Monday, July 09, 2012

Where the Heart Beats 7

Chapter 6, "Ego Noise (1950-1951)" begins the second section of the book, where the mountains are no longer mountains. Many characters are introduced, and I'm noticing a pattern in these introductions that gets annoying in its repetitiveness. A leap back in time to show the origins of a particular character's interest in Zen, or in contemporary music, or in contemporary art, traced forwards to that character's meeting with one of the more major figures of the book. I'm also annoyed by the shifts between past and present tense, often within the same paragraph. Speaking of ego noise, these imperfections pull me out of a merged contemplation with the subject, instead becoming aware of the writing as writing, rather than as ideas expressed. This is also the problem with the structure, such as on page 193. This was the end of a fascinating description of Cage's fourth lecture of "Empty Words" at the Naropa Buddhist Center in Colorado. The quotes by Cage disrupt the narrative, muddying the idea that the Buddhist leader, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, had liked the confrontation of ego noise spurred by Cage's lecture performance. The author both clouds the punchline, and avoids addressing Cage's misunderstanding of his audience and Trungpa's delight in ego noise. Why is this ego noise good, if the goal is to avoid ego noise? Why doesn't Cage appreciate this ego noise? Why is the audience stupid for not being part of Cage's journey through Thoreau? (I'm using questions, just as the author likes to do when discussing Zen.) That last question reflects my frustration with Cage. He wants to create music that opens the mind, but he is unwilling to provide the same help that he got in his own spiritual journey. The four lectures go through a process of winnowing Thoreau's words, what Cage envisioned as clouds dissipating. But he got to see the beautiful cloud shapes first, before they dissolved. By delivering only the fourth lecture, Cage was doing the equivalent of showing a picture of a tiny wisp of cloud and saying, "look at that beautiful big shape!" I'm very intrigued by the lectures, but I feel that Cage was not only disinterested, but also indifferent to the audience. From page 136:
His music was headed toward disinterestedness – which is not "indifference," the word that keeps cropping up in academic writing on Cage. From the standpoint of spiritual practice, the two words having nothing in common. Indifference borders on nihilism. It has a quality of "not caring." It is "apathetic." It expresses corrosive cynicism. Ultimately, it is poisonous, both to the practitioner and to the culture as a whole."
It may not be that Cage didn't care about the audience, but perhaps was showing his own stupidity in not understanding their needs. He even faced away from them during the performance, creating more and more barriers to their understanding. Either way, he demonstrated a mighty ego in criticizing their responses as "stupid criticisms." Yes, the audience showed signs of closed-mindedness, but so did Cage in his own responses.

Where the Heart Beats 6

The fifth chapter ends the first section of the book, but rather than feeling like a conclusion, it seems to be setting the stage for future developments.  Cage's introduction to Hinduism is explored, as well as his lectures at Black Mountain College and The Club.  He meets Morton Feldman and reads Zen books at the Orientalia.  The chapter, "Seeking Silence" twists through time, jumping around not just in the titled era (1946-1950) but also forward to 1989 and back to 1907. This destroys a sense of narrative, just like in the first chapter. The descriptions of Ramakrishna's Hinduism and Meister Eckhart's Mysticism are fascinating, and Cage's development of his new artistic philosophy, "[music should] sober and quiet the mind, thus rendering it susceptible to divine influences," is laid out clearly.

Where the Heart Beats 5

"Chapter 4: Four Walls (1942-1946)" describes a very emotionally turbulent time in John Cage's life.  Different stories are told of how his marriage to Xenia fell apart, both from her perspective and from his.  Regardless of whose fault it was, it was clear that Cage was scared of the social dangers inherent in his homosexuality, but also became aware that he could no longer deny those feelings.  The author uses Henry Cowell's conviction on child molestation as an illustration of Cage's thinking.  Cowell had been driven by social taboos to seek sexual gratification with 17-year-old bullies in his neighborhood, rather than to enjoy physical affection with a peer.  The author suggests that his sentence of 15 years was caused more by Cowell's self-loathing about his sexual attractions to men than by the justice system's concern for the safety of the teenagers.  This self-loathing may be what Cage feared he could descend into, accompanied by the professional destruction that Cowell faced. 

While I'm still not happy with the author's descriptions of Cage's music, it is not because she is not trying.  She quotes performers and critics in efforts to describe Four Walls, The Perilous Night, and Ophelia, as well as including her own emotional impressions.  What frustrates me as a music theorist is that there is little or no detail on the musical structures themselves that create these impressions.  I want to know what type of chord is repeated att he end of Four Walls, what the melody line is, how much of the structure was determined by Cage and how much by the performer.

Larson does do a good job in showing how Cage's personal concerns affected his aesthetic philosophy, as he became concerned that the emotional energy he poured into his works was not recognized by the audience, critics, and fellow artists.  It was in this personal and artistic confusion that Cage found Zen Buddhism to be a lifeline; a way to survive the divorce from Xenia, a way to come to terms with his sexuality, a way to find better reasons for writing music.

Friday, July 06, 2012

Where the Heart Beats 4

Chapter 3 of Kay Larson's book, Where The Heart Beats, is titled "Merce Cunningham" even though he is not a major character of the chapter.  Yes, this is the first time Cage meets him, but their connection is not significant at this point.  Rather, it is Cage's connections to dancers such as Bonnie Bird and Martha Graham, and artists like Mark Tobey that influenced his life at this point.  Larson describes the visual arts very well, and the dance repertoire adequately.  But her musings on Cage's music itself is lacking.  She makes the claim that Cage invented live electronic music in 1939 with Imaginary Landscape #1, showing no awareness of the theremin (invented in 1919) or the ondes martenot (invented in 1928).  And her descriptions of the invention of the prepared piano lack the momentousness that this amazing development deserves.  The interaction between Zen and Dada is very interesting, and I'm amazed at the luck Cage had to be in the right place at the right time.  He got hired at the Cornish School of the Arts, the location of the first radio lab in the country.  He was involved in a summer percussion concert at Mills College that suddenly became a Bauhaus workshop with the arrival of László Moholy-Nagy.  Granted, Cage did exhibit courage to make his own opportunities, by moving to New York with no money, only a shady promise from Max Ernst for housing.