Tuesday, July 14, 2009

4'33": A Closer Listen

Those who don’t know exactly who John Milton Cage, Jr. is, usually know about a piece of music that is 4 minutes and 33 seconds of “silence.” I say “silence” because John Cage did not believe that silence exists, as such, and as the readers of my previous post will know, pointed to the lack of silence even when one is placed in an anechoic chamber. In any case, 4’33” is an almost ubiquitous piece of music, and can be found in all manner of “arrangements” for various instrument groups (it should be noted, though, that John Cage had himself composed “sequels” to the work involving different durations of time and different ensembles, though, clearly, none as successful—or perhaps, groundbreaking is the word).

When I was an undergraduate the work was a lark and students often joked about using it to fill recital time requirements, or performing it as an encore, or composing a theme and variations on it, or some other absurd pastiche. . .

The work, I admit, was absurd to me at the time and I took part in the caricatures of its substance.

It was absurd until I read the lectures and essays of John Cage; henceforth, the work has borne a peculiar sapience.

The most common interpretation of 4’33” (and that which implied in the clip above) is that what constitutes the piece is the ambient noise of the hall; the coughs in the audience, the hum of the ventilation system, passing traffic, so forth. This is true, but only in the most shoal consideration. This is, and is the only candidate, for the substance of the piece—non-musical noises. Considered in this light the piece can be little more than quaint. Separate from its philosophical genesis, it is not profound in the least—which is precisely while the piece is so
ripe for satire.

Cage was taking the next step in a journey which had been initiated by Arnold Schoenberg. In his book “Silence,” Cage says that Schoenberg had sought to make available all vertical combinations of notes (where previously, rules of tonal harmony reigned) and that he (Cage) believed that in the future composers would have at their disposal all musical tones and all “noises.”

(As a side note, I think that the gradual expansion of “battery” percussion through the 19th century helped prepare the way for Cage’s hope.)

When Cage really wanted to compose using “noise” he was very specific in going about it. As was seen in the clip in the previous post, Cage meticulously wrote out the instructions for reproducing his event pieces. So, why is 4’33” different?

In his film “The Alchemist,” Bruno Monsaingeon has a conversation with Glenn Gould about the reception of 20th century music in modern audiences (in the 1970s) and Gould makes an interesting point about Cage’s music:

“I think what John Cage would want us to know is not his music, it is his belief; that there is one perceiver which also has a reflexive angle and that is the doer as well, and the listener and the maker are intermingled.”

So what does that mean?

There is an almost religious hierarchy in classical music. There is the composer that is analogous to god, a performer that is analogous to a high priest, and an audience (that needs to analogy). This dynamic can be pernicious—it removes the composer from the audience and their only interaction is through the medium (almost in both senses of the word) of the performer.

Music only exists as an action, not as an object, and so its essence is dependent upon its reception—if a tree falls and no one is around to hear, does it make a sound? So what Cage accomplishes in 4’33” is the unification of both sides of the musical experience—that of composer and audience—and brings them together, eliminating the need of a performer.

But he does more than this.

The content of the piece of music is entirely wrapped up in the perception of it—not only does the work not exist as an object, but the audience is composing the work as they perceive it! Thus, as Glenn Gould noted: listener and maker and intermingled (and quite nearly unified).

Cage, then, is making two statements. One artistic and one philosophical.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Discussing the Definitions of Music

If this is to be a blog about the various aspects of music, it might be beneficial to discuss just what music is. Defining music, it should be understood (and perhaps, even, go without saying), is wrought with not only philosophical difficulties (those of defining its aesthetics and hermeneutics) but also practical problems (those of actual practices)—this is, of course, bypassing the question of taste (or, opinion) entirely. Thus, be forewarned, what ensues can only be considered intellectual meanderings on a few of the more interesting definitions of music.

There are three definitions of music which will be considered. The first is the work of my musicology professor, the late Irving Godt; the second a general definition of whose attribution I am unaware; the last is a definition by Carl Rakhonen, an ethnomusicologist.

When I was an undergraduate music history major, all of the students of Music History I were required to know this definition. Irving Godt, it might be worth noting, was part of the “old school” of musicologists, who—while not confined to “traditional music” entirely—tend to be conservative in their estimation of contemporary art. His definition and discussion can be found here.

The second: Music is the organization of sound and silence.

Carl Rakhonen is the Music Librarian at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He is one of the most interesting ethnomusicologists and music librarians I have had the pleasure to meet; though, granted he is the only one I have met—I imagine that his personality traits are prerequisites to his job description. His definition of music is simple and to the point:

Music is an accoustical phenomenon that is whatever a particular people say that it is.

To discuss:

Both the second and third fit readily into contemporary thought, while the first can seem highly exclusive. While the second and third best reflect contemporary thought, it is the first that is most readily accepted by the majority of both learned musicians and the lay public. That this first, seemingly exclusive, definition of music is the most widely accepted can be seen in the resistance of the majority of audience members to musical aesthetics which lie outside of the first definition.

How many times have you been to a concert and heard something like this?

The first definition is problematic due to the amount of grey area created by an evolving aesthetic—it excludes to a degree not clearly defined; thus, since we cannot define, in an objective way, the parameters set out by this definition, we cannot successfully decide that which is and that which is not "music" (at least not in any universally agreeable way). Discussion of music in the terms laid out by this definition would be preoccupied with the degree to which a particular piece of music adheres to the aesthetic principles therein. In short, it would lead to “hair splitting” and would offer little objectivity, though it appears at first glance to be highly elucidated.

The second definition is less problematic except, perhaps, on a purely philosophical level. To explain: If sound is the opposite of silence and it can be demonstrated that the opposite of sound (i.e. silence) does not exist, what is there to differentiate between music and any other noise?

Followed to its logical conclusion, this approach to musical thought resulted in Cage's "event" pieces (the execution of instructs to produce noise in a controlled way, as in the clip above) and his application of chance procedure, wherein he applied parameters to systematically remove the composer from the equation of musical creation (as counter intuitive as that might sound; chance procedure will have to be discussed in another post).

Cage gives example that even in an anechoic chamber, where no artificial sound is produced, the subject within those conditions would still hear (1) the sound of their own nervous system functioning and (2) the sound of their own circulatory system. Thus the question is raised, if sound is always a part of existence can it then be regarded as an artistic medium or simply as a condition of life?

The composer is simply superimposing sounds which are selected and executed in duration, timbre and morphology against sounds of similar characteristics which are not selected. Where, then, does the actual music lie? Since sound always fills a controlled musical objective (i.e. a piece of music), does that which is not controlled bear any less "musical" ends?

So, is it music? This question need not be asked on the grounds of personal hermeneutics. In this context, though, it becomes a potentially devastating question. If this question is asked of music of the 20th and 21st century, then it can equally be asked of the music of the 18th and 19th century. The only differences that might be notable are the intent of the composers and the process of selecting sounds. But this, too, becomes subjective and illusive. As the only differences between composers of the past and composers of the 20th and 21st centuries are the precess and the materials (this, too, will be saved for a later discussion).

Perhaps the only definition that is not philosophically dangerous and allows for all of the grey areas of an evolving aesthetic is that of Carl Rakhonen. John cage would have agreed with Carl Rakhonen, Irving Godt did not (they often debated their definitions of music). The trick is getting more people to understand music in terms of the Rakhonen definition.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The New Blog

Since I've finished my master's degree, relocated to a new city and am planning to record and publish I thought I would start a blog to keep people up to date--if, of course, people are interested in being kept up to date!

I'll also write entries geared towards the nuts and bolts of piano, music, practicing and so forth. Essentially an informal forum to publish articles on the various aspects of music that interest me at a given time--as the muse moves me, if you will.

So, this blog will be maintained in conjunction with my website (www.jameswiman.com) and my twitter account (www.twitter.com/jamesWiman).

Hope you all enjoy! Feedback, comments and questions are always welcomed.