John Cage: The Multiple Paths of “Instantaneous Ecstasy”
“Most selflessly . . . he encouraged the young to discover new directions.”
– John Cage on Henry Cowell1
Global “Experimental Actions”
I dedicate this essay to my students in two seminars I taught on John Cage. The first class (spring of 2008) was co-taught with Professor Geoffrey Burleson, Director of Piano Studies. While I first discovered Cage through my abiding interest in Jasper Johns’s and Robert Rauschenberg’s artistic careers, suddenly facing the task of teaching a seminar on this unclassifiable musician-artist-thinker-poet-critic-composer-mycologist was akin to facing an abyss: mesmerizing and scary.
That first class led me to understand that, contrary to my earlier assumptions, John Cage cannot be dealt with as a normal academic topic, nor, for instance, as an historical epiphenomenon of post-structuralism. Transcending fossilized labels, he continues to be alive in surprising ways, almost like a live wire—through generations of artists across the globe: this became the stimulus for the present exhibition.
The operations set off by Cage throughout his incredibly rich life of experimentation, reflection, not to mention his contagious sense of humor, were difficult to convey in the confines of an academic classroom.
There are two simple reasons for this. Cage, in order to do justice to his multifarious and daunting practices, forces us to think across disciplines, and across continents. The history of the arts (plural) is not used to thinking in this way; the discipline at large is still divided according to media—and according to continents (Africa, Asia, Latin America—and Europe, the only continent which, for some reason, continues to be divided up in countries). Cage merrily crossed all such borders—physically, intellectually, artistically. He was not afraid of disciplines other than his own; in fact, he made almost any artistic discipline his own. From poetry to music, from drawing and printing to filmmaking, there was not a single form of art that did not offer some points of fascination to Cage. He was insatiably curious, open-minded, generous beyond words—and always willing to be challenged intellectually. This was a set of qualities that made him a hero among artists. Art historians continue to find him difficult and challenging, however, because our discipline, still structured as it was in the 1950s, is not yet equipped to deal with such a phenomenon. For Cage, all of the arts formed a large, and endlessly fascinating, continuum, each one potentially enriching the other, without any particular form of art dominating the others. Cage was a true anarchist—artistically speaking.
Similarly, if Cage’s thinking and creative process was induced by cross-fertilization from one artistic medium to the next, he was also a restless traveler—from one world to the next. This exhibition explores this aspect of Cage’s personality; it takes us back upon the paths that Cage opened up half a century ago, and leads us to many different areas where he continues to be such a source of admiration and enablement among generations of artists. To get a sample of this, we will only cast a brief glance at Cage’s inordinate capacity to immerse himself in cultures by looking at his presence in Japan first, and then in Brazil.
In fact, the wide diversity of artists presented here, and the multitude of propositions inherent in their works, made the rich and compelling complexity of “The Cage Effect” fully apparent to us. Cage’s unique sensibility triggered a dynamic still prevalent today, as can be gauged from one room to another in the present exhibition.
Going back to Cage’s inimitably direct and simple prose, an experimental action is “simply an action the outcome of which cannot be foreseen.”2 In order to test the full measure of these unforeseeable strings of “outcomes,” we moved to the Hunter MFA building on 41st street, in order to physically test how this risk-taking stance took shape today—how Cage’s acute and deep interest in “next to nothing” (whether in music, or in any form of expression) was embodied in our MFA students’ daily creative practices. There, the works by MFA students, Bill Abdale, Paul Helzer, Martin Murphy, Arrick Underhill, Steven Rose, Austin Willis (as well as Julio Grinblatt), to name but a few, convinced me that “The Cage Effect” was vibrant and alive in today’s generation of artists. For all of them and their artistic practices, the presence of Cage was in each case very different but pivotal—this came as a total surprise to me. Not only did these MFA students articulate through their artistic practices one or several tropes of Cage’s incredibly complex, and infinitely rewarding system, but they also produced some memorable essays, together with their MA and a couple of Ph.D. colleagues: I would like to recognize, among them, Cara Manes, David Duncan (both of whom were teaching assistants in 2008), and Lauren Pollock. In the end, this class taught me that with Cage (maybe uniquely?), an intense effort of reflection brings its fullest result only if it is co-extensive with an act of equally intense, almost physical, engagement in Cage’s own practice. Under Professor Burleson’s cathartic aegis, we ended up performing Imaginary Landscape IV(1951) in the West Lobby of Hunter College on 68th street (possibly the premiere collaboration at Hunter between graduate students from the Music, Art History, and Studio Art departments).
In his seminal 1961 book, Silence, Cage wrote about this composition:
It is thus possible to make a musical composition the continuity of which is free of individual taste and memory (psychology) and also of the literature and “traditions” of the art. The sounds enter the time-space centered within themselves, unimpeded by the service to any abstraction, their 360 degrees of circumference free for an infinite play of interpenetration. Value judgments are not in the nature of this work as regards either composition, performance, or listening. The idea of relation being absent, anything may happen. A “mistake” is beside the point, for once anything happens it authentically is.3
Cage’s words took on a different resonance (literally) after this performance (which can be seen on YouTube).4
More recently, in the fall of 2011, I decided to take the discoveries I made with the class of 2008 as the premise for another Cage seminar—for which Renata Contins and Alex Niemetz receive here my heartfelt thanks. This time, we started with the assumption that Cage (far more so than Warhol) was the American artist who first achieved a truly international reputation and a global recognition. His impact on the Western European scene (let alone the rise of Fluxus) needs no more corroboration. His presence in Japan may be a little less known. His presence on the Latin American continent was scarcely known. This exhibition, and its catalogue, examines Cage’s presence worldwide, and his impact across several generations.
His visit to the dry garden of the Ryôan-ji Temple in Kyoto, in 1962, has drawn ample comments—though not much in art history.5 In part due to Ozu Yasujirô’s famous film on the Ryôan-ji garden, its impeccably raked bed of sand and fifteen rocks, this Kyoto garden gave rise to a whole Western-oriented form of literature, plotting the tension between the impermanence of the sand versus the solid monumentality of the rocks. Except that, as a young critic from Japan expressed in a seminar on Aesthetics at the University of Paris in 2005, these standard Western theoretical constructions have very little to do with a Japanese way of looking and thinking. Suzuki Yuuko, looking at Ozu’s film (which Cage knew well) insists, instead, on the notion of “continuity of no-continuity.” Yuuko refers to Ozu’s famous cuts on the Kyoto garden as ma-shots (ma means “interval”). “These disrupt time and space in such a manner that the “rhythm” which they introduce may not be controlled according to our “normal” ways of reading or phrasing. Indeed, when we read or phrase a sentence or melody, we try to ward off, at least in principle, the irregular and the unpredictable.”6 This is precisely where John Cage comes into it. When he visited Ryôan-ji in 1962, he turned to his host and suggested that if the planes of neatly raked sand were to be taken for the Void, or for Infinite Emptiness, then the placement of the rocks could be seen as resulting from chance operations. Cage had inverted the Western perspective on the enigma of this garden and, letting go of the principle of neatly separating the irregular from the orderly and predictable, invited us to celebrate another reading of Ryôan-ji that would yield to irregularity, permanent unsolvability, and unpredictability, instead of a binary system of oppositions. What is spectacular about Cage is that, being an American, he was endowed with an infinite capacity to shed any remnant of his Western upbringing, in order to readily adopt other concepts and ways of thinking.
Ryôan-ji made an impression on Cage: twenty years later, he took to collecting rocks, finding in them the same riches as in an exhibition of several works of art. He started drawing, and then published lithographs of these works; and finally, began composing his “Ryôan-ji series.” It consisted of several superimpose-able “gardens” of sounds for various instruments (flute, oboe, contrabass, voice, and cello), but was left incomplete when Cage passed away in 1992. This episode only represents but a tiny fragment of Cage’s intellectual and artistic biography, giving us a sense of the considerable mass of material, works, texts, and ideas that he left behind.
Today, the presence in the exhibition of Ushio Shinohara, who came into contact with Cage via Rauschenberg and Johns in the early 1960s, and of two artists a generation younger—Yukio Fujimoto and Kaz Oshiro—whose oeuvres, each with very individual tones, elaborate on the impossible fusion of sound and sculpture (which are, however, complementary) testify to the richness of Cage’s continuous impact in Japan.
The nature of our knowledge of Cage in Japan was enriched by the welcome publication of a book packed with facts, archives, and images. This book, by Hiroko Ikegami, is titled The Great Migrator,7 which might have been a perfect metaphor for Cage himself, but in this context refers to the figure of Robert Rauschenberg, who once told me that Cage had “authorized” him to do things he had not thought possible before. In Ikegami’s book, one attends the spectacle of a double case of authorization: here, in part, Rauschenberg (having been “authorized” to do things unimaginable) in turn authorizes a new generation of Japanese artists (among them Shinohara) who ipso factotest the ground that Rauschenberg laid in front of them. This, in truth, is a perfect case of compounded “experimentation” in the Cagean definition.
While examining the global effects of Cage today, the most obvious case of gaining new knowledge through this last seminar came from our immersion in Cage and Latin America. Here, I would like to thank those colleagues and friends who have contributed to this reflection on the presence of John Cage in the Latin American art scene. Bibi Calderaro, Renata Contins, Professor Julio Grinblatt, Adjunct Professor of Art, Professor Harper Montgomery, the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Professor of Latin American Art, and all the students who delved into this theme through class here receive my profuse thanks. A lecture given by Professor Montgomery on Cildo Meireles and Cage was one of the highlights of that semester—and opened up new perspectives to think afresh about contemporary Latin American art, but also hinted at other possible directions of focus within the Cage studies.
I believe that we have only begun to scratch the surface of a whole new field of research that indicates, again in both directions, Cage’s abiding interest in the Latin American continent, and the unexpectedly high number of living artists, coming from different generations, who continue to explore through their own practices a particular Cagean problematic. Once, when struck by the number of artists who have found Cage conducive to their own research, I asked Professor Grinblatt why so many artists are looking at Cage in Brazil—he answered without even a blink: “The entirety of Brazil is Cagean!”
In 1963, the musicians Damiano Cozzela, Rogério Duprat, Júlio Medaglia, Gilberto Mendes, and Willy Corrêa de Oliveira, launched the Musica Nova, and composed a manifesto declaring “their total commitment to the contemporary world.” Through the Não Música Nova Festival, they introduced Cage’s compositions (among other notorious European or American experimental composers) to the Brazilian public. They also gave “The Cage Effect” a distinctly political and radical inflection, and shared this characteristic with many artists who developed an interest in him throughout the Latin American continent—which could only happily suit Cage, given his repeated intentions to “demilitarize language” and his close ties with anarchism.
But, as with all things Cagean, surprise has been the most consistent thread of our research. Bibi Calderaro, Renata Contins, and I (almost on the same day, but independently) came to realize that one of the big attractions of John Cage to Brazil was concrete poetry, namely through the agency of Augusto de Campos. I quote an email from Calderaro, dated November 15, 2011:
On Friday I attended a conference by the translator and scholar of Augusto de Campos, his name is Charles Perrone from Univ. of Florida. When I approached him to tell him about our show, he proclaimed: “you must include Augusto in the show!” and “I have footage of Augusto embracing John when he came to São Paulo…”
Marjorie Perloff, however, was one of the first authors to have pointed out that one of the ties between Cage and Brazil was mainly through poetry, and namely “the Brazilian Noigandres group (Augusto de Campos, Haroldo de Campos, and Decio Pignatari), with whom he shared many aesthetic principles and who have assiduously translated and disseminated his writings.”8
But while the link with Brazilian concrete poetry existed, the relationship between Meireles and Cage, for instance, had not elicited much study: it is very likely that concrete poetry, and more specifically the Noigandres, provided the link that tended to make Cage so widely known in Brazil. According to concrete poetry—Augusto de Campos’s Luxo (1965) or Pignatari’s Beba coca cola (1957)—an image replete in the works by Meireles—the visual predominates, whereas with Cage, it is always the aural that has the upper hand. Perloff further explains:
However visually striking Cage’s verbal scores may be, the mesostic column creating an interesting pattern and the punctuation marks of the original often strewn around the page, as in Roaratorio, poetic density depends primarily on sound, as actualized in performance. Cage was, after all, a composer even when the materials he worked with were linguistic rather than musical.9
Despite (or maybe because of) the differences in their poetic practices, Cage and de Campos remained close. De Campos is responsible for a vast effort of translation of Cage in Brazilian Portuguese, and, undeniably, acted as an important cultural bridge that permitted the dissemination of Cagean aesthetics. It is interesting to think that the first emergence of John Cage in Latin America would have been first and foremost through his interest in poetry.
This gives us a brief aperçu of the phenomenal diversity of interests that John Cage pursued, and begins to give us a sense of the multiple directions that Cage explored through his career, with a degree of openness, curiosity, and generosity that is a very rare attribute.
This very fast and too short survey of the expansive presence of Cage almost all over the globe and through so many different media, and artistic practices, also explains the considerable diversity of artists who responded in singular ways to the “The Cage Effect.”
And what is the be-ginning of no middles meanings and endings? And what is the ending of no beginnings middles and meanings?10
– John Cage
“We’re here together, so begin!”11
Beginnings Ends Beginnings
Strictly speaking, the present exhibition is not about Cage, but about Cage’s “effect” on the contemporary art scene globally. I would like, however, to say a few words about a period of Cage’s work that is not much spoken about: The End. Three years before his death, John Cage appeared in an interactive performance, planned for a sound design conference in Nicasio, California.12 One ought to be careful when using the word “planned” while referring to John Cage: indeed, what was planned actually never happened. Instead, a performance that had not been planned took place.
Here is Cage (in the photograph above), now seventy-seven years old—not exactly a beginner anymore—about to begin a performance ofHow To Get Started. The marks of his jovial, generous, often infectious, laughter are indelibly etched on his wrinkled, yet youthful face. There is something deep, grave, and light-hearted at the same time about his facial expression: as if nothing had ever begun, or as if everything was just about to get started. Perhaps, yes, after seventy-seven years, things were only just about to get started—and starting something is, at any given point, daunting.
Or, was he thinking that, in the end, it IS the end of one’s life that brings forth the beginning? I never thought of John Cage and Georg Wilhelm Hegel as having much in common, but in The Phenomenology of the Spirit, Hegel says something that sounds oddly Cagean. The True, says Hegel, “is the process of its own becoming, the circle that presupposes its end as its goal, having its end also as its beginning; and only by being worked out to its end, is it actual.”13 Or again, Hegel resumes the same metaphor, that of “the circle that returns into itself, the circle that presupposes its beginning and reaches it only at the end.”14 This last sentence could read as the legend for the photograph above. It is echoed by Cage:
A finished work is exactly that, requires resurrection.15
We will not know what Cage was thinking that day, but this moving photograph shows us the aging John Cage, with a deep air of gravity, as if he was experiencing some stage fright, as if this new beginning (one of many thousands of beginnings in his incredibly rich and fertile career) was his first. This is certainly an important aspect of the legacy of John Cage today: each time one stands on a stage, sits in front of one’s canvas, looks in the lens of one’s camera, is always for the first time—ever—to experience “art for the
This is the very nature of the dance, of the phenomenon of music, or any other art requiring performance of music, or any other art requiring performance (for this reason, the term “sand painting” is used: there is a tendency in painting (permanent pigments), as in poetry (printing, binding), to be secure in the thingness of a work, and thus to overlook, and place nearly insurmountable obstacles in the path of,instantaneous ecstasy.16
This emphasis on the creative unit (any, and all creative instants) as a prime point of departure is a shibboleth with Cage:
We are, as Gertrude Stein said, the oldest country of the twentieth century. And I like to add: in our way of knowing newness.17
Each act is virgin, even the repeated one, to refer to René Char’s thought.18
And when he refers to painters, he quotes Paul Klee, for instance:
“I want to be as though new-born, knowing nothing, absolutely nothing about Europe.”19
or de Kooning:
“The past does not influence me; I influence it.”20
The exhibition Notations: The Cage Effect Today, takes account of this fact—that beginnings and ends are inherently (if not dialectically) interwoven. As we are celebrating John Cage’s one hundreth anniversary, it is fitting to observe that what he had started—and what he kept starting for about six decades of assiduous, and relentless inventive creation, has never stopped starting, and is about to get started again. Beginning and end mutually inform each other: younger and older artists, from all over, are picking up where Cage left off. The one hundreth anniversary of his birth coincides with the twentieth anniversary of his death, as if Cage had meant to conceive of his own biological cycle itself as a smooth, seamless continuum. After twenty years of his absence being felt in the art world, his presence is, oddly enough, also noticeable through younger generations of artists who have been deeply impacted in their practices and often in their lives by the Cage Phenomenon. Ironically, Cage has never been more alive than today—through generations of artists, all over the globe, who have been tenaciously exploring some of the tropes that Cage left behind.
Let us return to How To Get Started. The piece consisted of an interactive performance between Cage and two electronic musicians whom Cage carefully thanks (using the future tense): “And I’m about to be grateful to two others: Dennis Leonard and Bob Schumacher.”
Cage had ten sheets of things written in front of him.
Some of these sheets—there are ten—I’ve jotted down ideas that I’ve had for a long time. And others are things that—most of them are things that have happened to me recently. I’m not going to read them in the order that I wrote them, nor am I going to read them. I’m going to use them as the basis for a kind of improvisation.21
While Cage read (but didn’t really read) the first sheet that chance presented him, Leonard and Schumacher recorded his voice, and then went on layering his voice as he was continuing to read (or not read) his ten sheets of notes.
As Aaron Levy and Laura Kuhn put it,22 “This amounted to an experiment having to do with thinking in public, before a live audience.”23
The present exhibition very much tests the possibilities, and the promises, laid out by this program: an experiment having to do with thinking in public, before a live audience. The hypothesis of the seminar was to demonstrate that Cage was the first American artist who acquired a truly global dimension.
Closer even to his very end, literally a few months before his death, Cage began to tackle a medium he had never touched before: film. He certainly knew a lot about film very early on. He famously met Marcel Duchamp when the two artists were invited to collaborate on Hans Richter’s 1947 film, Dreams that Money can Buy. In 1949, in an enlightening text titled “Forerunners of Modern Music,” he opposes those who practice synthetic music working with magnetic wires (e.g., Norman McLaren) versus those who use film as a support:
Twenty-four or n frames per second is the “canvas” upon which this music is written; thus, in a very obvious way, the material itself demonstrates the necessity for time (rhythmic) structure.24
Exactly fifteen years later, Andy Warhol would push the fullest implication of this analysis in film, and create Empire (1964), arguably one of the most Cagean films, by setting the camera on an immobile tripod while the lens focused on the Empire State building. As if having read Cage’s remark about “the necessity for time (rhythmic) structure,” Warhol decided to twist the normal length from twenty-four frames per second to sixteen frames per second—the whole film lasting eight hours and five minutes—and the decision to reduce the rolling speed of the film by a quarter (twenty-four to sixteen frames per minute) was, almost perversely, practically unnoticeable given that the film fixes on a motionless subject: the Empire State Building.
Cage, despite his early interest in film—and having often appeared in films directed by others—never grappled himself with this medium, until 1992, the year of his death. The introduction to his film on the UbuWeb website reads:
John Cage created his only feature-length film in the year he died. A sublime performance for camera-person and light, One11 is a film without subject, in black and white. There is light but no persons, no things, no ideas about repetition and variation. The final impression is of another, timeless place—freely roaming the clouds or, perhaps, under the sea. Chance operations were used with respect to the lighting, camera shots and the editing of the film. The light environment was designed and programmed by John Cage and Andrew Culver. The orchestral work 103 musically accompanies One11. Like the film, 103 is 90-minutes long, divided into seventeen parts—its density varies from solos, duos, trios to full orchestral tuttis.25
The film is very beautiful—the projection of light roaming around on white walls of a white room, randomly, and with no anchoring spatial point, has a spectral and daunting quality. What is extraordinary about it is that Cage, coming to the end of his life—and a very long career—seems to want to take us back to the very beginning of things. The film is accompanied by 103, a composition created independently of the film that is also ninety minutes long. It recalls Cage’s early work: a full orchestra performs the score, which includes instrumentation for solos, duets, and trios. Yet, somehow, neo-romantic undertones can be detected in this composition having very little to do with the type of compositions Cage was creating at the end of his life. Cage seems to rewind his life back to the early days when he was studying under Arnold Schönberg. These beautiful chords, together with the minimal yet highly poetic beam of light dancing on the walls of the room, carry together a magical effect. This is what Cage had to say about this:
Of course the film will be about the effect of light in an empty space. But no space is actually empty and the light will show what is in it. And all this space and all this light will be controlled by random operations.26
The film One11will open a program of films at Hunter, organized in concert with our colleagues from the Film Department, that will include a series of works by artists who follow suit with Cage with this medium, such as Rivane Neuenschwander’s quasi-magical and ever-so-subtleInventory of small deaths (blow) (2000), an approximately five-minute odyssey of a bubble floating through a landscape.
John Cage was quoted as saying that he hoped that, through this film, viewers would be led to find themselves. It is our hope that going through the present exhibition, viewers will find themselves on the path that Cage began to pave for them.