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Siding with Cage against Branca - Siding with Cage against Branca - click opera Page 2 — LiveJournal
February 2010
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Sun, Jan. 25th, 2009 04:02 am
Siding with Cage against Branca

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.


Sun, Jan. 25th, 2009 05:02 pm (UTC)

Caged nonsense, let the bird fly free. They are both boring without real emotion. Come on and touch me baby.

Sun, Jan. 25th, 2009 05:49 pm (UTC)

This person has a valid point.

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?

ReplyThread Parent

Sun, Jan. 25th, 2009 07:24 pm (UTC)

Zens in the military. (http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=8s28jxGnKeE) Mastery, focus, California-style transhumanism. Zen as David Blaine, for people forced to see themselves as problematic. In a way I prefer the secular hazard of real life to either Cage or Branca's perfectionism. Even Samuel Beckett I'm finding a dead end (admittedly, so did he).

ReplyThread Parent
the maven
Sun, Jan. 25th, 2009 07:25 pm (UTC)

I am digging your style.
Reminds me of Warhol's 1950s catchphrase, "So what?" which I think transformed into "So, what have you got?"

ReplyThread Parent
Sun, Jan. 25th, 2009 09:32 pm (UTC)
New Humans vs. Branca

Hi, Momus. How would you evaluate the differences between this:

And this:

If you would, that is.

Sun, Jan. 25th, 2009 09:33 pm (UTC)
Re: New Humans vs. Branca

Sorry, there should've been a question mark or two in there.

ReplyThread Parent
Sun, Jan. 25th, 2009 11:28 pm (UTC)
Re: New Humans vs. Branca

Well, I can't be entirely objective about this, because I've endorsed New Humans quite extensively on this blog, and come out against Branca in this entry. But of course they have a lot in common. They both use a rock format (guitar, bass, drums) to much more abstract and arty effect than most people who use that format. They both prioritize noise over harmony and sound colour over song structures.

The thing about binary choices is that you can produce very different outcomes by producing different binaries. "Which is better, Branca or Oasis?" would have me choosing Branca every time. Only if I have to choose between Cage and Branca does Branca lose, and seem the more retrograde of the two.

Between Branca and New Humans (this is starting to sound like Google Fight!), New Humans win. Why? Because, in a previous binary, they won against Japanther. (Branca also wins against Japanther, by the way. This is starting to sound like a football league!) Because they seem less phallic than Branca (their frontperson is a woman, but then so is Sonic Youth's, but New Humans win, in my world, because she's Asian and an accomplished artist). Because their records are often incredibly quiet and subtle. Because they perform with great restraint. Because their artwork is very good -- their record sleeves and lighting are absolutely the best I've ever seen, pure and bright and white.

Clearly I don't claim these criteria to be objective.

One day I want to make a blog league table in which people suggest artist / musician names in pairs and I select a winner, then the winners fight the winners, until we get an ultimate winner: the greatest artist (according to Momus) in the world! You guys would have a lot of power, because you could choose the initial binary choices. You know, you could knock out David Bowie in round one by presenting me with "David Bowie or Robert Wyatt" (I probably shouldn't have told you that -- Wyatt is the secret weapon against Bowie).

Edited at 2009-01-25 11:46 pm (UTC)

ReplyThread Parent
Mon, Jan. 26th, 2009 01:06 am (UTC)
Re: New Humans vs. Branca

"One day I want to make a blog league table in which people suggest artist / musician names in pairs and I select a winner, then the winners fight the winners, until we get an ultimate winner: the greatest artist (according to Momus) in the world!"

I wholeheartedly endorse this sort of contest. It'd be like geeky music adolescence all over again: endlessly amusing.

Wouldn't there have to be some kind of initial grouping of musicians/artists into conferences or something, based on a certain degree of similarity? Thus Bowie would perhaps be in a conference/league with, say, Roxy Music, since (perhaps) neither of them could be, at least initially, in the same league as, I don't know, Black Sabbath.

ReplyThread Parent Expand

Mon, Jan. 26th, 2009 01:32 am (UTC)
Re: New Humans vs. Branca

"We need a way to have, buy, and sit on fewer and better things."


ReplyThread Parent

Sun, Jan. 25th, 2009 10:29 pm (UTC)
Taking it a little too far?

"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.


The Nature Theater of Oklahoma
Mon, Jan. 26th, 2009 04:55 am (UTC)

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...

Troy Swain: Black Box Miasma
Mon, Jan. 26th, 2009 08:36 am (UTC)

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?

Mon, Jan. 26th, 2009 08:05 pm (UTC)

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.

ReplyThread Parent

Thu, Jan. 29th, 2009 06:23 pm (UTC)
a bit much...

While I appreciate the second of your two initially stated fascinations with this situation, I find the first, as well as the entire discussion around it, to be presumptuous of Glenn Branca's intentions as an artist. I am not a fan of Branca, but I find this sort of pontification totally unnecessary, and inhibiting to the progress of personal expression.

This discussion reminds me on something I read from Erik Satie recently:

"I have always said - and I shall contine to repeast it long after I am dead - tht there is no Truth in Art (no single Truth, that is).

The Truth of Chopin - that prodigious creator - is not the Truth of Mozart, that sumptious musician whose writing is imperishably dazzling... If there is an altruistic Truth, where does it begin: who is the Master who possesses it in its entirety? Is it Paletrina? Is it Back? Is it Wagner?

To claim that there is a Truth in Art seems to me as strange, as astounding, as if I heard someone declare that there is a Locomotive Truth, a House Truth, an Aeroplane Truth, an Emporor Truth, a Beggar Truth and so on, and no one would dream - at least publicly - of expounding such a principle... for we must not confuse a 'type' - even veritable, real type - with Truth."

ReplyThread Parent Expand

Fri, Jan. 30th, 2009 11:40 pm (UTC)

It's like Riley played by Laibach.

But... but this would be the greatest thing ever.