Yesterday, I happened to listen to this discussion between John Cage and Wim Mertens. I was instantly fascinated, because Cage -- normally open and accepting and charming and generous -- is so peeved and judgmental here about the music of Glenn Branca. On the most basic level, this is a bitch session in which one musician slags off the work and attitude of another. But I'm also fascinated because the discussion touches on two problems I keep coming back to -- whether there's an inherent politics of form, and whether, if we support openness, we must remain closed to the things we find closed, thereby contradicting ourselves.
Some background. It's July 1982. Cage is attending the New Music America festival in Chicago. As he tells Mertens in a conversation taped the following day at the Navy Pier, he doesn't listen to music at home at all, though he loves the ambient sound in his apartment. Festivals are his chance to hear what other composers are up to. The night before, he's heard Branca's ten-guitar piece Indeterminate Activity Of Resultant Masses (two of the guitarists are Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo). He's hated it, and he tells Mertens so. Later accounts of this conversation (first issued on Les Disques du Crepuscule) say Cage calls Branca a fascist. He doesn't, but he comes close.
"It wasn't because it was so loud, because I can put up with the loudness," Cage told Mertens. "But I felt negatively about what seemed to me to be the political implications. I wouldn't want to live in a society like that, in which somebody would be requiring other people to do such an intense thing together. I really didn't like the experience."
Now, I'm not sure that every work of art can be compared to a society and judged on whether one would want to live there -- where would that leave Dante's Inferno, for heaven's sake? But I totally sympathize with what Cage is saying. One thing I often get from experimental concerts, even if I don't like the music, is a liberating sense of freedom.
Last night I downloaded and listened to the Branca piece myself, and Cage is right: it's bombastic and oppressive, a din which gives the listener no space to breathe, no respite, and little pleasure. It made me feel slightly sick, on a purely physical level. The piece resembles Terry Riley's In C on some levels, but completely lacks the light sense of quicksilver joy that flows through the Riley piece. It's like Riley played by Laibach.
Cage doesn't like the way Branca conducts his guitar players, either: "The Branca is an example of sheer determination of one person to be followed by the others. Even if you couldn't hear you could see the situation. It was not of a shepherd taking care of the sheep, but of a leader insisting that people agree with him, giving them no freedom whatsoever. The only breath of fresh air that comes is when the technology collapses. The amplifier broke, that was the one moment of freedom from intention. But the moment it was re-instated the intention was resumed."
"Say it was good intentions that he was expressing with vehemence and power, it would be like one of those strange religious organisations that we hear about. Or if it was something political it would resemble fascism. In neither case would I want to be part of it. I much prefer the thinking of Thoreau, of anarchy, of freedom from such intention."
Cage then compares Branca to Wagner: "One of the things I dislike the most about European music is the presence of climaxes. And what I see in Branca, as in Wagner, is a sustained climax. Hmm? It also suggests that what is not it is not climactic. One of the principal statements, for me, in Zen Buddhism is "nichi nichi kore kōnichi" -- every day is a beautiful day. To be able to move one's attention from one point to another without feeling that one had left something important behind is the feeling which I enjoy having, and which I hope to give to others. So that each person can place his intention originally rather than in a compelled way, or in a constrained way. So that each person is in charge of himself, hmm?"
Cage tells Mertens there's a difference between using power and using intelligence in music: "In relation to the 21st century... if we follow the example of Branca, I doubt we would have such a century. Because no intelligence is suggested. Only power and energy. We would more quickly, by those means, end ourselves even in the 20th century than get to the 21st. That's the sort of thing we're doing, actually, if I say by "we" now, the nations. I think we need a calmer use of our faculties."
Mertens defends the Branca piece, and also points out the contradictions in Cage's position. In the gnostic, conceptual world of John Cage, accidental sounds become music, non-goals become goals, non-composition becomes composition, non-ego becomes ego, and the highest process is to have no process. If every sound is as good as every other, why hate these sounds? If every day is as good as every other day, why hate last night?
Cage says that these paradoxes make language meaningless: "If I can't say "non-goal" and mean non-goal instead of goal, then the language is of no use." He believed that there were some areas where discrimination was necessary -- there might be no poisonous sounds, but there were poisonous mushrooms which would kill you if you ate them. Perhaps he found Branca's textural politics poisonous.
"It is very difficult to get free of one's notions of order and one's tastes," Cage told Mertens. "Every day is pleasing -- as long as you don't have the notions of pleasing and unpleasing in you." But of course we all do, and Cage did too. Even the idea of jettisoning the notion of pleasure probably pleased him, the old fox.
Cage's philosophy, as stated, tends to tie him in the classic liberal, non-interventionist knots. Do we tolerate intolerance, do we love those who hate, should we be open to those closed to us? So it's refreshing, here, to hear him being judgmental. Branca's title starts with the word "indeterminate", a word in which Cage had staked a major claim via compositions like Indeterminacy, or compositional techniques drawing on chance operations and the I-Ching. I think he was probably particularly miffed that Branca had taken the indeterminacy idea and made something so bombastic and so directed out of it. He also disliked the cult of personality he saw forming around Branca -- though of course Cage himself, for all his talk of removing his own personality, is one of the most charismatic composers ever, and his personality cult remains strong.
Since this conflict demands, really, that we take sides, let me state that I side with Cage, despite seeing paradoxes and difficulties in his positions. I think his strongest point against Branca is simply that intensity, itself, is not a positive value in music. Cage seems to be detecting -- and rejecting -- the kind of "full-spectrum dominance" I've always fought in rock music -- the kind I found incompatible with a peace demonstration when I critiqued Japanther's concert at the Whitney Peace Tower in 2006, for instance. How could that be the sound of peace, especially when the band started shouting down veteran Vietnam protesters?
I can see a direct line from Branca, through Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine, to Japanther. These artists all make music which seems to want to shock, awe, dominate and deafen its audience. Their music certainly doesn't offer a vision of a humane, welcoming society you'd want to live in. At the same time, I can see why they do what they do. The new often announces itself as something almost unendurable, something with a harsh beauty, something that might crush us. There's also a certain dynamic to a live concert which thrives on adrenalin and authoritarianism the way a jet engine thrives on kerosene. But I hate live shows based on that, and I would prefer sensual intelligence to the "easy power", volume and intensity of rock. It is really a question of liberty and fraternity versus a kind of brutal mastery and authoritarianism, Cage was right. There's politics built right into sound.
Even within my own influences, I've moved against intensity. As an angry young man I used to idolize Brel, whose musical dynamics are inspired by a combination of ambition and disgust. A typical Brel song starts by describing something sad and pathetic, then gets angry and shouty, then ends spectacularly. Later, I idolized Gainsbourg and Brassens instead of Brel. Gainsbourg and Brassens (as any machine critic will tell you) start a song on the same level they end it on. They sound relaxed, conversational, intimate, humourous, calm. They avoid unnecessary intensity and Wagnerian climaxes. They're closer to bossa nova than punk rock. They never lose their cool.
I'm glad Cage defended temperance so intemperately, lack of intensity so intensely, and non-judgmentalism so judgmentally. Sometimes you have to stand up to defend sitting down.
While I largely see your point (and agree with it), I'm not sure My Bloody Valentine wholly fits as a good example. Yes, there are things like their infamous live performances of "You Made Me Realise" - which essentially become half-hour festivals of endurance, tests to see whose ears can survive the longest - but their recordings, at least, enact an interesting tension between aggression (in the distortion and "full-spectrum dominance" of their guitars) and passivity - in their lyrical preoccupations, in the lassitude of the vocal approach, and (less overtly) in the way Kevin Shields' and Bilinda Butcher's vocals are blended and overlaid to erase sonic differences between masculinity and femininity, to question the coding of "aggression" and "passivity." There's a sensuality of lassitude in their music, even though there's also a lot of power there. Probably also worth mentioning here is their underrated skills as melodists: many of their songs would sound quite beautiful just sung with a single acoustic guitar.
I think Sonic Youth wants to explore similar ideas, to an extent - but they largely fail due to the band's apparent addiction to a certain school of New York cool: I can't imagine a naked emotion in a Sonic Youth song except anger, frustration, arousal, etc.
Yes, I think you have a point about MBV here. I do own their records, and I was friendly back in the day with some of them, and I think they made amazing, creative work. It's just the noise element that I reject -- the insistence on intensity. And yes, the live shows, and the insistence on such volume that poor Kevin's ears are ringing to this day. What's the politics of making music that makes it impossible ever to hear any music properly again?
Momey, you may have always felt this way, but you are rationalizing and intellectualizing and over-complicating things with the answer right in front of you. Of course there is a place for noise and intensity and all that stuff you rail against, you just don't know how to deal with it and neither did Cage. But instead of admitting to that and moving on you seem intent on joining Cage for a if-I-don't-get-it-it-can't-be-good rant-wank.
And yeah, yeah, I know, noise is soooo retro-necro and the way forward is tea ceremonies and the gentle whistling of leaves. Beh. I like your taste in music, it's just that I have a place in my heart for Branca and Cage both and all the rest. The musical palate calls for different things depending on the mood at any given moment.
Aw, hell. I'm not saying anything new here. You must know all this already. I just disliked the above post and found it redundant and not a little ridiculous.
I can't weigh in, as I'm not willing to buy the Branca piece on spec and the snatch excerpted on amazon seems pleasant but non-representative. What I will say is that in other interviews I have found Cage's fuzzy logic infuriating, and while I can stand beside him and pooh-pooh Wagner til the cows come home I think in this century we could do with a little more formalism, thanks, and less musical Duchamp urinals.
Also.. My Bloody Valentine is occasionally bombastic, yes, but it is also resolutely anticlimactic. Past the first triumphal chords of Loveless there's something really febrile about it, something anti-macho... there are songs there that sound like I imagine the world sounding through the walls of the womb. Ditto for sonic youth, actually - rarely does SY's best material (although it's hard to draw generalizations out of such a wide body of work) build, as such. Thurston Moore's latest solo album is characterized for me mostly by its warmth, and in its warmth to me it feels representational, which is something Cage would disapprove of, but I feel there's a place for programmatic content in music. For every Wagner there's a Satie.
How much Sonic Youth have you listened to? I don't really think of them as a shock & awe type band, especially not on their more recent records. The more intense moments in their catalog seem to exist in order to emphasize the quiet, meandering bits that typify their style. "Pacific Coast Highway" is the prime example of this:
I really don't like the musical grammar in that clip at all, even the quiet bits are bombastic and over-emphatic. It's a rhetoric that has exhausted itself. Every cymbal crash, every overdriven guitar note, just sounds like burnt material. It's begging for someone to rip up the whole thing and start again. The "intensity" here has just become a boring rhetoric, a mannerism. Plus, they're all parents, and have double chins, and yet they're singing "Yeaauh, let's get in the car, let's go for a ride somewhere, you make me feel so crazy..." Well, maybe we could schedule something after you've picked the kids up from the creche.
I am constantly stumped by the same dilemma, but I don't really see taking sides as any solution, however inevitable it might seem. Everything always just ends up with the Big-endians and Little-endians. It's depressing.
Since this conflict demands, really, that we take sides
In what way? In a 'if you're not with us you're against us' way?
It's that Apollo/Dionysus thing again, innit? I mumble to myself over coffee. I can see Branca and mates staggering around town late at night and punching the air as they shout "Rock and Roll!". John Cage pulls the window shut, a touch of Kenneth Williams to his pained expression of revulsion.
How much of this is age? Just as I find crowded and noisy environments increasingly difficult ones to conduct a conversation in, I also avoid musical performances at sustained high volumes. My hearing has changed, I'm going deaf, I listen differently.
I wonder what sex would be like with Branca or Cage. Probably meat and potatoes with the first and rather unpredictable with the second. Either could turn tedious in the long run.
I think it is something to do with age, but also personality. I think I've always liked intimate, friendly artforms rather than bombastic ones. And I think the politics inherent in form is something critics seem to have a blindspot about. Critics seem willing to forgive an awful lot of fascist signifiers in the artists they like. (I say this, of course, as a David Bowie fan who forgave him the whole "Hitler and the grail" schtick.)
I've had a great revelation today. I have been in quite conundrum lately because I always feel guilty after watching porn to masturbate. The porn sites I like are the live video clips of all different varieties and sometimes it just feels plain depraved. So, I found an erotic lit site and voila I think I've at least taken care of part of the guilt problem. I jerked off then went to the beach and saw so many incredible bodies there, I came home and jerked off again. I though it was appropriate to talk about this, given the content of todays essay on Branca etc.
ps: One day Momus could you please address how its always the white upper class that make navel gazing music, because they can.
1. I like artists who keep their cool (you, for instance), and I agree that this has something to do with preferring conversation to aggressive posturing, but why make an absolute binary out of this? The way you seem to present it above, one either keeps one's cool or one is to be reviled.
2. We feel a sense of "liberty and fraternity", listening to Gainsbourg and Brassens because the sensual/intellectual discourse is one we enjoy, but many do not and might not even be equipped to do so (and it is not clear that we would still enjoy it if they did). Why do we need to position ourselves against an alternative form of interaction? What defines a moshpit if not "liberty and fraternity"? (Yes, there are bad, involuntary moshpits, but there are also snide and exclusionary conversations..)
3. To me, this intolerance (intemperance borders on euphemism) seems to stem from begrudging another music it's "easy power". It's unfortunate that three stupid, angry chords can be rewarded with as much praise as through composed lieder, but it feels unnecessarily small-minded to therefore invalidate the former. I'm not saying that its just sour grapes, but what if not jealousy or narrow-mindedness provokes the crucial step from merely disliking to condemning and invalidating a genre?
Well, this is perhaps the most interesting part of the Cage question. Cage's position here includes both the political desire never to judge anything or anyone ever again and the political need to judge, siphon and discriminate.
I think it's roughly commensurate with the difference between arguments concerning "culture" and arguments concerning "politics". In cultural arguments, nothing can ever be wrong, it's just context and custom and "how they do things in their culture". In political arguments, you constantly make "tough choices" and value judgments. Obama "invalidates" Guantanamo and aid which denies abortion rights. That's his job, that's what we expect him to do.
Art uses both methods -- cultural ones and political ones. It is culture, of course, but it's also a series of choices and decisions with political implications.
'Intense' musicians can be a real pain in the butt in my experience. I don't trust 'em. They tend to believe that musical performances should be some kind of cathartic event and they usually end up getting carried away, turning up and ignoring the other musicians or generally sabotaging things (sabotage is seen as 'tactical' in some improv settings but usually sounds like shit, just the same) . The other thing 'intense' musicians tend to do is say " It wasn't a good audience tonight". Well don't blame the victims!. I think it's wiser to keep a cool head and not believe in magic before you start a performance - be temperate and try to be as dull as possible and don't show off until it feels right (or not at all) - but if you happen to create magic -well that's great, eh. But to go there with the intention of being 'intense' an having and 'intense' experience seems daft to me.
Absolutely. I think there's a direct connection between intense music and the kind of human relations which make people mutter "Jeez, the ego has landed". (Also, drugs.)
Then again, how to explain the Osaka noise underground, which is full of people who make incredibly intense music, yet are terribly selfless and chatty and open and aren't doing anything stronger than shochu?
To your earlier points about the Chinese constitution, I'd say it's all in the interpretation and implementation, isn't it? I'm not a big fan of bills of rights. First of all, they imply that rights are given by some kind of central authority. Secondly, their seemingly-firm commitments can dissolve when interpreted by those authorities, or lawyers, or individuals. For instance, you took "may not compel" to mean "may not persuade". That's already a big semantic jump.
To your later point about fixed meanings, art and culture simply don't work without some agreements on the shared meanings of things. That's not to say we can't challenge those definitions around the edges, but what usually happens is that we replace one set of cliches (mainstream) with another (alternative). Someone going further than that is probably not communicating very effectively.
How is noise more ‘judgmental’ than silence? Isn’t a blog entry which receives no comments being judged as much as one with a hundred slurs? Isn’t Cage’s retreat the same as Branca’s attack? Don’t both dehumanise the audience, give them black and white instead of colour, and concepts instead of charm?
Ultimately, isn't the quietude of Buddhism is as much a 'fuck you' as suicide or murder?
"I think it's wiser to keep a cool head and not believe in magic before you start a performance - be temperate and try to be as dull as possible"
:( I like to believe in the magic of performance and wonder why anyone would bother to watch if every performer decided to follow the rule of being as dull as possible! I really don't think this is what Cage was getting at at all... in fact, this seems to be crossing the line into political correctness in music.
I think it's helpful to view authoritarianism not as necessarily related to authoritarian regimes or states but rather as a set of feelings and processes that can emerge anywhere (which in turn make authoritarian regimes possible). The critique of authoritarianism in art is not just possible but fundamental to understanding how authoritarianism works in all of us, emerging at different times. I think, though, that to link a particular aspect of music (noise, or intensity) to that emergence is inexact. I share a distaste for wagnerian climaxes, but I don't know that it's fair to call climaxes authoritarian. What I see it depending on is what it is that I am experiencing in listening to them. In my way of looking at it, if I am submitting, subjugating my power, or even suffering terribly, that in itself does not make for an experience of authoritarianism. I must be trying to stop my fear by forfeiting some freedom...
The thing with intensity is that it is the space where the self is both expanded and relinquished. The problem with the cool is that is typically satisfied to stay in its superior circle, knowing that the circle it has created around itself is better than anything outside of it. Whereas intensity denies separation by its very being. Intensity and climax not only grinds the self and individuality, but it never keeps them there. It thrusts viewers/listeners back into the world. That is always already a part of the experience of intensity.
You escape identity and transmute the self in the way Bowie escapes and transmutes (and in a similar way to Cage) by shifting masks. And that is an effective way of relinquishing and/or expanding the self, but it is a private way, a gnostic way, a Jnana way, and one that rarely carries past the individual transformation.
And as long as I've 'known' you, you have never liked anything dealing with anger or loudness, which are two primary ways of gaining intensity (and intensity is all that links MVB, Sonic Youth, Branca, punk, and Brel). You consistently deny its importance and its worth, and I wonder if that's partially what attracts you to your ideal Japan?
It absolutely is one thing that attracts me to Japan.
I think your point about intensity being in some way self-canceling is absolutely right. It is at once the climax and the dissolution of individualism, the same way Romanticism reaches both its apex and its nadir in Hitler.