UNDISCOVERED GENIUS

A commentary on the history, contexts, and meanings of the word "genius."

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Two John Cage Stories

Two John Cage Stories

Even as the 19th century aesthete cherished the divinely inspired genius, and chaired him through the market place, a significant number of 20th century aesthetes might be said to have deplored the whole concept of genius--as well as all the other external trappings of excellence with which we adorn our attitudes. The 19th century needed musical heroes--the 20th century much preferred anti-heroes. The 19th century affirmed something positive and transcendental, but 20th century science turned the artist's face away from the ideal and turned it, with a cynical smirk, toward the ironic.

One of the main ideas, behind both modernist and the post-modernist academic concert music, was that original solutions to musical problems, thus the creation of unique musical identities, was no longer possible using the musical materials handed down to us from our immediate forebears; the implications of this inherited material were laid on too thick for the music to overcome by any other means than rejection. Thus, anything that displayed a self-conscious break with tradition was considered original. Of course vogues and cliques rapidly developed, and thus we got a whole bunch of original music that all sounded the same.

The first Cage story I want to tell takes place at UCLA where Schoenberg was having him realize a figured bass in four parts on the blackboard. Cage wrote his first realization.
Schoenberg said, "Write another."
Cage wrote another realization.
Schoenberg said, "Write another."
Cage wrote another realization.
Schoenberg said, "Write another."
Cage wrote another realization.
Nine times. Finally, Schoenberg said, "Write another."
And Cage said, "There are no more."
And Schoenberg accepted this.

This story is often upheld, to defend the position that all the musical potentials of the style materials of the past are used up, and only a radical departure will yield anything new. This attitude has been a thorn in my side my whole life--so much so that to comment on it even briefly would be to invoke not a blog, but a book from my fevered brain. Let it go with this one disgusted retort:

it may be that, under the confining restrictions of a 4-part exercise, the number of a certain type of mathematical solution may eventually be exhausted, but, you do the math, there are so many other variables in any style period that it would use up many, many lifetimes for them ALL to be used up. The monkey may some day write Hamlet, but who's got the time?

One of the other main ideas, behind both modernist and the post-modernist academic concert music, is that the emphasis of musical expression should be turned away from what is said, placing the main emphasis upon what is NOT said. Anti-Art readily brings forth Anti-Artists.This brings us to our second Cage story. This one takes place during Cage's residency at the University of Illinois in the 60s:

Once upon a time John was having an argument with a musicologist who considered Cage to be an impostor, a charlatan, a non-musician--certainly NOT a genius. The musicologist made a list of all Cage's musical sins, like a priest accusing a prodigal son, and compared him with Beethoven, that paragon of snooty quality. "This, and this, and this, and this, and this is why Beethoven was a great composer and you're not!"

To which Cage replied, "But, you see, Beethoven HAD to be a great composer and I don't." Buddhist non-attachment trumpets to the anti-composer's rescue.

In a way, Cage is pretty much of a punk for passing the buck on to the audience--asking THEM to make up his music for him. And yet . . . there's something magnificent, indeed heroic, nay, SAINTLY in the gesture of giving up control of a created artwork and letting GOD step in! What a selfless act, to create situations in which the personality of the creator is completely canceled out by the technique of the piece! It may not be a stroke of musical genius, but it is certainly a stroke of philosophic genius--and if you accept the mode of transmission of this philosophic truth as SOUND, how is that not music?
Does anybody sound like Cage? Does nobody sound like Cage? What's the difference?

RFT
Glennallen, AK
February 20, 2011

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