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PRINT February 2010

SIGNAL TO NOISE: JOHN CAGE AND “THE ANARCHY OF SILENCE”

THINKING OF JOHN CAGE, we tend to think of a specific aesthetic template: a program enjoining the random, impersonal, and open-ended distribution of aural and visual phenomena. So it is striking that “The Anarchy of Silence: John Cage and Experimental Art” at the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona this past winter—the first major retrospective since Cage’s death in 1992—was suspended between two modes of presentation that each seemed to contradict the very principles we normally identify with the composer.

The first mode was that of the crescendo. In tandem with MACBA’s chronological presentation of Cage’s work, an aural narrative unfolded in the exhibition spaces, like a swelling musical climax. Beginning with the relative silence of the first few rooms, where recorded performances of Cage’s music could be accessed only through headphones, the sounds grew progressively stronger and more complex, ending in a cacophonic roar both captivating and repellent, the avant-garde version of the ultimate power chord. It was a heroic tale of sorts, a traditional success story: A lone voice, original and elusive, tentative and faltering, gains in force as others are seduced by its example and join. The final noise is that of a collective—musical, technological, philosophical—confidently declaring its limitless territory. Such was the effect, at least, of the show’s historical presentation, from the initial sequence of small rooms documenting the first decades of Cage’s career to the more expansive spaces housing the broad Cagean “scene” of composers and artists. Here the gnashing and shrieking of Robert Morris’s Box with the (very insistent) Sound of Its Own Making, 1961, segued into the full-on computerized complexity of Cage and Lejaren Hiller’s HPSCHD (1967–69)—a superposition of seven harpsichords and fifty-one electronic tapes playing chance-determined excerpts from both Cage’s works and canonical classics, amid projections of some sixty-four-hundred slides and forty films. The comparatively subdued vocals and ambient noise of Cage’s Lecture on the Weather (1975)—presented in a final and separate space—came across as an afterthought, as if an ex post facto, reflexive summation of his famous use of natural processes as a model for artistic production.

Second, the exhibition posited Cage—the composer and the work—as media subject. Midway through the chronological narrative, you found a monitor displaying Cage’s 1960 appearance on the American television show I’ve Got a Secret, where he performed Water Walk (1959) to a laughing and applauding audience. If Cage was no stranger to theater in the widest sense of the term, he kept a sharp distance from the frontal, objectifying mode of presentation characteristic of Western post-Renaissance drama. And yet this was precisely the way in which his work was served up on the program, as the mock-incredulous talk-show host, having primed the audience for the musical shock of their lives, pulled aside a curtain, cabaret style, in order to reveal what he called Cage’s “instrument”: a disorderly array of objects including a bathtub, tables, an electric hot plate, a toy fish, a grand piano, a pressure cooker, a blender, a Chinese gong, a vase of roses, and several radios. Throughout the presentation, Cage was every bit the genial talk-show guest, exuding a delight in being on TV that could not have been further from a stereotypical egghead composer’s scorn of popular media. And in the performance itself, his handling of the objects was all virtuoso, stopwatch precision, as if on par with television’s expert jugglers and child geniuses. What on earth was he thinking? And just as important, why was this historical curiosity given such a prominent place in this context?

To try to understand the exhibition’s rather non-Cagean crescendo and spectacle, then, is to go straight to what has become a key topic in recent research on and around Cage: the question of contemporary music’s relation to power. That this question should attach itself specifically to Cage is only to be expected. With its dismantling of the hierarchy between musical sound in particular and sound in general, his work was arguably the single most decisive influence on our current preoccupation with the sonic environment as a suppressed but vital aspect of the social world. Following this realization is the idea—most forcefully presented by the activist sound collective Ultra-red—that new types of political agency can be formed through or with sound. Yet Cage has often been a disappointment to the politically minded. Throughout his life, he performed an explicit Zen-style detachment from social and political “issues” that served to deflect attention away from all questions of power relations, including those that would pertain to his own role and position, not to mention his compositions. His all-important notion that each sound should be approached as an independent being (and not just as a part of a harmonic system or an aesthetic framework) seemed tantamount to a sonic essentialism that revealed Cage as a traditional “musical” composer, after all.

This was the critique of Cage launched by musicologist Douglas Kahn in Noise, Water, Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts (1999): If Cage posited sounds as beings, they were still denied participation in the kind of semiotic processes that pertain to social beings. His sounds were relegated to the apolitical realm of nature. As the MACBA show reinforces, however, semiotics is no longer the dominant critical framework for the interpretation of the relation between art and power, and Cage’s naturalism, his emphasis on the quasi-autonomous life of sounds, should be given a different place in a social landscape. A key concept in theorizing this shift is that of biopolitics (as derived from the writings of Michel Foucault), which hinges on the idea that Western modernity posits life itself as the key object of politics. This leads to a transformation of traditional notions of political organization: The concept of sovereign power—the legislative power of the few over the many—must be modified by taking into account the myriad of instances and institutions that form and control life processes and that are formed by them in turn (since the forces of life are obviously not defined or given once and for all). Modern power cannot be fully understood without attention to this radical dispersal of effects or without microscopically zeroing in on the very differences between such life-forming processes. Put another way, power is enacted in an immanent field of complex interactivity—a definition that bears a striking resemblance to Cage’s compositional principle through which sounds are given the status of beings. In fact, Cage’s promotion of a simultaneously indeterminate and microscopic approach to sound attests to the fact that his concept of life or being is not modeled on the biological organism in the classical sense: Even if his attitude toward nature changed over time and could hardly be understood as one singular approach, a major part of his work was organized around the idea that sounds are beings only in the sense that apprehending them exposes you to infinite layers of complexity, to force fields that will affect you in uncharted ways.

Such an approach was augured by Cage’s experience with technology, most notably the way in which the simple manipulation of magnetic tape allowed for the discovery of previously unheard dimensions of familiar sounds: new microtonalities, as well as new rhythmic and pulsational patterns. In fact, the close interaction between technologies and the formation or modulation of life could be described as the site through which the complicated dynamics of modern power are performed, and so Cage’s artistic project emerges as an intuitive modeling of this new mode of governance. This means that if his work once seemed to elude all questions of power, it was only because power itself was inadequately understood in terms of hierarchical structures. Today’s Cage thus emerges as both less naive and less saintly than previously thought. Such ideas subtend curator Julia Robinson’s incisive and well-researched catalogue essay, as well as the wider Cagean scenario explored in an essay by Branden W. Joseph (who elsewhere has done important work on Tony Conrad and the legacy of Cage¹). In her contribution to the catalogue, Liz Kotz provides equally essential insights on the technological Cage, and it is in the intersection between her text and Robinson’s that a distinct image of Cage and media is produced. Even as he was testing the materialities and mediatic potential of radio, film, and tape recording, it was the signaletic realm of television that—somewhat surprisingly—emerged as the technological framework best attuned to his mode of working. In the late ’50s, when his concept of indeterminacy in musical performance had been more or less fully developed, he even wrote a number of works that would specifically engage television, such as TV Köln and Fontana Mix (both 1958); the latter was a key document in the exhibition. For in this work, the performer is presented not with a traditional musical score but with twenty pages of graphic material that confer indeterminacy on the process of notation itself: A system of transparent printed sheets—one of which contains a raster-like grid—can be superimposed on ordinary printed sheets, allowing for the production of an infinite variety of connecting lines and dots that denote musical variables such as volume, tone, duration, and pitch.

The “televisual” aspect of this procedure becomes clearer if one recalls that “video artist” Nam June Paik (a Cage admirer if ever there was one) initially chose to work with television as a means of musical composition. TV was, in fact, the only technology that could match what he called his “new ontology of music.” The musical what—the compositional object and its contents—had to be replaced by a musical when, a form of pure temporalization. In this regard, the extant means of electronic composition, namely audiotape, was deemed inadequate. Audiotape did not allow a free temporal manipulation of material; as Paik saw it, the final product would always be a linear aural narrative. But video signals were another matter entirely, as the MACBA show underscored. Paik’s Magnet TV, 1965, reconstructed for the exhibition, demonstrates the extreme instability of the televisual image: It only takes small interventions in the televisual circuit to generate a flow of signals that never congeals into a stable image but remains perpetually “live,” an infinite and uncontrollable production of micro-events.² Likewise, the 1959 notebooks of George Brecht—the artist who made the very concept of “the event” the focal point of his work—contain a proposition for a television piece that applies the compositional method for Cage’s Imaginary Landscape No. 4 (1951), which had called for the manipulation of twelve radios; both these projects are highlighted in the show. Clearly, the free temporal flux of television signals convinced Cage, Paik, Brecht, and a number of other artists that life processes could now finally be transformed into art—and, just as important, that theatrical and spectacular modes of presentation would be reduced to merely momentary effects within an uncontrollable distribution system that would forever change the status and appeal of works of art.

BEING ON TV—or, rather, being Cage on TV—thereby opens up the full scope of the complex power field that Cage not only explored as an aesthetic model but within which he became “John Cage,” the ne plus ultra composer and emblem of modern music. It opens up the paradoxes of a televisual star culture that appears to reinforce the traditional hierarchies of authorship and authority but that also transforms such authorial power into ephemeral glitches in signaletic time, aka Warhol’s “fifteen minutes of fame.” And it is this continual displacement of sovereign power that MACBA’s retrospective explored as a subnarrative of media effects and historical triumphalism. This made it possible to reflect on the wider cultural and political formation in which the paradoxes of becoming “John Cage” carry such resonance—that is, the paradox of authorizing new and radical directions for musical composition at the same time as radically undoing authorship. The achievement of this show was its ability to treat the issue as something more than a mere philosophical paradox, more than a simplistic illustration of the “failure” of the twentieth-century avant-gardes. As Robinson documents in her essay, Cage himself constantly used paradox whenever he was confronting difficult moments in his compositional trajectory—in order to invest inventions with authority while undermining such authority with one and the same gesture.

Take, for example, the process through which terms like indeterminacy, experimental, and silence were appropriated for Cage’s specific uses. In order to distinguish these terms from their rather indefinite meanings in ordinary language, he invested them with a new semantic precision. Ambiguity would have to be avoided, just as the musical productions that would secure these exact meanings were monitored for consistency in actual performance. In particular, Music Walk (1958), which is derived from a graphic system analogous to that of Fontana Mix, was systematically used to promote the concept of indeterminacy in music—through a rapid succession of well-documented performances featuring David Tudor and Merce Cunningham. And it is the photographic archive related to these performances that, above all, communicates the sense of a certain standard: a serious, concentrated way of doing things; a strictly impersonal, quasi-scientific approach. Indeterminacy, one feels, should never in a thousand years be confused with a slacker’s “anything goes.” Revealing such underlying structures, the show thus moved beyond the tendency to treat “John Cage” as a cipher for a loose, ahistorical principle of artistic indeterminacy (this has often been the case in circles less invested in the specific problems of musical composition).

As the exhibition spaces widened to include an increasing number of other artists’ works, viewers were invited to reflect on how Cage authorized—or, more precisely, to see what kind of specific authorizations his notions of chance, silence, and indeterminacy gave himself, as well as other artists. The chronological presentation made sense in this respect, since it allowed us to track the close interaction between the development of compositional concepts, sound experiences, and forms of notation. For instance, the percussive emphasis in Cage’s early works was at once bolstered and transformed when, in 1940, he began placing small objects between the strings of a grand piano, an act that undid the notion of harmonic relationships and “liberated” sound. Cage’s diminutive archive of these objects—each carefully placed in a labeled envelope and assembled in a box—was itself displayed in the show, as if the emblem of a major turning point. Compositional control was still an issue here: The exhibited scores for these early prepared-piano pieces document the absolute precision with which the various objects had to be placed in each case. Yet from this point onward, it was also possible to imagine less self-contained structures in which such liberated sounds were simply distributed. And since the prepared piano produced tonalities that eluded standard notation, it also spurred the invention of radically spatial and graphic score formats that suggested complex trajectories of movements and gestures rather than any specific sound per se. The passage from chance (a principle pertaining to composition) to indeterminacy (a new performative ideal) took place within the span of these exchanges and in dialogue with the noncompositional grids, measurements, and materials in the work of visual artists like Marcel Duchamp, Ellsworth Kelly, and Robert Rauschenberg, each represented in the exhibition.

But an equally important part of the exhibition was devoted to the broader realm of Cagean authorizations in the wake of 4' 33“. The infamous piece was shown here in its three notation versions—the staff-notated score from 1952, the graphic notation from 1953, and the textual version from 1958—and each successive version seems to further emphasize the idea that the concept of indeterminacy in performance could be applied well beyond the realm of music. Simple in the extreme—four and a half minutes of not playing on the part of the performer or performers—4' 33” redirected attention to the multiplicity and immediacy of all elements, sonic and otherwise, at play in reality itself. Above all, it was this highly restricted version of reality to which Cage authorized entry: The piece set the stage for the equally pared-down scores or instructions made by artists like Brecht, La Monte Young, Dick Higgins, Alison Knowles, Eric Andersen, Yoko Ono, and others. Branded the “event score” by George Maciunas, who wanted to define the genre as the specific artistic contribution of Fluxus, it briefly became a dominant way of remaking the work of art as a radically open-ended structure that defied description in terms of discipline, media, technique, or specific sense perceptions.

YET EVEN AS THIS NEW GENERATION of artists adopted Cage’s specific understanding of the real, they also transformed or differentiated these concepts. The very limits of indeterminacy—the limits of Cage’s reality system—became an area of investigation. The most famous case is perhaps that of Young, who seemed to take Cage’s notion of sounds as independent beings more seriously than most. His best-known early works, such as Composition 1960 #7 (the score was exhibited at MACBA along with other works in this 1960 series), were noted for their focus on single, sustained sounds: Held endlessly by the performer, a controlled tone could generate an autonomous environment filled with overtones. Still, as Henry Flynt has noted, Young had made it abundantly clear that he was canceling out Cagean method.³ Whatever uncontrollable effects would arise as a result of the overtone patterns or the psychoacoustic experiences produced by moving about his one-sound environment, his point of departure was not the chance operation or a neutral distributive structure. It was, rather, an almost absurd emphasis on determinacy—an attempt to delve into the thinglike, static qualities of one extremely precisely defined sound.

Young was not alone. Among the works of Cage’s American students, bundled together in the exhibition for comparative emphasis, there seemed to be a shared preoccupation with radical forms of determinacy. In these works one may, more precisely, trace a distinct shift in attention from chance to cause—from the benign multiplicities of Cage’s chance-generated reality to the more dramatic perspectives evoked by the idea of unleashing inexorable chains of reaction: the dark side of the concept of “process.” Somehow, in this shift, Cage’s Zen “lack” of control was reinterpreted as a prompt to explore the boundaries of control, as in Higgins’s “Danger Music” series (1961–63), for which one score reads, “Do not do anything quite exhaustively.” The exhibition seemed to bear out this argument, with its inclusion of parallel cases such as Young’s Composition 1960 #9 (instructions consisting solely of a single line drawn on a card) and Paik’s blunt introduction of the sexual body into contemporary music, Listening to Music Through the Mouth, 1962–63. To encounter Paik’s dildo-enhanced gramophone and its willed confusion of aural, oral, and phallic pleasure is to recall that the new emphasis on determinacy and causality also activated the realm of drives, of desire—the psychic realm that Cage’s work seemed to strive so hard to escape.

This is not to say that cause played no role in Cage’s chance-based work. As N. Katherine Hayles has pointed out, his practice posits a relation between chance and cause that can be described as a complex interplay between a myriad of independent causal chains, each of them deterministic on its own.⁴ But as a younger generation of artists began to explore the limits of Cage’s indeterminacy and of his microscopic approach to sound, cause took on significance in itself. And this process may, in fact, be related to the link between cause and desire. Indeed, based on a philosophical tradition that associates cause with the irrational, due to the intrinsically unstable relationship of cause to effect, Jacques Lacan understood cause in terms of the inexplicability and inaccessibility of desire—and hence with the misrecognition at the heart of what we call reality: the disconnect between what we want and what actually is.⁵ Engaging with the mysteries of cause might thus be seen as a way of questioning one’s identification with any given reality system—Cage’s chance-based reality, for instance.⁶ So it is not surprising that, as Cage’s system was at once adopted and put to the test, the specific form of immanence it promoted was often displaced by other power formations. Joseph has convincingly documented the transcendental models of top-down power that ultimately underpinned Young’s musical inventions. But one could also mention Higgins’s promotion of a state of superboredom—the exact opposite of Cage’s emancipatory plenitude of experience—that would transform one’s sense of reality. Such boredom was, significantly, related to Higgins’s concept of “danger” in music.⁷

The full implications of these ambivalences and ambiguities were difficult to bring out in an exhibition whose main emphasis was on documentation through scores, not sound installations. But as the exhibition showed how the musical score gained autonomy as a performative force in its own right, it also documented what is surely the larger Cagean lesson for the arts: that of working and thinking in terms of generative structures. From graphic notations to Fluxus word pieces to the first stirrings of Flynt’s concept art and of computer-based works such as Knowles’s House of Dust, 1968 (displayed in the show), it was this subterranean principle that allowed viewers to chart relationships between artworks that would otherwise seem incompatible. The generative structure made it possible for artists to forget the deadlock dialectics of spectacle and transgression, abstraction and representation, and to start seeing artworks in terms of codes, diagrams, and the productivity of forces rather than the play of forms (as demonstrated in the works of Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns). From this perspective, Cage the TV hero could even be seen to have authorized the new instances of sex, subjectivity, and autobiography in the work of Fluxus-related artists such as Paik and Ben Vautier. For these artists approached such phenomena less as psychological themes than as programs or operational modes—as ways of mapping or patterning whose politics cannot be easily determined. To see how Cage found programming potential in everything from the irregularities in a sheet of paper to the classification of mushrooms is to see an artist intensely sensitized to the regular grids of modern power and more alert than most to its genetic elements—elements whose effects challenge ordinary concepts of control. Should you be in doubt, take a look at the film of Variations VII, Cage’s 1966 performative collaboration with engineers from Bell Laboratories and others. Watch him submerged in a veritable Niagara of noise, produced live from an array of miked objects, and try to imagine what, at that very moment, he was listening for.⁸

“The Anarchy of Silence: John Cage and Experimental Art,” curated by Julia Robinson and co-produced by the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona and Henie Onstad Art Center, Høvikodden, Norway, is on view in Norway until May 30.

Ina Blom is a professor of art history at the University of Oslo.

NOTES

1. Branden W. Joseph, Beyond the Dream Syndicate: Tony Conrad and the Arts After Cage (New York: Zone Books, 2008).

2. Paik presents his new musical ontology and the concept of the musical “when” in his leaflet “Postmusic,” Monthly Review of the University for Avantgarde Hinduism, Fluxus edition (1963).

3. Henry Flynt, “La Monte Young in New York, 1960–62,” in William Duckworth and Richard Fleming, eds., Sound and Light: La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela (New Jersey: Associated University Presses, 1996), 78.

4. N. Katherine Hayles, “Chance Operations: Cagean Paradox and Contemporary Science,” in Marjorie Perloff and Charles Junkerman, eds., John Cage: Composed in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 227.

5. Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, trans. Alan Sheridan (London: Penguin, 1994), 21–22.

6. These dynamics in the post-Cagean scene are dealt with at length in Ina Blom, The Cut Through Time: A Version of the Dada/Neo-Dada Repetition (Oslo: Acta Humaniora, 1999), 36–74.

7. Dick Higgins, “Boredom and Danger” (1966), Something Else Newsletter (December 1968).

8. Nam June Paik, commenting on Variations VII in an interview included on the recent DVD edition of the film, speaks of a “Niagara of noise.” Variations VII by John Cage: 9 Evenings, Theatre & Engineering, DVD, directed by Barbro Schultz Lundestam (E.A.T. and ARTPIX, 2008).

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