Today is John Cage’s 100th birthday. For many, Cage is easily dismissed as another pretentious symbol of the American avant-garde. Of course, the majority of folks doing the dismissing do so in order to preserve their own fragile sense of what music is and how it is supposed to operate in the world. These are, obviously, massive concepts that would require a treatise to confront. My only interest is to convey my experience with a singular Cage composition from 1941 alongside Gamelan proponent Lou Harrison. The piece, Double Music, is written for four percussionists. Cage composed the first and third parts, and Harrison, the second and fourth. The two men agreed they would share the composition in this way, and upon Harrison’s suggestion they decided to use metal instruments only. Beyond these points and an agreement of the piece’s length, the two of them composed separately, never consulting each other before the premier.
The incident in question came while I was a student at CalArts, having chosen the Institute based on two musicians. The ability to see Leo Wadada Smith perform intimate shows with small ensembles was profoundly beneficial. In addition, Morton Subotnick’s course on the relationship between language and music taught by forever changed my notions of music and its inherent relationship to consciousness. Subotnick is most well known for Silver Apples of the Moon, the first electronic music commissioned by a record company. Mort would sit at the head of a conference table with his laptop and large computer speakers, scrolling through an encyclopedia of samples from music to animal sounds. And in between he would unfold major concepts about the way the human brain has evolved the two overlapping systems of language and music.
When Subotnick needed copies made for class, I was excited to oblige. Fair trade for countless stories of his experimentation with evolving technologies or anecdotes about Steven Reich, Morton Feldman or John Cage. At semester’s conclusion wrote on indeterminacy, particularly the inclusion of chance elements in composition; which led to further study of guitarist Derek Bailey’s monumental work on improvisation. Needless to say ideas about chaos, randomness and the vitality of the moment were swirling around my head.
What happened next operated as an extension of those inquiries, found in my good old headphones. Taking a break from my thesis, I flipped my browser over to ESPN where a new Nike commercial was on autoplay. I had, however, not stopped music streaming from my media player. The commercial, titled “What If,” imagines a series of high-profile athletes performing in sports other than those they are famous for. It acted as a foil with Double Music with its own uneasy cohesion.
Struck by the image of Lance Armstrong as a boxer, I was immediately transfixed, never once thinking the Cage piece had not been selected specifically for the commercial. My brain heard the clamorous beauty of the cowbells, sistrum, sleigh bells and found a thematic harmony with the disarming appearance of these out-of-place athletes. It was haunting, and though I have tried many times, it was something I could never quite duplicate. In that unexpected moment when my mind saw no discontinuity between these two otherwise disparate pieces, something haunting had happened. A user interface consulted smiled as I shared the account, finally explaining I had seen Machine Poetics first-hand.
My computer guided me through an exploration of how chance, when folded into aesthetic experience, can ripple outward and allow for an impossible beauty. As Cage said, “Our intention is to affirm this life, not to bring order out of chaos, nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply to wake up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and desires out of its way and lets it act of it’s own accord.” The music, composed with implicit elements of chance, found new meaning when coupled, at random, with a short commercial video. Just as my machine seemed haunted, the experience has further lingered as many of the athletes featured have been haunted in the years since. Lance Armstrong has since been caught in a PED scandal, eventually stripped of his titles, for that particular fight he would not seem willing to step into the ring. Marion Jones, the track and field Olympian, is seen transformed into a gymnast vaulting to glory. Years later, her medals would be disqualified due to her own use of PEDs. Michael Vick, shown playing hockey, went to prison for financing a dog-fighting ring, in the commercial he is sent to the penalty box for Roughing. Portentous indeed.
While ultimately, I do not believe anything supernatural was at play, Cage has taught me to accept the random and unexpected as inherent to the joy of music and further life. Most importantly, he taught me that music is constant regardless of context or our mind’s acceptance of it. Next time there’s a thunderstorm, sit, like I did last week, and listen to the symphonic adventure nature bestows us.