Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Cage Returns

It's been interesting to read Kyle Gann and Brent Reidy on their past experiences studying John Cage. I've often thought that Cage is something of a gateway drug for musicologists, at least those studying the recent twentieth-century. I know so many other scholars my age who began their careers studying Cage before moving on to other things.

My first encounter came in high school, in the summer between my first and second years. I was spending four weeks on the campus of Cal Arts, down in Southern California, at a state-run summer program for artistically minded high school students. I was there for creative writing, actually, but on the first night I went to a concert that was billed as "A Tribute to John Cage." I'd never heard of him, but was interested enough in anything self-consciously avant-garde to attend. It was organized by the pianist Gaylord Mowery, and on the second half of the program he announced that he was going to play one of the most beautiful pieces of music written in the twentieth-century.

It was, of course, 4'33", and the audience of precocious little would-be artists was entranced. The canonical interpretation of the work is that you are supposed to be listening to the sounds of the environment, but that has never been my own experience of 4'33". Rather, for me it has always been about the people around you. It's a chance to notice those sitting next to you, to listen to their breathing, and, for me, without getting too misty-eyed, it's a rare chance to enjoy silent companionship with strangers.

Since then, Cage has always been an important part of my life. My first tentative efforts at musicology as an undergraduate were on Cage, and I wrote more than a few seminar papers on him in graduate school. Finally, last year I wrote a sixty-page long dissertation chapter on the historical premiere of 4'33" in 1952. Since then, I've been busy with other chapters and projects, but no doubt I will return again.

But as both Gann and Reidy hint at, a longterm relationship with Cage can be problematic. In the first blush of romance, the attraction is all about the purity of his aesthetic. If you grew up in a world of classical music, he seems so utterly radical and right. I don't think it is a coincidence that Gann and I both discovered Cage as teenagers, a time in your life when it is particularly important to be 100% correct, and self-righteous about that fact. A lot of scholarship out there, particularly the early stuff, more or less takes this approach. In fact, up until James Pritchett's book, almost all "scholarship" on Cage was actually just interviews with the man, or collections of his writing.

Since his death, and since Pritchett's important book, there has been a fair amount of actual musicology on him. I don't want to name names in a laid back forum like this, but unfortunately much of it is pretty bad. In all the worry over whether or not he was a composer or a philosopher, scholars seem to have forgotten that focusing "just on the music" doesn't mean you should leave all of your critical faculties at home. The great thing about working on Cage is that his career intersects all of the big issues in twentieth-century music, and yet most seem content to leave him safely ensconced his own little musical bubble. George Lewis's influential essay is a positive example of what can be done if one does not buy into the mythmaking: Lewis asked the simple question, "hey, does race have anything to do with why Cage hated jazz so much?" Of course it does! Lewis might not have the perfect answers as to as why it does, but man, you should see how angry Cage people get when such things are suggested. Similar flareups always happen when you bring up the fact that Cage was gay, or had control issues, or liked flannel pajamas. Any suggestion that Cage was a human being has tended to be rebuffed.

Ultimately, these sorts of political issues are why many people, as I say, started out working on Cage and then move somewhere else. This is true for me as well; after all of my time working on him (eight years, yikes!), he's only one chapter of my dissertation. It would have been very easy for me to do an entire dissertation on him, but I found the discourse of Cage scholarship to be an unproductive world for a young scholar. I still want to contribute, of course, but it's not a place I want to call home.

1 comment:

Jean Burrows said...

I came across your blog posting regarding George Lewis' comments on John Cage. I thought you might be interested to know that George is a member of the research project that I represent, which is exploring musical improvisation as a model for social change. Our web site is www.improvcommunity.ca, we also issue a monthly newsletter that you could subscribe to.

We have connections with the Guelph Jazz Festival (www.guelphjazzfestival.com); you might also find its programming very interesting.