Monday, October 8, 2007
I’m working one-on-one with a gifted young undergraduate singer on the John Cage piece “Aria” (the photo above shows an excerpt from the score). I got a small grant from my university music department’s diversity committee to design and teach this course; they have the earnest but perhaps misguided goal of trying to attract more minority students into academic music studies. A colleague of mine expressed some curiosity about how it would play out, seeing as John Cage is a composer, as he put it, “seriously lacking in what the French call negritude.” The more I work with my student on “Aria,” the more I see what he means, and the more I become frustrated with Cage’s real limitations. Obviously he’s a very important composer and thinker, crucial to our understanding of the post-World War II breakdown of previously-received systems and standards across the arts. He also represents the advance guard of what writer Rick Fields called “the swans coming to the lake”: the dissemination of eastern spiritual thought in American culture, which can be seen also in the works of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, J.D. Salinger, and many others. As such, he provides a kind of link back to the nineteenth-century Transcendentalists like Emerson and Thoreau by way of Japanese Buddhism. But his music is beginning to seem maddenly boring, not to mention totally divorced from what music is meant to convey, i.e. meaning. What's more, I'm coming to the conclusion that Cage's musical ideology is just plain wrong. This is, after all, the man who said that duration in music is more important than harmony, and that Satie is a more important composer than Beethoven -- in fact, that Beethoven corrupted music. While Cage and Satie have their charms, I’m beginning to feel like I chose the wrong piece for my tutorial.