If you make an offhand comment about an ever-so-slightly-stale item posted by a popular Internet celebrity on Twitter, even if said comment was mostly intended to tease your real-life friend about missing every other reference to said item elsewhere on the Internet, and even if you actually respect said Internet celebrity, sometimes you get put in your place and someone invents an aphorism because of you.
It’s not that Kottke isn’t current. It’s that he’s boring. Your blog is way more entertaining: keep fighting the good fight.
The subject of this post is listening.
As an aspiring scholar of contemporary music, nothing rankles me more than hearing people talk about John Cage’s famous “silent” piece, 4’33”. This preposterous notion seems to be propogated by ill-informed elementary music teachers world-wide. So, in an effort to counteract such ignorance, I’m doing my part to set the record straight about 4’33”, because, you see, 4’33” is anything but silent. In fact, the whole point of the piece is that silence doesn’t exist.
A bit of background, compliments of Wikipedia: in roughly 1948, John Cage visited the Harvard University Anechoic Chamber. An anechoic chamber is a room designed in such a way that the walls, ceiling and floor will absorb all sounds made in the room, rather than bouncing them back as echoes. They are also generally soundproofed. Cage entered the chamber expecting to hear silence, but as he wrote later, he “heard two sounds, one high and one low. When I described them to the engineer in charge, he informed me that the high one was my nervous system in operation, the low one my blood in circulation.”
Cage realized, following this incident, that there was no such thing as silence in the human experience. As Westerners, especially, we long for duality in all things. However, with sound, there is no duality. Sound ALWAYS exists, whether we like it or not. Armed with this knowledge, Cage created 4’33”. Now, there are some specific requirements to 4’33”. It IS scored for a pianist, so it does require a piano. It also requires a stopwatch. There are specific performance instructions. So, you can’t just sit on your couch and perform 4’33”, although you could probably get the same effect.
However, discussing those requirements is splitting hairs, I suppose. The point is that 4’33” isn’t supposed to be silent. It’s supposed to get you to listen. It’s designed so that you open your ears to what Cage described as “the entire field of sound” and begin to organize that sound by yourself. It’s NOT a piece to mock. Cage prefigured every serious development of the second half of the 20th century with this piece. One could, theoretically, stage a performance of 4’33” wherein four minutes and thirty-three seconds of a Mahler symphony were played by an adjacent and unrelated orchestra. This would probably not be very successful, as it would draw the audience to one specific group of sounds instead of listening to the entire ambient spectrum, but it would be “correct”. Earlier tonight, I discussed with a colleague how a performance of 4’33” would work as an online performance. Would it work? The ambient listening environments are different. If the listener was not in the same place, would they still be an audience for that performance, or does performance of the piece necessitate common space?
What people often fail to grasp about 4’33” is that, while it is scored for a solo pianist, the pianist is NOT the focus. Cage’s point is that music is sound organized by a composer, a performer, or a listener. With 4’33”, Cage distinguishes himself as the first composer to involve the LISTENER in the compositional process.
So stop saying it’s a silent piece. Instead, listen. It’s about as far from silence as you can get.
As if in response to my last post, I just read an interview with composer John Adams in which he makes the following comments:
There are a lot of young composers in their 20s and 30s who are very anxious to appeal to the same audience that would listen to indie rock. But they are creating a level of musical discourse that’s just really bland. I don’t think it will have a very long shelf life. The bottom line is art really can’t be made easy and palatable without simply losing its meaning and importance. […]
One of the deepest relationships I have in life is with [stage director and librettist] Peter Sellars. He has this thing that he says all the time: “Art is not a sound bite.” That is the problem with this whole interactive this, indie crossover that. Hoping that consuming art can be as painless and simple as watching a sound bite.
I think the challenge is in creating art that is deceptively simple, but not actually so. (And yes, I am purposely conflating discussions of art and philosophy because ultimately I think the distinctions between the two are fairly narrow.)
It’s interesting to hear this coming from John Adams too, as one of my favorite works of his is a work that I love precisely for the simplicity of its framework (and for other things too, but those are irrelevant to this discussion). The stylistic quotations run deep, but on the surface it’s essentially a “pop” record in terms of song length, structure, etc.
I also think there’s something to be said for the “gateway drug” effect. I might not have become interested in avant-garde music if I hadn’t been interested in Sonic Youth first, and I might not have been interested in Sonic Youth if I hadn’t listened to punk rock, and so on. Not that Sonic Youth and punk rock don’t have a whole slew of individual merits to go on, but they also serve to interface seemingly disparate musical worlds and open up an array of convergences.
It is interesting to hear this coming from the mouth of Adams, someone who I personally feel is closer aligned with “pop composition” than the composers he seems to be maligning (Nico Muhly, Sonic Youth, etc.). I probably take a more militant view on this than Bryan does, but I think this is outrageous. Now, it’s not outrageous in the sense that it’s out of character for Adams to say things of this ridiculous nature. Adams is, at heart, a Midtown composer: that is to say, he composes not for academia (which tends to view his works as derivative and boring, in my experience), and not for the young art scene (the fabled “Downtown” set, who would surely view him as a traditionalist) but for the B&T crowd coming to Lincoln Center on a Saturday night to Git Themselves Sum Culture.
Adams is a STUDIED composer: he’s a Harvard grad with a list of academic accomplishments that would put most researchers to shame. But by committing himself to big-deal premieres and appropriating art movements as he sees necessary, he’s absolutely pandering to a crowd of people who want entertainment, not art. Of course, were I asked to premiere one of my works at Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall, I’d leap at the chance: so would any composer. But I think that Adams is a LITTLE too comfortable in that role: his pieces were never meant for the art gallery, but always the concert hall.
I think that involving oneself with interactive art, or trying to investigate different genre recombinations, is perhaps one of the noblest goals in art. Adams himself crossed over, blending Romantic and Post-Romantic harmonic theories with minimalist process to create some of the first works of Post-Minimalism (or, as I would term it, Classic Minimalism, but that’s for another post). For him to attack younger composers who are trying new things merely serves to reinforce his “grumpy old composer” status.
Let’s put it another way: Reich, perhaps the greatest composer of his generation, is now in his early seventies. He’s undeniably revered. Where do his works premiere? Art galleries. He premieres his works there because he WANTS them to be premiered there: he wants that connection to an ART movement. Adams seems pretty pleased to let his works sit on a stagnating symphony stage, being played by an ensemble that is wheezing its last dying breaths, and pontificate from on high with spurious statements about “art not [being] a sound bite”. What has Adams himself done to make challenging art? Putting asses in concert hall seats is a far less noble artistic goal than trying to make a new statement of artistic intent.
Let’s put this another way: the “Midtown” movement, with which Adams is usually aligned when his music is discussed as part of compositional movements, refers to the “Midtown” area of New York, the other two areas being “Uptown” (home to many of the prestigious research universities in NYC) and “Downtown” (home to Lou Reed, heroin, and most of American contemporary art and music in the 20th century). Uptown has the universities: Downtown has (well, had) CBGB’s. What landmark does Midtown have? Times Square, that banal, slow-moving landmark that most real New Yorkers consider “Six Flags Over Manhattan” for its masses of gaping, wide-eyed, unwashed tourist masses. Is Adams writing for the academics? I don’t think so. He’s certainly not writing for the Downtown set: he basically just negated their entire aesthetic in that quote. So I suppose that leaves him with the tourists, and, frankly, they’re only there because “Cats” was sold out.
Some colorful instructions for performing Frederic Rzewski’s hour-long piano opus The People United Will Never Be Defeated!:
- Weaving: delicate but firm
- Dreamlike, frozen
- Like fragments of an absent melody - in strict time
- In a militant manner
- Tenderly, and with a hopeful expression
More interesting though is how accurately these instructions (plucked from five of thirty-six variations) sketch out the development of the vaguely programmatic material, and how adroitly Marc-André Hamelin (Hyperion Records CDA67077) handles each variation.
This piece is great. Rzewski is great. My favorite piece of his is To The Earth. Next to Feldman’s The King Of Denmark, it’s probably the most sensitive piece ever written for percussion. I’ll find a video and post it here: stay tuned!
THE PRESIDENT COMES TO OUR STATE!!!!!!!!!
Seriously, the president NEVER comes to Indiana. It’s refreshing to have a president who cares about Indiana.
because it acts as a unifier. While so many parts of “culture” seem to be divisive (art, music, film, etc.), it has always seemed to me that people, at least people who appreciate culture, tend to be far more accepting of different food than of different art or different music. Certainly, food can be snobby or elitist, but the really great representations of a culture aren’t the haute exponents of European tradition being carried on in fancy hotel kitchens: these Spago rip-offs are all the same, and no one worth their salt gives a shit about them.
I was watching a re-run of Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations earlier, and one of his “guests”, discussing a Low Country (South Carolina Lowlands) Oyster Roast, described it as “crossing socio-economic boundaries, something everyone can relate to and enjoy”. This guy compared oysters, regarded as a luxury in New York, to oysters in South Carolina, bought in bushels for pennies on the pound and steamed at social gatherings. These kind of food traditions absolutely fascinate me. I love the idea of a group of friends coming together to cook, eat, and enjoy each other’s company (perhaps I should leave the discussions of food and culture to Maddy, but she blogged about band, so what the hell). One of my favorite things to do is to cook with friends: not only does it make things a hell of a lot easier, but it’s simply fun.
Does Indianapolis (or, I guess, the Midwest) have food traditions like this? It seems like most communal cooking/eating rituals tend to take place in warmer climes, which are far more hospitable to the kind of outdoor cooking techniques that these social gatherings tend to gravitate towards. I guess we grill in the summer, but that seems kind of lame compared to an oyster roast or a crawfish boil.
Oh, on a technical note: I had some problems with my Tumblr theme recently and, while I restored everything to the way I want it, I no longer have the comment code. Should I restore this function? I like the idea of keeping my blogs as dialogues: conversation is far more fun than pontification, in my opinion. Let me know via e-mail or twitter. If you guys like it, I’ll put it back in. Otherwise, just e-mail or @reply to me. I’m a ridiculously easy guy to get in touch with.