Your music is too [John] Cage-y

Gianni Emilio Simonetti – “John Cage. Fontana mix (1958). A special female version”, 48 x 66 cm, 2013.
Several years ago I was invited to share my work at a TEDx Nashville event. The intent was to showcase my work, and then potentially provide audio segments as people entered and left the stage. As it went, however, at the end of the event I was told that my music was ‘too John Cage-y’ to be featured on the TEDx stage – an interesting development considering the TED org prides itself on sharing ideas, and John Cage’s ideas about music revolutionized the composition world.

While I wanted to argue that I there are rather stark differences between Cage’s music and my own, I can’t deny the influence that his work has on my own, or the connection to the experimentalists of his day that I feel. The figure of John Cage looms large, and although I haven’t ignored him, I also haven’t greeted him. It seems as though it’s time to say ‘hello’.

I’m starting work on several new pieces reflecting on his work ‘Music of Changes‘. Written for his friend David Tudor, Cage relied heavily on the i Ching to guide his compositional process and to achieve the work’s specific aesthetic. That aesthetic was a result of Cage’s goal of releasing the individual note – and subsequently the composition as a whole – from any historical or musical context. He writes (pg. 59):

“[By way of his compositional process using the i Ching]…it is thus possible to make a musical composition the continuity of which is free of individual taste and memory (psychology) and also of the literature and “traditions” of the art. The sounds enter the time-space centered within themselves, unimpeded by service to any abstraction, their 360 degrees of circumference free for an infinite play of interpenetration.”

By organizing his process the way he did, he was attempting to pull his music out of any historical lineage, and to hear the notes or clusters individually – for their own sake – without regard to their context (something actually pretty antithetical to the I Ching). In doing so, it (and he?) become the ultimate western independent individual in musical form.

While I can appreciate his ideas (especially while reading about the process he set up in order to achieve it…WHEW!), I think they are based on a fallacy of isolation. Cage is attempting to extract his work from context, but everything has a context from which it cannot be removed. It may change, or it may be seen as ‘unnatural’ – a Petri dish is not the ‘natural’ context for a germ – but it is still a context. We may be blind to it. But it always exists

So what was the context of Cage’s work? Though he was attempting to extract his work from the traditions of the art form, those very traditions are still the context of his work. They are the ideas that listeners approach his work with. While his work isn’t based on the same ‘rules’ of the traditions of the art, that doesn’t mean the piece is itself free of those traditions. Instead, it fights them by presenting something wholly foreign to them.

I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing – without Cage’s work my own might be seen in a similar light (sometimes it is anyway, as noted by the TEDx guy). He is my musical ancestor, and I have inherited the traditions of the field as they exist because of him. That is one aspect of the context in which I work, and I get to choose how to respond to it.

In the coming projects, I intend to use the i Ching (or the idea of the i Ching?) in some manner (my nod to Cage’s influence on my work). At this point I hope to also give nod to other aspects of my compositional context. Cage hoped to extract his work from historical lineage; I hope to marry the two somehow. It probably won’t be based on most of the rules of the art, but I hope that giving allowing history some room will help shape my work a little differently than his. Something a little more attuned to my worldview. Which undoubtedly has come from my own context. It may still be too ‘Cage-y’ for the folks at TEDxNashville. But I’ll work on sharing my ideas anyway.

Cheers friends,

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