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Arrangement in C Major for List of 14 Selected John Cage Titles

1.   “Cheap Imitation”

3.   “Ear for Ear”

7.   “But what about the noise of crumpling paper which he used to do in order to paint the series of ‘Papiers froisses’ or tearing up paper to make ‘Papiers dechires?’ Arp was  stimulated by water (sea, lake, and flowing waters like rivers), forests”

9.   “Dad”

11. “Four Walls”

13. “A Chant with Claps”

14. “Bird Cage”

12. “Greek Ode”

4.   “Fads and Fancies from the Academy”

10. “Empty Words with Music for Piano”

2.   “Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse)”

8.   “Composition as Process”

6.   “Art Is Either a Complaint or Do Something Else”

5.   “Grace and Clarity”

Where John Cage Lip-synchs with Lloyd Thaxton while Playing Guitar Hero

“Follow your bliss,” Joseph Campbell advised, while Humanities instructors encourage students to “write about your passion.” But what if we find ourselves blissless and passionless? Or if we are passionate about anything, the last thing we want to do is to write about it, for that will suck the passion right out of the marrow. Better to write about what we lack passion for, about that which we know nothing. Then, like Beckett, we might write about the condition of our very blisslessness, blisslessly laughing at characters hoping for something to happen that might arouse their passion.

Following one’s bliss might involve endless hours of playing Guitar Hero. Kiri Miller, an ethnomusicologist at Brown, writing in the Journal of the Society for American Music, challenges the common assumption that virtual instrumentalists have different values (want something different) than real instrumentalists. “Trouble,” the Music Man persuaded the good folks of River City, is a pool table; better to lip-synch with virtual instruments – the confidence man encourages learning music through the “think method.” Combining Miller’s Guitar Hero analysis with the Music Man’s “think method,” we might call reading a kind of virtual writing. When we read, we recreate the text, like a Guitar Hero player recreates the text of a song. Lloyd Thaxton was the king of lip-synchers, and on his show, The Lloyd Thaxton Show, real musicians lip-synched through canned performances of their own songs.

Miller briefly evaluates the electronic music of John Cage in her article (pp. 404-405). Cage might be a precursor, probably not, but we can easily imagine him taking an interest and no doubt incorporating a Guitar Hero guitar into a composition. Cage also sums up the debate of the usefulness or value of virtual versus actual experience. In his manifesto on music, written in 1952, he says that “nothing is accomplished by writing [hearing or playing] a piece of music: our ears are now in excellent condition.” Yes, and ready for real guitar, Guitar Hero, or to read something by Beckett. Or, as Garry Moore said of Cage’s “Water Music”: “I’m with you, boy.”

On the Noise of Argument, where John Cage meets Seneca; or, There is No Silence – Bound to Sound

There is no silence, Seneca argues in his “On Noise.” Our ears are held hostage to the confusion of random noises, the shout in the street, or the whispers of demons when we are trying to fall asleep. Our head is a house of bondage to sounds. We can not turn off the noise.

We are also bound to the noise of argument, the clashing of claims, the slashing evidences, and the war of warrants rumbling unseen like underground swells whose sounds reach the surface in shocks of recognition. Our proposals ring with self-interest. Our argument reveals what we value, where what we value is simply what we want, and where, paradoxically, what we want is not necessarily what is good for us. We ask for proof, but what is accepted as proof varies by community and shifts over time. We are like Doubting Thomas, led by our cultured incredulity to insist on touching the wounds, because we are afraid of metaphor, but that’s all we have – language is metaphor, no matter how cleverly we disguise it in objective, disciplined prose. We fear it because metaphor is magic: “This [bread] is my body.”

To argue or not to argue, that is always the question, for walking away in hope for peace in silence and solitude we run into Hamlet’s wall, for we can enjoy the infinite space of a nutshell only if that space is not full of our own personal nightmares.

All of life appears to be a single, linked argument, and argument is noise. We can’t turn it off, or even down, but even if we could, we ignore argument at our own peril, to our own detriment. But to listen to it 7×24 is deafening, where deafness isn’t the absence of sound, but sound’s surfeit, a flood of noise that crests the wall of reason.

We turn to the experts for advice. Passionless, but full of fraternal ethos, the academics put forth their peer-reviewed journals, works cited, but the syllabus is the argument in the marketplace, the rubric their evidence, and the classroom their warrant. We pick our topic as if choosing a weapon, and begin our argument with an either or fallacy. The either or fallacy is the sergeant-at-arms in our contemporary house of sound-bondage: you are conservative, proceed to room 108, where you will find your beliefs folded nicely in the bureau drawers; you are liberal, your stuff is stacked neatly in room 209. Safely in our academic room for the night, we are lulled by a false sense of security, but we can’t get to sleep, for we can’t avoid the first person.

We were told not to use the first person, and in that way we could escape our impressionistic impulses, but “This is incorrect,” Seneca says. “There is no such thing as ‘peaceful stillness’ except where reason has been lulled to rest. Night does not remove our worries; it brings them to the surface. All it gives us is a change of anxieties. For even when people are asleep they have dreams as troubled as their days. The only true serenity is the one which represents the free development of a sound mind.”

A sudden pause as I’m reading Seneca’s “On Noise.” Was that a pun, that “sound mind”? For it expresses the point I am trying to make exactly. “Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise,” John Cage said in his “The Future of Music: Credo” (1937). But Cage was never bothered by the noise: “When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating.”

So to, our reading and listening of arguments: when we ignore the argument, we find it annoying, but listening to it carefully, we find that silence is denotative, noise connotative. One can easily imagine Cage living over Seneca’s bathhouse. In “Experimental Music” (1957), Cage suggests we should pay more attention to those arguments we did not intend: “…those who have accepted the sounds they do not intend – now realize that the score, the requiring that many parts be played in a particular togetherness, is not an accurate representation of how things are.” Ah, yes, for if we can’t accurately describe how things are, we can’t move on to how things should be.

John Cage and Attitudes Toward Reading Today

In John Cage’s A Year from Monday, a 1969 collection of his then New Lectures and Writings, we find a delightful, short piece titled “Seriously Comma,” and we are told the article was in answer to an inquiry regarding “attitudes toward Serial Music Today.” We find it difficult to pass on articles with the word “comma” in their title, seriously. In addition to our interest in commas, we are still concerned with the “reading crisis” topic The Coming of the Toads jumped on at the inception of the blog.

“Seriously Comma” is an arrangement of 18 paragraphs separated by irregular spacing and layout and given further unity using Cage’s rhetorical mode of varying type font. Each paragraph might be read as a different voice in a contrapuntal arrangement – the piece might also be seen as the mosaic layout of a newspaper page. The second paragraph, quoted in its entirety (italics Cage’s):

McLuhan insists on the newspaper front-page as the present existence type. Reading, we no longer read systematically (concluding each column, or even turning the page to conclude an article): we jump” (26).

McLuhan’s work sums the effects of technology on the human sensorium – technology changes us. For McLuhan, the great example was the printing press. For Nicholas Carr, it’s the personal computer. Carr believes that internet skimming is changing our brain for the worse; the idea is getting ink, but it’s still a hypothesis. Do we read differently on-line? Yes, but as Cage on McLuhan illustrates, our jumping around somewhat skittishly while reading predates the personal computer. Perhaps the mosaic of the newspaper prepared us in some way for the mosaic of television and computer screens. What will happen next? The disappearance of newspapers and our adaptive brain evolving to a new way of  reading:

“Invade areas where nothing’s definite (areas – micro and macro – adjacent the one we know in). It won’t sound like music – serial or electronic. It’ll sound like what we hear when we’re not hearing music, just hearing whatever wherever we happen to be. But to accomplish this our technological means must be constantly changing” (27).

We are all musicians whenever we make noise; what are we whenever and however we read?

“Dealing with language (while waiting for something else than syntax) as though it’s a sound-source that can be transformed into gibberish” (29).

What is “computer literacy,” and how does it differ from traditional reading? In the late 30s and early 40s, the WPA produced posters encouraging, among other activities and ideas of benefit to local communities, reading, traditional reading, the book you’ve always meant to read. We agree with Carr that traditional reading slows things down; why not kick back and enjoy a slow Spring with a book? When we make noise we make music; when we read, we make time.

Where Listening Gives Rise to Silence and Fizzles

There lived in our neighborhood some time ago a locally famous pianist who enjoyed great demand for piano lessons from parents for their children. The demand was such that a prospective student had to interview with the teacher. One of the interview “questions” involved listening to chords: the child identified a chord as “happy” or “sad.” Children unable to pass this interview question eliminated themselves from consideration. It’s been some time since I’ve talked to the pianist, but I’ve wondered from time to time what emotion a Bm7b5 (B minor 7 flat 5) might equate to, or an Eb7b9 (E flat 7 flat 9, as an inside chord, without the 5th, on the guitar).

How one distinguishes sounds, as in the experiment discussed over at Language Log, might explain musical preferences. Listeners who prefer a country western song, such as Hank Williams’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” (and its many covers), over a short piece by John Cage, might not hear sounds the same way the Cage fan distinguishes sounds, for “A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees” (Blake, “Proverbs of Hell”) – as both Williams and Cage would probably agree.

The Language Log listening experiment might also explain reading preferences, why some readers, for example, prefer Charles Dickens to Samuel Beckett (Dickens writes in minor keys, invoking pathos and bathos and every other kind of oath, Beckett in jovial major modes with flurries of flats falling like ash in downward spiraling scales).

Emergence might be at work here, too (the entire piece can’t be predicted by any one of its chords), or simply that our ears sometimes grow tired or lazy, as do our tongues and our eyes. This is what Cage explored in Silence, and what Beckett meant by Fizzles.

Kierkegaard: A Good Self is Hard to Find

A Good Man is Hard to FindWe enjoyed Gordon Marino’s recent piece in the Times, “Kierkegaard on the Couch,” about a distinction between despair and depression, the former, according to Marino, a kind of disrespect for one’s self, not accepting who one is, the latter a disease; the former our existential condition (for which Kafka said there is no cure), the latter treatable with medication and counseling.

We were reminded of John Cage: “It is not irritating to be where one is. It is only irritating to think one would like to be somewhere else” (“Lecture on Nothing,” Silence, p. 119).

Perhaps the opposite of Marino’s despair and depression distinction is found in joy and happiness. A certain kind of acceptance allows for joy, which is not quite the same as happiness. Joy, like grace, lives only in the moment; occurs regardless of where we are located; and appears like the epiphany, satori, the kick in the eye. Happiness is a kind of candy that wears off, leaving us depressed. Despair is the corollary of joy, depression the corollary of happiness.

Joy Hopewell comes to mind, a Flannery O’Connor character (“Good Country People”) who changes her name from Joy to Hulga, such is her despair. A good self is hard to find.

Where jazz and literature get encaged

The 2009 Believer music issue (July/August 09) arrived yesterday, and there’s a perceptive interview with jazz guitarist Pat Martino:

“BLVR: What do you think jazz’s place in American culture is today?”

“PM: The only thing I can be definitive with is an example. Take the students of jazz in our conservatories and universities. They’re studying harmony and theory, which is not jazz, that’s music. Number two, they’re studying and transcribing artists of the past – past cultures, or stages of our culture, and that is not the reality of today. So it [jazz] is not alive the way it used to be. And they’re studying something that is encaged, and they’re analyzing it to participate in something that no longer exists” (p. 73).

I was reminded of Louis Menand’s recent piece in the New Yorker (June 8 & 15, 2009), on creative writing programs: “Academic creative-writing programs are, as McGurl puts it, examples of ‘the institutionalization of anti-institutionality.’ That’s why institutions love them. They are the outside contained on the inside” (p. 108).

And John Cage: “A newspaperman wrote asking me to send’im my philosophy in a nutshell. Get out of whatever cage you happen to be in” (M, Writings ’67 – ’72, p. 212).

John Cage, Cowboy Surf Shop, and Garage Jazz

John Cage was the first garage musician, freeing music at once from the academy, from high culture, from ubiquitous radios, from naturalism – from preconceived notions of what sounds should sound like. Cage valued sounds; he desired sounds, required sounds. Cage captured sounds he found in his environment and remixed them in his garage, creating a philosophy of music that encouraged listeners to experiment, restoring sound to primeval element. Cage’s music is not devoid of sentimentality, and heralds both warnings and callings – electronic blasts to the chest, bees dancing in the labyrinths of our ears.


We are anxious to hear the sounds we make, our own voice, which we hear in unison, subverting our self-consciousness. The echo, reverb, was the first natural recording. Garage Band allows us to extend the range of our voice, format, and get loopy – all Cageian values. We’ve been listening for a long, long time; how much training do we require?


Cowboy Surf ShopJohn Linker’s Cowboy Surf Shop employs his various interests – folk, alternative, literature, surfing, and playing guitar as something to do with your hands. In one piece, “Rock ‘n Roll Eden,” a Lou Reed cover, we hear a voice reading from Jack London (Jack’s ranch, in the Valley of the Moon, is not too far from John’s place). A diversion from teaching duties, John’s project is a demo, a rough draft, experimenting with loops, voice-overs, a variety of instruments (sans drums – bass picks up both rhythm and percussion), and improvisation on covers and originals.


When in the Army in the late 60’s we used to hang around the motor pool after hours playing guitar. Spec. 4 Martin, who had worked at Fender, offered this criticism: “You never play the same thing the same way.” As we’ve discussed, Cage was not a jazz fan, but what we require now is garage jazz, inviting thought: what is garage; what is jazz.


Cage bop Monk lit

John Cage, as we’ve mentioned, seemed to have little tolerance for jazz, suggesting that if musicians want to have a conversation they should use words, and we’ve always found this attitude surprising coming from an otherwise tolerant and peaceful composer – but who named one of his own books Silence, which contains, among many innovative works, our favorite, his “Lecture on Nothing.”

“I have nothing to say, and I am saying it, and that is poetry,” Cage said, as he is often quoted, but incompletely, for the third column (measure) in that line is “as I need it.” Two lines up we find three empty measures. The fourth measure of that line starts the sentence “I have nothing to say.” The first measure of the next line is empty. The second measure reads “and I am saying it.” The third measure is empty. The fourth measure says “and that is.” The first measure of the next line contains “poetry,” the next measure is empty, the next contains “as I need it,” and the final measure contains the period to the sentence. You begin to see why we have always liked John Cage, and find ourselves coming back to him again and again, to read and to listen. 

To round out the discussion, it’s worth mentioning, perhaps, that Silence also contains Cage’s “Lecture on Something,” suggesting a compare and contrast essay just itching to be written.

For some reason we’ve always paired John Cage with Thelonius Monk, thinking, for one thing, maybe Monk did for jazz what Cage did for classical, which is to say, in short, put some fresh wax on the board, unafraid to paddle out solo. Then again, we’ve always thought much of Cage’s music closer to jazz than to classical, for he admitted random access to sounds, in notation and performance. What bothered him about words was probably the many connotations, too many to contain, to orchestrate, or that words distract from sound with meaning. For Cage, the tree falling in the forest with no one listening certainly makes noise; the question is, what sounds does it make, the sounds no one hears?

Monk’s song titles provide clues to his intentions, “Rhythm-a-ning,” for example. Monk’s titles often convey what he has to say, his audience and purpose, if not his strategy. Monk had something to say, and said it, but, with the exception of the song titles, without words, and that is jazz, as he needed it.

In response to a request for a statement on music, Cage wrote “…nothing is accomplished by writing a piece of music…” Or, Cage continued, “…by hearing…playing a piece of music} our ears are now in excellent condition.” What’s more, in the opening of this statement, he writes “instantaneous and unpredictable.” That seems to describe Monk, and isn’t that jazz, as we all need it?

Buckley and the hard work of writing

William F. Buckley, Jr. now occupies, we hope, a seat in the bleachers to the right of Home Plate. We’ve been looking through his Buckley: The Right Word. We were not surprised to find him weighing in on the reading crisis. This, from 1980: “The good news is that there are people around who are trying to discover why it is that American youth, year after year, are having greater and greater difficulty in expressing themselves. There are a lot of wisecracks readily available (“they have nothing to say”), but one tires quickly of them, and then genuine worry sets in” (p. 131). And having nothing to say did not dissuade John Cage, who said, in his “Lecture on Nothing,” “I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry as I need it” (Silence, p. 109). Buckley finds fault with TV: “You can’t simultaneously spend four hours watching television and four hours reading good prose.” But he also acknowledges that any suspected blame does not seem to apply universally.

If any one fault can be ascribed, perhaps the sheer physical difficulty of writing, and writing correctly, must be to blame. We are looking for cause and effect, but can not find even correlation. The effete and elite are each stricken equally, as the case of the Harvard student, passing placement exams but sitting in Expos unable to write a sentence, demonstrates. Buckley is then thrown off base by the Dick Cavett caveat, “Why does it matter?” Then comes this thunderbolt: Buckley relates that William Shawn, his editor at the New Yorker, once told him, “I am afraid, Mr. Buckley, that you do not really know the proper use of the comma.” Buckley’s response: “If St. Peter had declared me unfit to enter the Kingdom of God, I could not have felt more searingly the reproach…” (p. 306). Things are as bad as they ever were because nothing has made things any easier.

Thinking about writing, and actually sitting down and doing the writing, are two different occupations. We can always start a book with a few chapters and claim a work in progress, even if we never pick it up again; but who benefits from this kind of deception? Buckley points to the hard work of writing: “Working on a novel, I like to write every day….On the other hand, don’t ever devote the entire day to doing just that….I’d like to see more novels not written by people who have all the time in the world to write them” (p. 285).

But if writing is hard work, “But how would the reader know?” Buckley asks. The answer to that question Toulmin gives us, arguing that the work the writer does not put in, the reader must. But in spite of the hard work, Buckley assures us there’s nothing else he’d rather be doing. “Writing, if it’s done at all, has got to yield net satisfaction….I’m simply saying that writing is terribly hard work.” So he allows for distractions, change of pace and location, ancillary pursuits. He listened to music while writing: “Yes, I have the record player on most of the time.…I don’t play jazz when I write. I don’t know why but I just plain don’t. But I do when I paint” (pp. 290-291).

We do listen to jazz when we write, almost exclusively, but usually instrumental, no vocals, which can be too distracting. But what’s the one significant takeaway we want to emphasize with regard to the hard practice of writing? What do we want from writing? What do we expect? We must write most days to develop answers to these and other questions about writing and reading. Posts may be warm up exercises to the real work.

Buckley, W. F., Jr. (1996). Buckley: The right word (Harvest Book edition, 1998). New York: Harcourt Brace &  Company.