Posts Tagged John Cage

Marvellous Mistakes

I’ve always been intrigued by the creative possibilities of mistakes.   So many medical and scientific discoveries, after all, have come about through the combination of chance or error with painstaking research and experimentation.  The key is to see the possibilities created by that chance or error, and to follow them through.

Tacita Dean spoke of the magic of mistakes in relation to her Turbine Hall installation – asked whether, if she could rewind, there was anything she would do differently, she said:

No. They are mistakes in the film, there are some shots misregistered that I use deliberately. Mistakes don’t exist in our digital world anymore. An effects man I spoke to in Germany said, “Analogue mistakes can sometimes be magical. Digital ones never are.” You know, the magic of mistakes and the magic of not knowing what you are going to get, these things are important.

When she talked to Michael Berkeley on Radio 3’s Private Passions, she chose as one of her pieces of music Allegri’s wonderful Miserere, a piece that never fails to make me want to weep.  But the moment that does that most powerfully is the famous top C, which, according to some historians, is the result of a transcription error.  If so, there have been few more marvellous mistakes in the arts.

There’s a difference between using creatively the mistakes that occur through chance or human error, and deliberately creating an environment where ‘mistakes’ are always potentially a note away.

Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock

Jimi Hendrix improvised constantly, whether he had an audience or not.  He never played the same song exactly the same way twice, and given the chance (i.e. without an audience shrieking to hear ‘Wild Thing’ or ‘Hey Joe’) he’d mess around with the song, take it somewhere different and bring it back home again – the challenge for anyone else was to keep up.

But after his death the self-appointed keeper of his flame decided that we didn’t need to hear what he regarded as Jimi’s ‘mistakes’ and that we instead should hear doctored versions of his late unreleased work with other session musicians drafted in to cover the gaps and the glitches.  Even when those musicians were of the calibre of the late lamented Bob Babbitt, this was a wretched way to treat the rich legacy of such an inventive and risk-taking artist.  And not all of the musicians were of that calibre.

Greg Tate, in his fascinating book on Hendrix and the black experience (an oddly neglected area of study), says that Hendrix ‘took the odd pleasurable accident as not just serendipity but as a way to embark upon a new line of inquiry, the intent being not merely to duplicate the shock-of-the-new aspect of the thing but to intensely lyricize it.  Like Jackson Pollock … Hendrix lived to transmute the accident into intention.’

Postwar composers such as Boulez, and Michel Butor’s collaborator Henri Pousseur, used what Boulez called ‘controlled chance’, where the possibilities are predefined by the composer, within parameters.  The performer has choices to make, which leaves the audience – and fellow performers – faced with the unexpected.  This does give the possibility that one performer’s choice will wrong-foot others, but this would still clearly be, in the composer’s terms, a mistake rather than a new line of flight.   The overall course is fixed, only the ordering of the elements can be tinkered with.  John Cage’s use of the I Ching in composition and in performance was far from random, but brought in an arbiter other than the composer or the performer, in line with his wish to take the preferences of composer and performer out of the music.  But he did incorporate improvisation in some later works, in ways which did introduce elements of real chance.    Could the performer in such works be permitted to  ‘transmute accident into intention’ ? One suspects not.

Even where that Hendrixian alchemy is not encouraged,  the possibility of mistakes, the risk of them, is part of the joy of live music, where the artists are confident enough to respond positively – like Ensemble 360 who responded to one member contributing a repetition too many or too few, thus throwing them all off track, by pausing, laughing uproariously, and then resuming the piece with their usual panache. Back to Hendrix again (always), and a gorgeous acoustic version of his blues ‘Hear my Train a Comin”, where he plays it one way during the intro, stops because he’s been thrown off track by the cameras (not that anyone listening would hear that) and restarts it in a completely different version.

For those of us not so gifted mistakes are to be feared, to be remembered with hideous shame and self-flagellation, to be avoided either by careful preparation or by shunning activities where risks are high.

But we admire those who go ahead anyway – I always loved Paul Scott’s Daphne Manners: ‘She had to make her own marvelous mistakes. She didn‘t ever shrink from getting grubby. She flung herself into everything with zest. The more afraid she was of something, the more determined she was not to shrink from experiencing it. She had us all by the ears finally. We were all afraid for her, even of her, but more of what she seemed to have unlocked, like Pandora who bashed off to the attic and prised the lid of the box open.” (The Jewel in the Crown, pp. 104 – 105).

And artistically, we often respond emotionally to the imperfect rather than to the inhumanly perfect.  (Some people illustrate that distinction using Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, which I can’t accept – Ella’s voice doesn’t have Billie’s fragility but it has such incredible warmth that it is never merely a perfect instrument, it’s full of emotion.)

I had been trying to finish this post for months, and then read this wonderful and moving blog which says so much that I will leave Gerry (and Leonard) with the last words:

http://gerryco23.wordpress.com/2012/12/04/scientist-reveals-how-the-light-gets-in/

 

  • Greg Tate, Midnight Lightning: Jimi Hendrix and the Black Experience (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2003)

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Music and Silence

‘Silence is not nothing.  It is not the null set’.  Music in performance exists between two silences – the expectant pause before the first notes and the instant before the applause.  Music and silence are in dialogue, mutually dependent.  Silence is inscribed in the music, like its breathing.  To put it another way, sound echoes silence, puts into words or music what was implicit, and the two bear traces of each other.

In 4’33”, John Cage’s best known and possibly most important work, the composer developed a ‘fully positive concept of silence’ (Visscher, p. 259) which required openness to the integration of all possible sounds.  For Cage, silence is temporal and spatial.  It’s the place where sounds appear, ‘made up of all the sounds that exist in permanence (=life) and which surround us (=place).’ (Visscher, p. 262).  Cage explained that ‘we call it silence when we don’t feel a direct connection with the intentions that produce the sounds’, i.e. the ambient sounds that are constantly present.  4’33” is a way of experimenting with one’s relation to the external world, silencing music in order to hear the world.  For Cage, ‘it leads out of the world of art into the whole of life’. (Visscher, p. 264).

Cage’s piece invites us to hear all of these ambient sounds, and those that drift in from outside – sirens, wind and rain, traffic noise – or from the building – the air conditioning, the creak of floorboards – not as intrusions but as the work itself.  It’s as difficult as any of the ‘difficult’ 20th century composers, and it bothers people.  The commonest responses are either that it is a joke (yes, the way it challenges audience preconceptions is funny, but at heart it is serious, as Cage’s statements make clear) or that its acceptance in the musical canon (at least its avant-garde experimental subset) is a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes, that the piece is essentially empty of meaning but given spurious significance by critics.

And even if one disagrees, it is an unsettling work. Where we expect to hear a performer and (apart from the performer’s footsteps, the creak of the piano stool or lid, the turning of the pages) instead hear ourselves, our neighbours, the building we’re in, we are uneasy.  We know that in a concert hall we are expected to be still, to minimise the rustling, shuffling, and throat clearing sounds that we perversely become desperate to make as soon as it’s taboo to do so.  We suffer agonies of embarrassment if a coughing fit can’t be held back, our stomachs rumble, or we applaud at the wrong moment, and we turn judgemental glares on those whose mobile phones ring.

Silence is a weighty thing for an absence.  It fills with everything that isn’t being said, all of the sounds that aren’t being heard.   Recently researchers from the Australian National University have tuned very sensitive light detectors to listen to vacuum – a region of space that was once thought to be completely empty, dark, and silent until the discovery of modern quantum theory and have discovered that vacuum has virtual sub-atomic particles spontaneously appearing and disappearing, giving rise to omnipresent random noise.

If Cage’s concept of silence was positive, our experience of it, our associations with it, are often more problematic.  Collective, imposed silence, for longer than a few heartbeats, tends to create physical, visceral tension and anxiety, rather than a tranquil meditative state.  And as soon as one considers the notion of collective silence, one encounters other, more troubling associations.

Silence became one of the dominant metaphors for the Occupation, a blanket of silence over all kinds of enquiry, an emptiness that filled up with fear (Butor described the feeling that ‘nothing was happening, but that this nothing, at the same time, was bloody’). Silence here could betray or protect, could be resistance (as in Vercors’ Le Silence du Mer) or (active or passive) collaboration.   And when liberation came, the imposed silence was replaced by a chosen silence, as a generation (because of guilt, or horror) chose to regard the Nazi era as a nightmare that could be put to one side as an aberration.  Thus for Butor, silence is something to be fought against – he sees writing, words and music as resistance, every word or note a blow for life.

For Sebald too, silence carries a terrible weight of complicity and conspiracy.  Schlant has described West German literature since the war as ‘a literature of absence and silence contoured by language’.  Sebald’s fiction has been characterised as presenting us with a ‘Holocaust in absence’ – ‘the edge of darkness that Sebald’s fictions repeatedly bring us up against: a place and a time in which the ordinary constraints of history give way to an immense penumbral continuum of human suffering, exile, and “silent” catastrophes that take place “without much ado.”’ (Anderson, 121).  His references are often oblique – in After Nature, Sebald imagines the clouds into which ‘without a word the breath Of legions of human beings had been absorbed’ (96), and in the first of his ‘Poemtrees’, when the landscape that you pass in a train ‘mutely … watches you vanish’ (p3), because it’s Sebald, we think of the trains that crossed Europe, taking their passengers to annihilation.   As Ian Galbraith says, ‘Sebald’s landscapes are never innocent’ (p. 189), citing the references to Landsberg and Kaufbeuren in ‘Cold Draught’, and to Turkenfeld in ‘Somewhere’ (Across the Land and the Water, pp. 57, 135)

As George Steiner writes, the points where words fail have traditionally been seen as the points where music begins, or where we fall silent in the presence of the divine, but there is a more recent phenomenon, where ‘language simply ceases … The poet enters into silence.  Here the word borders not on radiance or music, but on night’ (46).  Is this silence, a ‘suicidal rhetoric’, nevertheless a valid and moral alternative when ‘the words in the city are full of savagery’?

References:

Mark M Anderson, ‘The Edge of Darkness: On W. G. Sebald’,  October, 106 (Autumn, 2003), 102-21

Michel Butor, Curriculum vitae: entretiens avec André Clavel (Paris: Plon, 1996)

Thomas Clifton, ‘The Poetics of Musical Silence’, Musical Quarterly, 52, 2 (1976) 163-81

Paul Griffiths, Modern Music: A Concise History from Debussy to Boulez (London: Thames & Hudson, 1990)

Jean Guéhenno, Journal des années noires, 1940-1944 (Paris: Gallimard, 1947)

Florence Rigal, Butor : la pensée-musique (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2004)

Florence Rigal, ‘De la polyphonie à la monodie: Butor, une voix politique’, L’Esprit Créateur, 47, 2 (Summer 2007), 33-42

Ernestine Schlant, The Language of Silence. West German Literature and the Holocaust (NY; London: Routledge, 1999)

W G Sebald, After Nature (London: Penguin, 2002)

W G Sebald, On the Natural History of Destruction (NY: The Modern Library, 2004)

W G Sebald, ‘Bleston.  A Mancunian Cantical’, Across the Land and the Water: Selected Poems, 1964-2001 (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2011)

George Steiner, Language and Silence: Essays on Language, Literature, and the Inhuman (NY, Atheneum, 1982)

Eric de Visscher, ‘”There’s no such a thing as silence…” John Cage’s Poetics of Silence’, Interface, 18 (1989), 257-68

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