Wednesday, 27 January 2010

John Cage - Great Waster of Time

Time Squandered

John Cage was a believer in the therapeutic value of boredom. One way to induce boredom is to raise expectations that something will happen in time either inside the one who waits, as in enlightenment, or outside in the external sensory world. The disciplined audience according to Cage will learn how to wait for this effect.  Nothing however is guaranteed.  The longer the expectation is unfulfilled, the greater the delay, the sheer quantity of time wasted in the mode of suspended activity, the greater the boredom suffered by the audience, the more acute its disappointment - the higher the spiritual benefits all around.  This rack of waiting resembles the structure of any false promise — “make them live in hope” says Gaveston, “upstart” and favorite of the King, at the beginning of Marlowe’s “Edward the Second”. False promises are also potentially fatal - “Aspettare e non venire è cosa da morire” is a popular Italian folk wisdom — futile waiting is a cause of death.  Cage’s performances were based on the principle of indefinite postponement.  Although for Cage the false promise is more like an implicit contract.  Boredom given by the performer must be equalled and paid for by boredom received from the audience.

Cage spoke freely of these matters in an interview conducted by David Sylvester and Richard Smalley in 1966 included in Sylvester’s collection “Interviews with American Artists” (2001).

Reading the interview now, freed from the dross of social and political trappings so important in ‘the Sixties’ for Cage and others, the bareness and harshness of Cage’s boredom therapy is fully exposed. Sylvester asks him why he likes to bore his audience to the verge of tears:

DS:    But you are asking them to give something?
JC:    Give in terms of the person who is disciplined to giving.
DS:    But the giving of time, you feel, is a part of that which has to be given?

JC:    Well, if something that is being given takes time, 
           then its receiving must take an equal time.

At some point John Cage ceased to be primarily a musician or composer and became instead a thinker or speaker.  He regarded his lectures though as a musical performance of speech, noise or silence.  Cage’s switch took place at a time when renouncing of art by artists in favor of silence or social activism was quite en vogue.  One can hardly imagine this urge today, perhaps because activism now is an obtrusive Doppelgänger of art. ‘Artists-activists’ are a sub-division of the so-called “activism industry” - involved in symbolic and ‘practical’ incursions in the pores of ordinary politics and geopolitics.  As such they are a sign of the further eroding of the distinction between art and ordinary life, which began in the ‘Sixties’. 

In an essay from the same period as Sylvester’s interview, Susan Sontag coined the expedient term “aesthetics of silence” for the bizarre renunciation of art of those days.  Sontag’s view of Cage is adulatory, whereas Sylvester is almost hostile. Curiously, Sylvester’s paring away of Cage’s declarations that ‘art is over’ seems far more contemporary now than Sontag’s affirmation of Cage’s “spirituality”.  One sees Cage’s true assault upon the audience (and indirectly the artist) in far more explicit terms.

“The proper goal of each activity is its obviation.”(John Cage) 
Sylvester almost turns him into a penseur maudit, which flatters Cage in a far more subtle fashion.

JC:    Why are people so stingy about their time?
DS:    Yes.
JC:    Why are they so ungenerous? What in heaven’s name
           is so valuable about 30 minutes or 45 minutes? Or an hour and a half?

Cage had a taste for mental torture like any evangelist.  People must pay him for the generosity with which he wastes their time.  The model for his own behavior is nature itself: “If you look at nature, for instance, it often seems to be wasteful, the number of spores produced by a mushroom in relation to the number that actually reproduce (...). I hope this shift from scarcity to abundance, from pinchpenny mental attitudes to courageous wastefulness, will continue to flourish.” (John Cage, 1968)
Cage wasted his audience using whatever means were handy. Prodigious waiting for nothing was the audience’s forced renunciation to match the chosen renunciation of the artist. Cage of course did not give up anything.  He didn’t consider himself redundant.  He was the waster not the wasted.  Cage muted his prepared pianos as a hitman might put on a silencer.

Narrow World of Chance

The Chinese, writes Baudelaire, tell time by looking into the eyes of a cat.

I looked into a book about John Cage smelling of mice.  Hemlock also smells of mice.  It grows in weedy places, in moist, loamy soils next to streams.  Growing forked from the root, it produces many unspectacular umbels.  John Cage was very interested in poisonous mushrooms.  He served them to his friends but ate more than anyone else.  John Cage liked poisonous mushrooms. He served them to his friends and almost died.  He also liked Satie, especially his piece “Socrate”. He would have devoured it too but was prevented from doing so by French copyright law.  Instead Cage made his “Cheap Imitation” which is slightly longer than the original. Socrates committed state suicide by drinking the cup of hemlock, thereby carrying out the death sentence passed by the Athenian polis. John Cage’s poisonous mushroom mess of ‘skunk cabbage’ was a cheap imitation of hemlock.

Adorno said about John Cage and the ‘New Music’ - and then John Cage came crashing into it.... 

Random Time

Random time measured by clocks as the duration of minutes and hours is wrongly called abstract. It is neither abstract nor aesthetic.
The basic mode of time as a quantity is error and inexactitude. Duration implies time as sheer quantity. It can be planned or random. This matters very little. But either way, it is never more than an approximation, hence merely empirical or accidental not necessary — ultimately tainted by those fixed ‘permanent emotions’ so necessary to John Cage.
Paradoxically, the only aesthetically useful emotions are the vague metamorphosing temporary ones. They may be false, but never inexact, inaccurate. That which measures time is not time.  Boredom is a good measure of time in Cage’s works.

Aesthetic time is in the mind and not in the clock. Time as a quality of reality implies the apriori perception that phenomena succeed or precede one another in sequence.

Through the mind’s innate ability to perceive sequence comes the certainty of substance (phenomena).  Substance is that attribute of phenomena which is extended (endures) in time.  One perceives substance as Being.  No substance or art is outside of time.  If it can be perceived it is temporal. Hence it is physically and metaphysically nonsensical to demand as John Cage did that people give him their time.  They could have more easily given him their soul.

What do the Chinese see in the eye of the cat?  They see the time of eternity says Baudelaire.  Time undivided by minutes and hours - “an immobile hour unmarked by clocks, yet light as a sigh, rapid as the blink of an eye(...)” (Baudelaire, “L’Horloge”). In Chinese time there is no ‘duration’, nothing ever passes.  The ghosts are here and the enemies of the ghosts are here.  The Chinese do not measure time with chronometers.  Neither did Beethoven, one of Cage’s declared enemies.  In Beethoven’s music there are vast passages of unmeasured space and time under the ghostly rule of the ever-metamorphosing fugue.  This rule is both light and inescapable - these are the principles and laws of universal simultaneity and sequence referred to as counterpoint.
Then I saw a cat come out of the bushes with a mouse in its mouth, not knowing how to get rid of it.

No comments:

Post a Comment