Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Cage ist mort (auch Dylan)

Kyle Gann says, “It’s time for a ‘Cage Is Dead’ article.” I’m ready. The other day I was throwing out old magazines and came across a few-months-old New Yorker profile on painter-collagist Robert Rauschenberg, a friend and collaborator of Cage’s, written by longtime scene chronicler Calvin Tomkins. I read Tomkins’s book on Rauschenberg in 1983 as a sophomore in college (extra-curricularly); Cage figures heavily in the book. Their approach to collage inspired and pushed me. I heard Cage read around that time, his text on Duchamp, Satie, and Joyce, and it was a magical evening -- he was an enchanting, pixie-ish reader and a deeply thoughtful and compassionate extemporaneous speaker. He asked the audience whether we would like him to read another text or to answer questions. The audience asked for a Q&A. I shot my hand up. He called. “Did you enjoy yourself?” “Just now?” I nodded. He smiled broadly, seemingly tickled by the question: “Yes, very much.” A troubled-sounding woman asked what he would say to someone who was lonely. Cage thought for a long time and finally said, “I would say, we’re all here with you.” It seems glib on the page, but he said it so sweetly, it conveyed a message of solidarity, of all-in-the-same-boatness.

Despite my very fond memory of this evening, and my love for much of his work, Cage’s famous principle of “non-selection” reflects a moment in history long past, when American hegemony was at its height and the “spirit of progress” had not yet gotten ground under the steamroller of Reaganism that reigns in America to this day; the 1950s and ‘60s were a time of unprecedented and unrepeated upward mobility in American economic life; an aesthetic of “attention” that Cage and Rauschenberg preached and practiced reflected a cultural wealth and an optimistic spirit that have long since gone to smash and splatter. I was immediately discomfitted reading Tomkins’s recent profile of Rauschenberg; this ancient veteran of the old avant-garde now gotten wealthy and still fighting the aesthetic battles of 50 years ago as if they were still current. And still being chronicled by the same ancient chronicler.

Kyle is right that a reluctance to manifesto-ize has been a missed marketing opportunity for the post-manifesto-ist generation. The media, including the arts journals, thrive on the perception of conflict. Cage himself was a manifesto-ist par excellence, vociferous in his denunciations of his nearest aesthetic forebear, denouncing Varese’s work in strictly personal (and, I hold, not entirely honest) terms and pronouncing the objections as universal truths. Varese’s fault, according to Cage, was to subject his musical noises to the same western will that all previous composers had willed. Despite his principle of non-selection, Cage exerted an equally strong will over his aesthetic frames; he selected the frames, he selected the contexts, he selected the theoretical justifications, and in many cases he selected the universe of sound-materials from which the aleatory pieces gathered their stuff.

Cage’s fruitfully provocative theories can’t be put to practice in full good faith. Much of his music is gorgeous. But he doesn't provide a way to proceed today.

Manifesto-ism, yeah. I recognize that my recent ranting against Dylan has a quality of disciple-esque resentment toward him. Dylan was the Man; he hasn't been for a long time but that's cool, few people last very long as the Man; and in addition to being the Man he has also often been the Creep, at least in his songs. Please stop overpraising him. His misogyny and resentment can be very bad for you. Got that? OK, good.

Now, I got some music that you might be interested in hearing . . .
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