Sunday, March 25, 2012

John Cage/David Tudor: Indeterminacy

In the world of modern, so-called "avant garde" or "minimalist", classical music, there is no composer as well-known and, perhaps, infamous as John Cage.  The Los Angeles-born Cage was a student, for a time, of Arnold Schoenberg, famed for his twelve-tone row method of composition, but developed increasingly idiosyncratic and challenging ways to make music. 

Much of Cage's work was done for ballet works choreographed by his long-time partner, Merce Cunningham, but he also composed many other pieces that ran the gamut from the haunting "Four Walls" for piano and voice, his toy piano works, and the notorious "4'33"," a performance that required a pianist to walk out to the instrument and then sit at it without playing a note for the prescribed length in the title. 

For Cage, this was an opportunity to have the audience "play" the piece by its reactions (uncomfortableness, awkwardness?) to the jarring silence.  While the work may have seemed a publicity-seeking novelty not worthy of being called a "composition," it highlighted Cage's increasing concern with environment, in which the audience, the concert hall (or wherever the piece was being performed) and the performer were cohorts.

Increasingly, Cage became fascinated with chance and randomness as crucial elements to his work and he often used the numerology implicit in the classic Chinese philosophical work, the Tao Te Ching (pronounced Dow Duh Jing), as part of his compositional process.  Like many post-World War II composers, he also embraced electronics as a means to further develop his work and found an important partner in David Tudor, whose methods of using electronic sound dovetailed nicely with Cage's concepts.

Perhaps the highlight of the two's collaborative spirit is the remarkable 2-CD set, Indeterminacy, recorded in 1959 and released by the Smithsonian Institution's Folkways imprint.  Here, Cage recites 99 short narratives that seem, by turns, to be random/chance utterances, tales of encounters with fellow composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen, aphorisms related to Zen Buddhism (a field of study avidly pursued by the composer), and others, often spiced with humor and ironical observations.  Cage adjusted the speed of his readings, as well as the pitch and cadence of his voice, to lend variety to his contributions.  Meantime, Tudor, sitting in a separate room or space in the studio, manipulated a menagerie of electronic devices using snippets of material used in earlier Cage works, which themselves added a randomness and sense of chance proceedings to Cage's recorded narrations.

Is this music?  This is a question that will often be raised in this blog (though, perhaps, what has been posted so far has been more about the quality of what a given reader or listener might discern rather than a philosophical question about the definition of music.)  In the case of Indeterminacy, the music might be thought of as melodic and rhythmic through Cage's style of reading, while Tudor's contributions are, perhaps, more about coloration. 

This blog defines music at its root as "organized sound."  Certainly, this album was organized and it does contain sound.  The fact that it does not have standard melodies, harmonies, rhythms, and coloration migth mean, to many, that it is not music.  As with the related question, "is it art?" it could be posited that the answer is in (rather than with "the eye of the beholder") the "ear of the beholder."  For this beholder, Indeterminacy is, indeed, music, just an expression and a form that is highly experimental and, yet, entertaining and intriguing. 

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