Cage’s Cage

Christopher Reid

  • Empty Words: Writings ‘73-’78 by John Cage
    Marion Boyars, 187 pp, £12.00, June 1980, ISBN 0 7145 2704 1

The writings and reported sayings of famous composers have a strange, but respectable, literary status. Their musical status is, of course, more doubtful, even where a great composer is concerned. The Stravinsky/Robert Craft dialogues provide a case in point: can these unlikely confections, stilted essays in what one might call the comedy of conversational manners, really be taken seriously? In a sense, yes, they can. Their rhetoric – an arch, Nabokovian, dictionary English, a formality about as ‘lifelike’ as the frigid give-and-take we find in Compton-Burnett, or in Valéry’s Dialogues – does have its persuasive power. For the while at any rate, we are transported to a pastoral domain where reminiscence, opinion, gossip and verbal playfulness are indulged for all they are worth.

And, in Stravinsky’s case, they are worth a good deal. In play as in work, this great man’s mind appears to have been extraordinarily active. The anecdotes are lively and the mots justes (even when, as often seems probable, a fingertip has been run through Roget to find them) are quirky and telling. But how would these documents look, for all their special qualities, if the central figure had not also been a composer of genius? A bizarre folly, I dare say. A monument to Pooterism. A joke.

Of course, the question is hypothetical, and we can turn from these divertissements to Stravinsky’s music, as one forgets gossip for an exploration of, and delight in, realms of the highest creative thought. If only one could say the same about John Cage! The quality of his achievement is still in dispute, and there are some who would doubt that he has contributed anything of substance to the music of his time – which, however, is not to say that he has contributed nothing. A kind of Diogenes or Jiminy Cricket, Cage has for many years been a persistent and persuasive figure on the edge of things – the embodiment of a collective bad conscience, with a single musical, or anti-musical, obsession. An early apostle of indeterminacy, purveying the notion that it was morally disastrous to impose an order of playing or listening on performer or audience, he has been able to coax even the mathematicians and sparkies of the avant-garde to allow that most subversive element, chance, into their own music.

All masochists love a figure like Cage. No wonder, then, that he has gathered such a following, and that even those who might naturally be hostile should wish to incorporate Cageian gestures into the music they write. There is an analogy to this situation, which the painter, David Hockney, was able to identify in an autobiographical anecdote. When Hockney was at art school and in the company of students busily mimicking the Abstract Expressionism that was new at the time, he found himself, with some unease, trying to accommodate American gimmicks in his own, doggedly figurative work. Hockney was gifted enough to contrive ingenious compromises, and indeed a challenge like this, amounting in effect to the pang of guilt, may sometimes be useful to a creative artist. How many composers have been teased into action by the desire to assimilate, to allay the taunting demon of, John Cage?

Cage has been catalysing like mad for over thirty years, but his unusual career, from enfant to viellard terrible, has been accomplished at a price. How meagre his own body of work looks! In his determination to become a respected sage, a Zen maestro, he has channeled wasteful amounts of energy into the generation of publicity material, talking and writing. Empty Words is the latest addition to his back-up campaign. It is a compendium of the various literary pieces Cage wrote and published between 1973 and 1978, and it makes dismal reading. Fey, rambling, un-self-critical, Cage betrays the weakness that afflicts so many who set themselves up as father-figures – the habit of gurulity. As it happens, very little of this book is concerned with music, but what is is stunningly banal. There is a two-page reminiscence entitled ‘How the Piano Came to Be Prepared’, which is of minimal documentary interest – imagine ‘How I Stumbled on the Drum’ or ‘How the Tuba Came to Me in the Bath’. And there is a bland 11-page survey, ‘The Future of Music’, in which, like the headmaster in his end-of-term harangue to the parents (assuring them that their fees are being fruitfully spent and that a further year’s investment might be worthwhile), Cage sums up the activities of his colleagues and epigones:

There is endless work to be done in the field of electronic music. And many people at work: David Behrman, Gordon Mumma, Robert Ashley, Alvin Lucier, Phill Niblock, to name five. And in the field of video and visual technology (composers also have eyes): Lowell Cross, Tony Martin, Nam June Paik, to name three. And in the field of computer music (shortly everyone, whether he’s a musician or not, will have a computer in his pocket): Joel Cadabe, Giuseppe Englaert ... to name eight.

All this is for the encyclopedias. The rest of the book, however, shows the master in more playful mood. Mesostic (as in acrostic) versetributes to friends; reminiscences of the painter, Morris Graves, irritatingly garbled, so that we learn next to nothing; an account of the international eating-habits of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company; an I Ching- assisted scrambling of the text of Thoreau’s – Journals (‘a o eeth h d c. Yw aflpspfndhteghtoun’ etc); an analysis of Finnegans Wake – this is what the Cage-fan’s £12 will buy him.

The last item on the list may come as a surprise. Here, after all, is evidence that Cage has noticed something of interest in a great literary text. The revelation is that James Joyce used the ten letters of his name, in their own order, as a concealed motif throughout the composition of his book. A literary scholar might simply have noticed the ploy, identified a few instances, made some appropriate comment and passed on: but Cage’s method is different. The discovery has given him an excuse to write out a large part of the text in mesostic form. Let one example be enough here:

                    ripe occ Asion
                    our kadeM
                         villaplEach vollapluck
                fikup for fleSh nelly
  guinness thaw tool in Jew me dinner
                                 Ouzel fin
           a nice how-do-You-do
                   in poolblaCk

But a single example would never have sufficed for Cage. Working through the whole of Finnegans Wake, dispensing with ungermane material, Cage ended up with 125 pages of mesostics, abbreviated to 40 for Empty Words.

Even that, though, is excessive. One does not, of course, read the text that Cage has contrived, so much as simply acknowledge it. Once we have recognised the premise, we have done all that was necessary. The words themselves, potent with meaning in Joyce, have been robbed of their force by the rote-efficiency of the commentator. Joyce’s device was, no doubt, of practical and talismanic value to him as he composed his anarchic-seeming, but in fact highly organised, masterpiece: as the writing developed and the words accumulated, the catalysing element, those ten words, would have become less and less important to the author, gradually falling away into neutrality and inertness. They are not really important to the reader, either, unless he happens to be John Cage, who, as a catalyst himself, cannot bear to see other catalysts ignored. Hence the absurd prominence given to the letters of Joyce’s name by their mesostic arrangement. To Cage, evidently, any device is of greater value than the work of art which it may have been designed to help into existence. ‘Forget the baby,’ the message goes: ‘look at the midwife!’

Other essays in Cage’s new book tend to confirm this bias. ‘Empty Words’, the title piece, is Cage’s own kind of homage to Thoreau: for here, with systematic and loving attention, he has rendered the Journals totally incomprehensible. In ‘Series re Morris Graves’, we are deprived of an understanding of this painter by a collection of anecdotes, portentously truncated and jumbled. In ‘Where Are We Eating? and What Are We Eating?’ facts about the food-intake of Merce Cunningham’s dancers – as hearty a band of trencherpeople as I have ever read about – are compiled, not to any end, but simply for the sake of the compilation. Thus paper is filled, and time (Cage’s more than ours, I suspect) innocently frittered.

The essential point in discussing these trivia is to remark how strikingly Cage’s literary method resembles his musical one. For Cage has always depended on systems, even when they have been systems of anarchy. Every note of his Music of Changes, for instance, was plotted in consultation with the I Ching. Extra-musical charts and symbols have from the earliest days been a part of Cage’s apparatus. Imaginary Landscapes, in which randomly tuned radios take the place of conventional orchestral instruments, shows him in complete submission to the tyranny of chance. Even the notorious silent piano piece, 4’33”, turns out to be the purest dogma – a theme unsusceptible to variation.

Cage’s folly arises from a piously intended misunderstanding of what traditional music and literature are about. Twice in Empty Words he quotes with approval Thoreau’s statement that ‘hearing a sentence he heard feet marching.’ In one instance he adds, ‘Syntax, N. O. Brown told me, is the arrangement of the army,’ above which, on the same page, we find: ‘The masterpieces of Western music exemplify monarchy and dictatorship.’ I do not really understand what Cage hears in Fidelio or Peter Grimes – or in any number of unprogrammatic instrumental pieces, for that matter – but I cannot agree with his naive contention. In fact, I should say that something like the opposite is true: when I encounter a well-written sentence, I see exemplified the writer’s unique and perhaps lonely desire to overcome the tyranny of chaotic experience, and certainly not recruitment to the army of Cage’s imagination.

Would it be unfair to liken Cage to the fox in the proverb, tantalised by ‘sour’ grapes? The poor man seems compelled to deprecate what he himself can never be master of. And, in his writing as in his work as a musician, it is mastery that we most avidly miss. This is why even Stravinksy’s footnotes (the Conversations) seem to me of greater value than all Cage’s grandiose strivings. Pernickety at times, Stravinsky’s concern for clarity, far from being a matter of despotism, represents a modest desire to be amenable; and it is his craft (the pun is inescapable) that enables him to communicate. Cage, for all his pretentions to global communication, renders himself unapproachable by garbling the message.

Furthermore, he has the incompetent’s mystified respect for systematic procedures. A comparison with Stravinsky is particularly appropriate here. Late in his career, Stravinsky adopted and adapted Schoenbergian serialism, not in order to make composition a facile matter of following the rules, but to give his unquenchably active imagination a new stringent impetus. A system, according to this understanding of it, is the background against which some unique drama is played – all the more poignant for its ironic sharpness. For Cage, who is ploddingly unironic, systems are there to be obeyed. He does everything by the book (albeit the Book of Changes). His own Empty Words, the book that many of his followers will, no doubt, do things by, is consequently a dull and flaccid performance. Recruiting for his advance guard with pious slogans – ‘Anonymity. People going underground. The omission of names. In order, like Duchamp, to get the work done that is to be done’ – he intimates something a good deal more oppressive than the military tramp tramp of Jane Austen and Henry James.