Tuesday, August 26, 2008

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.


Samantha said...

I don't agree completely with your idea of music. Yes, a large amount of music appeals to our emotions, experiences, moods...but that doesn't have to define all music. Art is a form of philosophy, and philosopy doesn't have to be emotional. Dada was considered trash (and is often composed of just that) since it didn't look beautiful. True, it still isn't widely accepted for the same reason, but we now understand that the artist didn't make it to show the beauty of the piece, but to provoke thought as to what beauty or creativity is.
What I'm really getting at: art in any form needs to stimulate the mind in order to be called art. This can be intellectually, as with Cage's music or Dada art, or emotionally, as you point out. That's how I see it, at any rate.

James Schack said...

Daniel I highly suggest you take Dr. Languth's Aesthetics class because this is the exact debate we have every day. What really makes art or music aesthetically pleasing or beautiful. Is it the lyrics of the song or how complex the guitar solo is? Is it how the different instruments come together in harmony? Or rather is it just the the different sounds you hear. The best answer this is to be open to whatever you hear even if its nothing at all.