my country in every bar, every hotel dining room. At the turn of the century, the piano was also the favorite instrument in the public houses of San Francisco, New Orleans and St. Louis and it was precisely in that environment that rag-time piano music first became established. The violin is an important part of hillbilly, Country-Western music in the USA, and is used as a folk instrument in the British Isles, Scandinavia, France, Mexico, the Arab world from Marocco to Iraq, and in many other countries. Violinists never worry about that.
The very concept of folk instruments, is one which deserve closer attention. An instrument, as an artifice of human craftsmanship, does not have any intrinsic attributes in and of itself, until somebody plays it. It acquires whatever societal qualities we usually associate with it, depending on the music being played. The Jews Harp is a so-called folk instrument in use all over the world from the mountains of Northern Italy to the frozen tundra of Siberia. But when Georg Albrechtsberger, Beethoven’s teacher of harmony, wrote a concerto with orchestra for it, it did not matter much that the instrument is also played by nomadic sheep herders.
Folk music is often defined as music which exists in an oral tradition, while art music depends for its existence on the written page. The music we play on the so-called “classical” guitar mostly exist in written or printed form. Some of it was composed by people who are not very well known outside the limited circles of guitar lovers. Some of it was composed by main-stream composers such as Paganini, von Weber, Schubert, Berlioz, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Ponce, Villa-Lobos, Stravinsky, Mahler, Schönberg, Asafiev, Webern, Hindemith, and Milhaud. In more recent times, music for our instrument was written by Benjamin Britten, Michael Tippett, Hans Werner Henze, Eliot Carter, Edison Denisov and Sofia Gubaidulina. Considering these composers and their music, the guitar cannot possibly be considered as a folk instrument. Yet, the prejudice continues.
I have assembled a considerable lexicon of anti-guitar invective from different countries and different times. I am at a loss to explain why it is that of all musical instruments, the guitar, the instrument which was part and parcel of European musical renaissance from the sixteenth century on, is singled out by other musicians for ridicule and derision. I have some theories on the subject, but they are not the kind that can be discussed in polite society. The fact remains that we have a problem, and if we wish to continue as a living musical discipline, we have to try and find a way out.
That as a lecture he gave decades ago So as a guitarist I'd venture to say that experimental music may really be marginal but it is quite possibly not as marginal as the guitar in academic musicological prestige. I could give a for-instance. The Future Symphony Institute touts books that mention tonal composers that people should know about. Robert Reilly's book is recommended and in Reilly's book he recommends symphonic recordings of the work of Heitor Villa-Lobos. Sure, I enjoy a good chunk of Villa-Lobos but if you want the best distillation of what he did as a composer you might get that more directly from his string quartets than his symphonic works (he was a cellist) and even more significantly from his guitar music (he was also, famously, a really capable guitarist).
If we just want to stick to writings by Taruskin we can see he devoted a good deal of writing to experimental music while basically saying the guitar has never really been part of the Western literate musical traditions. That's provably not the case whether we're talking about the European or American "West" or even about the mountain of seven-string guitar literature from the Russian traditions in the "East".
If anything that almost completely marginal relationship to the academic musical mainstream of what we call classical music might be why guitarists can be so open to trying whatever if they are not themselves in the rut of the prestige canon. It's not that I don't love music by Sor or Giuliani, it's that I feel like we're hamstrung by the prestige of the top dogs that some perfectly fun music by Matiegka or even Diabelli get ignored. Someone had to write that theme before Beethoven could use it, and Diabelli's Op. 29, No. 3 is actually a pretty well-made guitar sonata even if he ... was kind of a lazy hack in his other guitar sonatas in my opinion.
So I guess that's a long way of saying that however bad you might think experimental music has it in the academy these days the guitar never even got to that stage as far as I can tell. Cry us a river.
The Cuban guitarist composer Leo Brouwer has mentioned that the guitar literature is a good case study of how the boundaries between pop and "classical" have always been permeable but that academics have not been all that interested in studying fusions. But that's stuff I'm sure people can look up at their own initiative.
If I could choose between keeping Cage and sonic art in their place in the curriculum or adding popular music and guitar music (which in the last century would have a pretty formidable overlap!) I think I've made it clear by now which I'd pick. I'd rather talk about Lonnie Johnson and Django than John Cage if I have a choice. Not that I don't like the prepared piano pieces. I do. :) It's just that I admit to being part of Generation X and the Cold War is over and a whole lot of music that was freighted with what was thought to be potent political and social meaning in the Cold War doesn't always have the same weight "now" for some of us it may have had for people "then" who were first hearing it. Some of the Cold War era music is still with us. The Shostakovich string quartets are, deservedly, not going anywhere out of the concert repertoire any time soon. But this gets to a point Taruskin has made over the decades about how if it's a choice between Charles Wuorinen and recordings by the Beatles or David Bowie or blues that if a whole lot of people pass on the serialists the academics whose livelihood hinges on promoting the former can't really hold it against the masses for preferring the latter.
All of which is what I've been thinking about since Borstlap dissented from the idea that hip hop should be taught in a music program. Well, okay, he's not into hip hop but could hip hop be preferable to programs devoted to Ferneyhough or Cage? This might be a rare case in which Hein and Borstlap may agree that we could do with less of Cage and his legacy in music education.