About The book: I-VI. The title is a shorthand abbreviation of the lectures’ real title: MethodStructureIntentionDisciplineNotationIndeterminacyInterpenetration-Imitatio n Devotion Circumstances VariableStructureNonunderstandingContingencyInconsistencyPerformance. The volume is well made, expensively produced, and extravagantly set. It is even packaged with two tapes, one of which contains the entire performance of one of the six lectures that John Cage delivered, and the other a session of questions and answers with the Norton lecturer that followed the talks. “Instead of looking for mushrooms in a forest,” the composer tells one interrogator when describing his lectures, “I’m looking for ideas in a brushing of source material.” Cage doesn’t develop ideas, or create them. They just happen to appear as he strolls through his “source material,” mushroom basket in hand.
Here, for example, is one specimen that the casual hiker in these pages might come across: food for themselves and/have discovered legal ties to/burn wooden/points in time when there Are not points but/rejected Israel and the united states face to/a new job and even a totally new
The capital letters should align themselves vertically on the page to spell INDETERMINACY. Each set of lines in the lectures, in fact, has one of the words from the lecture’s titles-method, Structure, Intention, etc.-running down its center. Cage refers to these constructions as “mesostics,” a term invented by Norman O. Brown to describe Cage’s peculiar variation on the acrostic. Printed underneath this poesy are three lines of small print, without punctuation or capitalization, that contain the running text of Cage’s discussions with questioners and challengers-as if forming a layer of mulch out of which the text seems to sprout. Cage is asked about the time he played poker with Jacqueline Susann (he doesn’t remember it), or for his views on politics and performance (he is an “anarchist”), or to respond to observations about how difficult it is to concentrate on the lectures.
The source of the difficulty is simple enough. Each line in the lecture had its central word selected b what Cage calls “chance operations.” There is no particular reason why one line should follow another; they are randomly put together. “This frees me,” Cage gleefully explains, “from memory, tastes, likes and dislikes.” Cage once used the I Ching as his instrument of liberation-thus giving the choices of tones and phrases a semi-mystical aura as he tossed sticks according to the ancient Chinese oracle. But the aura evidently became less convenient the more exotic Cage’s techniques became. Now he depends on a computer program for assistance, its spit-out numbers determining the locations of words and ideas and sounds.
The most surprising thing about this technique-which Cage has used for nearly four decades-is how influential it has been. Our century has been notable for continuing attempts to create musical systems to replace conventional tonality. One system, popularized by the European avant-garde during the 1950s, involved increasing the territory governed by law, to systematize everything from pitch to timbre. Cage’s system-which affected generations of self-inspired American avant-gardists-abdicated law and control nearly completely by submitting to the vagaries of dice or the I Ching. (At the Phillips Gallery in Washington, there is currently a show of watercolors by Cage painted in consultation with the I Ching.) Schoenberg, with whom Cage once studied counterpoint (and who was himself preoccupied with creating a compositional system), called him an “inventor of genius,” but declined to use the word “composer.”
For Cage was not primarily looking for a way to create art music. In the midst of the discussions that accompany these lectures, Cage tells a story he has told before, of a dinner with Marcel Duchamp in which they discussed the aesthetic qualities of bread crumbs falling on the table. The veteran French avantgardist-who once installed a urinal in a museum-argued that haphazardly dropped crumbs were hardly deserving of much aesthetic notice. But Cage argued that the crumbs, as they landed, were art enough. The point was simply to come upon them and to point to them.
This means not placing the urinal in the museum, but placing the museum around the urinal. It is an idea that Cage has turned into his own distinctive aesthetic religion, mixing it with allusions to Zen. All sounds, all words, all crumbs, are worthy of equal attention. All life is art. All art Is beyond judgment. For Cage, the object is almost to become innocent of all choice and rules and distinction, and then to remain ignorant of why one thing is being heard over another. “What is the advantage of not knowing what you are doing?” John Ashbery once asked Cage.”it cheers up the knowing,” the composer answered. “Otherwise, knowing will be very self-conscious and frequently guilty.” Cage’s choice is to avoid choice.
But of course Cage doesn’t treat all events equally. He makes guilty choices; he just hides behind the dice. One such choice is to give “chance” events more value over anything chosen, to value chaos more than regulation. Cage’s art is not just “found” art. It is created as found. It’s as if mushrooms were planted in the woods and harvested as wild.
Cage makes sure to plant them in very particular places-wherever they will hasten the disintegration of ordinary language and meaning, which Cage calls militarized.” His mushrooms feed off these meanings, destroying them. “During the period of harmony and counterpoint,” Cage once said, “there was good and bad, and rules to support the good against the bad. Today we must identify ourselves with noises instead.” One of music’s purposes, he told one interviewer, is “to undermine the making of value judgments,” and his works take this as their project. Cage once said he would agree to conduct the Beethoven symphonies only if he could assemble enough players to perform every symphony at the same time (with electronic data stored and protected here). He has also suggested the founding of a university in which all lectures would be given in the same room simultaneously.
So the point is not really some Zen-like appreciation of bread crumbs; it is the Dadaist mess the m k B not even fully Dadaist, this mess. Cage has claimed, for example, he wanted his music to “be free of my own likes and dislikes,” and he claims the same for these lectures. Yet the “point” of most of these lectures, the exercise of likes and dislikes in their composition, is unmistakable. Every random word in the lectures is chosen from a long text reprinted at the book’s conclusion-a set of quotations Cage has put together from newspapers and pet philosophers. Thoreau is quoted, as are Buckminster Fuller and Wittgenstein. (“I have long been attracted to his work,” Cage says, “reading it with enjoyment but rarely with understanding.”)