Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Getting Nowhere with John Cage: A Zen Biography

by Alastair Johnston

Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists by Kay Larson. The Penguin Press, New York, 2012. 496 pp., $30.

As a teenager I was interested in all kinds of music, so I took the opportunity to attend a concert for prepared piano by the America composer John Cage at the Royal College of Music (behind the Albert Hall) in London in 1968. I got there early to secure a good spot. I had no idea what to expect but the audience seemed unusual, more curious bohemian than the Baroque crowd. When a man with a wooden leg came in, it occurred to me he was part of the performance as he tapped his way to a vacant chair.

Cage was already controversial. In 1960 he performed "Water Walk" on the TV show "I've Got a Secret." It was a delightful and zany event which used water, ice and steam to create music.

When asked about the audience's laughter, he said he considered laughter preferable to tears. With this he gave permission to other musical experimenters, such as Frank Zappa playing on a bicycle on the "Steve Allen Show" three years later.

Cage was the enfant terrible of American music for half of the twentieth century. Few other composers adopted his chance methods and rejection of the then cutting-edge 12-tone scale. What's wrong with Schoenberg, who was Cage's early teacher? "The twelve-tone row is a method; a method is a control of each single note. There is too much there there. There is not enough of nothing in it."

It's the opposite of Gertrude Stein's famous characterization of Oakland, and something that would resonate through Cage's work. He was on a quest for silence, the discovery of nothing there. For instance, in his piece "Imaginary Landscape no. 4" for 12 radios -- or "Golden Throats," as he called them -- by the time of the performance (late one night at Columbia University in 1951) the radio stations had mostly gone off the air so there was static and a lot of silence. Others deemed it a failure, Cage was delighted.

It is appropriate that the author of this new biography is not a music critic or biographer. In fact this is Kay Larson's first book, though she has made her name as an art critic in the Village Voice and The New York Times. Furthermore it's as much about Zen as about the subject, which is a pleasant surprise. I didn't expect to read a book on John Cage and learn so much about D. T. Suzuki and spiritual practice.

After a bumpy start about Ginsberg, Snyder and the Beats, delivered almost as paper darts that don't fly, Larson settles down to be entertaining. Larson has a lively, journalistic style; she is a practicing Buddhist so starts with a major appropriation to her side: Marcel Duchamp. While we think of Duchamp as the Dada Supreme, she recasts his readymade "Fountain" as a perfect shining Buddha of the Bathroom: "In Stieglitz's photo the bulbous porcelain body looks exactly like the Buddha in outline... The white porcelain arc of the urinal serves as the Buddha's robe. Where the Buddha's head would be is a bright white spot that could represent the 'third eye,' one of the classic attributes of enlightenment" (pp. 47-8).

"Fountain" by Marcel Duchamp, 1917. Photographed by Alfred Stieglitz.

I was really taken with the little chunks of Zen wisdom she drops in as much as the net she casts to catch Cage hanging out with Alan Watts and Joseph Campbell, or leading a class in mycology while warning that no two mushrooms are alike.

His chance operations foreshadow a later musical innovator, Brian Eno, who created Oblique Strategies to help him work, in the same way Cage had used the I Ching, to bring indeterminacy into his music. Other pioneering feats include being the first "turn-tablist" -- in 1938 Cage had discovered two variable speed turntables at Cornish College radio lab in Seattle, and set out to play records that were just one tone per side, but to change the pitch periodically (by chance) and create an ever-evolving soundscape. Scratching and ambient music, both at once!

It was at Cornish that Cage met dancer Merce Cunningham and began a partnership that would last over 40 years.

Merce Cunningham by Halsman (Magnum) 1948

None of his contemporaries got it, so Cage turned his back on the musical avant garde and chose to hang out with artists instead. He had moved to New York by 1948 and was part of "the Club," an informal group of painters, including Motherwell and De Kooning, that got together to drink coffee and talk. There is a lot of discussion of Cage's creative process. The famous four and a half minutes of silence (4'33") is profounder than you would imagine, and Cage worked on it for ages. Seriously. First of all he learned that Muzac Corporation commissioned pieces that were that length, so it was conceived as a subversive joke. But then he started to explore silence, even going into an anechoic chamber at Harvard. This room excluded all outside sound. He rushed out to ask the engineer what the noises were he could still hear. The high whine is the neurons of your nervous system firing and the dull roar is the systolic rush of your blood. A flash of insight: There is no such thing as silence. There is no "something" and "nothing." There is only being.

This leads to a story about a Zen monastery in Japan. The monks get up at 4.30 to chant. After two hours or so one of them slides open the doors to the world and in come the noises of the morning: birds, traffic and wind.

The first performance of 4'33" by David Tudor in Woodstock caused a riot. There's a version by him on YouTube with voice-over and a stopwatch that is distracting, and an orchestral version that really gets into the spirit of the piece (though I prefer it as a solo work). 

Duchamp's long years of silence may of course be another source of inspiration. Cage had met him at the Arensbergs' home in the Hollywood Hills and in New York showed up to play chess with him, troubled that he couldn't ask him anything about music, but was calmed simply by his presence. Cage was obviously influenced by Duchamp's intention to make works which are not works of art, his "skillful poetics of ordinary things." Cage wrote: "At a Dada exhibition in Düsseldorf, I was impressed that though Schwitters and Picabia and the others had all become artists with the passing of time, Duchamp's works remained unacceptable as art. And in fact, as you look from Duchamp to the light fixture the first thought you have is 'Well, that's a Duchamp.'"

The art of the everyday -- in Cage's world "sounds" as opposed to "music" -- and the quest for stillness and silence reminds us of all the authors who chose not to write. There's an excellent recounting of them in Bartleby & Co by Enrique Vila-Matas (Random House, 2004). This book is a series of footnotes to a non-existent text and a delightful survey of non-writing "for those in the No," inspired by Bartleby the Scrivener's perennial retort, "I would prefer not to."

In New York in 1950 Cage attended talks by Sukuzi. Cage had been studying Vedanta. Through Alan Watts he met Joseph Campbell and his wife, and the widow of Ananda Coomaraswamy. Listening to Suzuki he realized he needed to get his ego out of his work. One of Cage's students was Christian Wolff, son of Kurt who had published Kafka, Rilke, and Benjamin before he fled Germany and started Pantheon Press in New York. Christian gave Cage the newly published two-volume I Ching. He could use the book to answer questions and thus avoid bringing his own taste into the work.

And Cage acknowledged Bob Rauschenberg's white paintings as efforts to make a neutral artistic statement, though when they met in 1951 at Black Mountain College, Cage was the teacher and Rauschenberg the student. In 1953 they collaborated on an artwork: Rauschenberg glued twenty sheets of paper together and put black ink on a tire of Cage's Model A Ford.

Larson writes, "Automobile Tire Print makes an inescapable allusion to Chinese scroll painting. Here though the scroll is just a single very long black line. The white spaces in the tire tread make the line visually vibrate. The black line is a 'gesture' that doesn't 'express' anything -- a witty put-down of Abstract Expressionist painting and a re-affirmation of Cage's views on an art of action and process."

Automobile Tire Print, SF Museum of Modern Art

The work has since been attributed solely to Rauschenberg, but Cage recalled, "I know he put the paint on the tires. And he unrolled the paper on the city street. But which of us drove the car?"

At Black Mountain, Cage and Cunningham staged the first "Happening." Later his students would start the Fluxus movement (and one of them, Dick Higgins, founded Something Else Press); he is also a godfather of the pop movement through his influence on Jasper Johns. Again Larson makes a Buddhistic connection. The readymades -- Ballantyne cans or flags -- show an aesthetic detachment. Larson quotes Leo Steinberg who was uneasy: he was angry at the artist for letting him down, mad at his friends for pretending to like it, mad at himself "for being so dull, and at the whole situation for showing me up." How often can art provoke that response?

Larson's use of asynchronous time is good, so halfway through 1950 we flash forward to Naropa Institute in Boulder to see a Cage performance being demolished by an audience of hippies in 1974. Naropa was supposed to be a catalyst for cutting through spiritual (as well as consumerist) materialism and "alleviate the terrible karma of addictions to power and achievement at the expense of others." What the author doesn't say is that Naropa was run by wild egos and an out-of-control little scuzzbucket, Chogyam Trungpa, who thought he was a rockstar and ruled the place with a panoply of power. (The Tibetans are the Catholics of the Buddhist world, while the Zen sect are more like the Unitarians, hence the Tibetans are into pomp and circumstance in contrast to the more spartan Zen Buddhists.) Cage chose to perform "Empty Words," based on the writings of Thoreau, where he dropped out words and phrases by chance operations (it sounds like a microphone with a faulty connection to me) until there was mostly silence. He imagined it like clouds drifting into the blue sky. The 1,500 Boulder hippies reacted in a violent uproar, shrieking, whistling, screaming, playing guitars, dancing, throwing things on stage. Cage was appalled, Trungpa on the other hand was "delighted at the ego noise" and asked him to join the faculty. When he repeated "Empty Words" three years later in Milan it led to another riot.

Cage faced a true Zen dilemma: how to keep creating when he would rather not let his ego be front and center. He is "going nowhere yet endlessly evolving." (p. 356) Back in New York, Suzuki had been appointed visiting lecturer at Columbia and Cornelius Crane, the businessman who subsidized the gig, insisted Suzuki's classes be open to auditors, making it possible for Cage and others to attend.

Suzuki talked about Zen: Before studying Zen men are men and mountains are mountains. While studying Zen there is confusion between the two. After studying Zen men are men and mountains are mountains once again. And a student asks, What's the difference between before and after? Suzuki replies: No difference, only your feet are a little higher off the ground.

Another talisman for Cage was Erik Satie who explored unusual avenues in music outside the mainstream. Cage was instrumental (pun intended) in getting together a group of 10 people to play "Vexations," the piece that repeats 840 times, and lasts over 18 hours. Written in 1893 it had been laughed off until Cage gave it a premier at the Pocket Theater in New York in 1963. Among the performers was John Cale who appeared on TV ("I've Got a Secret" again!) to talk about it. Andy Warhol was in the audience and it inspired his film "Sleep."

It wasn't until 1962, when he was fifty, that audiences began to get Cage. In fact his biggest success was his first tour of Japan, arranged by his student Yoko Ono & her then-husband Toshi Ichiyanagi. He visited D. T. Suzuki and Zen monasteries, and gave concerts with David Tudor. And he wrote another piece. An aesthetic of indifference had become key to Cage. This doesn't mean he doesn't care, just that he doesn't care to choose. The student of Suzuki had learned well. Finally, Cage gave up arranging things in exchange for process. The sequel to 4'33" is 0'00" which consists of an instruction: "In a situation provided with maximum amplification (no feedback), perform a disciplined action." Cage himself performed it by putting a contact mike on a desk and sitting down to type answers to his voluminous correspondence, thus combining his duty as a celebrity with clamoring fans wanting a piece of him and his need to be a creative artist.

We get more paper planes thrown out at the end: notes about Minimalism and later artists who were influenced by Cage, but we return to Duchamp and how he denied any influence from Oriental philosophy though he lived life like a Zen master. It was Cage who pointed this out. Al Held said, "Duchamp was just a French Symbolist until Cage showed us how to understand him."

For many people, myself included, Cage is more interesting as a philosopher than a composer. But his influence persists, and one of his compositions is still being performed. Inspired by Satie's "Vexations," Cage wrote "Organ 2/ASLSP (As SLow aS Possible)." It is being performed in the church of St Burchardi in Halberstadt, Germany. The first movement began with a rest of 17 months duration on September 5, 2001 (Cage's 89th birthday). "The first chord roared from the organ on February 5, 2003. The first tone change drew a cheerful crowd on July 5, 2004. The first movement is scheduled to end in 2072." The piece will end in 2639.

I do have to lament how the mighty Penguin Press has let its typographic standards slide. There are some serious design flaws: hard hyphens in quotes that weren't caught, sections beginning at the bottom of the page, no ligatures, figure 1 for cap I, and other glitches that show the book was typed but not redacted by a real typographer.

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