John Cage - from Silence
John Cage – from Silence
[It is interesting to note that all these comments come before 1962. And also how similar the situation has been for the other arts, poetry especially.]
As for the quality of irritation, that is a more subjective matter. One might say that it is at least preferable to soothing, edifying, exalting, and similar qualities. Its source is, of course, precisely in monotony, not in any forms of aggression or emphasis. It is the immobility of motion. And it alone, perhaps, is truly moving.
Any attempt to exclude the “irrational” is irrational. Any composing strategy which is wholly “rational” is irrational in the extreme.
It is therefore very useful if one has decided that sounds are to come into their own, rather than being exploited to express sentiments or ideas of order.
Implicit here, it seems to me, are principles familiar from modern painting and architecture: collage and space. What makes this action like Dada are the underlying philosophical views and the collagelike actions. But what makes this action unlike Dada is the space in it. For it is the space and emptiness that is finally urgently necessary at this point in history.
If one uses the word “experimental” to mean simply the introduction of novel elements into one’s music, we find that America has a rich history . . . . Once, in Amsterdam, a Dutch musician said to me, “It must be very difficult for you in America to write music, for you are so far away from the centers of tradition.” I had to say, “It must be very difficult for you in Europe to write music, for you are so close to the centers of tradition.”
Why, since the climate for experimentation in America is so good, why is American experimental music so lacking in strength politically (I mean supported . . . )?
It is evidently a question of bringing one’s intended actions into relation with the ambient unintended ones.
The conscientious objectors to modern music will, of course, attempt everything in the way of counterrevolution. Musicians will not admit that we are making music; they will say that we are interested in superficial effects, or, at most, are imitating Oriental or primitive music. New and original sounds will be labeled as “noise.” But our common answer to every criticism must be to continue working and listening, making music with its materials, sound and rhythm, disregarding the cumbersome, top-heavy structure of musical prohibitions.
Before studying Zen, men are men and mountains are mountains. While studying Zen, things become confused. After studying Zen, men are men and mountains are mountains. After telling this, Dr. Suzuki was asked, “What is the difference between before and after?” He said, “No difference, only the feet are a little bit off the ground.”
With clarity of rhythmic structure, grace forms a duality. Together they have a relation like that of body and soul. Clarity is cold, mathematical, inhuman, but basic and earthy. Grace is warm, incalculable, human, opposed to clarity, and like the air. Grace is not here used to mean prettiness . . .
Were he saying something in particular, he would have to focus the painting; as it is he simply focuses himself, and everything, a pair of socks, is appropriate, appropriate to poetry, a poetry of infinite possibilities.
Is there any need before we go to bed to recite the history of the changes and will we in that bed be murdered?
Not ideas but facts.
Should one use the materials characteristic of one’s time? It is an intellectual question. Now there’s a question that ought to get us somewhere. I shall answer it slowly and autobiographically.
“If you think you are a ghost you will become a ghost.” Thinking the sounds worn out wore them out. So you see: this question brings us back to where we were: nowhere, or, if you like, where we are.
But the important questions are answered by not liking only but disliking and accepting equally what one likes and dislikes. Otherwise there is no access . . .
We are in the presence not of a work of art which is a thing but of an action which is implicitly nothing. Nothing has been said. Nothing is communicated. And there is no use of symbols or intellectual references. No thing in life requires a symbol since it is clearly what it is: a visible manifestation of an invisible nothing.
Each something is a celebration of the nothing that supports it.
If one adopts this attitude art is a sort of experimental station in which one tries out living: one doesn’t stop living . . . . It all goes together and doesn’t require that we try to improve it or feel our inferiority or superiority to it. Progress is out of the question.
Before studying Zen men are men and mountains are mountains. While studying Zen, things get confused. After studying Zen men are men and mountains are mountains. No difference except that one is no longer attached.
But we are still at a point where most musicians are clinging to the complicated torn-up competitive remnants of tradition, and, furthermore, a tradition that was always a tradition of breaking with tradition . . . that . . . was out of step not only with its own but with all other traditions.
The highest purpose is to have no purpose at all.
I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry.
What I am calling poetry is often called content. I myself have called it form.
The only structure which permits of natural activity is one so flexible as not to be a structure; I write in order to hear; never do I hear and then write what I hear. Inspiration is not a special occasion.
What I think & what I feel can be my inspiration but it is then also my pair of blinders. To see one must go beyond the imagination and for that one must stand absolutely still as though in the center of a leap.
An error is simply a failure to adjust immediately from a preconception to an actuality.
Most anybody knows about the future and how uncertain it is.
A sound is a sound. To realize this one has to put a stop to studying music.
The thing to do is to keep the head alert but empty. Things come to pass, arising and disappearing. There can be no consideration of error. Things are always going wrong.
Before I die, I shall leave a will, because if you want something done, sentimentality is effective.
At all costs inspiration must be avoided which is to say act in such a way that inspiration doesn’t come up as an alternative but exists eternally. Then of course it is theater and music disappears entirely into the realm of art where it knows it belongs. Art silence is not real silence and the difference is continuity versus interpenetration. This is also.
Music is simply trying things out in school fashion to see what happens.
If one feels protective about the word “music,” protect it and find another word for all the rest that enters through the ears. It’s a waste of time to trouble oneself with words, noises. What it is is theater and we are in it and like it, making it.
And what is your purpose in writing music? I do not deal in purposes; I deal with sounds.
Now at last we know that saying one thing requires saying the opposite in order to keep the whole statement from being like a Hollywood set. Perhaps it would be better to be silent, but a) someone else would be speaking; and b) it wouldn’t keep us from going and we would continue doing what we are doing. I remember once his saying: “But this opens up an entirely untouched field of poetry.” And to this day neither one of us has budged to move into that untouched open field.
In the poetry contest in China by which the Sixth Patriarch of Zen Buddhism was chosen, there were two poems. One said: “The mind is like a mirror. It collects dust. The problem is to remove the dust.” The other and winning poem was a reply to the first. It said, “Where is the mirror and where is the dust?”