Wednesday, 23 November 2016

First Thoughts On Non-Intentional Music

The former scientist and self-appointed culture arbiter, Richard Dawkins, in the recent past on his Twitter account remarked regarding 4'33" by John Cage that it was, and I quote, "pretentious". Quite what Dawkins, a man who used to abide by the rules of science until he found that popularity required less concern with things like evidence and prudence, meant in detail by this brief comment we will never know. He was merely dismissive and felt that this was enough to inform his acolytes of the correct disposition to have towards it. From the context of the tweet it seemed as if he was not too familiar with the piece either, as if he had only just been made aware of it before commenting. It seems that such off the cuff remarking now stands in place of considered comment and argument in the minds of scientists turned experts on all things.

For those who have more familiarity with the study of music, however, it is to be hoped that the piece 4'33" by John Cage is rather more well known, by reputation if not through an experience of it being performed. It is the prime example, in the work of Cage or of anybody else for that matter, of non-intentional music. Non-intentional music is somewhat of a hot potato amongst musical types and, I think, not always well understood. Many musicians seem to instinctively take against it for reasons they cannot find the words to express. This, in turn, leads to a sense of irrationalism on their part or, worse, the suggestion that their beliefs might simply be based in a conventionality that cannot be expressed nor that dare speak its name. In what follows I hope to use Cage and his paradigmatic composition as lenses to focus on non-intentionality in music and to bring forward some initial thoughts about it.

                                                 John Cage

Philosophical Background

Conventional understandings of music may be summarized in the following way: music is thought of as communicative, self-expressive and intentional. This, perhaps controversially, can be boiled down to a view of music as some kind of intended information or, essentially, knowledge. In contrast, the Cagian Turn that will be described in this blog is towards unintentional sound, interpenetration, chance and indeterminacy in music. This, as can be seen, is nothing to do with communication or expression and is expressly anti-intentional. If we see the conventional form of music as a way of communicating knowledge of some kind then Cage's conception of music may even be seen as swapping knowledge for wisdom of some kind instead. 

Cage himself was influenced by eastern spiritual thinking early in his musical career in the 1940s. Under the Indian teaching he came to find important, he found that music was regarded as something to calm the mind rather than as merely entertainment or as the communicative, expressive, intentional thing I mentioned above. In this view music takes on a more therapeutic guise. But more than this, in the tradition he learned of, music was to calm the mind in order to open it up to "divine influences". This need not be thought of religiously even if he received the idea in a spiritual context. Cage himself resolved that these influences were all the sounds of our environment, the sounds of nature, and nothing more "divine" than that. These influences can then be read as opening a person up to a loss of control, intention and determination since they are necessarily things co-existing with us in their own ways but not controlled by us. But we are getting ahead of ourselves now and there seems to be a wider philosophical context that we can bring to bear here.

The western mind, in recent centuries, might be taken as Descartes' image of the Cogito (from Cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I am). "I", the thinking subject, is in this viewpoint taken as the centre of the universe and me understanding myself and the things around me is regarded as enlightenment. I, and those like me, use this knowledge to control and manipulate the world around us. Music, our subject in this blog, understood under this way of thinking cannot be anything other than an expression of this "I" and communication from and about it. It also stands to reason that this must be intentional since the Cogito is seen as the locus of rationality in a universe made rational by our ability, so it is claimed, to think, reason and see things clearly. So a music existing under this frame of mind must be rational, intentional and deliberative just as this worldview claims itself to be. 

This was not the thought world from which Cage's new appreciation of music sprang. In eastern philosophy things are not thought to be in need of manipulation by autonomous subjectivities. Instead, all things exist in harmony and the goal is balance. Hence the requirement for calmness and the letting go of control I mentioned previously. Music in this context becomes something different too, as we might expect, but it requires a philosophical and attitudinal change to appreciate this. Within this view personal likes and dislikes, which come from the ego, must be cast aside for they are literally the definition of a narrow mind. Instead, one must learn to see and hear things as just things. Based on the necessary philosophical change from west to east, the rational self of western conception must be de-emphasized in terms of ego. What I like or dislike becomes unimportant and is replaced by a simple interest in things. As Cage phrases this for musical relevance: "Sounds should be honored rather than enslaved". This makes music primarily not entertainment or communication but discovery, an opening of self to possibility. Music, sound, is thus opportunity, not least for change.

Put crudely, then, we can contrast a western controlling, manipulating vision based on information with an eastern one of co-existing in harmony with all around. Apply this to music and divergent paths become apparent.

If you want a practical example of how this differing vision works in musical practice we need look no further than John Cage's regular work with the dancer and choreographer, Merce Cunningham. Cage wrote much music to go alongside dances arranged by Cunningham during his career but NOT as a musical accompaniment. Both said that they wrote work, whether dances or music, that was not written for the other but that just took place side by side at the same time. Cage did not write music to interpret the dancing and Cunningham did not compose dances to fit any of Cage's music. They just symbiotically existed in the same place, at the same time. This, it can be seen, imitates a view of the world in which lots of things just happen to co-exist simultaneously, each with their own causes and with any relation between them open to whatever interpretation can be given to it. A natural harmony of multiple things just being as they are then takes place.

Cage expresses this kind of thing as his ideal when he states that his wish is that art, and his music, "imitate nature in her manner of operation". That is, he wants his music to work as nature does, to be naturalistic rather than conventional. To understand this in musical terms we need to ponder for a while just how nature does work. Under modern scientific thinking this is not as a deterministic, mechanical universe but more chaotically and indeterminately such as that universe envisaged by the theories of quantum mechanics which are probabilistic in nature and question ideas of causality and determinism. For example, the so-called Uncertainty Principle questions the position, trajectory and momentum of things. We do not need to delve into this any further but just need to note the relevance of these on-going scientific investigations to our understanding of music here.

But what follows from these philosophical ruminations? On the thinking that Cage takes up it stands to reason that here an art/life or music/life distinction vanishes. This is simply unnecessary if one now sees sounds not as communications or intentions but as simply things that exist in their own right. Sounds are just sounds and are a co-existing part of life. Thus, Cage expressed the desire that we just let sounds be themselves. So music need not be intentional sounds or sounds made with devices crafted with the intention of making music on them. So-called "noises" can be music or musically useful too. For if, taking this philosophy forward, "music is continuous" (since all sound is now music) then there can be no differentiation of sounds with some designated "musical" and others not. All are just components of a universal music of sound. Under a Cagian aesthetic the idea "musical sounds", as a distinction from other kinds of sounds, is annulled as nonsense. Life itself, the environment, is music. 4'33", to which I now turn, thus becomes the outworking of a theory of music and not simply a curiosity or a weird joke.


Upon its initial performance by the pianist David Tudor in 1952, John Cage's piece 4'33" was reported to have "infuriated and dismayed" the audience. Cage suggests someone even suggested they run him out of town. There was, so it is said, "uproar". We need to remember that this first performance was given at an avantgarde concert attended by cutting edge artists of the time. So it is not as if the audience were the most conservative of folks. But why was there uproar as Tudor performed Cage's instructions to the letter, going through the three movements, one of 30 seconds, another of 2'23" and a third of 1'40" (making 4'33")? Some observations of mine:

- They expected something but got, as they thought, nothing. (This is actually not true. The piece had been meticulously composed by Cage, as he said, "note by note" using timings and measurements. It was not easily or simply conceived.)

- They expected what I described above as the musical conventions. They regarded music as intention but saw and heard none.

- They expected to understand the musical proceedings but didn't and so confusion was created.

- They were, as Cage would later say, "blinded by themselves".

- They expected intentional sound but, instead, got unintended sounds. Thus, they were literally unable to hear the music.

At this point we need to be reminded of Cage's conception of music. This was that there is no difference between sounds in terms of musical usefulness but also, in another discovery he made, between sounds and silence. This latter discovery was informed by entering an anechoic chamber meant to silence all sound. Whilst he was in it he realized he could still hear both the high-pitched noise of his nervous system and the lower pitched sound of his blood flow. But he also realized that the "silence" (which wasn't silent) had enabled these new sounds to be heard. The silence, in fact, he realized was a giving up of intention for in the silence there was still sound. The silence was a turning from noises made to noises that were just there, from intentional to non-intentional sound. Silence, thus, in his conception, was literally a change of mind, a new way to see (or, rather, hear!). We need to note here that Cage equates music with sound. He says for example that "Music is continuous. It is only we who turn away." This is a recognition both of his discovery that nowhere is silent but also of how this same silence can open our ears to non-intentionality and the play of sounds as nature's music. 

There is somewhere else that mentions a similar thought. In his famous book The Art of Noises from 1916 Luigi Russolo writes about health promoting "poeticized silences" made up of an "infinity of noises, and that these noises have their own timbres, their own rhythms, and a scale that is very delicately enharmonic in its pitches". He calls them "the smile of certain countrysides" for he is talking about the country and the natural world. This phraseology itself suggests just such a natural, non-intentional music as Cage refers to, something which in today's language we might refer to as "ambient noise".

John Cage himself thought that 4'33" was the music of the listener "rather than the composer's". In 4'33" the composer opens a metaphorical (and sometimes possibly an actual) door to new possibilities. He offers an opportunity to change your mind, to live in harmony with all the sounds around you, to hear differently. Cage contrasted this himself with record collections which, in his view, might be thought of as "the end of music". If you are following the line of thinking here you may be able to ascertain why.


Some words about Cage's methodology may be in order here for context. Cage could not hear his music in his head. He did not follow a composerly method of hearing ideas and then trying to recreate them in sound nor did he even work experimentally with sounds until something clicked and he somehow fettled a piece from his sound sources. What's more, he signed off from traditional musical learning such as Solfege (which trains pitches), something he didn't want to learn as he saw it as a limitation on the possibilities of sound if they were reduced to training in tones. What you learn becomes the limits of your world, right? Meanwhile, in the mid 1930s, Arnold Schoenberg, the composer and music theorist, had been Cage's teacher for a year and told him that he had no sense for harmony and that this would eventually limit Cage like hitting a brick wall. Cage determined to bang his head against the wall forever if that became the case.

Cage's method was to compose pieces of music in order to hear what his music would sound like. He never heard this until or unless it was performed somewhere and, given the nature of his pieces, this would often be different on each occasion it was performed. So Cage wasn't composing with sounds as per the usual procedure. He wasn't constructing a building he had the plans for. He was constructing intellectually conceived ideas in which sounds and combinations of sounds might take place. Sensory experience was a result of his intellectual, composerly activity. He did not know what the result would be in anything except a general sense or in the sense that anyone can imagine how something might be. He didn't know what 4'33" would sound like on that day in 1952 when it was first performed. But he did compose and structure the conditions of its performance. The natural leeway built into many of Cage's works, both in terms of the instructions given for their performance and the equipment used (prepared pianos might not make consistent sounds, radios could splutter forth anything), only exacerbated the lack of foreknowledge he could have about how his compositions would sound. Cage's music was not about creating a physical copy of something in his head. It was something he arranged for without knowing what it would be.

But this leads us to a question: If I construct an intellectual musical experiment, a la Cage, to enable the hearing of sounds, am I then responsible for any and every sound that takes place within that experimental space that I conceived and designed in an intentional sense?

The answer, I think, has to be no. I think Cage would say no too since his compositions were expressly intended to explore and engage non-intentional sound. But if I am not responsible for every sound made in an intentional sense then we must accept that non-intentional sounds can play musical roles, at least, as a minimum, in such spaces. But once this door is opened it cannot be shut again for there is no reason to say that non-intentional sounds cannot be perceived or conceived as musical if a context is regarded as musical. So it is important to see that, even if one does not go as far as Cage in a philosophical sense, one has already admitted that non-intentional sounds have musical uses and can be musically perceived and conceived. We must admit that something like the self-generating modular synthesizer patch so common today can be musical even if the musician who arranged for it to take place is not personally making each sound happen. At a minimum, distance has been introduced between a composer and the composed in all its detail.


In speaking at a later point about 4'33" Cage mused that "...what they thought was silence... was full of accidental sounds". He described his musical purpose at one point as "I have felt and hoped to have led other people to feel that sounds of their environment constitute music which is more interesting than the music which they would hear if they went to a concert hall". The major intention of Cage was to introduce indeterminacy to music. This was far more radical a thing than chance operations in a piece's composition for the latter could leave a piece of music still very deterministic. Chance operations only distance the composer from their likes, dislikes, thoughts and memories as composing is taking place. But it is indeterminacy of outcome or performance that changes the game, not knowing what you will hear. Indeterminacy is somewhere defined as an inability to foresee the greater part of the result of a composition or performance which is made up of non-intentional sounds. That silence played so great a part in John Cage's composing was therefore deliberate because, as already discussed, silence was equivalent to the hearing of non-intentional sounds. 

This raises questions. Say one composes a piece using chance operations and that piece results in indeterminacy. In what sense can the music be said to be intentional? Surely one must, as a minimum, admit to levels or shades of intentional influence or even intent itself. One might want to speak of deferred intent. What is clear is that strategies can indeed by devised which threaten the intentional link some always seem to want to make. Improvisation is not one such strategy though for, by Cage's standards, it does not involve either chance or indeterminacy since an improvised performance involves performers constantly making educated, knowing choices, even if these are spontaneous. So it is not enough to improvise. One must take steps to design all the effects of personal likes and dislikes, memories and tastes out. This is just one reason why Cage's own pieces were so deliberatively designed.

There have been numerous performances of Cage's 4'33" and many have not been in accordance with Cage's clear aesthetic intentions in composing the piece. These were to encourage a change of mind from one way of hearing to another, to encourage the indeterminacy of non-intentional sounds, to focus attention. But in performances of the piece which have become pieces of theater or mimes or in which something distracting is done during the time period of the piece's performance this aesthetic intention is impugned. "Aha!" you may say. "So Cage did have intentions!" Well, indeed, yes he did. But these intentions did not extend towards the creation of intentional sounds so much as the creation of experimental (read: indeterminate) compositions. We must defer to this reality rather than steadfastly insisting that any intention at any stage of the composition or designing of a piece of music makes everything within the composition's space itself intentional. "Non-intentionality" in musical terms need not mean "to have no intentions whatsoever in any sense". This would be a reductio ad absurdum rendering music composition impossible. 

Cage quite clearly did have intentions - at the compositional level - since the purpose of his music was to have a purpose. He firmly believed that although 4'33" was written for any instrument, or combination of them, it did have a formal structure (which he had determined) and so was something which could potentially be violated. Regarding unfaithful performances of his pieces he said "I don't believe that a bad, thoughtless, undevoted performance of one of my works is a performance of it" (emphasis mine). So its as well here to remind people that Cage did not see his music as a con, a joke, a game, an elaborate hoax or as anything other than entirely serious musical compositions which explored composing non-intentionality at the level of performance using non-intentional sounds or silence (which are the same thing). This is demonstrated not least in that within 4'33" as composed intentional sounds are themselves expressly not permitted. Cage had intentions for his works but these should be distinguished from intentionality within them.

Cage conceived that 4'33" could be performed at any length (but whilst keeping the same title). Yet, in contradistinction to the conventional notions of musical etiquette and practice, it attempts to express nothing and communicate nothing. Intentional as a compositional experiment, the sounds within its time frame are in no way intentional. It was designed to be so. The conventional ideas of music are, thus, subverted and refuted. This could then be said to be anti-music in which not just an art form but a philosophical tradition is exposed. Cage lost friends because he wrote this piece, or so he said, and so someone somewhere must have thought that something was at stake in 4'33" and maybe you reading this do too. But I do ask readers to consider one more thing here, the difference between cause and intention. All sounds have causes but not all sounds are intentional. That there are non-intentional sounds themselves should be a non-controversial thought. It is only their musical appropriateness that may bring them into disrepute with some who see music as purely an intentional matter. But how they justify that theoretically seems hard work indeed should they wish to justify their beliefs and their musical designations.

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