Monday, December 04, 2017

point and counterpoint about the legacy of John Cage, huckster vs visionary revisited (yet again), proposing that the reason the American mavericks became that was because it was the only way out of the Euro-centric double bind of the 19th century symphonic legacy

About half a century ago Francis Schaeffer took aim at John Cage in one of his books.  Cage's aleatoric approach to music was something that, though it could apply to music, could not be applied to picking mushrooms.  Thus, as the zinger went, Cage advocated a musical technique for composition that could not be applied to the life of picking mushrooms without bringing quick death.  Burn.

Or ... well, one of the things that partisans against John Cage keep ignoring is there's a possibility that Cage wasn't a charlatan and that the Marcel Duchamp comparison isn't the only way to dismiss Cage's work.  Not that that approach isn't still hugely popular with writers who contribute to places like The New Criterion or ,say, First Things.

The music is mostly quiet, a dynamic associated perhaps with the thoughts of introspection and quietude. Unfortunately, in this music the lack of dynamic quality acts like a gentle tranquilizer, dulling the mind’s capability of perception. It does indeed sooth, but so does a nice massage, but the latter is not presented as an artistic expression. The registral range used, that space of high and low frequencies that we hear, is generally rather limited, again producing not much sense of variation. Rhythms are based on a very limited vocabulary that are used over and over ad nauseum, rarely building into any perceivable units.

The result of all of this is a music sadly lacking in any directionality, a music that is essentially rudderless. The music is emotionally bland and lackluster, its contours in this regard terribly narrow. Lastly, rather than engaging the mind, this is a music that purposely demands the mind be held at a distance, in abeyance. Ultimately, the music is simply downright sophomoric and boring. In Cage’s latter and final chance period, by the way, matters only got much, much worse in regards to all of the above.

So where does this leave us? Cage argues the following, “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. And alas, life is too short to waste in boring activities. I think most of my colleagues ultimately think this too. It is not uncommon for composers and musicians to find Cage’s ideas intriguing or provocative, but to find these same folks in the lobby during performances of the music, because they find it so tedious. The problem here is that the art itself should be of great interest in any medium, and what is said about it of lesser or secondary interest. This is of course the inverse with Cage.

So why is Cage lauded? I think his transgressive, stick-it-in your face approach finds resonance with those who think they hate the Western musical tradition, for its supposed patriarchal and masterwork approach. I think his oceanic view of rationality versus chance finds acceptance in a time which is profoundly anti-rational, and therefore unwilling to make serious artistic judgements regarding real quality, including those of genre. I think his trickster qualities, borrowed from the ultimate trickster, Duchamp, perfectly reflect our time’s sense of profound unseriousness. Because, while art for most is not a matter of life or death, it does profoundly reflect our understanding and approach to ultimate values, and I have never heard “fun” described as an ultimate value to rival those old fogies of beauty, truth, and justice. But I fear this is where we are now in the culture.
A more sympathetic treatment of Cage's legacy can be found here:

I believe I am in good company when I assert that John Cage is our country’s most important and influential musical thinker. It would take much more time and space for me to fully make that case, but suffice it to say that Cage revolutionized music in such a way as to make it possible for anyone to make any music they imagine. His example of openness and acceptance of diversity has inspired many to become involved in music, and perhaps most importantly, through both his own work and his proselytizing on behalf of a great many neglected or unknown composers, he essentially defined our understanding of a distinctly American musical identity. While we here on these shores are undoubtedly rooted in Western civilization, we are a decidedly multi-cultural and free-thinking nation, and as we have come to recognize, many of us identify as much with the East, the Americas, Africa, and “other” as with European ideals. Our homegrown musical culture makes this clear by its vast diversity. To ignore the complexity of our situation is foolish.

Now I don’t expect everyone to endorse or emulate Cage and his aesthetic, although a little more love for his Sonatas and Interludes would be nice—it’s probably his greatest work! (Check out Maro Ajemian’s 1951 recording first issued on Dial Records and later by CRI. Wow!) It would in fact be in keeping with his very ethic of openness and acceptance of diversity to follow your own path (he often said as much). But I do expect composers working today, especially in America, to have at least an understanding of what Cage means and why he is important. How an American composer and professor, Daniel Asia in this case, living and working in the western states no less, could still have no real understanding of or interest in a composer who is arguably our greatest and most influential figure is, well, surprising. The bigger question for me is why this should be so and what does it mean?

Now I would probably say that more important musical thinkers in terms of what they gave us in terms of their music would be more along the lines of Louis Armstrong, Scott Joplin, Duke Ellington, Charles Ives, George Gershwin and the American songbook composers long before I'd pick Cage.  I wouldn't not have Cage on a list of important and influential American composers who had an express philosophy of music, I just wouldn't say that I agree that Cage is our country's most important and influential musical thinker.  Gann may feel Ives is the  absolute best and, well, I don't agree even if I love a lot of stuff about Ives' music!   But Gann has been helpful in articulating the historical and commercial context in which Cage began to formulate the idea for what has become his most notorious and sometimes most easily misrepresented piece, 4'33"
The history and exact nature of 4'33" are shrouded in enigma, mystery, and ambiguity, which seems odd for so famous a piece from only sixty years ago; but it is worth emphasizing that 4'33" became famous rather slowly. Cage's 1961 book of essays Silence, which vastly expanded his reputation, mentions the piece only twice, and never by title, but as "my silent piece." Not until a decade or two later did it become the central icon of Cage's reputation.

We see the basis for the division into three movements here in the original program from the premiere at the Maverick Concert Hall just outside Woodstock, New York, on August 29, 1952.

The question becomes even murkier when we go back four years earlier to a lecture Cage gave at Vassar on February 28, 1948. On that date he announced some upcoming plans:

I have... several new desires (two may seem absurd, but I am serious about them): first, to compose a piece of uninterrupted silence and sell it to the Muzak Co. It will be 3 or 4 1/2 minutes long - these being the standard lengths of "canned" music, and its title will be "Silent Prayer." It will open with a single idea which I will attempt to make as seductive as the color and shape or fragrance of a flower. The ending will approach imperceptibly.[2]

Here, four and a half years before 4'33", we have the first announcement of a plan to write a piece consisting of silence. (The other "absurd" plan is to write a piece for twelve radios, which he did in 1951.) Note, moreover, that Silent Prayer is not really 4'33", and is confusingly described. "It will open," Cage says, "with a single idea which I will attempt to make as seductive as the color and shape or fragrance of a flower." How can a silent piece open with any idea at all? And again, "The ending will approach imperceptibly."

And note the intention to sell the Silent Prayer to the Muzak corporation. The Muzak company was founded in 1934, its name a combination of music and Kodak. The practice of piping Muzak into restaurants, office buildings, subways, and other public spaces grew phenomenally in the late 1930s and '40s, and many people, professional musicians in particular, were horrified by it. Studies found that Muzak in the workplace relieved worker fatigue and lowered absenteeism, but many people considered it not only a degrading misuse of music but an invasion of privacy. Lawsuits resulted, and in 1952 - the year of 4'33" - the case against the Muzak corporation went to the Supreme Court. Muzak won. Writing for the majority, Justice Harold Burton wrote that broadcasting music was "not inconsistent with public convenience, comfort and safety.'"[3] Justice Felix Frankfurter, however, hated Muzak so much that he felt it necessary to recuse himself, and Justice William O. Douglas, in his minority opinion, stated that, "The right to be let alone is indeed the beginning of all freedom."[4]

Cage's politics in the 1930s were highly anti-corporate, and he wrote that "there seemed to be nothing good about anything big in America." So Cage's original idea for 4'33" was to sell it to Muzak to create a respite from corporate-imposed forced listening. [emphasis added] Muzak at the time was played from 78 rpm vinyl records, which could hold about three minutes of music on a 10-inch disc, or four and a half minutes on a 12-inch disc, thus accounting for the lengths of time Cage predicted for his Silent Prayer. So think about this: in 1948 Cage speculated about writing a four-and-a-half-minute silent composition.

While people who are into high art music might still hate Cage's work and legacy when the topic is canned music in department stores it's possible that many of Cage's most ardent detractors don't know or don't want to know that in department store background music they share a common artistic enemy.

Now the Cage as maverick thing is kinda old hat.  He became one of the grand old men of American arts by the time he died but the maverick thing persists. 

Much of the now legendary American new music of the previous era was largely the work of unaffiliated freelancers. Going back even further, one of our culture’s greatest new music traditions is that of the so-called “American Maverick”—those composers whose non-conformist temperaments lead them to shun mainstream and academic pursuits in favor of rugged individualism and often self-imposed exile. Think Conlon Nancarrow hiding away in Mexico City, or Harry Partch living the life of the wandering hobo, or Lou Harrison camped out in the coastal forests of the Santa Cruz mountains. As Harrison himself observed in a 1945 essay titled “Ruggles, Ives, Varèse,” “American music, like so much other American art, is almost completely the product of amateurs. Its finest thinking and finest writing practitioners have for a long time been amateurs. And it is no disgrace to a country that its expression should arise out of a need of the private citizen.” Whether you agree with this assessment or not, the fact remains that new music and the arts overall have become increasingly professionalized in America, to the point where it has become nearly unthinkable that a young composer might forego graduate studies and an eventual Ph.D. and simply go it alone. This is not to disparage academic music or film and theater composers. The problem is that professionalization is becoming the only game in town.

There's at least two things that could be said about the loner/maverick narrative in connection with John Cage and many another American mavericks so-called.  The first is that, as Kyle Gann put it so directly, a lot of these so called loner/mavericks knew each other.

Narrative Number 3: American composers who depart from European tradition are mavericks, loners and nonconformists.

Among other things, this narrative has been enshrined in the books American Mavericks by Susan Key and Larry Rothe, along with the San Francisco Symphony orchestra series it was based on, and Mavericks and Other Traditions in American Music by Michael Broyles, and also in the Peabody Award-winning radio series American Mavericks, for which I wrote the script (under protest at the title). It has also taken slightly different forms, such as the festival presented by the New York Philharmonic in 1994 offering music by Conlon Nancarrow, Terry Riley, Pauline Oliveros, Henry Brant, John Cage, Alvin Lucier, and others, under the rubric “The American Eccentrics.” This identification of the maverick and the eccentric is sometimes explicit, as in Michael Broyles’s book, which insists that these individualists are outside the norm both musical and personally. (p. 4)

Technically, according to the dictionary, a maverick is “an unbranded calf, cow, or steer, esp. an unbranded calf that is separated from its mother.” By extension it has come to mean “a lone dissenter, as an intellectual, an artist, or a politician, who takes an independent stand apart from his or her associates.” According to the narrative, there is a consistent body of contemporary music practice, and a few maverick individuals, like Partch and Cage and Nancarrow and Lou Harrison and Morton Feldman, who have turned away from it.

The first problem with the maverick narrative is that it doesn’t withstand the most superficial biographical scrutiny. Conlon Nancarrow, a leading maverick if ever there was one, took his rhythmic ideas, and also the idea of composing rhythmically complex music for player piano, from Henry Cowell’s book New Musical Resources. Till the very end of his life, Nancarrow had charts on his wall that showed tempo relationships copied from Cowell’s book. Cage also studied with Henry Cowell, as did Lou Harrison, and Cage and Harrison collaborated together on percussion music. Harry Partch was influenced by Cowell’s book, and well-known maverick Ben Johnston apprenticed with Partch, and later studied with Cage. Cowell was in the League of Composers with fellow mavericks Edgard Varèse and Carl Ruggles. The maverick James Tenney studied with Varèse. Maverick Morton Feldman studied with Cage, and remained his constant companion all through the 1950s. La Monte Young, the maverick who invented minimalism, was heavily influenced by Cage, and developed minimalism in a constant give-and-take with Terry Riley, Tony Conrad, Dennis Johnson, and others. Maverick Alvin Lucier changed his entire musical style from neoclassicism to experimentalism as a result of having given John Cage a lift in his car one day.

But wait a minute – I’m confused. I thought all these mavericks were supposed to be loners, dissenters, and individualists, who went their own way and were influenced by nobody. And it turns out that they all knew each other, hung out together, studied with other mavericks, gave concerts together, stole each other’s ideas. [emphases added] I could spend all afternoon multiplying examples, and when you get into the younger maverick composers who were students of the older generation of mavericks – like Larry Polansky and John Luther Adams and Elodie Lauten and 200 others I could mention – the connections become too dense to tease out.

Where does this maverick idea come from? Apparently from people who admire the individual cases but are curiously resistant to seeing all the connections. The purpose of the narrative seems to be to legitimize various individuals without legitimizing the group they belong to. There is a tremendous reluctance to admit that there has been a mass exodus away from the norms of classical music performance, and a kind of comfort in believing that it was only limited to a handful of composers [emphasis added] who each look like the rough-and-rugged Marlboro Man of music. But in reality, these cattle aren’t off on their own, they’re cattle who simply formed their own herd somewhere else.

Now there are some reasons American composers found ways to participate in and contribute to what's broadly known as the art music or concert music traditions in ways that dispensed with a lot of the forms, idioms and traditions associated with European classical music and it's not necessarily "just" because they were rejecting tradition.  One of the most persistent and documentable reasons American composers in the 20th century who turned out to make a lasting contribution to music did what they did was because if they didn't repudiate the conventions that in the 19th century American composers couldn't live up to in the eyes of American (to say nothing of European) music critics, their work would have been consigned to oblivion.

Two books I’ve read recently had a notable impact on me. One was Orchestrating the Nation: The Nineteenth-Century American Symphonic Enterprise (Oxford) by Douglas Shadle, who’s at Vanderbilt. It’s a history of the relationships among 19th-century American composers, critics and conductors, and particularly of the Europhile bias American composers had to face at every step. Music critics were enamored of what came to be called The Beethoven Problem: a composer of symphonies had to both imitate and expand on the Master’s principles. They developed a set of binary goalposts that could be relocated to frustrate any American contender: If your music was too similar to Beethoven’s, it was derivative; if not similar enough, it failed to build on eternal principles. If it followed the Mendelssohn-Schumann line it was timid; if it veered toward Liszt and Wagner, it was damned for being mere program music. If it used American source material, it lacked “symphonic dignity”; if not, it represented inauthentic European wannabe-ism. If audiences loved it though the critics didn’t, then it merely appealed to the superficial; and even if critics liked it and audiences didn’t, then it may be intellectual but will never appeal to the common man. Meanwhile, Europeans as minor as Jan Kalliwoda were enthusiastically welcomed into the repertoire. As Shadle puts it, “critics relegated the music of nineteenth-century American composers to the dustbin of history while applying mutable standards of criticism to each new crop [p. 263]”. And so each new American symphonist – Anthony Philip Heinrich, William Henry Fry, George Frederick Bristow – would create a frisson of public excitement only to be forgotten and dismissed in short order, creating a mistaken impression that no history of American symphonic music existed.

Critics had more power back then than they do now, but Shadle makes clear that star conductors like Theodore Thomas nurtured similar sets of shifting criteria to save themselves the trouble of performing American works. The book’s arch-villain, though, is famous Boston music John Sullivan Dwight. For decades I’ve tried to find something to admire about the guy because of his connection to the Transcendentalists, but he was the worst of the worst of those who thought the Europeans had said it all and so Americans shouldn’t bother trying, and Shadle hangs him with his own hypocritical words again and again. (I’d like to think his type of critic died out with the late Andrew Porter.)


More than anything else, Orchestrating the Nation illuminates the origins and myriad strategies of the classical music world’s eternal animus against American composers. As I teach every week among student composers who can’t be bothered with Ashley or Nancarrow but sing the praises of Kurtag and Lachenmann, Saariaho and Haas, I feel like little has changed. If it takes a hundred points to achieve parity with Beethoven, you get fifty free points just for being born in Europe. Shadle shows how long that’s been going on.

Personally I really like some of Kurtag's stuff but I get what Gann is getting at.  Shadle's book does a fairly simple, persuasive job of demonstrating the damned if you do, damned if you don't double binds that music critics and conductors subjected nascent American symphonic music to in comparison to the timeless universal values of the German music tradition.  By the early and middle 20th century there were American musicians, like John Cage and others, who decide that since they were never going to be recognized as legitimate members of this post-Beethoven cult/club,, they might as well go in an altogether different path so as not to be forced to compete in a context where the goalposts could and were constantly in motion.  Now to this Cage detractors could still insist he had poor musician in terms of any ear for conventional harmony or instrumental technique.  I don't even have to be much of a fan of Cage's music overall to regard that kind of argument as one that's too easily made in bad faith.  Haydn didn't need to be a virtuoso instrumentalist as that phrase is normally understood to find ways to revolutionize the Western European concert music traditions. 

I've been mulling this stuff over again since reading John Borstlap's The Classical Revolution because he takes fairly predictable shots at John Cage and Adorno.  Thing is, even Adorno seemed to have no demonstrable love for total serialism that purported to build its musical direction on the foundation of the composers whose work Adorno clearly admired.  George Rochberg's observation was that the early atonalists abandoned tonality but they did not abandon periodicity as a way of giving structure and shape to music at the micro and macro levels. Abandoning those syntactic elements for ordering phrases was what the total serialists eventually did. 

But then if John Cage had tried to "make it" according to the German-music-is-divine approach he wouldn't have done anything much in music at all.  Anti Cage partisans will say that would have been a better world but that's moot.  That world clearly doesn't exist and since I don't subscribe to something as dubious as a multi-verse of countless alternative universes there isn't any provable alternate universe in which John Cage didn't write 4'33" and never hung out with Morton Feldman.  I don't have to enjoy their music in general in order to be able to appreciate a selection of works by Feldman and Cage.  I also find Mahler to be a tedious bore and Wagner to be bloated and overwrought, but I'm not going to deny he had a genius for macro-structural thinking and the power to wield associative long-term memory in music to tell a story.  It's possible to respect and admire elements of art that you don't like.

There were criticisms of Cage's approach from within the avant garde that aren't hard to look up.  Cornelius Cardew and John Tilbury insisted that John Cage was merely a lapdog of the ruling class whose music pretended to a daring in sound that was belied by pedestrian ideas; that a man to live as a musician must first live as a man and that Cage had hard music that hid the softness of Cage's ideas.  For those who were not necessarily Maoists as such, Iannis Xenakis raised another objection, that you can't pass the buck to the performer and pretend you get credit for the finished work.  That's also a variant of argument raised by Richard Taruskin but the earlier form comes from Xenakis, who pointed out that if you get a Chopin specialist to improvise in a piece of aleatoric music you're not going to get something really new so much as you're going to get warmed over riffs from Chopin. 

A lot of what Cage ostensibly sought to introduce in terms of aleatory and indeterminacy is stuff that was already brought back in more compelling ways by what I'd call a kind of neo-Baroque idiom in the form of jazz, figured treble rather than figured bass.  Cage didn't have much use for popular music, though, and neither did Adorno.  Perhaps the most remarkable thing about John Borstlap's The Classical Revolution is that when he keeps coming back to the idea that the use of jazz and pop music will not reinvigorate or revitalize the art music tradition it turns out that the people he agrees with are some of the men he's most vilified, John Cage and Theodor Adorno.  By contrast, when Charles Rosen wrote The Classical Style and discussed what Haydn and Mozart achieved, he pointed out that what made they're work so successful was how deliberately they cultivated a fusion of high and low, of art music idioms with popular/vernacular material. 

Charles Rosen
Copyright © 1997, 1972, 1971 by Charles Rosen
ISBN 0-393-31712-9 PBK

Page 329
By 1790 Haydn had created and mastered a deliberately popular style. The immensity of his success is reflected in the volume of his production in the next ten years, the decade after the death of Mozart: fourteen string quartets, three piano sonatas, fourteen piano trios ,six masses, the Sinfonia Concertante, the Seasons, twelve symphonies, and a great number of minor works.  Today, when Haydn is almost a connoisseur’s composer whose music cannot compete at the box office with that of Mozart and Beethoven, this atmosphere of enormous popular success must be borne in mind in order to understand the late works, above all the symphonies and the oratorios.  There have been composers who were as much admired in their lifetimes, but none who so completely won at the same time the unquestioned and generous respect of the musical community and the ungrudging acclaim of the public. 

Page 331
We know that Haydn was interested in collecting folk tunes, and that, as a young man, he gained experience in the popular music of street serenading.

Page 332
The procedures of Haydn and Mozart must be understood in a larger context, that of the creation of a popular style which abandons none of the pretensions of high art. Their achievement is perhaps unique in Western music; Beethoven attempted a similar synthesis in the last movement of the Ninth symphony, and his triumph, which seems to me incontestable, has nevertheless been contested.  This solitary success in the history of musical style should make us wary of critics who reproach the avant-garde composer for an uncompromisingly hermetic style, or the popular composer (like Offenbach or Gershwin) for low ideals; that is like blaming a man for not having blue eyes or for not having been born in Vienna.  The most esoteric composer would welcome the popularity of Mozart in Prague, where people whistled `No piu andrai’ in the streets, if he could achieve it as Mozart did without sacrificing a jot of his refinement or even his `difficulty.’ Only for one brief historical period in the operas of Mozart, the late symphonies of Haydn, and some of the Schubert songs, has the utmost sophistication and complexity of musical technique existed alongside—or better, fused with—the virtues of the street song.
My general disagreement with the highbrow elitism of people like Roger Scruton and John Borstlap is that to the extent that they preclude any possibility of a fusion of popular/vernacular musical idioms with the most worked-through developmental procedures of 18th century concert music they do so despite the evidence of no less than Haydn and Mozart and their cumulative musical legacies.  The idea that the art music tradition can't be reinvigorated by some synergistic interaction with popular music traditions may be a point at which John Cage, Theodor Adorno, John Borstlap and possibly Roger Scruton all agree upon, but the music of Haydn and Mozart itself can be the most compelling historical counter-argument that all of these men would be wrong. 

So this year I remember the death of Scott Joplin and the birth of Thelonious Monk in 1917.  I consider that it's the bicentennial of the death of Jane Austen, one of the literary heroes I have whose work I took as inspiration for how I blog.  Even Adorno could grant that yesterday's kitsch could paradoxically become today's art depending on what changes happened in a society.  By the same token, what was yesterday's powerful art could also become today's kitsch.  None of this is to tell you you have any reason to like John Cage's work if you don't already.  I only like some of it.  But this is saying that if traditionalists and self-described conservatives keep using the same lazy arguments against the legacy of John Cage we all know how powerfully those arguments prevented Cage from becoming one of the grand old men of American music.  Clearly it didn't.  The irony of those men against the validity of popular music in the concert music/art music tradition being so against the legacy of Haydn and Mozart is probably just going to remain as lost on them.

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