by Ron Kuivila


While photography led visual art on this path much earlier, I think the role of experimentalism in music has been to reconceive music as a way of listening as much as an act of "self" expression.  And that listening can be to just about anything. So compositions become proposed relations to sound.  Theoretical formulations of this abound: the objet sonore of Schaeffer, the soundscape of Schafer, the multi-centeredness of Cage, the deep listening of Oliveros,  the stochastic forms of Xenakis.  Recently I have begun to think about the images of proliferation at the center of Jacques Ranciere's 'democracy' and the consequent expansion the "regime of the sensible" in relation to this history.

As a kind of preamble, let me point to the story of “Silent Prayer” as a kind of precursor to 4’33”.  In the Vassar Lecture, Cage describes this as a piece “he would like to compose”, it is conceived as 3 or 4 and half minutes of silence to be sold to the Muzak Corporation.  This might  be understood as a precursor or bellwether for many media artworks that stage interventions of one form or the other.  But Cage never really discussed or circulated this lecture in later years.  (James Pritchett – who had complete access to all of Cage’s manuscripts while working on his book - commented that the lecture just seemed to slip Cage’s mind.)  My own guess is that 4’33”, the work he ultimately did compose, is so radically different in conception that he may have been wary of further confusing an already highly confused matter…

To talk about 4’33” at all, we need to back track to the Music of Changes, Cage’s first chance composition, which was composed in partial response to Pierre Boulez’ second piano sonata and in the context of a close examination of Antonin Artaud’s writings triggered by David Tudor. This is an oft-told story, but I hope I can keep it fresh. Tudor’s encounter with Artaud by way of Pierre Boulez and its subsequent impact on his circle at Black Mountain College has been written about in detail. Tudor recounts


  "encountering [the] Boulez [second piano sonata] for the first time meant my training for the work of Schoenberg wouldn’t do at all [Tudor, 1972]"


and that it was through reading Artaud he was able to understand the “collective hysteria and magic” of a musical continuity where there were


"no second voices, and you couldn't subordinate any voices at all, as there was nothing leading, nothing on which the music centered itself. "


Cage was impressed with the possibility of Artaud’s proposal to make a theater where full responsibility was given to all elements of the mise en scene other than language.  This triggered the “Black Mountain Piece” which, while a one off experiment at the time, came to be regarded as anticipating the happenings of a decade later. But Artaud’s call for a “theater in which violent physical images crush and hypnotize the sensibility of the spectator” [Theater and its Double pg. 82] is at a considerable distance from the “multi-centeredness and interpenetration” central to Cage’s understanding of Taoist and Buddhist thought.  But Artaud’s renunciation of text as an organizing principle for theater was congruent with Cage’s efforts to enable an engagement with individual sounds “as themselves” by obscuring or removing any formal hierarchies regulating their appearance in time. Tudor describes achieving this goal in performance as requiring a kind of radical dissociation:


I had to learn how to be able to cancel my consciousness of any previous moment, in order to be able to produce the next one. What this did for me was to bring about freedom, the freedom to do anything, and that's how I learned to be free for a whole hour at a time.

[From Piano to Electronics]


These kinds of issues are not in the conception of Silent Prayer that piece is readily understood as a media intervention.  But 4'33" is directly involved with Artaud. Performing the piece is as much about forgoing sounding as hearing soundscape - it is a theater of cruelty.  Furthermore, the piece was a possible outcome of the compositional process underlying The Music of Changes.  According to Tudor, Cage felt this made it very important to make the piece.


So, my shorthand definition of (American) Experimentalism is that it proceeds from Artaud by removing (or at least sublimating) the expressionist and occult elements.

This view, that artistic composition (whatever the “medium” of origin) can involve anything and everything triggered a tremendous period of experimentation with the ontology of music. These ontologies may focus on material (as was Cage's focus) or the corporeality of performance (as was Tudor's) or both, but they also entail the Cagean notion of "discipline".  I will define the term by borrowing from Alcoholics Anonymous:  "discipline" is an understanding the usefulness of accepting a power greater than oneself."  That 'power' is often derived from a set of procedures (throwing the I Ching, rigorously following a process, providing human performers with a task with elements of choice but no elements of emotive "expression", etc).  Those procedures are, in my understanding, algorithms. John Cage was an algorithmic (or, at any rate, systematic) composer. And so was Pauline Oliveros.  But in her case, the materiality of the algorithm was often the listening subject.


 Now,  a particular approach to the compositional process that I often take is a variant of that approach:


  1. Begin with an idea
  2. Realize that idea
  3. Examine that realization for all the other attributes it has.
  4. Ask if that attribute is inescapable
  5. If not, excise it.
  6. If so, gently recalibrate the values of the composition so it is as salient as the original idea in the completed work


Of course, the digital rendering of media as information complicates this approach, particularly when it comes to questions of embodiment.  “Listening to the Air”, where the performance is intended to be entirely - or at least primarily - the physical reconfiguration of sounding elements with no other controls - is a gesture towards those questions.

[Tudor, 1972] David Tudor, From Piano to Electronics, Music and Musicians V.20,  August 1972, interview with Victor Schonfeld {kind: bib}

meta: true
function: statement
persons: [John Cage, David Tudor, Antonin Artaud]
author: RK
keywords: [experimentalism, composition, sound, listening, ontology]