Monday, January 14, 2013

John Cage and the Culture of Noise

I have to admit that being an electronic and experimental artist has allowed me a lot of creative freedom to explore a lot of musical territory. I recently read an article which more or less praised John Cage as the primary musical revolutionary to open the doors of creativity. To be honest, I am not a big John Cage fan. I see him more as a kind of musical politician rather than an artist. Did he open a lot of doors? Perhaps but he was one of many in an Avant Garde revolution.

I also don't believe in throwing out the baby with the bath water. As music to write this blog to I am listening to Bach's "Well Tempered Clavier". The beauty of Bach's music is in it's precision as notes are fashioned in a very restrictive musical construct and yet, at least in the case of the greats like Bach, transcending it. In his own time he was probably not as popular as his sons whose music is now only a footnote to the looming presence of their father's music today. Time favored complexity over popularity.

In Bach's time, it was easy to discuss technique. Music was all written out so that innovations could be discussed and used by others. Today, music is pretty much free form and electronic music has left it's classical roots in many ways i believe to its demise. In this bold new world ushered in by John Cage it is imitation that has become the limitation. Music becomes narrowly defined by a certain beat or type of sound. Dubstep and chiptune music is an example. Music defined by technology or even 8bit chips. These are self imposed limitations much like serialism before the Avant Garde and electronic revolutions began to sculpt the musical landscape.

As I have been working with Moog Guitar I find myself like Cage with no net under me and no map to chart my course but unlike Cage I do think about the musicality of what I do. On keyboards I have frequently drawn on jazz and classical in using modes and altered scales. As a Catholic I am inspired by Messiaen who was one of the first to write for an early electronic instrument the Ondes Martenot. And in sound design I find artists such as Karlheintz Stockhausen whose picture graces the top row of the Beatles Sergeant Peppers not John Cage far more inspiring than John Cage.

I do believe that sound is not just sound as Cage would tell us. It does not stand boldly on it's own but as artists we shape it and organize it. Electronic Music is "organized sound" as Edgar Varese called it. I have noticed that some artists are critical of talking about technique. They believe that it's just the doing that is important but I disagree as I do with Cage. If electronic music is to advance we should discuss technique. Perhaps we need to do more that mimic sounds and rather, advance and discuss the use of more sophisticated techniques. Anyway, that my two cents on Cagian musicality. It is my hope that we may look to others not to limit our art but perhaps to leave a few breadcrumbs for others to follow.

1 comment:

Mark Mosher said...

Great post - and I agree it's time to talk about technique within the framework of technology used to make music. One of the reasons I created the 9 Box Casual Instrument was to take a completely open system of AudioCubes + Ableton Live and quantify a method & technique for the performer. When I created the printable PDF ( I was thinking about those Mel Bay charts where he shows you where to put your finge
r on the string :^)

Mark Mosher
Synthesist, Composer, Performer