Saturday 24th July – Guest post by Dominic Lash

July 24, 2010

John_CageOn tour with the Alexander Hawkins Ensemble last week, I took the opportunity of a gig in Newcastle to visit the exhibition of John Cage’s visual art that is currently on at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, entitled Every Day is a Good Day, and which has already cropped up in these electronic pages, thanks to Simon Reynell. Just outside the exhibition is a monitor showing a wonderful series of films, including footage of Variations VII, of various Merce Cunningham dance pieces, and Cage’s performance of Water Walk on I’ve Got a Secret. Anybody who hasn’t seen the last of these should watch it right now.

The main room of the exhibition is extraordinarily beautiful. Paintings, watercolours, prints and other artworks by Cage are arranged across the walls of the large room according to chance determined arrangements. Thus there are areas of white space; some pieces too high up to see clearly; others right next to the floor so that one has to crouch to examine them. It all beautifully subverts the historicism often inherent in the gallery format: one can only trace the chronological sequence of the works by comparing their numbers to a key. The works themselves are often astonishing, and the curatorial style enables us to perceive visual rhymes and dissonances between the works in a way which would have been impossible with a less “Cageian” style of presentation. The exhibition is touring later in the year to Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge and I’m very excited about seeing it again there, where the utterly different exhibition space (largely open plan interconnected but rather small spaces) should give a very different character to the exhibition. (Following this the exhibition will visit Huddersfield, Glasgow and Bexhill on Sea).

There are other accompanying spaces as well, both beautifully curated and presented: in one room the audio-visual piece HPSCHD is recreated, while in another there is a selection of more films, along with headphones on which one can listen to a selection of music from throughout Cage’s career (very well chosen indeed: the range, power, subtlety and humour of his music really struck me all over again) and, finally, some of Cage’s readings of his stories and anecdotes.

Also accompanying the exhibition is a small but exquisite catalogue. Excellent plates of the artworks are arranged in a less Cageian fashion – in chronological order, no less! I have not read all the texts (which mostly take the form of interviews), but the interviews with Kathan Brown and with Ray Kass (who ran the studios in which Cage made his visual art: Crown Point Press and the Mountain Lake Workshop, respectively) are excellent. They are full of anecdotes, interesting hints as to influence (I had not known, or had forgotten, that Cage was so interested in the work of Mark Tobey), and technical details of the procedures Cage used in producing his visual art. Kathan Brown’s point that in using chance operations, the most important thing is ‘choosing which questions to ask’ (catalogue, p. 26) is very well taken.

There are some problems, however. A few warning signs arise in Jeremy Millar’s piece: he concludes with some “paradoxes” that are rather banal and leave out the possibility that they are not paradoxes at all but that presenting them as such serves to obscure questions of comodification and power: ‘We might want to explore Cage’s personal withdrawal from his artwork, and yet in so doing make him the subject of a large-scale, monographic retrospective. Similarly, we might also want to suggest, with Cage, that beauty can really be found anywhere we might look, and yet to do so have gathered and displayed, at no little effort nor expense, an exquisite mass of works of art…’ (p. 18)

Things get rather more problematic in “How to Improve the World”, the interview with Laura Kuhn, the director of the John Cage Trust, which sets out to address such questions rather more directly. Of crucial importance, of course, is Cage’s interest in Zen Buddhism. But can Cage really be said (as Kuhn quotes Roger Lipsey as saying) to have ‘brought authentic spiritual ideas … to the enterprise of Western art’ (p. 36)? Apart from the fact that Cage was hardly the first Western artist interested in Eastern thought, such a pronouncement clearly implies that Eastern thinking is more “authentic” than Western traditions of spirituality (a claim surely either meaningless or false). There is something a little troubling in the adoption of Cage as a guru figure – as Kuhn says later, Cage was someone she ‘revered more than anyone in the world as a kind of life coach’ (p. 39).

Elsewhere in the interview Kuhn relates a narrative of the roots of the United States in ‘a group of non-conformist malcontents’ heading out ‘to points west, in search, in essence, of autonomy’ (p. 37). To present such a story without any irony and without mention of the fact that there were people already living in the said western points, who were decimated by the arrival of the Easterners, is not good enough. Kuhn then paints a picture of a Cage not insensitive to politics, but overly sensitive, incapable of action in the face of the full horror of the world. Cage tended not to read newspapers, but when he decided to include extracts from them in his 1989 Harvard lectures, Kuhn once found him weeping: ‘I was alarmed, as you might imagine, and asked what in the world was wrong. ‘Oh,’ he said, terribly upset and pointing to a small article fluttering in his hand, ‘Do you know about these crack babies?’ (pp. 38-9). The story is enlightening and touching, but the John Cage constructed in relation to stories such as these I still find unsatisfactory. Kuhn says that ‘Cage did not engage in politics’ (p. 37) and that he simply ‘wanted to put something positive forward’ (p. 39). But the next text in the catalogue quotes Cage’s ‘Overpopulation and Art’, where he does propose a specific system: ‘after the / unworkability of caPitalism marxism / authOritarian socialism anarchy seems for our liberation / to be a Possibility once again’ (p. 47).

I haven’t solved these misgivings. Has anyone looked specifically and critically at this aspect of Cage without either simply trying to exonerate Cage from any criticism, or to dismiss his ideas as half-baked? Is there, for example, any discussion of Cage and Chomsky as part of 20th century American anarchism, for example, or perhaps even of Cage and Adorno, bringing together the one’s Zen abrogation of ‘concepts’ (Kuhn quotes him as saying that through Zen or through his compositional practices ‘you could come to the same conclusion: no concepts’ [p. 35]) and the other’s long struggle against the concept (as Frederic Jameson puts it in his Late Marxism, ‘if the concept is grasped as ‘the same’ … then the struggle of thought … has to undermine that logic of recurrence and of sameness in order to break through to everything that sameness excludes’ [p. 17]). I would love to read such studies if they do exist. I think Cage deserves his ideas (understood as not separable from his practices) to be taken more seriously than they often are, as much by his acolytes as by his detractors.

Comments (11)

  • Jesse

    July 25, 2010 at 7:36 am

    Nice work, Dominic.
    Little to add [bereft of the exhibition to respond to directly], but this: your last sentence resonates in many, if not all, spheres inhabited by a founder/acolyte dynamic; begin with “I think ____ deserves his ideas…”, substitute Marx, Christ, Buddha, Freud [you get my drift], and there you have it.

    “Cage, save me from your followers.”

    The phrase for the piety, intellectual masturbation and ego-disguised-as-authority state of institutionalized zen, is “the stink of zen.” In some of these catalog entries, “the stink of Cage.”

    Always amused at Cage’s insistence on a somehow concept-free approach, as well as his famous antipathy for jazz/improvisation- Cage’s works, across his own personal changes, being rife at times with concepts and improvisation.

    The great man knew the great matter of zen, though- “everything changes, just like that.”

    Thanks for the contribution.
    [Digging Bestiaries, btw].

  • simon reynell

    July 25, 2010 at 9:31 am

    Great post, Dom.
    At a slight tangent, in the piece I wrote previously that referred to the exhibition, I said that I left feeling ‘dispirited’. This was less to do with the quality or otherwise of the artworks on show (which you seem to have enjoyed more than me, but that’s by the by) than with a broader issue that the latter half of your article touches on. I was left feeling really uneasy because I saw in the exhibition a tendency within me to hero-worship Cage being projected back at me in a hugely magnified form.

    Cage is someone much of whose music and writings have been fundamental to me for three decades, and here he was being lauded, applauded and celebrated as a star, a genius, a saint, and I found it disturbing. It’s important for my self-image to imagine that my aesthetic preferences are free of / above and beyond star systems and the commodification that goes with it, but this self-delusion was shattered by the exhibition. (Did you buy an ‘I [heart] Cage’ badge, or ‘I [heart] 4’ 33”?) I wanted to dismiss it as cheap, and not the REAL Cage, but I knew that in reality my unease came from seeing aspects of my own hero-worship being reflected back at me.

    Because we inhabit such a tiny corner of the musical world, where there is no money and concert audiences struggle to reach 75 (and cd sales just twice that), it’s easy to think that we are outside of all the pernicious features of the mainstream entertainment industry. But in addition to the Cage exhibition, various other things have made me question this in the past few months, and it’s an uncomfortable thought process. Just following one line of thought, I’m in no doubt that we too have our stars who we fawn upon and to whom we sometimes offer uncritical adulation, and I’m sure that this affects / distorts our responses to a lot of the music we hear (or choose not to), and – consciously or not – it certainly influences the choices label owners like myself make in what we release on disc. Our heroes don’t get rich, only become very very marginally famous, and arguably do deserve much wider appreciation and audiences, but my point is that there are similar processes and structures operating as in the mainstream entertainment industry, and acknowledging it makes me uneasy in the same sort of way that the Cage exhibition did.

    These things are probably inevitable, but it has set me thinking about whether there might be ways of subverting or at least resisting the star system within improvised and new music….

  • Dominic Lash

    July 25, 2010 at 1:54 pm

    Thanks for these comments, chaps. Jesse – yes, absolutely (hence Marx’s perhaps misrepresented but still relevant comment that “what is certain is that I am not a Marxist”). And Simon, yes I did find the visual art itself very powerful and inspiring, maybe “narrower” than Cage’s music but not weaker (in fact I wonder if the visual art somehow fed into some of his late compositions – besides the obvious (Ryoanji) some of the prints & watercolours feel to me somehow similar to the number pieces), but as to your more general point – I think you’ve hit the nail on the head.

  • John Butcher

    July 25, 2010 at 2:53 pm

    A thoughtful post, Dominic –
    I’d hope that things like the following (from Indeterminacy) might discourage one from choosing Cage as a guru – despite his charm.

    “I went to a concert upstairs in Town Hall. The composer whose works were being performed had provided program notes. One of these notes was to the effect that there is too much pain in the world. After the concert I was walking along with the composer and he was telling me how the performances had not been quite up to snuff. So I said, “Well, I enjoyed the music, but I didn’t agree with that program note about there being too much pain in the world.” He said, “What? Don’t you think there’s enough?” I said, “I think there’s just the right amount.”

  • graham halliwell

    July 25, 2010 at 6:15 pm

    “but it has set me thinking about whether there might be ways of subverting or at least resisting the star system within improvised and new music….”

    Avoid contributing to David Sylvian records? Who could resist the temptation? I had an excited phone call yesterday from a friend because she had heard Lee Patterson on Radio 4 twice in one week. This seemed more important to her than anything Lee has actually done so far. And so on……

    Looking forward to seeing this exhibition in Autumn at Kettles yard in Cambridge; but I have no illusions about how media savvy and manipulative Cage could be. Simon, with all my due respect, I am surprised it has taken you so long to ask such questions.

  • Richard Pinnell

    July 25, 2010 at 8:51 pm

    Great discussion. Cage, for me, has always been a mixture of often contradicting ideas. His greatest achievements for me were linked to freeing up music, showing that just about anything is possible, and yet, as Jesse points out, often his words pointed the other way. The problem with an event like this, and any kind of mythologising over those that have left us is that they are no longer here to chip in, and so marketing, either of the organised clinical kind, or the word of mouth chattering kind can take over and cloud reality. Were there really I heart 4’33” badges? if so that is so sad, and reminds me of the Rothko Seagram Mural fridge magnet set that the Tate was selling in conjunction with the Rothko exhibition last year.

    I think its a different matter when we consider Simon’s “star system within improvised and experimental music” This is definitely something I have thought long and hard about in recent years and have tried to avoid. With Cathnor I have tried to include music I enjoy irrespective of how marketable a particular name might be, and have devised systems that have meant that people that purchase CDs by better known names also get to hear music by other musicians as well. Here, I try and review everything I am sent, and give as much listening time to unknown musicians as I do to anyone else. When I forget something its just as likely to be something by a big name on a big label as it is likely to be something by somebody I hadn’t heard of. I gave up writing end of the year “Top 10” lists a couple of years back and while of course I enjoy the music of some people more than others I try and approach every CD or concert with an open mind. This approach has lead me to discover a lot of new music and also open up my own mind away from many of the prejudices/hierachies I once held, but I think its important we keep asking the same questions that Simon has above and remain vigilant in this, otherwise the natural progression towards ranking musicians and music into star ratings can slip back in. Someone should design Improv Superstar Top Trumps 😉

  • lawrencedunn

    July 25, 2010 at 9:20 pm

    Great post and interesting comments! Graham Halliwell mentioned that the exhibition is indeed coming to Cambridge this autumn, if anyone (from the south as I am) is interested.

    I’m involved with the student New Music Ensemble at Cambridge working with the exhibition organisers to put on various musical concerts in the gallery space, culminating in a Musicirus in mid-November. Hopefully the musical performances will be enlightening and might even act as critique to some of Cage’s notions. I certainly have some reservations about hero-worship, and the fact that there are many other worthy (and less well-known) recipients of artistic survey exhibitions. Nevertheless, many of his pieces aren’t heard that often, and this is a nice opportunity to get them played (especially by students who may not have encountered them before).

    By the way, we are on the look out for musicians interested in contributing, and there are some (limited) funds available for performers. It would be great to hear Dominic play again (Bestiaries is a gem, as was the set at Freedom of the City), and if anyone else is interested, do get in touch!

  • Dominic Lash

    July 25, 2010 at 9:53 pm

    This is indeed a great discussion – thanks to everyone for their contributions. (And thanks specifically for reminding me of that story, John, which I’d forgotten – it reminded me in turn of the places in his writings where Cage expresses interest in eugenics.) And Lawrence, thanks for the kind words; I’d love to contribute – Cambridge is very easy for me as my parents live literally five minutes from Kettle’s Yard. Drop me a line at domlashAThotmailDOTcom

  • Richard Pinnell

    July 25, 2010 at 10:07 pm

    You see, writing for TWE gets you gigs 😉

    Lawrence please keep us informed about the Cage concerts and the exhibition / Musicircus, i’d like to try and make it along to some of it.

  • derek walmsley

    August 16, 2010 at 3:59 pm

    Interesting post and nice discussion

    Just wanted to chime and say that the Cage Industry has become a concern in recent years I think. There’s a lot of CDs on the market, which is ironic given the neatly self-deprecating Cage discussed recording itself (as opposed to his ideas): someone once said to him they loved his ideas but hadn’t heard the music – “you haven’t missed much”, said Cage, or something like that. It’s not uncommon for a CD to get a big marketing push because it’s the first recording of such and such piece for so and so many years, which is sad I think, as Cage was against such fetishisation of the object.

    If they really did sell I Heart 4’33” badges, that’s a disgrace.

  • Richard Pinnell

    August 16, 2010 at 10:48 pm

    Best behaviour everyone, my editor is here 😉

    Thinking about the large number of Cage recordings, I wonder if actually the more of them there are the closer we might get to his notions of there being many different ways to realise his work. In theory, as long as the performers stay true to Cage’s instructions, then there will be many different versions of things out there, which is arguably better than there being one or two releases that are recognised as the “essential” versions somehow…

    I must admit to mischievously quite liking the idea of someone hearing a Cage recording on Radio 3, enjoyng it a lot and going out to buy a CD version, only to find it sounds quite different…

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