Posts Tagged ‘John Cage’


Tuesday, May 25th, 2010

I am one of the hordes of people in New York and other cities who listens to an iPod or other listening device almost constantly when “out and about.” I’ve had some form of what used to be called a “personal stereo” device since the end of the ’70s. And my use of them has increased along with the increase in the quality/utility of these devices. Currently I use both an iPhone and an iPod (I need the larger capacity of the iPod to keep all the music I need to carry for professional uses).

So I am very used to the rather Cageian phenomenon of whatever I was listening to becoming a surprisingly perfect soundtrack for whatever was going on in the “external” world. I’m frequently amazed by how shuffle seems to be controlled by some kind of deeply intuitive, sentient intelligence. I remember an afternoon, walking around Paris and my iPod seemed giddy with the excitement of being there, and was shuffling up an almost painfully perfect playlist.

But I had something very interesting happen yesterday…

I was on the subway listening to the podcast version of “This American Life.” The story was about Haiti, and during one particular section there was a scoring track of what sounded like some kind of Mariachi-esqe band. It didn’t really occur to me that it was a bit incongruous, mostly because it was fairly evocative emotionally, and the musical choices in TAL are often surprising.

But I happened to look up and was surprised to realize that the musicians were not in the podcast. They were on the A train. Three elaborately costumed gentlemen; two guitarists and a small accordion were playing right in front of me.

The effect of this was heightened by the fact that I was listening to my iPhone with my Etymotic hf2 in-ear earphones (yes I know they’re pricy but I’m sticking these things into my head repeatedly. I’m going to skimp?), which cut out almost all sound from the outside world. If I run out of things to listen to (not likely) I can turn the pod off and pretend I’m in space ala 2001: “Open the iPod-bay door HAL.” or walking around in a personal anechoic chamber.

This isolation allows these beauties to actually protect my hearing when I’m in the sonorous bowels of New York’s subway system. But it also means that for the external world to interject, it has to put a band of Mexicans three feet from my head…

Ahh New York…

Ahh 2010…

Ahh Ira Glass…

Lecture on Nothing (1/48)

Saturday, July 18th, 2009


Rantings of the politically insane…

Sunday, January 27th, 2008

Let me see if I remember this…
There is a story about Laurie Anderson getting an assignment to interview John Cage. Anyone got a citation on this? I think it’s on the Puppet Motel cd rom which I can’t play anymore. (Remember cd roms?!!). As I remember it, she’s sitting there listening to him talk and she’s increasingly obsessed with and distracted by a question that she eventually blurts out:

“Are things getting better, or are they getting worse?”

Cage takes a moment and then says:

“I’m not sure, but they’re certainly getting faster.”

The question is a good one. An excellent one. One that I find myself asking all the time. And Cage’s answer, like many things he said, is most exquisitely useful.

I have often said this but it is one of the profound mixed-blessings of being bi-cultural, that it is almost impossible for me to see only one side of any argument. This would be a great thing, except that I find myself arguing sides of arguments that shock me, all the time. So I try to inch the mix on this blessing towards the good.

I also believe in debate. Argument. The vigorous battle of ideas. Its a way of improving our thinking. Making our ideas stronger. Because of this, if you say to me that you support any of the current presidential candidates, I will passionately take up the cause of the other, and try to convince you. The foundation that this situation sits on is that I have not made up my own mind yet. And I will argue that I am passionate about NOT making up my mind right now. The general election is still ten months away. Because I refuse to hold a party affiliation, I cannot vote in the NY primary. The system has told me that I either play the game or they don’t want to hear from me till November.

Yeah, I tend to agree with the democrats. That doesn’t mean that I want to JOIN their little club. The candidates that actually articulate the things that I think are necessary in our country are cranks that have already been dismissed at this point in the process. My views run towards pacifist anarchy with social accountability. I have no problem with Marx being right, but Smith seems to have been more practical in terms of how the world seems to work. Everybody with “vision” is either a Utopian Capitalist or a Utopian Marxist. Meanwhile what are those of us who live in the real world supposed to do? I want a strong government that distributes wealth equitably, but also stays away from my life, and my personal choices about how to live. Clearly, I’m politically insane. You wouldn’t want me running the government anymore than you’d want me doing open heart surgery. I do, however, feel these things.

Part of my distaste for Party politics comes from a distaste for team boosterism/fandom. The whole “My team/family/race/religion/sexuality/gender/party/nation/culture/species is better than yours, and we’re gonna kick your butt!” is SO infuriatingly tiresome to me. It is the kind of thinking that allows us to find moral justifications for interpersonal violence (what other kind is there). But we reduce even something like doing political good to this same horse-race argument. My good is better than your good, and I will pound you to dust to prove it.
This doesn’t mean that I don’t believe in competition. Far from it. I think it is essential. But it is a much more profound thing than the hooliganism I see most often. I have to thank my friends over at the “Oh My Goodness!” blog (see the link in the sidebar) for the following Carl Wilson quote about democracy:

“This is what I mean by democracy–not a limp open-mindedness, but actively grappling with people and things not like me, which brings with it the perilous question of what I am like. Democracy, that dangerous, paradoxical, and mostly unattempted ideal, sees that the self is insufficient, dependent for definition on otherness, and chooses not only to accept that but to celebrate it, to stake everything on it. Through democracy, which demands we meet strangers as equals, we perhaps become less strangers to ourselves.”

I like this. I like it a lot. It confirms in me the political thrill that I feel when I talk to someone who disagrees with me. The ecstatic joy of living in a milieu where I am not “like” those around me. The profound happiness of “otherness”. This is democracy. You don’t need democracy in an environment where everyone agrees. Democracy is a stab at answering the deceptively profound and paradoxical question: How do we live together while preserving the values of plurality and multiplicity? How do we REALLY?

Ok. I will now do the violence of political articulation here. From my point of view right now, this minute:
The Barak vs Hilary presidential candidate argument, misses the whole point. The point is that the United States is being run by corporate interests and we are polluting the planet past its ability to continue to sustain us, while killing and torturing people. Both Barak and Hilary are members of our CURRENT government. Why have they not risked their political lives fighting what is happening RIGHT NOW? Why have they not aggressively pursued the sorts of changes that they talk about. Anyone can say the things that they’re saying. Why haven’t they done it yet? Why should we trust them AT ALL otherwise? This may be asking a lot, but do we not have a right to ask a lot of those who seek from us our political power? Barak, Hilary and Edwards agree on so much, what if they were to form a coalition to actually get some of these things done? We are being asked to care about who’s in the white house. Why? The only reason to care is because they may be able to do something meaningful. So isn’t it just as good if they can do it outside the white house? Why are they wasting our time? People are dieing unnecessarily right now. We are screwing up the environment unnecessarily right now. The civil rights of people are already being dismantled.

It’s like we’re standing inside a burning building watching some sort of competition, where we’re asked to choose which fire-department will come rescue us in a year. And the people with hoses and axes are being told to stand back and not get in the way of the all-important competition. And we are told not to run. To keep our eyes on the shiny trucks.

So is this new? Is this any different than it’s ever been? I doubt it. It’s probably always been this way.

It’s just happening faster.

Melbourne 4 (Thanksgiving)

Thursday, November 22nd, 2007

Thursday was a strange day.

My Godparents, the Vorlands, are former Missionaries, colleagues of my own parents. They had a distribution of children that was, although not identical, akin to the distribution of myself and my siblings. Most notably from my perspective right now is that their youngest son Andy was my age and we were very close childhood friends, and their eldest daughter Cathy was the same age as my sister Ruth and they shared a very close bond growing up.
Cathy eventually grows up and moves to Australia. She marries and raises a family here in Melbourne. Seven or so years ago she is diagnosed with Cancer. It advances, and this last Saturday, she passed away.
Her parents were here because they knew it was getting close, so I e-mailed them and found out where/when the funeral was. Appropriately enough the funeral was on American Thanksgiving day. Conveniently enough the church where it was to be held was so close to the VAC where Barney and I are working, that I could walk there from the theatre in three minutes. So I asked Barney to “take over” and I went to the funeral on Thursday morning.

Haven’t been to a funeral in a long time, but I do spend a good deal of time contemplating death. The odd thing here was to be contemplating it in public and within the context of Christianity. Now I don’t want to go too far out on this particular limb, because I don’t want to step on feelings which are inviolate and perhaps holy. But it is very odd to me that Christianity, which along with a lot of other religions, makes a claim to understanding and being able to explain death, doesn’t seem to eliminate the deep freak-out that happens when it occurs. My late father, who had experienced a lot of it, and was quite sober about it in my experience said to me once that “The only thing you can really count on in another person, is that they are going to die.” This is (pending radical breakthroughs in medicine or metaphysics) simply true.
As I said, I don’t want to trample on anyone’s feelings, and I’m sure that I’m not above this personally either, but it does seem to me that the intensity evident in how we confront death hints at the fact that we at least suspect, that it is indeed the end. Full stop. I don’t think there is anything wrong with that. As beings, non-being is the toughest thing to confront, and anything (within reason) that a person does to seek comfort in that moment is legit in my book.

So given this kind of musing, I’m not exactly the person you want at your funeral, but I was there at Cathy’s and it was a beautiful service. Her bereaved husband’s eulogy was eloquent, heartfelt and delivered with a dignity that I found moving. Andy, who is a photographer in Tokyo, sent a beautifully executed photo montage, set to music. One of the striking things about this was that the photos at the beginning all showed the much younger, elder Vorlands caring for the infant Cathy, and the shots near the end we similar situations of the same people care giving, with everyone 57 years older.
Not to diminish any of the gestures and tributes that were given, the one that stood out for me was one of Cathy’s sons, who made a small speech before playing Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring on the piano. The speech was something he had written a number of days before, and although it was at moments, convoluted and a touch naive in it’s logic, the sentiment was the sentiment of a poetic soul confronting the finality of death. The central point, and I’m going to bastardize it horribly here, was that the pain of loss was the price we pay for consciousness, and that for him the twenty some years of support and kisses that he received from his mother was worth the price. He was reaching for joy. I don’t know this young man, but I recognized a fellow traveler. He then, as he put it, “Banged out some Bach.” It was sublime.

I had to get back to the work at the theatre. The elder Vorlands, were understandably not in a good place to meet or talk to. The middle Vorland son, Keith was there, and I talked to him for a bit. Here to was a person dealing with the situation with a grace and easy nobility that I found inspiring. From deep in my youth, I remember Keith having an upbeat disposition and an easy smile. Here’s the kind of guy you want at your funeral, I thought. I greeted Cathy’s husband, and left.
I came away with two things. First and foremost, I came away wishing that I had known Cathy better. I spent an afternoon with her when I was here in Melbourne 15 years ago. This is my strongest most substantial memory of her. In fact it is close to my only memory of her. It is a testament to the love she inspired in others that was evident at her funeral, that I ended up feeling a loss for something I never really, in practical terms, had.
Secondly and more bitterly, I was deeply affected by the evident pain that my Godparents were in. It was clear, despite his noble efforts to stay whole, my Godfather had been utterly shattered. And Keith said that his mother just kept repeating that “It’s not supposed to be like this.” I’m not someone who is going to win any medals for being a “good son.” And I’m not even sure if there are actual duties as a God-son that I’ve been missing. There probably are. But I don’t think I’ve ever loved the Vorlands quite as much as I do right now, and I’m not ashamed to say that out loud (are blogs “out loud?”)

All of this has made me reflect on a part of my life that I don’t reflect on very much.

So when I got back to the theatre it was composition presentation day, and we saw the work that the participants have been making in the afternoons since Monday. It was site-specific work. They presented pieces all over the environs of the VAC (Victorian Arts Center). They were fantastic. Some of the best sight-specific composition work I’ve EVER seen. The subject is John Cage, so I’m asking them to mess with the live dividing art from life anyway, but they really went there. It was like watching happenings from the ’60s. Both Barney and I were very happy.
I’ll probably write more about this next week, but this group we’re working with here is really great. It’s allowing Barney and I to really experiment and work on our stuff. Follow our interests.

Laura Sheedy is the driving force behind setting up this program and brining us here. Her mother Mavis used to live in NYC, so she wanted to throw us a thanksgiving dinner. So Barney and I and a small group went over to the house that Laura grew up in and had a fantastic time. It wasn’t a sit-down dinner or anything tense. It was very relaxed, with a fantastic Ham as the main event, oysters, some excellent cheese from King Island and the Aussie specialty “Sausage Roll”. It was a wonderful way to round off a dramatic and somewhat wrenching day.

There was nothing traditional about this thanksgiving. And I discovered that this is the only tradition I’m interested in. The tradition of not having a tradition. Of inventing it all over again every time. Not of not having a good time, but not recapitulating past good times. I don’t want to sit around in the memories of other years. I want to create the new ones. That’s something I can feel some loyalty to.

Get in the habit of breaking habits!

Happy Neo-Thanksgiving.