Monday, December 04, 2006

Notes towards an egoless poetry 8: Art or Botany?

An interesting comment from John Cage, from an interview on the occasion of his 70th birthday:

Stephen Montague: Do you have any regrets, anything you might have done differently as you review your seventy years?

John Cage: You mean, how would I re-create the past? Well, I said long ago that if I were to live my life over again, I would be a botanist rather than an artist. At that time the botanist Alexander Smith asked me why. And I said: "To avoid the jealousies that plague the arts. Because people think of art so often as self-expression." I don't, but so many people do. "And therefore, if their work is not receiving what they consider proper attention, they then feel unhappy about it and get offended." One of my teachers, Adolf Weiss, got very angry at me simply because I became famous. He was sure I was, in some way, being dishonest, because he had been honest all his life and he'd never become famous. So he was sure I was doing something wrong and evil. But when I said to Alexander Smith that I would like to change my life by being a botanist, he said that showed how little I knew about botany. Then later in the conversation I mentioned some other botanist, and he said: "Don't mention his name in my house!" So I think that all human activities are characterized in their unhappy forms by selfishness.

I look around at all the ego-driven spats in literary circles, the endless sniping attacks on one another's persons, and I often think: The rest of the world's problems must not be so severe, if so many people can devote so much drama to affairs that will matter so little, in the long run. Of course, ego is always about the short-run, the instant gratification, the childish desire. It wants what it wants, right now, no waiting.

So people do think of the arts as self-expression. I agree with Cage on this point. I don't, but so many people do. Hence, these ongoing Notes Towards an Egoless Poetry. I'm not even invested in winning that argument. I'm just exploring the possibliities that art is, in fact, not at all about self-expression, but something else, entirely. The exercise is to figure out what that something else might be.

The idea that the avant-garde is all about self-expression is a problem. Too many young artists think that's what you're supposed to do. The problem is, eventually you get to a point where a common tradition erodes and dies away, and every artist is expressing their own self, but no one is talking to anyone else. There is no community.

It doesn't have to be that way.

Montague: You said in a lecture: "The past must be invented, the future must be revised. Doing both makes what the present is. Discovery never stops." Is the avant-garde dead?

Cage: People ask what the avant-garde is and whether it's finished. It isn't. There will always be one. The avant-garde is flexibility of mind. And it follows like day, the night from not falling prey to government and education. Without the avant-garde nothing would get invented. If your head is in the clouds, keep your feet on the ground. If your feet are on the ground, keep your head in the clouds.

Removing the self from the artistic equation means losing the ego's idea of what the self is, which always makes the ego afraid. But poetry and music both arise from silence. Silence is an active state of presence, not a passive nothingness. Silence is also the spaces between the words.

An egoless poetry is free from personal likes and dislikes. If the wheel of suffering must stop, activity, which is life, must stop. Or, rather, activity of the judgmental mind must stop. This allows things to be just what they are, without judgment, free from likes and dislikes.

Montague: Most composers like some of their own works better than others or at least feel some are more important than others. Which piece or pieces of yours would you consider the most important?

Cage: Well the most important piece is my silent piece, 4'33".

Montague: That's very interesting. Why?

Cage: Because you don't need it in order to hear it.

Montague: Just a minute, let me think about that a moment.

Cage: You have it all the time. And it can change your mind, making it open to things outside it. It is continually changing. It's never the same twice. In fact, and Thoreau knew this, and it's been known traditionally in India, it is the statement that music is continuous. In India they say: "Music is continuous, it is we who turn away." So whenever you feel in need of a little music, all you have to do is to pay close attention to the sounds around you. I always think of my silent piece before I write the next piece.

A performance, and another.

I don't remember the first time I ever performed 4'33". I must have been in my mid-teens. I know I first encountered the piece through a special tutorial study of electronic and experimental music that I was doing in 7th Grade; I had a very progressive music teacher, actually I was lucky to have several of them, when I was in public schools in Ann Arbor. The piece opened my ears, as it is meant to do, and changed my mind, as it can, and I frequently "perform" it to this day, just as Cage suggests in the interview above.

In recent years, I have performed versions of 4'33" numerous times, on location, in my travels throughout the USA, and recorded those versions onto my laptop. Several of them have been posted to my ongoing Road Journal podcast, which is archived here.

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