Wednesday, 13 April 2016

John Cage Once Again

If there is a book that has affected my attitude towards music and has actually materially changed my ideas about music and my own musical practice, and there is, then that book is without question John Cage's book "Silence". Specifically, for I can be specific, it is the section near the beginning headed "Experimental Music". It is not a very long section of the book and it is also one of the parts of the book which, I think, it is relatively easy to understand. Both of these factors are fortuitous for other parts of "Silence" I find so dense as to be impenetrable. The section "Experimental Music" I find so fundamental to an understanding of music that I would count it as a great loss if I had never read Cage's words and understood what he meant by them. Before beginning with the meat of my blog I should, of course, say that Cage was writing in the 1950's. His musical situation was not that of our's today. In the 1950's no one had yet built a viable commercial synthesizer and magnetic tape was the cutting edge tool of the day. Cage, we may say, was at that time creating the future. But he wasn't yet in it and we can look back on specifics that he helped to bring about but could not describe in detail as we can today.

So what is so great about this section of the book? I have written about this before and I recommend that you search through my blog to find those blogs too. They may add to what I say here or re-emphasize things. What is so great, if it is to be put like this, is that Cage is not afraid to get embroiled in the big questions about music that many either assume in their ignorance or ignore in their stupidity. Cage is not afraid to take a stance on what music is and should be seen as. This is an important question and all the more so in the 60 years since he wrote in which any number of electronic musical genres have been invented (and, in some cases, passed away again). A definition of what music even is is important and for at least two reasons. It informs what it is you think you are doing if you make music and it gives hints as to how you should do it.

Most musicians and musical writers, even today, are primarily concerned with pitch. When picking up their instrument or sitting in front of it they primarily intend to affect pitches and weave them into a pleasing union. Indeed, many traditional instruments were made specifically as devices to produce and affect pitches as their primary function. Melody and harmony are the endgame. For such people so fixed can their ideology be and so unthinking can their appreciation of music be that it never occurs to them to think that music might be anything else. Music is melody and harmony as a statute. If something is not melodious or not harmonious then it is not music. It does not take a genius to realize that this definition completely destroys the claims of some forms of music to then be music at all. Specifically, these are electronic ones, ones that were coming to birth as Cage wrote. Fortunately, there are others who see things a different way and Cage was one of these. Cage came to regard such music as happily "experimental", including his own, a judgment many wouldn't quibble at today but which, in his day, was controversial.

The crucial factor in this, Cage finds, having realized that as long as he is alive there will always be some sound even if it is only the flowing of his blood or the high pitched whine of his nervous system, is to turn away from the idea that music is something deliberately done to the idea of music as sounds that are not intended. There will always be these sounds of course and for the musically conventional they would regard their task as to eliminate them as much as possible. But not Cage. Cage sees this fact and these sounds as his orchestra. Cage freely admits that many will see such a turn as giving everything away. If music is not a musician deliberately creating with authorial purpose then it is nothing for many people. But Cage retorts. Cage sees human beings as at one with all the sounds around them. In this context there can be no concept of music as some artificial, deliberate creation. Music is any sounds occurring "in any combination and in any continuity". As I would put this, "Music is any combination of sounds". I summarize Cage's thought here as "Give up music as a collection of deliberately made and organized sounds. Realize that any combination of sounds is music."

It is this "any combination of sounds" idea that seems to scare many people though. And some people do seem bound to their idea of music as something deliberate, an authorial intent, a matter of canonized forms and sanctified approaches. Cage was right to say, even in the 1950's, that some people regard, for example, the use of noise or a random approach to a collection of sounds, as "not music at all". The years between his writing and our present day may have removed some of that anxiety as electronics gave birth to industrial music, ambient music and an appreciation for abstract forms or, alternatively, rhythms which endlessly replicate themselves and morph, seemingly forever. But this is not entirely so. There are still those who regard things without a tune as not music. For Cage I think this would be to focus on the lesser thing (that you can form pitches into melodies) to the exclusion of a much greater thing (that tones and timbres are all around us in any number of naturally occurring combinations). 

For a number of years I have been an enthusiastic fan of the analog synthesizer enthusiast and educationalist, Marc Doty. Doty, known as Automatic Gainsay in the online world and a man who works as part of the Bob Moog Foundation to prosper the legacy of the great synthesizer inventor, Dr Robert Moog, has for a number of years produced demonstration videos for numerous vintage analog synths on his You Tube channel. I freely admit that I have spent hours watching, and re-watching, many of his videos which I find to be both educational regarding the synthesizers he is demonstrating and in relation to synthesis itself. In my way, I have also found many of the videos musically significant as well for I have found music in the tones and timbres that these usually vintage synthesizers have produced. Indeed, I have found no difference musically between the theme songs Marc has written for his videos and his pawing at the keyboard during the demonstrations. Why is this? Its because, like Cage, I am not seeing "music" as the production of deliberately intended tunes. I am not seeing "music" as a matter of deliberation or intention at all. Music is sounds in juxtaposition with one another. And nothing more is needed. 

Of course, it takes a psychological shift to come to this position and Cage sees this. But Cage does not see it as a giving up of anything. He sees it as a gaining of so much more. "One may fly if one is willing to give up walking" is how he puts it. And this is very much how I see it. Recently, not least from watching Doty's videos, I have become somewhat disturbed and a little claustrophobic, musically speaking. I've wanted to shout at Marc as he was demonstrating "Stop flinging all these pitches at me!" I look at the keyboards Marc is demonstrating and there they are in all their fixity with a keyboard attached as the user interface. A keyboard, of course, is an interface primarily designed to affect pitch and in some, but not all, keyboards pitch is all it does affect. How limiting, how narrow, how blind. In contrast Cage talks about "sound space" and the technical possibilities of the use of magnetic tape which, in his 1950's context, was cutting edge. He speaks of being able "to transform our contemporary awareness of nature's manner of operation into art". Now, reading that, can you say that this task is even primarily a matter of pitch? Surely not. 

Lately my own musical output has become what I now refer to as "texture music". When approaching the creation of a piece I look to create the conditions for a piece of electronic music's arrival. But I don't look to play it or even really create it. I try to stand at a remove and let it come to be. I juxtapose things and let them be and let the music come from their juxtaposition just as in nature things are just juxtaposed. You will perhaps not find it surprising that, in this context, I prefer electronic and technological means to do this. Both software and hardware solutions are available today that Cage cannot have foreseen in detail and one wonders what he would have done with them. However, in my own practice I approach music as something primarily of timbral and not melodic interest. I can write melodies and have done so. But this is very rare for me and, frankly, I just find timbre both more interesting and more vast as a range of possibilities. There are only so many notes and people will keep playing them over and over again. But there are endless timbres. So lately I find myself wanting to smash all the keyboards and I want electronic things to play with that make it difficult or even impossible to be precise with. This is not unusual in the electronic arena and instruments from the theremin to certain flavors of modular synthesizer are difficult to play melodically, especially if no precise interface is used. For me the more interesting question is why you would feel the need to play melodically in the first place. Such an urge is surely indicative of cultural teachings and a leaning towards conventionality that I just want to give the finger to. Nature is full of timbres. Our music should be too. I see it as more human.

I see this very much as Cage sees it in the end. Cage talks about a choice between wanting to "control sound" and, on the other hand, giving up the desire to control sound, clearing your mind of "music" and setting about discovering means to let sounds be themselves "rather than vehicles for man-made theories or expressions of human sentiments". I see pitch-based music, music that wants to be a tune, as very much music in the "I am a human who wants to control things" mold. And that kind of music disturbs me. Its not even a question of if such music is "good" or "bad", subjective judgments that are largely meaningless in the end anyway. To me that approach says something negative about human beings themselves and their motives in wanting to act that way. It seems blind to many of the insights Cage raises, not least that we are part of a greater whole and that fitting into this whole, letting things be what they will and being at peace with it, is a greater good than the ability to say "this and this will be so". "Pitch music", as I have started calling it, is narrow music and narrow not just musically but also in terms of what it means to be a human being expressing yourself that way. Cage, of course, did not see music as necessarily about expression and even less so as about meaning. For him sound just was and it was the human task to let it be what it will, to enjoy the intermingling of any and every sound together.

Postscript: I am currently making a podcast series about electronic music, as you may know, and the first podcast came out last Friday. In the course of making the show I have had reason to speak to a few people about putting one of their songs in the show and this has led to fortuitous connections. Thanks to one person I came across the idiosyncratic synths of Rob Hordijk and specifically a little box he made called the Blippoo box. This table top synthesizer seems, to all intents and purposes, to generate random noises which change in entirely unpredictable ways as you either move its 12 knobs or use either the CV inputs (and outputs if you patch it into itself) or the light sensor that is built into the unit. The unit itself is a mix of oscillators, filters, his unique "rungler" circuits and FM possibilities. I've seen more than one comment about this synthesizer that it plays you, you don't play it. I mention the Blippoo box because it strikes me as an instrument encapsulating entirely the kind of musical freedom I was expressing in the piece above. The Blippoo is impossible to play melodically and is nigh on impossible to play in any conventional sense at all and yet it offers seemingly endless opportunities for making sounds you could never imagine and putting them in the context of lots of others. It is an instrument that you can affect but cannot control.


                              Rob Hordijk's Blippoo Box

No comments:

Post a Comment