Tuesday, August 26, 2008

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.

1 comment:

Mark said...

I agree with penny’s observation that “the first instruments came to be when someone banged on or plucked or rattled an object…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.” But that can be taken one step further as to the degree of fine tuning. We’ve gotten these noises separated to a certain point, but, for no apparent reason, we’ve seemed to have arbitrarily stopped at our current degree of fine tuning. Why did we stop?

Blues is the only genre of “western” music (as to the extent of my knowledge) that would frequently use sounds in-between notes in their songs. The technique they used to do this was called “note-bending”. This technique, however, was very fickle in that you didn’t push a certain key on the piano to create a certain sound in-between two notes. What they actually did was play a usual note on their instrument, and then had a device that would actually bend that note “up” or “down” and then return it to its normal sound. The flip side to this was that they couldn't just play one note in-between but were forced to play many in a gradual procession. Also, This wasn't used for the purpose of fine tuning; it was used to make the note sound "sad", almost as if it were moaning. So that doesn't really count. (I know they sell keyboards with a switch at the end of the keys that you can gradually push up or down while a note is resonating in order to bend it in case you were wondering.)

Harry Partch, however, was so obsessed with this fine tuning process that he invented his own scale. He based this new scale off of the ancient Greeks, “who, at least in theory, derived all musical pitches from the clean integer ratios of the natural harmonic series.” What he ended up with was a scale that was three and seven twelfths more fine tuned than ours, containing 43 notes as compared to our 12, and had to adapt modern instruments in order to play anything that he composed.

So I just wondered, when reading "Beethoven Was Wrong", why we stopped? Or better yet, why did we go backwards? The Romans, who have helped to shape so many aspects of our culture, all but revered the Greeks for their artistic ability. Many Greeks were enslaved, not to do hard labor, but to sculpt, paint, or play music for the Roman aristocracy. They were perhaps the only peoples that the Romans admitted to being better at something than them. So why if they were so respected for their musical talents did we not continue in their direction, but instead decided to be more simplistic? Did we, long ago, decide to take the easy way out?