Thursday, December 29, 2011

Rediscovering SILENCE

I think I did not purchase my copy of Silence until after I met John Cage (and hunted mushrooms with him) during the summer of 1968.  I probably bought my copy shortly after my return to MIT in the fall.  It was the M. I. T. Press paperback edition (which now seems to be dismissed as a sacrilegious object by Cage purists).  I was not quite sure what I would learn from it.  I suppose one of the first things I discovered was the text version of many of the stories in Merce Cunningham’s “How to Pass, Kick, Fall, and Run;”  but I also used the book as a “score” from which I gave several of my own performances of Cage’s “Lecture on Nothing.”

However, as a result of my “reading from the screen” experience with Leta Miller’s paper about the relationship between Henry Cowell and John Cage between 1933 and 1941, I realize that it may be time for me to revisit some of the essays intended for more theoretical consumption.  In particular there are the texts for the three Composition as Process lectures that Cage gave at Darmstadt in 1958.  Cage’s focus on processes rather than structures may have planted the original seeds of my own interest in distinguishing verb-based and noun-based thinking.  By the time I had purchased Silence I knew that Cage clearly preferred process to structure, but another seed came from one of those mushroom hunts.  Cage mused on what it would be like to treat nouns as if they were verbs, posing as a representative question, “What would ‘to tree’ mean?”

Cage was never particularly deep in his approach to philosophy.  He tended to glean from the surface of Zen parables and the sermons of Meister Eckhardt.  My guess is that he never appreciated the extent to which time-consciousness was far more sophisticated than our capacity for interpreting visual stimuli as objects.  Indeed, I am not sure that he would have had the patience for Friedrich Hayek’s speculative book about how mind imposes order on the sensory signals it receives.  I might even suggest that Cage’s use of chance processes was intended to undermine existing capacities to impose such order by providing signals that challenged classification by those means “wired into” the cerebral cortex.  Still, the only way I may be able resolve such a hypothesis is to go back to Cage’s writings, this time with a better understanding of his work as a composer and my own mind’s working when trying to listen to what he composed.

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