John Cage, a charlatan!?

Yesterday, I finally decided to register at the “i hate music” forums. Blame it on the combination of a Sachiko M thread and the fact that there are very few people I can talk to about such music locally. I’m also hoping that some of the better writers might take a look at my reviews– it’s no secret that I’d appreciate some constructive criticism in regards to my music writing.

Having been primed by the interesting discussions going on at “ihm,” I was in a receptive mood to click on a link in the comments section at Pharyngula that described a blog with the topic of “matters musical and high-cultural.” It turns out I should have paid more attention to that term “high-cultural”…

John Cage, on the game show

Anyhow, the link took me to the blog “Sounds & Fury,” where a New Yorker writes aptly and passionately about “classical” music, opera, and the myriad of fascinating events surrounding these works.

Admittedly, I have much to learn about so-called “classical” music. Like many areas of sound, it is daunting in its own way; full of new artists, terms, and unfamiliar history that takes some time to work into before the pieces begin to fit. Jazz used to be much the same way for me– a perplexing, amorphous mess filled with endless liner notes detailing the contributions of faceless names and mysterious places.

Despite my rather ridiculous start, (my first jazz purchase being John Coltrane’s “Meditations,” of all things!) I dug in, struggled through those liner notes, listened to the recordings until they started making sense, and picked up book after book to absorb the history and ideas driving the music. Unsurprisingly, it worked. Ten years later, I’m comfortable discussing and listening to jazz music– and while I still have a lot to learn and hear, I’m no longer bewildered while browsing the bins at a good record store.

Eventually, I’ll feel the same way about “classical” music. That’s why I read sites like Sounds & Fury; I want to dig into these accumulations of knowledge and make the pieces begin to fit together. That’s why I was particularly surprised to find that Sounds & Fury is written by a closed-minded caveman.

Go check out the Sounds & Fury main page, and see what you notice– yes, that’s it… up in the top right corner: “A Very Brief Thought On New Music.” I can’t believe I didn’t see it right away, but it went unnoticed while I browsed the archives. Then I saw it. “Hooray!”; I thought. “This guy writes about new music too!”

And then I saw it:

“Of that so-called New Music of which I’ve direct experience, almost all of it not recognized immediately as blatantly and tiresomely derivative tripe requires at some level, and to greater or lesser degree, the active participation of the intellect in order to appreciate or, in some cases, even begin to comprehend. That, to my way of thinking, is the very definition of non-music — more, and much worse, a veritable perverse contradiction of just what it means to be music. In short, anti-music, much of it concerned with sound per se rather than with purely musical ideas, and much of that traceable to the influence of the charlatan John Cage.”

And he goes on:

“Which is not to say such can’t (or shouldn’t) be enjoyed, even relished, at some other level. But at the level of music — that condition to which all art aspires — it fails utterly and abjectly. And that’s principally why, not much time left me for music listening as the human span goes, I’ve little or no time for it. There’s simply too much music — genuine music — I’ve either not yet experienced, or not experienced or understood to the deepest level of which I’m capable, to spend valuable time sussing out the ostensible musical value of such presumptive music which, on initial hearing, I find to be no music at all.”

You know me. I couldn’t let this go unexamined. I love experimental music, and must surely be counted as among the most passionate and enthusiastic of its listeners. I can’t begin to fathom the magnitude of influence Cage’s ideas and works have had on the recordings and performances I so enjoy… To see an otherwise-knowledgeable listener write than he was a charlatan was unthinkable. I fired off an e-mail:

“…the John Cage = charlatan bit compelled me to write, the purpose being to ask you to give any decent reason why you’d say such a thing. He may not be your cup of tea, but damn, the man is definitely a composer. He may be one of the most important composers of the 20th century; I’m amazed any thoughtful person could find otherwise.”

To which I received:

“Oh? And just what, exactly, makes Cage “definitely a composer,” and “one of the most important composers of the 20th century,” other than his influence on those looking for an easy way out of sounding in their compositions like pale and effete copies of those musical giants who preceded them?”

So the guy has some balls, no doubt. Still, I wasn’t letting him off the hook. I asked my question first, and rightly claimed that he should defend his “charlatan” accusation before I’d address my own statements. He replied:

“I’ve already stated my reasoning. It’s contained directly in my statement about the charlatan Cage. To repeat: “In short, anti-music, much of it concerned with sound per se rather than with purely musical ideas….””

That’s it? This was the big defense? Mr. Sounds & Fury says it’s not music, so John Cage isn’t a composer. Well! One wonders what he was doing on the Pharyngula website in the first place– championing that omnipresent creationist “the bible says so” argument?

I wrote back, giving concrete examples of some of Cage’s compositions ranging from the highly-detailed (such as Etudes Borealis) to those allowing for much greater influence of chance (such as HPSCHD, which let players shuffle the score). I also discussed some of the main ideas Cage demonstrated and worked with, to show his enormous importance in 20th century music:

“John Cage gives us the following startling notions about music: 1) That there can be no true silence, only unexamined sound. 2) That the border between “noise” and “music” is far less real than previously imagined, and very well may not exist. 3) That rhythm is the basic structural element of all music, being that duration is the only common element of sound and silence. These are huge ideas, and it is difficult at best to fail to notice the time and effort at understanding them taken since Cage’s introduction of these concepts. While you may disagree with the various aesthetics wrought by their birth, I can hardly see how you could claim John Cage is NOT one of the most important composers of the 20th century. Who indeed would you put in his stead?”

I figured I had this guy hemmed in. I mean, seriously, I can’t take a step into new music without running into one of Cage’s ideas. But I underestimated Sound & Fury’s slipperiness, and apparent ability to self-medicate:

“In his stead? He has no “stead”. He’s a nobody as a composer. A total cipher. As I’ve said: a charlatan.”

I don’t know what I expected from someone who recommends using Internet Explorer for viewing his website! I asked him to back up his statements, or I was using him for blog fodder. Obviously, that’s what happened.

At the heart of S&F’s miniature “defense” is this strange notion that somehow, the sounds that emanate from an easily-recognized musical instrument are “music,” but that other things are “just” sound. Or something like that– frankly, it’s hard to tell what this guy thinks. Tossing around lightweight phrases like “purely music” is simple, but S&F seems to lack the mental effort necessary to catch up with his rampaging chutzpah.

In the closing paragraph of his “Brief Thought on New Music” section, Sounds & Fury poses the question, “Is all this the musical equivalent of what it means to be a Luddite, or, worse, a woodenheaded philistine?”

To which I reply: “Yes, all of the above.”

7 Responses to “John Cage, a charlatan!?”

  1. saintlewis Says:

    I wish I could add more to this, but I must say: VERY good post! Though I’m not a fan of Cage, I do respect him and his contributions. I’m much more entranced by his contemporaries, such as Arvo Part & Henryk Gorecki. If you’ve not explored their work yet, pick up Part’s “Te Deum” and Gorecki’s “Symphony #3″, featuring Dawn Upshaw.

  2. Graeme Says:

    Have you read Michael Nyman’s Experimental Music? Nyman is useless as a composer, but his book is good and has some great discussions of Cage and his work, plus a lot about minimalism, Fluxus, and a whole bunch of other things. It’s well worth the read if you haven’t already.

    Anyway, that blogger’s contention that music is only worthwhile if it works on a non- or pre-intellectual level is nonsense.

  3. startlingmoniker Says:

    Yes, I have read Nyman’s book, and it is a terrific text for anyone interested in the subject. I wish I had more of Cage’s writings easily available. I may need to get down to the library and see what they can order in for me.

  4. apertome Says:

    Look, it’s someone who tried to take my place on Squublog. I will not be replaced!

    Cool blog, though, which I might not have found otherwise. I’ll have to check it out more later.

  5. zeitguy Says:

    Good for you. You ran smack into the elitist, exclusionist euuw!skool attitude. What I like about your post is that you bothered to try to reason with the character, and I also like the fact that there was more than one exchange, even if it went nowhere.

    It surprises me that Cage is still a polarizing figure some 50 or so years after he established a definite “stream” in the contemporary landscape.

    For myself, I had ONLY been interested in experimental, the more extreme the better, for a long time. Now I dip my toes into Bartok, Hayden, etc and find that I really enjoy Beethoven’s late string quartets. But I think the era of finding status or identity in the kind of music you claim to like is fading. Maybe. Who knows — the mean part of human nature shows an amazing resiliency in the face of the most dogged innocence and sense of wonder! %^)#

    I am adding your blog to my list. Thanks.

  6. startlingmoniker Says:

    “But I think the era of finding status or identity in the kind of music you claim to like is fading. Maybe.”

    It’s a BIG maybe, Zeitguy. That nasty word “hipster” DOES come to mind… *grin*

  7. howsthatsound Says:

    HAHA! great post Dave! As a big Cage fan, it’s fun to see stuff like this. I think this comes back to an earlier conversation of ours about language and it’s achilles heel of consensus definition. To the more open minded the definition of “music” fuzzy at best, but to the graduates of the western consensus college, it is very rigidly defined.
    Who wins? The Fuzzies, I’d guess… It seems to be that words are just buckets we use to move meaning, but the meaning comes from us, not the bucket and whether or not the receiver of said bucket agrees that it’s contents are in fact content, is a whole other matter. My solution: only attempt high-level communications with those who are willing to share a fuzzy definition of terms and strive to communicate more than define.

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