John Cage, a charlatan?! (pt. 2)

Although most folks over at the IHM forum seem to think I’m beating a dead horse, I haven’t been able to let this discussion with Sound & Fury drop. Besides, this is my blog, and I’m going to write it as I see fit.

All stubbornness aside, the discussion has been an interesting one; and you have to take me on my word that if interesting ideas weren’t being exchanged that I would have ducked out long ago. Rather than degenerating into a some sort of “nuh-uh, yes huh” sissy-fighting, my ongoing challenge of Sound & Fury’s dogmatic assertions has resulted in a flurry of explanations, retreats, and mental gymnastics.

In short, he has defined himself into a corner.

It’s been over 50 years now since John Cage wrote Bacchanale, but apparently, his ideas are still provocative today. Even though I have lost much hope of making any sort of addition to Sound & Fury’s understanding of music, I have greatly appreciated having this experience– it’s been like a fast-forward tour through Cage’s conceptual world, with Sound & Fury as my unwitting Norgay.

So where did we leave off?

Ah! Following the last entry, S&F wrote me an e-mail, in which he explained that he was impressed by my desire to learn more about classical music. He also mentioned that he was surprised I was not already knowledgeable about the subject, due to the fact that I was reading Sound & Fury. I suppose that’s a somewhat fair assumption, but it does make me wonder where he thinks new classical music fans come from!

S&F also offered his assistance in the matter, beginning with a lesson on his phrase “purely musical ideas”:

“…that’s not only NOT a “lightweight phrase,” but one which goes directly to the very heart of ALL genuine music, even simplistic stuff such as pop, or C&W, or rock. In classical music, purely musical ideas are, of course, absolutely essential and central.

So, what’s a purely musical idea? Listen, for instance, to any four- or eight-bar opening of, say, the opening movement of a Mozart symphony. That’s a purely musical idea – that is, a coherent idea expressed in the language of music that neither refers to nor requires anything extra-musical to convey its sense – an idea that’s then developed, expanded, transformed, joined or opposed by other purely musical ideas, etc., etc., all in myriad ways during the progress of the movement until, by movement’s end, all taken together have coalesced to produce one grand purely musical idea; a gestalt; that is, a whole greater than the sum of its parts — in the case of a transcendent genius such as Mozart, infinitely greater.

In short, purely musical ideas are genuine music’s very lifeblood; its sine qua non — literally.”

Later, I posted some of my thoughts about this lesson at the forum, and also sent a copy to S&F:

“We all know that Cage used “devices” (if you’ll roll with the term) to produce some of his works– overlaying a star chart on a musical staff, for instance… Knowing how Cage produced a work is integral in many instances to understanding the work at all.

Where I differ from him is in understanding how this is different from the compositions of someone like Mozart. I think he and Cage are on a continuum together, where Mozart’s machinations are simply more transparent because they are less unique. We transparently accept, at least in the Western world, that a minor chord is representing something sad– but the machinations of this situation is revealed when we examine the use of the minor chord elsewhere, where it may commonly be thought of as a signifier of positive events. I’m sure an ethnomusicologist could provide greater detail as to what part of the world this occurs in…

The point is that if this foreign person was listening to Mozart, and Mozart was making some sad section of a song, the foreigner would have to be made aware that in Mozart’s work, minor chords signify something negative and not positive. Because of this, I cannot see how he can purport this “pure musical idea” to exist. If anything, it puts him squarely facing the very Cage-ian idea that random sounds are music– and I doubt very much he would agree with this.”

As I should have expected, S&F completely disagreed. What was most interesting, though, was that I could now see his total emphasis on the effects the music produced as the sole qualification into his definition. I reproduce it here, complete with asterisks and bold type:

“I wrote about purely musical ideas; *purely* — as in solely, entirely, completely. And that concept has nothing whatsoever to do with “devices” like “star charts” or other such rubbish.  Nor has it anything to do with “behind the scenes work,” as you put it. Behind-the-scenes work doesn’t count no matter what form it takes, or how long or assiduously it was engaged in, or how much it cost the artist in blood, sweat, and tears.  The *only* thing that counts  is what the behind-the-scenes work *produced*.  In the case of Mozart, some of the greatest music ever written.  In the case of Cage, no music at all. Merely noise. The concept I was talking about has to do exclusively with precisely what I’ve already stated it has to do with, and with nothing else.”

Yikes! Bold = anger. Still, I have a readership to think about it, so I struggled on. Besides, “merely noise” is such tasty bait!

“If it’s not the “behind the scenes” stuff that matters, but PURELY the ability of the composition’s performance to elicit idea/emotion/thought/narrative, etc.,  then it would seem a simple matter of proving that Cage has done this with his music in order to render it AS music by your definition.

Surely, you do not ask that Cage’s work render these emotions/narratives/ideas in EVERY listener, though– we must allow that some listeners are unable to perceive art in any meaningful way, be it Cage or Mozart. As I have often been moved by Cage’s work in the same way as I have been moved by say… Debussy, then it seems Cage has created music after all– at least per your terms.”

And then, my coup-de-grace:

“I would also like to submit– and please do not think I am merely being clever– that NOISE may be the greatest example of music ever; as it completely lacks intent, machinations, design, and artifice. If a noise can move the listener, surely it is the pinnacle of music!”

Like a rattlesnake, though, the head simply would not die. Ignoring my championing of noise completely, S&F wrote:

“A purely musical idea is ‘a coherent idea expressed in the language of music that neither refers to nor requires anything extra-musical to convey its sense.’

See now where you screwed up?  A purely musical idea requires expression in ‘the language of music’ — i.e., a language that employs melody, harmony, counterpoint, and rhythm as *fundamental* elements of its grammar and syntax. Ergo, Cage’s “compositions” can NEVER be or become music except in the most figurative or metaphorical sense of the term.

But I see you’ve suckered me into talking about the charlatan again. Basta! Genug!”

Genug” seems to mean “enough,” and I’m just guessing that “basta” is a slick way around actually calling someone a bastard. Probably not the sort of thing you want to try in a men’s room, but in the blogging world, folks use what they’ve got. Anyways, I don’t trust someone who curses in a foreign language, unless they’ve run out of native words first.

But seriously, I didn’t know anyone still seriously held such an antiquated view of music. Read it again– it’s like stepping into a time machine! Investigate microsound efforts sometime; they show us that what we think of as a “note” is really a rhythmic event. Slow it down and see! Music is “sounding” and “silence,” whether it is Mozart or Cage. As always, the world of the avant-garde is leading listeners to these truths. You just have to be willing to listen to get the message.

2 Responses to “John Cage, a charlatan?! (pt. 2)”

  1. flies Says:

    basta means enough. like ‘i won’t take anymore! basta!’. there’s an anarchist social action group called Ya! Basta! or is it Ya Basta! ?


    lots of problems with his statements.

    his definition of a ‘purely musical idea’ is highly unsatisfactory.

    “The *only* thing that counts is what the behind-the-scenes work *produced*. ” star charts are products. when you go to a symphony, they usually hand out a pamphlet that tells you a bit about the compositional process of the composer. ‘star charts’ are different but it doesn’t take a tremendous leap to see that in traditional classical musicology, the ‘behind the scenes’ is regularly taken into account when interpreting the work.

    “A purely musical idea is ‘a coherent idea expressed in the language of music that neither refers to nor requires anything extra-musical to convey its sense.’

    See now where you screwed up? A purely musical idea requires expression in ‘the language of music’ — i.e., a language that employs melody, harmony, counterpoint, and rhythm as *fundamental* elements of its grammar and syntax. Ergo, Cage’s “compositions” can NEVER be or become music except in the most figurative or metaphorical sense of the term.”
    by defining music to disinclude cage, he has shown that cage is not music! amazing. i don’t konw why counterpoint, harmnoy and melody count as musical whereas star charts don’t. the ‘language of music’ is contingent (culturally/historically), not essential.

    I happen to agree with him that the most important hting is the experience of the audience, but i don’t agree that the only thing contributing to that experience is sound, that music is purely sound, or that the attributes he claim to be essential to music are at all essential.

    furthermore, he refuses to even imagine that somebody could listen to Cage or the ‘derivative tripe’ and just enjoy the sound of it in exactly the same way as he enjoys mozart. His whole argument hinges on ‘extra-musical’, ie non-sound, information being required, and this necessity is not proven, not evident.

  2. Music Trivia Says:

    Very interesting topic. I’ve been a fan of Cage for quite some time although I don’t consider myself an expert on his work. I enjoy his ideas and some of his pieces. While I appreciate the view point of someone like Sound & Fury (the person you are arguing with) I feel that people with this narrow perception of music are somehow missing out on something. For whatever reason some people gain the opinion that music is a very narrow thing that has to be a certain way to be “real music” and other people are much more open and excited by experimentation. In some ways I think this is merely semantics. S&F and other musical conservatives simply define music as something different… as something more specific, while people who are more into experimental music tend to define music much more broadly… the Cage quote about a truck passing … ah it’s late and i can’t remember exactly how it goes – but clearly Cage had a very wide open idea of what music means and I think he sought to expand the definition as far as it could be .. expanded.

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