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.