I Meant To Do That

I’ve lately been rereading The Man in The High Castle, which, of course, has me thinking of John Cage. The I Ching is an important feature of the novel, and Dick used it as well in his own work in writing the book, just as, contemporaneously, Cage was using the oracle to determine his pieces of music.

Like Wagner, Cage is someone that a composer must deal with, for good or ill. There’s enough of an extra-musical cult around him – as there is around Dick – to make it difficult to engage with his ideas and their results. I myself have been a bit cultish about him in the past, but maturity, independence and clear thinking have got me to the point of realizing what it is I think and feel about his work. And what I feel is . . . mixed. Philosophically, as someone presenting a new and critical way of thinking about art, he’s indispensable, and Silence should be on the bookshelves of anyone who cares at all about music or art. Musically, he’s also indispensable, but his music fails at its own intended purpose just as often as it succeeds. The prepared piano music is still vital and I think still leaves a largely unexplored legacy of what simple music coupled with complex instrumentation can produce. The Williams Mix is both nostalgic and provocative – it reminds us that there’s still a lot of analog music to be made. And I find the Europeras charming, with a great love for and understanding of dramatic music.

But the chance music fails, musically and philosophically. While Cage is correct in pointing out that human perception can define an experience as music/art, no matter what the intention of that experience, the converse is not true – a human being cannot remove intention from the intent of making music/art. The decision to make a piece of music by entirely random means has actually already removed the truly random part from the process – the first decision has determined all subsequent actions. The result is instructions which remove all the most powerful tools of composition from the work, especially the productive tension between composer and performer. The two are collaborating, directly or indirectly, on ideas of expression and meaning, and often an interpreter finds meanings that the creator did not know where there. At the very least, the interpreter discovering what a work means to them and expressing that is an integral part of a great performance. By seeking to undermine all that, Cage undermines his very production.

Dick used the I Ching to determine plot development in his novel, but I cannot see it as anything other than a tool to further his storytelling. He intended to tell a story, developed the basic idea, and then wrote it. Composers and writers have to make decisions, and if the oracle helped Dick, so much the better. The book has a story, it’s not a sequence of random events. The storytelling, the ideas, are developed purposefully, beyond the details of plot. Since storytelling itself is a fundamental and profound artistic decision, creating a completely random process is bound to fail. Even Brion Gysin wrote what he intended before cutting it into pieces in the attempt to find a random order.

So Cage, yes and no. Dick, that’s a yes. I’ve always enjoyed him personally, and America certainly needs a master of paranoia. This novel is especially interesting to read in these times where we are supposed to be afraid that masked men dangling from monkey-bars are poised to take over the country, or that there is a crypto-Muslim Antichrist running for president. That’s propaganda masquerading as paranoia, the noise of it drowning out what we really should be paranoid about, that the government is spying on every American with fervid impunity. Dick matters, although some get carried away and think that he wrote history.


Author: gtra1n

I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.