Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Incoherent Ramblings

I was skeptical about choosing this class for my FYS, mostly because I don't know the first thing about music or it's progression over the years. I'm completely and totally musically challenged; the closest I've come to playing an instrument is the recorder in 3rd grade. One time I did take a piano class that a family friend had already paid for while they were on vacation and I can kind of play happy birthday. Reading the texts, I've seen a lot of names and terms that I'm unfamiliar with. However, over the past couple of classes, I've come to really enjoy it. I was surprised by how much I actually liked the CD we got on Monday. I thought I was going to get a good laugh out of it, but I actually liked it. I've found myself going into my music player and actually opting to play some of the songs. Some are a tad weird for my taste though. The song talking about papers definitely confused me.
Cage's style is like nothing I've ever listened to before, but I really like it. I've always found joy in just sitting places and listening (a bit odd, i know) and never knew that some viewed it to be a form of music. I really like the idea of 4'33" and how it's different everytime you listen to it. I like how a big group of people can listen to it and interpret it in numerous ways. That's what I think music is all about; being able to interpret and hear it in your own way. Cage nailed that idea. I also like the idea that he wasn't afraid to put himself out there and try something new. He wasn't afraid to branch off from mainstream music and do his own thing.
I think with time I'll come to understand the class as a whole better as the year goes on, but for now I'll just enjoy listening to my orange CD.

P.S. Anyone have a red CD I can borrow to rip to my computer?

Random Thoughts.

Every time I listen to Cage or think about his musical concepts, more and more questions pop into my head. It actually gets to be quite irritating, but I think that was his point. It was never about creating great musical pieces, but more about the ideas behind them. He wanted to get people thinking beyond what was considered normal or expected. Cage was much more a philosopher than a composer in my opinion, but he nevertheless paved the way for many artists to use his experimentation with our perception of "music" as a means to create amazing works. I can't say I agree with all of his theories, or that I even really like a lot of his music, but I can appreciate what he was trying to do. Some of what he says is/was very provocative in a musical standpoint, but once I go past my initial reaction to disagree, I've found he actually has a lot to say, and he said it. 
Some of the things that bothered me, or I just didn't understand were his ideas about what the purpose of music is. I don't agree that all music is about opening one's mind. I think a lot of it is, but a lot of it is also just about feeling a connection. For me, writing songs is about expression, and yes, often through that expression I am opening myself up to new ideas and concepts about my own life, but that doesn't undermine the fact that it is expressing myself. For a listener it's different. It is more about what you can get out of the piece, but I still disagree that the emotion isn't a huge part of that. I understand that Cage isn't completely disregarding the emotion involved in music, but he seems to put it aside as a lesser factor or just a side effect. Another thing I can't fully grasp is his idea of getting rid of your own tastes and preferences. To an extent, I can see where you have to be open to new ideas and sounds to ever fully appreciate music as a whole, but your preferences are what makes you an individual. If we got rid of all individuality what would be left? There would be no experimentation, no exploration in music or anything. We would just be. 
Cage  seems to take an extreme view of a lot of things. I like that he tended to push towards the opposite side of what was pleasant or expected, but often he went a little too far. For example, when he stated Beethoven was wrong about the way music should be written, I agreed with him. He then went on to express just another way music "should be written", which kind of contradicts what he said earlier. I don't think there is a set way to write music. I personally write it as it comes to me, the way Cage described it, but for others that is not the case, and It is much more structured and with a definite goal in mind. He described nature as full of "random playfulness" which, once again, can be true. However, there are also definite patterns and structure as well. He completely disregards harmony, and pushes constantly for dissonance or clashing sounds. His reliance on randomness is a little annoying along with his idea that art has nothing to do with the artist. I simply disagree. 
Surprisingly enough, I actually can relate to some of his theories. I like the idea of changing your mind, and being open enough to do so with something as seemingly simple as 4'33". His idea that our age is the "age of noise" and we are inflicting an "assault against silence" I definitely agree with. So many of us have become so dependent on our constant connection with cell phones and ipods ( I must confess I am guilty of this too), that we are actually isolating ourselves from any deeper communication with those around us. Have we ruined it though? I don't think so, but it definitely takes more effort to find the silence and to enjoy it. Our world is so fast pace, that to take time to just listen is an alien thought and experience. I'm not sure the answer to all things that are boring is to do it longer, but I can understand giving things their fair chance.
  Another concept I can relate to is that of not really having a specific goal or point to reach with music. I find it very hard to finish anything I start, because it is often a reflection of a thought or feeling which never really have conclusions in my opinion. If we are truly open, then the song will never truly end. Cage makes me think. He makes me question my own opinions of listening to music, listening to the world around me, writing music, and just about how to approach life in general, and for this, he has my greatest respect. 

True Innovation

John Cage and his contemporaries provided a new, different, and often unexpected type of music for their listeners. Cage tended to push the limits of people's listening comfort zones to try to get them to exprience music in a entirely new way. Most music focuses on emotions, I might listen to Pavarotti preforming "Ave Maria" when I'm sad or Five Finger Death Punch's "The Bleeding" if I'm feeling angry. John Cage aviods emotion and instead trys to get his listeners to focus on the sounds in music. If you are able to open yourself up to this new way of listening Cage's music can be exciting. I have more fun listening to Cage's than any other music, with the exception of techno. All other music has lyrics and emotions that distract you from the sounds. "Its Gonna Rain" may be repetitive but at first its a lot of fun to listen to. Hearing seemingly random and unorganized sounds creates a new a delightful listening exprience that you don't have everyday. John Cage's music is different thats why I enjoy it. Even "4:33 " has a type of randomness to it because it can sound completely different every time. I will admit I have actually youtubed "4:33" just to close my eyes and exprience the sounds around me. Cage's prepared piano pieces are a new type of innovation altogether. It changes the sound of the piano so greatly it seems like a completely new instrument. Cage created new types of sounds from different instruments and wrote his pieces by random chances. All these things made Cage's music something all its own and a true innovation in music theory.

John Cage as a personal was as interesting and unique as the music he created. I would have loved to hang out with Cage for a day. He was so clever and used a lot of irony, which is my favorite type of humor. "I Have Nothing to Say and I'm Saying It" makes me laugh inside everytime I read it. When he was asked to explain his statement "Beethoven was wrong" he simply smiled and said, "Beethoven was wrong" and walked away. Cage's wit may possibly unmatched the same way is musical style is.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Ambiance, Noise, and Music

For me, the most bizarre thing about my (orange) cd was not one song or the other--it was how I noticed that I didn't like most of the songs until I stopped paying attention to them. In some instances, it was the opposite. I needed to really listen, at least for a bit, to understand the music and start liking it. Right now, I'm listening to The Telephone Call by Kraftwork. I can't stand this song if I actually sit and pay attention to it. As soon as I shift my focus to something else, it falls into the background and becomes tolerable.
Ambient music, right? It's an accent for the environment, not meant to be a focal point. Even without meaning to, it just slips to the back of the mind and it's easy to forget you're even listening to it. The repeated melodies go from annoying to artistic, since they no longer demand attention. But it still leaves an impression, and somehow even when two songs have finished playing before you realize there's been a change in music (which happens to me a lot), you can still remember bits and pieces of the music you weren't consciously aware of. It still has an effect on you--an energetic song starts making you feel anxious, a more mellow tune calms you down--even when you have no idea, consciously, what you're listening to.
The subconscious takes in noise and responds to it. Slow, soothing sounds make the mind relax. Faster or louder songs, or a a sound you aren't familiar with, start adrenaline going the slightest bit--fight or flight reaction: since you aren't paying attention to the music consciously, your subconscious takes it in as noise and reacts to the situation that might cause such a noise. If we don't apply thought, philosophy, or emotion to what we are hearing, music becomes only noise. The noise may have rhythm, or melody, but it is still noise. Since all music is noise, Cage and other artists can rightfully say that any noise is music.
I'm not sure if this is the line of thought they follow, but this is what occured to me.

Structure In Cage’s Music Or Rather The Lack There Of

The in-class film, I Have Nothing to Say and I am Saying It, was filled with fascinating viewpoints, perplexing art forms, and comical commentaries by Cage. I’ve heard some avant-garde music before, and have even performed a few pieces with the NKU orchestras, but never before have I witnessed such irregularity and lack of structure as what is present in John Cage’s music. The avant-garde piece we performed was written by Philip Koplow specifically for a choir and a string orchestra. I remember the non-vocal music did not always coincide with the vocal music which made entrances and rests very difficult. What pulled us through was the fact that each section (Violin I, Violin II, Viola, Cello, and Bass) played together; so if you were lost as an individual, all you had to do was follow your section to find where you were supposed to be playing.
In terms of John Cage’s avant-garde music, it seems rather difficult because he does not seem to write for sections. Rather, each individual reads different music and plays different parts. In the video, he told one woman that if she became lost in the music she needn’t worry because she would be the only one that knew. In contradiction to this, the scene where the Asian woman is performing the piece on the Holocaust states that Cage’s pieces are random, but must be performed with precision and accuracy. Maybe it depends on the piece of music? I don’t know, but I do question why he would write music if it did not necessarily have to be followed. Possibly I have just been beaten over the head with training in classical music, and missing notes or an entrance usually takes away from the piece. There is definitely never a flawless performance, but the goal is to hit every note.
The explanation that makes the most sense to me deals with Cage’s over-all favorite concept: chance operation. In relation to this, I can only assume that he hoped that every piece came out as he had written it, but in allowing other people to perform his work left the “chance” that the piece could come out differently from what he had initially intended.

Cage has Sincerity

“then Mozart and some highschooler trying to play techhop acoustofunk in his mom’s basement are equally good—and that can’t be right.”
Rock on, Daniel.
I also liked how you said, Daniel, that you didn’t like how he separated sound from emotion. Yeah, I wouldn’t either. But I do not think that is what he set out to do. I started reading Silence and Cage does say that he would like to “let sounds be themselves rather than vehicles for man-made theories or expressions of human sentiments” (10). However, then he says that “sounds, when allowed to be themselves, do not require that those who hear them do so unfeelingly” (10). I think that the difference between what Daniel said, and my interpretation of what Cage really meant is this: music doesn’t need to force the composer’s own feelings on the listener, music should be whatever it is, and the listener should be able to feel however they do. If I were writing this before class had started, my thoughts would have been pretty much equal to Daniel’s. This brings me back to Daniel’s quote—there have to be levels of quality in art. And frankly, I wouldn’t want to hear whatever techhop acoustafunk is. Frightening. The whole point of art is that there are some people who are better at it, that they can enlighten us. When I first heard we were learning about some guy who thought he was groundbreaking and avant-garde because he made a piece of music that actually was not a piece of music at all, I thought he was trying to force fame upon himself by doing something so arrogant that everyone would hear about it.
But after looking deeper into Cage and his work, I have found him to be much more sincere than I ever expected. I really do believe that Cage looked at what other musicians had done and decided they were trying to force things on their listeners, rather than trying to create something that would simply aid their listeners in finding enlightenment themselves. I think Cage was actually being less pretentious than his predecessors, and was honestly trying to give his listeners more freedom.
The three minutes and forty-four seconds of silence still bugs me. But I like the reasons Cage did it. It’s interesting. The idea that the sounds, whatever sounds that are there, can be a kind of music, is cool. It makes me think, and even if it only made me feel angry or annoyed, it still ignited an emotion in me. I could say less for some music. I liked how Cage tested and broke previously held musical boundaries and paved the way for other bands (like Radiohead!) to take his ideas further. If later bands that I like were enlightened by John Cage, that, to me, puts his music on a level higher than that of Daniel’s nerdy highschooler.
PBS’s John Cage documentary, I Have Nothing to Say and Am Saying It gives a remarkable picture of John Cage’s life and work. Cage is truly remarkable—it takes a special sort of person to devote his life to music. His work with sounds is interesting—the world is full of sounds, and I’m pretty sure that John Cage has made a musical piece with all of them. Cage is perhaps the most original and creative musician of the twentieth century. (Although surprisingly, his most controversial work, 4’33’, was actually not original at all. No less than two earlier composers had already come up with the same idea, though Cage claimed to be unaware of their work).

Cage represented a new vision of art—that beauty is not in the eye of the beholder, but that of the artist. Cage did manage to become relatively famous—not quite a household name (most of my friends don’t seem to have heard of him), but nearly so. But I suspect that he would have been quite content had his music been known to only a tiny circle of avant-garde artists. In fact, for many years it was—Cage really only became notorious late in life.
John Cage’s music is creative—but also, in my view, a bit pointless. For example, Cheap Imitation is a really remarkable piece of work—I can’t imagine the difficulty of adapting the piece the way Cage did. It’s difficult, original, and creative. It’s also almost impossible to listen to—I’ve tried, and I get bored about a minute into it. (It sounds like the same three notes over and over). Maybe I’m just an unsophisticated, musically illiterate philistine (and bear in mind that I do listen to country music), but I’m pretty sure I’m not alone—outside of a relatively small number of avant-garde music fans, I doubt that the piece has many fans.

I don’t think that Cage really cared whether anyone liked Cheap Imitation—he wrote music for himself, not others. He would probably be the last person to call a piece of music—any music—“good” or “bad.” But there has to be some scale, even if that scale is simply individual taste. If not, then Mozart and some highschooler trying to play techhop acoustofunk in his mom’s basement are equally good—and that can’t be right.

John Cage’s most famous quote was the title of the PBS piece—“I have nothing to say, and am saying it.” Exactly. That is why I don’t like Cage’s music. His music was created to separate sound from emotion. But the point of music, in my mind, is to communicate, thoughts, feelings, and emotions.

Anyway, that's my opinion.


I found it quite interesting after reading about John Cage's life when it was not revolved around music. It did not surprise me when it said he graduated from high school at the age of sixteen, because he was a genius in many senses of the term. He was book smart, could always look outside the box, and he also was so musically talented that he would probably be bored if he graduated at regual pace. It was also no surprise to me that he could never see music in a traditional way, even since birth. One thing that surprised me was that he was married for a period of time. The fact that he later got a divorce was more reasonable in my opinion. He was so caught up in everything that was happening around him and analyzing every single noise in the day to day life that I could never see him as having a life with someone deep enough to last very long.
I do not see how their marriage even started, let alone how it lasted as long as it did. If I was in his shoes I don't know when I would have time for a spouse because he was so focused on music, and mushrooms, and seeing a different side of everything in the universe, literally. From his ex's perspective I cannot see how she put up with him for as long as she did, honestly. He must not have had any time for her. He may not have ever really known who his wife was and vise versa.
So I wonder how much influence the marriage had on his music. Did it even affect it at all? On the flip side, I wonder how the music affected his marriage. I wonder if it was the music and the time spent on the music ended the relationship, or if other outside factors did as well.

Sound vs. Music

After watching the video in class on John Cage (I Have Nothing to Say and I am Saying It) I really began to understand what he was striving for and experiment with. He was exploring sound and what there was to distinguish it from "music." When you think about it, the first instruments came to be when someone banged on or plucked or rattled an object. I'm sure the thought was "oooh that's a cool sound," and after years and years, that sound was harnessed and fine-tuned, and manipulated until it's what we know today as the musical instrument. It seems that, as we got to a certain point, we decided we were done finding new sounds and simply focused our efforts on the manipulation of those sounds, leaving an entire world full of vibrations to be explored. It seems that, as we limited ourselves to the perfecting of those sounds and instruments already discovered, we also limited our perception of what is or can be music. John Cage simply questioned why we limited ourselves in the first place, and continued the pioneering of instrumental discovery. All things in nature have unique and interesting noises associated with them, and Cage sought to incorporate all of those distinct qualities into his works to broaden both his and others' perception of art and music.
I found it very interesting that Cage claimed to want to be so free in his composition so as to be free of any restrictions of taste -even his. I would go as far to say especially his. As an artist, and even one who walks to the beat of his or her own drum, whether a work comes into being or not depends solely on whether the artist deems it worthy. Even when the opinions of the rest of the world are disregarded, the artist's likes, dislikes, preferences, and motives get in the way of art coming into being. By use of chance operations, Cage was able to free himself from his own constraints and allowed for the art -good or bad or beautiful or ugly or discordant- to come into being without hindrance. Cage said something to the effect of "When I hear a sound and I don't like it, I stop and think, 'why did I not like it?' and after a while, I cease to not like it anymore." I think this indicates his philosophy toward sound and music as one based on pure experience. It's not about liking or not liking the sound, but about simply hearing and experiencing it.
When commenting on his use of chance operations, Cage said something that thoroughly impressed me. It was something like, "The purpose of art isn't to convey a message. The purpose of art is to imitate Nature in her method of operation." I can dig it. Nature is random and chaotic, beautiful and terrible, but all things considered, it is very real. Look at a rose. No predictable pattern, full of imperfections, and yet it affects people. Look at moldy cheese, no predictable pattern, full of imperfections, and yet it affects people. It doesn't so much matter whether you prefer one to the other, but simply that it exists. It's about experiencing it, whether you particularly like it or not. I think Cage achieved this chaotic imitation of Nature's operations through his works, and did, in fact achieve the freedom to imitate her though use of chance operations.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Welcome To Sympathies Enlarged

The goal of this blog is to inspire thought and discussion about the art of John Cage. We will (hopefully) encounter music from a wide range of musical styles and cultures in this course, but the main focus of the blog will be the ideas, works, and continuing influence of the American composer John Cage. We begin with an inquiry into the act of listening inspired by Cage’s thought. Our goal will be to become more attentive to the various soundworlds, both natural and technologically mediated, that we inhabit. We will then explore the ways in which Cage’s ideas about sound and music have impacted contemporary musical cultures. Some of the themes we will discuss include the impact of the phonograph on musical experience and consumption, the influence of Cage on rock and jazz music, and the work of Cage-inspired sound ecologists around the world who are working to preserve natural soundscapes threatened by human development.