John Cage, Silence

History of Experimental Music in the United States

Once when Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki was giving a talk at Columbia University he mentioned the name of a Chinese monk who had figured in the history of Chinese Buddhism. Sukuki said, "He lived in the ninth or the tenth century." He added, after a pause, "or the seventh century, or the twelfth or thirteenth century of the fourteenth."

About the same time, Willem de Kooning, the New York painter, gave a talk at the Art Alliance in Philadelphia. Afterwards there was a discussion: questions and answers. Someone asked De mooning who the painters of the past were who had influenced him the most. De Kooning said, "The past does not influence me; I influence it."

A little over ten years ago I acted as music editor for a magazine called Possibilities. Only one issue of this magazine appeared. However: in it, four American composers (Virgil Thomson, Edgard Varese, Ben Weber, and Alexei Haieff) answered question put to them by twenty other composers. My question to Varese concerned his views of the future of music. His answer that neither the past nor the future interested him; that his concern was with the present.

Sri Ramakrishna was once asked, "Why, if God is good, is there evil in the world?" He said, "In order to thicken the plot." Nowadays in the field of music, we often hear that everything is possible; (for instance) that with electronic means one may employ any sound (any frequency, any amplitude, any timbre, any duration); that there are no limits to possibility. This is technically, nowadays, theoretically possible and in practical terms is often felt to be impossible only because of the absence of mechanical aids which, nevertheless, could be provided if the society felt the urgency of musical advance. Debussy said quite some time ago, "Any sounds in any combination and in any succession are henceforth free to be used in a musical continuity." Paraphrasing the question put to Sri Ramakrishna and the answer he gave, I would ask this: "Why, if everything is possible, do we concern ourselves with history (in other words with a sense of what is necessary to be done at a particular time?" And I would answer, "In order to thicken the plot." In this view, then, all those interpenetrations which seem at first glance to b hellish - history, for instance, if we are speaking of experimental music - are to be espoused. One does not then make just any experiment but dos what must be done. By this I mean one does not seek by his actions to arrive at fame (success) but does what must be done; one does not seek by his actions to provide pleasure to the senses (beauty) but does what must be done; one does not seek by this actions to arrive at the establishing of a school (truth) but does what must be done. One does something else. What else?

In an article called "new and Electronic Music," Christian Wolff says: What is, or seems to be, new in this music?... One finds a concern for a kind of objectivity, almost anonymity - sound come into its own. The 'music' is a resultant existing simply in the sounds we hear, given no impulse by expressions of self or personality. It is indifferent in motive, originating in no psychology nor in dramatic intentions, nor in literary or pictorial purposes. For at least some of these composers, then, the final intention is to be free of artistry and taste. But his need not make their work 'abstract,' for nothing, in the end, is denied. It is simply that personal expression, drama, psychology, and the like are not part of the composer's initial calculation: they are at best gratuitous.

"The procedure of composing tends to be radical, going directly to the sounds and their characteristics, to the way in which they are produced and how they are notated."

"Sound come into its own." What does that mean? For one thing: it means that noise s are as useful to new music as so-called musical tones, for the simple reason that they are sounds. This decision alters the view of history, so that one is no longer concerned with tonality or atonality, Schoenberg or Stravinsky (the twelve tones or the twelve expressed as seven plus five), nor with consonance and dissonance, but rather with Edgard Varese who fathered forth noise into twentieth-century music. But it is clear that ways must be discovered that allow noises and tones to be just noises and tones, not exponents subservient to Varese's imagination.

What else did Varese do that is relevant to present necessity? He was the first to write directly for instruments, giving up the practice of making a piano sketch and later orchestrating it. What is unnecessary in Varese (from a present point of view of necessity) are all his mannerisms, of which two stand out as signatures (the repeated note resembling a telegraphic transmission and the cadence of a tone held through a crescendo to maximum amplitude). These mannerisms do not establish sounds in their own right. They make it quit difficult to hear the sounds just as they are, for they draw attention to Varese ad his imagination.

What is the nature of an experimental action? It is simply an action the outcome of which is not foreseen. It is therefore very useful if one has decided that sounds are to come into their own, rather than being exploited to express sentiments or ideas of order. Among these actions the outcomes of which are not foreseen, actions resulting from chance operation are useful. However, more essential than composing by means of chance operations, it seems to me now is composing in such a way that what one does is indeterminate of its performance. In such a case one can just work directly, for nothing one does gives rise to anything that I preconceived. This necessitates, of course, a rather great change in habits of notation. I take a sheet of paper and place points on it. Next I make parallel lines on a transparency, say five parallel lines. I establish five categories of sound for the five lines, but I do not say which line is which category. The transparency may be placed on the sheet with points in any position and readings of the points may be taken with regard to all the characteristics one wishes to distinguish. Another transparency may be used for further measurements, even altering the succession of sounds in time. In this situation no chance operations are necessary (for instance, no tossing of coins) for nothing is foreseen, though everything may be later minutely measured or simply taken as a vague suggestion.

Implicit here, it seems to me, are principles familiar from modern painting and architecture: collage and space. What makes this action like Dada are the underlying philosophical views and the collage like actions. But what makes this action unlike Dada is the space in it. For it is the space and emptiness that is finally urgently necessary at this point in history (not the sounds that happen in it - or their relationships) (not the stones - thinking of a Japanese stone garden - or their relationships but the emptiness of the sand which needs the stones anywhere in the space in order to be empty). When I said recently in Darmstadt that one could write music by observing the imperfections in the paper upon which one was writing, a student who did not understand because he was full of musical ideas asked, "Would one piece of paper be better than another: one for instance that had more imperfections? He was attached to sounds and because of his attachment could not let sounds be just sounds. He needed to attach himself to the emptiness, to the silence. Then things - sounds, that is - would come into being of themselves. Why is this so necessary that sounds should be just sounds? There are many ways of saying why. One is this: In order that each sound may become the Buddha. If that is too Oriental an expression, take the Christian Gnostic statement: "Split the stick and there is Jesus."

We know now that sounds and noises are not just frequencies (pitches): that is why so much of European musical studies and even so much of modern music is not longer urgently necessary. It is pleasant if you happen to hear Beethoven or Chopin or whatever, but it isn't urge st to do so any more. Nor is harmony or counterpoint or counting in meters of two, three, or four or any other number. So that much of Ives (Charles Ives) is no longer experimental or necessary for us (though people are so used to knowing that he was the first to do such and such). He did do things in space and in collage, and he did say, Do this or this (whichever you choose), and so indeterminacy which is so essential now did enter into his music. But his meters and rhythms are no longer any more important for us than curiosities of the past like the patterns one finds in Stravinsky. Counting is no longer necessary for magnetic tape music (where so many inches or centimeters equal so many seconds): magnetic tape music makes it clear that we are in time itself, not in measures of two, three, or four or any other number. And so instead of counting we use watches if we want to know where in time we are, or rather where in time a sound is to be. All this can be summed up by saying each aspect of sound (frequency, amplitude, timbre, duration) is to be seen as a continuum, not as a series of discrete steps favored by conventions (Occidental or Oriental). (Clearly all the Americana aspects of Ives are in the way of sound coming into its own, since sounds by their nature are no more American than they are Egyptian.)

Carl Ruggles? He works and reworks a handful of compositions o that they better and better express his intentions, which perhaps ever so slightly are changing. His work is therefore not experimental at all but in a most sophisticated way attached to the past and to art.

Henry Cowell was for many years the open sesame for new music in America. Mos selflessly he published the New Music Edition and encouraged the young to discover new directions. From him, as from an efficient information booth, you could always get not only the address and telephone number of anyone working in a lively way in music, but you could also get an unbiased introduction from him as to what that anyone was doing. He was not attached (as Varese also was not attached) to what seemed to so many to be he important question: Whether to follow Schoenberg or Stravinsky. He's early works for piano, long before Varese's Ionization (which, by the way, was published by Cowell), by their tone clusters and use of the piano strings, pointed towards noise and a continuum of timbre. Other works of his are indeterminate in ways analogous to those currently in use by Boulez and Stockhausen. For example: Cowell's Mosaic Quartet, where the performers, in any way they choose, produce a continuity from composed blocks provided by him. Or his Elastic Musics, the time lengths of which can be short or long through the use or omission of measures provided by him. These actions by Cowell Mae very close to current experimental compositions which have parts but no scores, and which are therefore not objects but processes providing experience not burdened by psychological intentions on the part of the composer.

And in connection with musical continuity, Cowell remarked at the New School before a concert of works by Christian Wolff, Earle Brown, Morton Feldman, and myself, that there were four composers where getting rid of glue. That is: Where people had felt the necessity to stick sounds together to make a continuity, we four felt the opposite necessity to get rid of the glue so that sounds would be themselves.

Christian Wolff was the first to do this. He wrote some pieces vertically on the page but recommended their being played horizontally left to right, as is conventional. Later he discovered other geometrical means for freeing his music of intentional continuity. Morton Feldman divided pitches into three areas, high middle, and low, and established a time unit. Writing on graph paper, he simply inscribed numbers of tones to be played at any time within specified periods of time.

There are people who say, "If music's that easy to write, I could do it." Of course they could, but they don't. I find Feldman's own statement more affirmative. We were driving back from some place in New England where a concert had been given. He is a large man and falls asleep easily. Out of a sound sleep, he awoke to say, "Now that things are so simple, there's so much to do." And then he went back to sleep.

Giving up control so that sounds can be sounds (they are not men: they are sounds) means for instance: the conductor of an orchestra is no longer a policeman. Simply an indicator of time - not in beats - like a chronometer. He has his own part. Actually he is not necessary if all the players have Somme other way of knowing what time it is and how that time is changing.

What else is there to say about the history of experimental music in America? Probably a lot. But we don't need to talk about neo-classicism (I agree with Varese when he says neo-classicism is indicative of intellectual poverty), nor about the twelve-tone system. In Europe, the number twelve has already been dropped and in a recent lecture Stockhausen questions the current necessity for the concept of a series. Elliott Carter's ideas about rhythmic modulation are not experimental They just extend sophistication out from tonality ideas towards ideas about modulation from one tempo to another. They put a new wing on the academy and open no doors to the world outside the school. Cowell's present interests in the various traditions, Oriental and early American, are not experimental but eclectic. Jazz per se derives from serious music. And when serious music derives from it, the situation becomes rather silly.

One must make an exception in the case of William Russell. Though still living, he no longer composes. His works, though stemming from jazz - hot jazz - New Orleans and Chicago styles - were short, epigrammatic, original and entirely interesting. It may be suspected that he lacked the academic skills which would have enabled him to extend and develop his ideas. The fact is, his pieces were all expositions without development and therefore, even today, twenty years after their composition, interesting to hear. He used string drums made from kerosene cans, washboards, out-of-tune upright pianos; he cut a board such a length that it could be used to play all the eighty-eight piano keys at once.

If one uses the word "experimental" (somewhat differently than I have been using it) to mean simply the introduction of novel elements into one's music, we find that America has a rich history: the clusters of Leo Ornstein, the resonances of Dane Rudhyar, the near-Eastern aspects of Alan Hovhaness, the tack piano of Lou Harrison, my own prepared piano, the distribution in space of instrumental ensembles in works by Henry Brant, the sliding tones of Ruth Crawford and, more recently, Gut her Schuller, the microtones and novel instruments of Harry Patch, the mathematic continuity of cliches of Virgil Thomson. These are not experimental composers in my terminology, but neither are they part of the stream of European music which though formerly divided into neo-classicism and dodecaphony has become one in America under Arthur Berger's term, consolidation: consolidation of the acquisitions of Schoenberg and Stravinsky.

Actually America has an intellectual climate suitable for radical experimentation. We are, as Gertrude Stein said, the oldest country of the twentieth century. And I like to add: in our air way of knowing nowness. Buckminister Fuller, the dymaxion architect, in his three-hour lecture on the history of civilization, explains that men leaving Asia to go to Europe went again the wind and developed machines, ideas, and Occidental philosophies in accord with a struggle against nature; that, on the other hand, men leaving Asia to go to America went with the wind, put up a sail, and developed ideas and Oriental philosophies in accord with the acceptance of nature. These two tendencies met in America, producing a movement into the air, not bound to the past, traditions, or whatever. Once in Amsterdam, a Dutch musician said to me, "it must be very difficult for you in America to write music, for you are so far away from the centers of tradition." I had to say, "It must be very difficult for you in Europe to write music, you are so close to the centers of tradition." Why, since the climate for experimentation in America is so good, why is American experimental music so lacking in strength politically ( mean unsupported by those with money (individuals and foundations), unpublished, undiffused, ignored), and why is there so little of that is truly uncompromising? I think the answer is this: Until 1950 about all the energy for furthering music America was concentrated either in the League of Composers or in the ISCM (another way of saying Boulanger and Stravinksy on the one hand and Schroeder on the other). The New Music Society of Henry Cowell was independent and therefore not politically strong. Anything that was vividly experimental was discouraged by the League and the ISCM. So that a long period of contemporary music history in America was devoid of performances by Ives and Varese. Now the scene changes, but the last few years have been quiet. The League and the ISCM fused and, so doing, gave no concerts at all. We may trust that new life will spring up,since society like nature abhors a vacuum.

What about music for magnetic tape in America? Otto Luening and Vladimir Ussachevsky call themselves experimental because of their use of this new medium. However, they just continue conventional musical practices, at most extending the ranges of instruments electronically and so forth. The Barrons, Loui and Bebe, are also cautious, doing nothing that does not have an immediate popular acceptance. The Canadian Norman McLaren, working with film, is more adventurous than these - also the Whitney brothers in California. Henry Jacobs and those who surround him in the San Francisco area are as conventional as Luening, Ussachevsky, and the Barrons. These do move move in directions that are as experimental as those taken by the Europeans: Pousseur, Berio, Maderna, Boulez, Stockhausen, and so forth. For this reason one can complain that the society of musicians in America has neither recognized nor furthered its native musical resource (by "native" I hat resource which distinguishes it from Europe and Asia - its capacity to easily break with tradition, to move easily into the air, its capacity for the unforeseen, its capacity for experimentation). The figures in the ISCM and the League, however, were not powerful aesthetically, but powerful only politically. The names of Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Webern are more golden than any of their American derivatives. These latter have therefore little musical influence, and now that they are becoming quiescent politically, one may expect a change in the musical society.