Monday, July 15, 2019

The Music of John Cage and a Self-Extinguishing Avant Garde: revisiting Francis Schaeffer's criticism of John Cage in comparison to Maoist criticisms of Cage

The fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Francis Schaeffer’s The God Who is There came and went without little formal observation within evangelicalism.  I have been going back and forth in my thoughts about that and what it means, whether it means that Schaeffer’s influence was so formidable within evangelicalism that his worldview approach to apologetics and cultural analysis became so pervasive as to simply be in the proverbial air that we breathe in evangelicalism or whether it reveals his influence has become so negligible that the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of his book was not regarded as significant enough to even remark about.

I have come to have a variety of criticisms of Schaeffer’s work myself, but when I dissent strongly from his statements on specific things I can admire his willingness to engage with art, literature, film and philosophy.  He did not discuss music much and when he did he revealed the significant weaknesses in his study and thought but even in this realm he show, at least, that he knew who the significant figures of his era were.  It is impossible to imagine a contemporary evangelical or culturally conservative Christian writing taking aim at whoever the John Cage of our own era might be both because it would be tough to assess who such a John Cage figure in contemporary American culture might be, first of all, and secondly because it’s hard to imagine contemporary conservative evangelicals even knowing who John Cage is apart, perhaps, from the polemic of Francis Schaeffer.
Schaeffer’s presentation of Cage itself highlights some paradoxes in his way of thinking about Western culture as a reflection of what he called the Christian worldview but we’ll get to that in time.  For those who have not read Schaeffer at all or who have not read him in some time, it seems best to back up and introduce you (again) to what Francis Schaeffer had to say about John Cage. 

Among Francis Schaeffer’s polemics against modernist art, music and literature few are as vividly memorable as his broadside against the American composer John Cage.  By now John Cage’s most famous work could easily be 4’33”, a piece in which the performer plays nothing and whatever the audience hears by way of ambient sound during the formal performance is the music.  Paradoxically the work is both most emblematic and least representative of what you could expect to hear in a John Cage composition.

To Schaeffer, in The God Who is There, John Cage’s music was a declaration that the cosmos was the product of time plus chance.  Though in general Schaeffer’s polemic was that the Renaissance was harmful, on account of its tilt toward materialistic humanism, when it came time to discuss John Cage, the prospect of the overthrow of the ideals of the Renaissance, ironically, did not fill Schaeffer with happiness:
... here is a man who is trying to teach the world what the universe intrinsically is and what the real philosophy of life is, and yet he cannot even apply it to picking mushrooms. If he were to go out into the woods and begin picking mushrooms by chance, within a couple of days there would be no Cage!

We have said before that the ideas of modern people are destroying what "man" is in himself. But not only that, their views cut right across what the existence of the form and structure of the external universe indicates as well. As we see in the dilemma of Cage and his mushrooms, they cannot live on the basis of a consistent application of their views in regard to the universe, any more than they can in regard to man.

However, while Cage is forced into a hopeless dichotomy with his mushrooms, with his music he has continued to live consistently with his position, even though his music is nothing more than noise or silence. He has resisted the pressure to dress the impersonal Being in connotation words or sounds. Most modern men have not had this much courage. (The God Who is There, page 79)

In sum, if Cage sought to silence reason so as to open the human mind to the divine voice, there is no divine voice “there” to speak to us.  The impersonal universe has nothing to say to us because it is nothing more than matter plus time plus chance.

But perhaps this accounting of John Cage’s ideals and interests was too second hand.  Was it possible that Schaeffer mistook the means and ends of John Cage’s work?  Leonard B. Meyer proposed that what John Cage and other members of the Zen-inspired avant garde were doing was not proclaiming that the universe was the result of time plus chance. Meyer, who went to the trouble of quoting Cage more directly, wrote:

In his book Silence, John Cage urges the composer to "give up the desire to control sound, clear his mind of music [in the ordinary sense] and set about discovering means to let sounds be themselves rather than vehicles for man-made theories or expressions of human sentiments."

Several important facets of the aesthetic of anti-teleological art are implicit in this quotation. In the first place, one is not listening to the relationships among the sounds presented, but just to the sounds as sounds--as individual, discrete, objective sensations. A syntax or grammar which would order these sounds and relate them to one another--creating goals, expectations, or a basis for prediction--is to be avoided at all costs. (and one way to make sure that you establish no syntactical-grammatical relationships is to employ the systematic use of chance as a technique of composition.) (page 73)
...  It is to the naive and primitive enjoyment of sensations and things for their own sake that these artists seek to return. We must, they urge, rediscover the reality and excitement of a sound as such, a color as such, and existence itself as such. But our habits of perception and apprehension--the accumulation of traditional preconceptions which we bring to aesthetic experience--prevent us from seeing and hearing what is really there to be perceived.

... The anti-teleological position holds that traditions, systems, and the like are evil because they limit our freedom of thought and action, deaden our sensitivity to sensation and feeling, and, in the end, alienate man from nature of which he should be a part. Art should, in Cage's words, be "an affirmation of life--not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we're living, which is so excellent once one gets one's mind and one's desires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord." (pages 74-75)
So Cage, by his own account, was not exactly arguing the universe was nothing more than matter plus time plus chance in making music the way he did. In his eagerness to get to a punchline about the dichotomy between composing music using indeterminacy and picking mushrooms, Francis Schaeffer may have wildly misread what Cage was aiming for.  Whether or not we can recapture a childlike innocence in perceiving every waking moment as potentially music through the music of John Cage or Morton Feldman, we can at least attempt to take the music of Cage seriously on the terms with which Cage and his advocates present it.

Schaeffer’s proposal that modern art and music had become ugly as a reflection of the fallen human race may have defined things too broadly. For many European and American artists, poets and musicians attempting to continue the 19th century German Romantic tradition was impossible on account of the ways in which that artistic tradition was regarded as having been co-opted and corrupted by National Socialism.  Lacking a means to “redeem” the Romantic European idiom (which was seen as too entwined with totalitarian agendas), many artists sought to reject those Western traditions , even if they lacked a clear sense of what they could embrace as an alternative.  Cage sought to turn away from the Romantic idiom that had evolved in the wake of Beethoven and he turned to what he considered a literal and spiritual Zen alternative.

For musicians and music historians, there were other grounds on which to dissent from what Cage was up to.  Some could argue Cage misread the Western musical traditions and others could argue that Cage misread, or merely took the posture of embracing, Eastern thought while not realizing his views about music, stated strictly in ideological terms, were the apotheosis rather than the rejection of the Romantic artistic ideal.

In a 1993 essay for The New Republic, “No Ear for Music: The Scary Purity of John Cage”, music historian Richard Taruskin wrote:

… By the use of chance operations, Cage says, he is able to shift his "responsibility from making choices to asking questions." When the work is finished he can have the pleasure of discovering it along with the audience. The only one who cannot share the pleasure is the performer, to whom the buck is passed, who cannot evade the choices, who must supply laborious answers to the composer's diverting questions.  (republished in The Danger of Music, page 277)

So for some the problem with Cage’s music was not that he was using music to declare the universe was the result of chance; the problem was that Cage had made a career of what looked suspiciously like an epic case of passing the buck, all the while taking credit for the results, assuming you enjoyed the results.  If you didn’t, well, as Cage put it himself “I determined to give up composition unless I could find a better reason for doing it than communication. I found this answer from Gira Sarabhai, an Indian singer and tabla player: The purpose of music is to sober and quiet the mind, thus making it susceptible to divine influences.” To this Schaeffer was not alone in wondering what manner of divinity might have any influence to bring.

Yet in spite of the formal skepticism about individualism and Romantic ideals of self-expression from Cage, Taruskin raised another critique, one that suggests that in spite of the Zen trappings there was something in what Cage said and did that was not a rejection of Romantic individualism but its unwitting apotheosis:

It is a profound political point. A work that is touted as liberation from esthetics in fact brings an alert philosopher to a fuller awareness of all the constraints that the category of "the esthetic" imposes. Sounds that were noise on one side of an arbitrary framing gesture are suddenly music, a "work of art," on the other side; the esthetic comes into being by sheer fiat at the drop of a piano lid. The audience is invited--no, commanded--to listen to ambient or natural sounds with the same attitude of reverent contemplation they would assume if they were listening to Beethoven's Ninth.
This is an attitude that is born not of nature but of Beethoven. By the act of triggering it, art is not brought down to earth; "life is brought up for the duration into the empyrean. 4'33" is thus the ultimate esthetic aggrandizement, an act of transcendental empyrialism. There is nothing ironic about it, and nothing, so far as I can see, of Zen.  (The Danger of Music, page 275)

Someone like Roger Scruton can only regard this rhetorical and symbolic gesture that Taruskin describes as the work of a musical charlatan, which is more or less how Roger Scruton regards John Cage.  Whether or not Scruton makes a compelling case for his distinction between “sound” and “tone” in his own writings, he has been clear he regards Cage’s invitation to hear anything as music if we so desire as a fraudulent invitation. 

For Taruskin the political point made by Cage’s work was a paradoxical consolidation of the Romantic ideal of the artist as visionary prophet whose work would guide people into true enlightenment. The irony of this observation lays in John Cage’s eagerness to declare that “Beethoven was wrong”, that the aspirations of Beethoven were the wrong path for American composers to follow. If Taruskin’s case is to be believed, the tragicomic irony of John Cage was that Cage became the apotheosis of the ideology of Romantic genius through his explicit repudiation of the Romantic musical legacy bequeathed to us in the Germanic tradition starting from Beethoven through to Brahms.

Taruskin’s assertion about John Cage is that Cage’s “asking questions” is an abdication of the decision-making power of a composer, more or less.  A key member of the Frankfurt School, Theodore Adorno, described this problem in 1967 when he wrote the following, describing John Cage as reacting to the total serialist school of music that evolved in the wake of the work of the German composer Arnold Schoenberg through figures like Pierre Boulez:

Into this situation of serialism barged John Cage; it explains the extraordinary effect he had. His principle of chance, which is familiar to you under the name of aleatory music, wants to break out of the total determinism, the integral, obligatory musical ideal of the serial school. He, the American, was not pressured in the same way, not compelled by the same historical necessity as the musicians of the European tradition, who exist within the context of the obligatory style, the general onward march of the rationalization of music. But even the principle of indeterminacy that Cage introduced remained as alien to the ego as its apparent opposite, serialism.  It, too, belongs in the category of relief for the weakened ego.  ...

... The Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti, who is as perceptive as he is truly original and significant, observed correctly that in their effect the extremes of absolute determination and absolute chance coincide. Statistical generality becomes the law of composition, a law that is alien to the ego. Certainly the absolute indeterminacy of Cage and his school is not exhausted in it.   ... (Difficulties, from Essays On Music, page 658, University of California Press)

So Taruskin’s criticism of Cage was anticipated half a century ago in Adorno’s observation that Cage’s musical philosophy absolved composers of making decisions rather than giving them tools with which to compose new music.  Adorno regarded total serialism and aleatoric music as methods of music composition that sought to relieve the composer of making any decisions by way of either a comprehensive formulaic set of laws or total abdication of decision-making.

With the end of the Cold War in the late 20th century another irony can be observed, a different irony regarding politics and the music of John Cage.  Francis Schaeffer’s history of association with what we know as the Religious Right is fairly readily established.  Paradoxically, another condemnation of the weakness of John Cage’s ideas as a worldview to live by was also formulated by the musicians Cornelius Cardew and John Tilbury from the Marxist/Maoist left.  In Stockhausen Serves Imperialism, we can read the following, “There is a contradiction between the toughness of Cage’s music and the softness of his ideas.  ... “ (page 38).  John Tilbury wrote of a Cage work:

… 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 musician he has to live as a man, and not as abstract man, but historically as a real man in a particular society. ...” (page 41)

... 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. ... (page 42)

Schaeffer saw the faulty worldview of John Cage as a declaration that we are matter plus time plus chance and nothing more, while Cardew and Tilbury regarded Cage’s problem as his servitude to the evil of capitalism. What they agreed about was the basic assertion that John Cage wrote music that was inadequate because of his inadequate worldview, however much they may have differed as to what was wrong with it.

Even if it could be argued that Cage’s use of indeterminacy to create music was saying something about the nature of the universe, Francis Schaeffer’s critique stopped short of an argument that Leonard B. Meyer presented against the rationalization used by musicians in the avant garde for indeterminacy. Schaeffer did argue, generally, that art and science must reckon with the world as it is.  Meyer described work by artists such as Cage in a way that could fit readily into what Schaeffer would have called art“above” the line of despair. Meyer wrote: “... The transcendentalist may not violate the world, but neither can he understand it, save perhaps through mystical experience--and then he cannot communicate it to anyone else.” (Meyer, page 226)  The mystical experience, real or imagined, is ineffable.  If Cage was not trying to make music that demonstrated the world was nothing more than matter plus time plus chance Schaeffer could still have proposed that Cage’s attempt to create music was a leap of blind faith to a place “above the line of despair”, where we can find total music but at the expense of abandoning everything we heretofore recognized as music. 

What Leonard B. Meyer proposed that Cage and others like him espoused in their approach “is essentially an attitude toward experience rather than a method for studying and organizing experience”. (Meyer, page 159) Even if we grant that Cage was not intending to say the universe was merely the result of matter plus time plus chance, Cage’s approach would remain unappealing because for a majority of humanity, we want to be able to anticipate what happens next.

… The world of extreme transcendentalism is, as we have seen, one without causation or purpose, structure or time. It is a world without implication, a world in which prediction, goals, and control are either impossible or irrelevant. Though logically consistent, it is not a world in which man can for long endure. This is so because man is, perhaps above all else, a predicting animal. (page 227)

Whereas Francis Schaeffer was content to say much of the resultant music was simply ugly, Meyer went so far as to say that the musicians who mounted a “scientific” defense of avant garde music were demonstrating a disastrous misunderstanding of science and the natural world:
The theories of statistical mechanics, from which some contemporary music theorists borrow their vocabulary and in terms of which they have sought to "explain" their music, were designed to deal with the realm of microscopic particles in which individual behavior is unpredictable. But this indeterminate world of subatomic phenomena is only part of the physical universe and of the universe of physics. The macroscopic world--the world of molecules and planets, of paramecia and people--is highly predictable. ... To fabricate a theory and a practice for an art addressed to macroscopically organized human beings--whose receptors and neurophysiological organization are designed to deal with a macroscopic world--by suggesting analogies to and using terms derived from a theory which was invented to account for the behavior of a subatomic part of the physical universe seems, to say the least, implausible.

The attempt to rationalize the use of chance--whether produced by total serialization or by aleatoric compositional procedures--is mistaken, not only because the universe of macrostates is not random, but because even the assertion that microstates are in principle indeterminate is inaccurate. (page 255-256)

Even if were the case John Cage and others were trying to propose the universe is one full of chance (which is not necessarily what Cage was getting at), the problem is that though the universe is impossible to certainly measure at the microscopic level , at the macroscopic level we live in a remarkably predictable world.  Even if after millennia humans in the West have not come up with an airtight defense of our musical scales and approach to harmony from ”nature”, Meyer’s rebuttal was to write, “The fact that something is conventional and learned, however, does not mean that it is arbitrary, any more than showing that it is "natural" is to assert that it is necessary.” (page 288)
Meyer wrote:

It is, as we have seen a serious mistake to assume that the principles or "laws" governing the organization of one hierarchic level are necessarily the same as those of some other level. As a rule, the forces creating structure and organization do not remain the same--are not uniform, from one level to another. "The fallacy of reductionism" writes one biologist, "lies in assuming a one-one relationship between different levels of organization."  ... Similarly in the theory and analysis of music it is doubtful that the several different hierarchic levels are governed by the same syntactical and grammatical principles of organization.
Just as the forces governing the ways in which chemicals unite to form molecules are different from the forces involved in the organization of molecules into cells, so the ways in which tones combine to form motives are different from the ways in which motives are organized to create larger, more complex musical events. (page 258)

Meyer’s polemic in the preceding was less against John Cage and more against ideas formulated by Karlheinz Stockhausen, and against the idea that advocates of the avant garde who used indeterminacy or total serialism could plausibly defend their activities by an appeal to the natural sciences.  Learning how a single blood cell behaves will not tell you much about how the hand or the eye works. 

Although Schaeffer misunderstood and in key ways misrepresented what Cage was attempting to do Schaeffer did not, as many critics of Cage have, simply dismissed the man as a charlatan and a fraud.  Schaeffer was convinced, and worked to convince others, that the worst aspects of the avant garde art of the West came about from a rejection of what he called the Christian worldview. For Schaeffer the birth of this Western avant garde art of the 20th century was a long process that had been incubating since the Renaissance.  Cage, in Schaeffer’s view, at least had the courage to be consistent in his position even if the Schaeffer didn’t like the resulting music. 

But where Schaeffer saw the avant garde as born from a rejection of the Christian worldview in Western European and American cultures, Meyer came to the opposite conclusion. To Meyer, the synergistic interaction of humanist optimism in the perfectibility of humanity and the Christian doctrine of original sin cumulatively created a teleological conception of history in which it was both possible and necessary for humanity to seek improvement.  Meyer’s proposal was that a Zen-based avant garde had, or would, ultimately become a self-extinguishing ideal.  Once teleological 
conceptions of history that evolved within the monotheisms of Abrahamic religions are abandoned there isn’t a philosophy of history within which the idea of an avant-garde serves a purpose.  

Schaeffer thought the rejection of the Christian teleological view of history birthed the Western avant garde arts; Meyer believed that the rejection of a Judeo-Christian teleological view of history meant there would no longer be an avant garde. If there is no eschaton there certainly can’t be movement toward it.

Because the reality of diversity and pluralism was realized (in all senses of the word) across the globe, Meyer proposed that there was not likely to be any new revolution in the arts.  The Renaissance that began in the West had reached its end point, a paradoxical end by success.  Of the avant garde at work in the mid-twentieth century Meyer concluded:

And this is perhaps the ultimate paradox; that the philosophy of the avant-garde precludes the possibility of there being an avant-garde. For if the world is static and directionless--a perpetual present--how can the forces of art move toward an objective? The very concept of an avant-garde implies goal-directed motion—the conquest of some new territory. It depends upon the teleological beliefs which both transcendental particularism and analytic formalism call into question. If the Renaissance is over, then the avant-garde is ended. (page 169)

List of books discussed
The God Who Is There
copyright © 1968 by Francis A. Schaeffer
Published by InterVarsity Press (U.S.A. and Canada)

Escape from Reason
copyright © 1968 by Francis A. Schaeffer
Published by InterVarsity Press (U.S.A) and Hodder and Stoughton (Canada)
ISBN 13:978-0-89107-561-5
ISBN 10:0-89107-561-5

Music, the Arts, and Ideas
Leonard B. Meyer
Copyright © 1967. 1994 by The University of Chicago
ISBN 0-226-52143-5 

The Danger of Music and other Anti-Utopian Essays
Richard Taruskin
Copyright ©2009 by the Regents of the University of California 
ISBN 978-0-520-24977-6

Music in the Baroque Era: From Monterverdi to Bach
Manfred Bukofzer
ISBN-13: 978-0393097450)

Stockhausen Serves Imperialsim
Cornelius Cardew
Originally published in 1974
by Latimer New Dimensions Limited: London
ISBN 901539 29 5

Essays on Music: Selected, with introduction, commentary and notes by Richard Leppert; new translations by Susan H. Gillespie
Theodore Adorno
University of California Press
ISBN 0-520-22672-0
ISBN 0-520-23159-7
(c) 2002 by Regents of University of California

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