Here is the final part of the internet conversation I had with the poet Joel Weishaus in 1999, while I was living in Heidelberg, Germany. In this part, I skip footnoting sources since there is a bibliography at the end that Joel prepared for the original publication. I want to again thank Joel for his interest in my work and for making this conversation possible. It sometimes does a writer good to find confirmation in present struggle by revisiting the past. Seeing how far I've come since assures me that hard work is perpetual, progress and results an illusion, and change the only constant. No "fat man bearing gifts," nor at the point where the "fat lady sings," instead following a "middle way." Where "not this-not that" (Neti-Neti) is a place in which one can experience a continuity of experience rooted in the now that also includes the past as part of the present. For me, unlike Schoenberg, following "the middle road (that) doesn't lead to Rome," is the only road I want to follow and, in any case, "Rome" (not as a place but as the cultural identifier Schoenberg intends) is definitely not where I want to go. Want isn't even the right word--it has nothing to do with want. It just isn't where I'm going, which is somewhere else altogether, a place in which I haven't yet settled, and maybe never will: a decidedly non-Shakespearean "undiscovered country."
Silencing the Sounded Self: Christopher Shultis and Joel Weishaus in Conversation, 1999
JW: You begin your study by saying that Cage "shied away from the matter of 'influences,' believing instead that one's own ideas attract historical precursors," (p. xvi) which is an interesting use of backward propagation! My understanding, however, is that his interest in chance operations, for which he is most famous, was influenced, and not so much by the operative assumptions of the I Ching, as by the early piano music of Pierre Boulez.
CS: Well, Cage really did love Boulez's second piano sonata and was instrumental, along with David Tudor, in getting it first performed in New York. The correspondence between Cage and Boulez is published in a book edited (and with a very pro-Boulez introduction) by Jean-Jacques Nattiez. It's fascinating stuff.
They were working on similar things at the time (from the mid-40s to early 50s), and Boulez was very much interested in the way in which chance operations, through Cage's use of the I-Ching, produced a work like Cage's solo piano piece Music of Changes. I wouldn't say that his use of chance operations was influenced by the early piano music of Boulez, although I would say that both were very much involved with each other's work at the time Cage began to use chance operations. The break between Cage and Boulez is, I think, once again an instance where Cage's work is attacked by someone who is doing something else and who cannot accept the otherness as being outside of one's own individual work. I think Cage was always capable of doing that, in other words, of being able to see his work as one part of something, rather than as an example of the work of art created in a totality within itself. I don't want to misread the European Neue Musik scene's appropriation of Adorno here because it's something I'm actually in Germany to learn more about. So I'll simply characterize what briefly follows as my (at the moment) reading of that appropriation in my own ephemeral way of dealing with the problem Susan Howe likely confronted when she published that excellent study of Dickinson under the title My Emily Dickinson.
What I mean is that the reaction to Cage in 1950s Europe, characterized especially well by Boulez, rightly attacks what they saw as a serious compositional flaw: not chance, but indeterminacy, found first in 4'33" (the "silent" piece) and the "Imaginary Landscape No. 4" for radios. Boulez, and the composers in Europe who followed him, instead preferred what Boulez called "aleatory" music. Now, I don't want to get into a long-winded musicological discussion here but what distinguished aleatoric music from both Cage's chance operations (which these composers didn't disapprove of) and the indeterminate compositions that follows (with which they did) is that aleatoric music offers the performer multiple notated choices that can be taken, that then open up the heard result--all of which, however, are intentionally written by the composer so that all those possibilities are pre-determined by the composer.
Chance operations replace compositional choices with the asking of questions within the compositional process, but then produce a fixed compositional result which is, of course, less open in the performative sense than is aleatoric music. But then indeterminate music, which Cage saw as the necessary antidote for the "Frankenstein monster" he had created with his "Music of Changes" (which, through chance operations, had produced an enormously difficult work) opened up the performance of music to both the intentions of the performer as well as, in many cases, the unintended experience of the environment in which the work was performed. The inclusion of the unintentional outside was completely unacceptable to the post-World War II European serialists in a way that I think one can, in retrospect, fully understand when considering the work of composers who thought there was a direct relation between the way one writes music (or makes art of any kind for that matter) and the way in which individuals and societies work. The anarchy of Cage's indeterminate pieces had social implications that led these composers, full of both war-time memories of the results of anarchic social situations, as well as full of Adorno's negative dialectics which saw art as a dialectically oppositional force in society, to write works that controlled as much as possible both what one performed and what one ultimately heard. These works were, at least as I read them, compositions in which the dialectical oppositions existed within--as models of society--rather than as a dialectical interaction with the world outside where model and reality would thus meet and produce the work of art collaboratively.
In closing, I want to add once again that my views on this are preliminary, and in fact I would highly recommend an article by Konrad Boehmer, drawn from a dissertation he wrote in the 1960s and thus full of the issues that I'm addressing here, that strongly criticizes Cage's work from the perspective of someone whose own background is steeped in a very sophisticated approach to dialectical thinking. It was published in the art journal October, I believe in the fall of 1997.
JW: In Silencing The Sounded Self, you quote Cage as saying that he hopes to make of words "something other than language," (p. 116) a strategy "in which words become what they originally were: trees and stars and the rest of (the) primeval environment." (p. 117) A language--still a language!--that interrogates, rather than communicates. Thus the words would be "empty," not of meaning, "but of intentional meaning." (p. 123)
Is it fair to say that the absence of intention, of control, along with the anxiety of failure--by means of tapping into a reservoir of ideas far vaster than any particular work could hope to portage--is instructive as to what makes a work of art in the tradition of experimentation?
CS: Cage's sense of what makes something experimental is pretty narrowly defined in his book Silence: "an action of which the outcome is unforeseen." On the other hand, in the same book, I think it is even the same essay "A History of Experimental Music in the United States," Cage himself places a lot of composers within the tradition of experimentalism even though they don't always fit Cage's narrow definition.
I see experimentalism more broadly although I do in my book place Cage in only a part of the tradition, as you know, by dividing it into those artists influenced (either consciously or not) by Emerson on the one hand--this is where I put the so-called Projectivists; and Thoreau on the other--where I put the Objectivists and Cage as well. One predilection I see in experimental work is an emphasis on process. And I like to think that your use of the word "reservoir" where the artist taps into a world of ideas (or experience) that is larger than the individual self would also be characteristic. I make distinctions in regards to how the artist as a medium functions in that world--either through what I call control or co-existence--but I think all experimental artists still emphasize process and the desire to experience and/or create a world larger than that of the individual consciousness. And the result would be art that is not entirely self-contained but that is always contextualized by the world around it.
JW: I'd like to interject here, with reference to the lineage you diagram. Paul Winter traces "the American lineage that extends from Thoreau through Charles Ives to Scott Nearing and Pete Seeger--voices from the 'quiet corner' of our culture, all artists who went to live with the land, built their own homesteads, and made their lives their song." So that, from his point of view, Ives extends from Thoreau, not Emerson! I find this interesting because it demonstrates just how slippery taxonomy can be.
CS: I would also add a couple of points. I think that Cage's interrogation is part of the compositional process but not found in the actual result whether he writes music or texts. He asks questions initially and then accepts the responses, or rather, at that point becomes a listener who observes the results rather than controlling them. And then again, I think that's only true until the mid-70s, which is why my book ends with Empty Words. After that in poetry, and even before that in music, Cage's intentions come increasingly to the fore. In fact, the point my book tries to make is that after Cage produces musical and textual "silence" he goes back into a place where nothing and something co-exist. I see it best represented as that moment in the Ten Ox-Herding Pictures, where, after experiencing emptiness, the last picture shows a man returning to society and bearing gifts. Or, in more directly Cagean terms, the moment after the long silence in his "Lecture on Nothing" where he says, "That is finished now. It was a pleasure. And now, this is a pleasure." Cage's work in the 1970s follows a very different project than what I describe in Silencing the Sounded Self. And it is one where sound and silence, intention and non-intention, are seen as "needing each other to keep on going."
The Tenth Ox-Herding Picture ("Fat Man Bearing Gifts")
I also think, regarding the question of failure, that Cage increasingly began to exercise his own personal taste in directly intentional ways and, in a sense, was constantly in the business of asking questions that produced results that did not fail. In other words, acceptance was placed in the context of a frame that was predetermined by the composer's own making, and thus could be subject to criticism in regards to success and failure in decidedly traditional ways. To me, it's like when my colleagues would speak of percussion as something they couldn't aesthetically judge: "I can't tell if he/she is a good or bad percussionist--I just don't know anything about percussion." Same with a Cage composition. If one is oriented to only take a critical look or listen to results--or content if you will--without taking a critical look at the process of making a piece, or the form in which the piece exists, then in all likelihood a piece by Cage will resist good analysis. But if one is capable of criticizing artworks as processes or as framing devices, something I think is pretty commonly addressed by both art historians and literary scholars, Cage's work is much more easily approached. I think, for example, that Marjorie Perloff's early support of Cage is a direct result of her great gifts as a literary critic who also has a strong interest in the arts. Musicologists would do well to read everything she has to say before venturing into a critical look at the compositional world of John Cage. And, by the way, that's something still long overdue.
JW: When Cage was [nearly] eighty years old, he was interviewed by Laurie Anderson. To her question, "In using chance operations, did you ever feel that something didn't work as you wanted?" Cage replied: "No. In such circumstances I thought the thing that needs changing is me--you know--the thinking through. If it was something I didn't like, it was clearly a situation in which I could change toward the liking rather than getting rid of it."
This mental plasticity is amazing for someone his age. It reminded me that most people become more conservative, more closed to change, as they become older. One would think it would be the opposite, that a person would become more open to change while approaching the ultimate change from life to death. It also reminded me of the Taoist sage, who is said to be born old, and become progressively younger, more creative. Thus, when Cage was in his late fifties, he began developing the compositional technique known as mesostics. Could you elaborate on this attempt at "making language as interesting as music," with reference to American experimental poetry in the latter part of the twentieth century?
CS: A couple of things seem to matter here. The first is that Cage's attempts to stay open were, I think, framed in ways that are very important to an understanding of how Cage used chance in his work. Much of the time he chose the materials that would be subjected to chance and most of the time they were source materials that he liked. Because of that, it would have been hard to come up with results Cage found unacceptable although sometimes he did and sometimes he changed the work because of that. And in my book, as you know, I, in fact, address the way in which Cage tried to "musicate" language by removing intentional meaning from it. In Mureau Cage subjected parts of Thoreau's Journal to chance operations and then ended up with something that had too much intention in it. In Empty Words, which Cage called a "transition from language to music" Cage intentionally removed sentences, phrases, words until all that was left were letters and silences thus showing us (and himself) the intentional process by which he removed intention from language. And that it required his choice to make that happen; that chance in Mureau had failed to do what was necessary to make that happen.
I think that Cage's work changes a lot after the mid-seventies when Cage finished Empty Words. And that's why I ended the book there. It's also why I concentrated on Cage and both his predecessors and contemporaries in that context as well. I wanted to present, as best I could, Cage's view of things and how he saw himself in the context of his world. Consequently, I didn't challenge his preference of Thoreau over Emerson, or the ways in which he "fit" as an objectivist by comparing things he said about his work with things that could be found in the work of others. I really think there is a direct line between Emerson and Projective Verse, and between Thoreau and Objective Verse, especially from Cage's perspective, in other words in the way that he saw himself as an artist. These are the contexts that up through the mid-seventies divide the experimental tradition, and I think that Cage's enormous influence over experimental art is, in a way, the dividing line of how the experimental tradition as a result will be addressed historically in our century. Cage doesn't serve as a connection among experimentalists the way Ives does in music or Pound does in poetry. He's a divider, an irritant, if you will, although he certainly was good humored about it from what just about everyone will tell you.
I also hesitated, and still do, to place Cage in either a postmodernist or modernist context because, first of all, I don't think that was well-enough developed historically during the time frame of my study (early 50s through mid 70s) especially not in music. And I think it is too easy to place Cage in one camp or the other in that moment in time. However, since this is an interview, and as a result hopefully seen as more speculative and conversational, if I were to describe Cage using those currently fashionable terms I would do so as follows: he placed post-modern content in a modernist frame.
I say this because I think after the mid-70s, and using the mesostics in literature and the time bracket pieces in music, Cage's work is much, much, more open to the intentional and to the privileging of the choice of content that is subjected to chance operations. That's a long story and one I'm not yet ready to go into detail about. But I am presently working on a study that compares Cage with Norman O. Brown in which I will do just that. In my book, where Cage privileges chance and nonintention, I emphasized choice and intention. Norman O. Brown, after reading some of my work, asked me if I didn't think I underestimated Cage's use of chance. And I agree. However, my intention was to show how intentional that use of chance was. In Cage's later work, I see just the opposite concerning Cage's more accepting views of intention in his work and thus I suspect (I'm not at a stage of certainty yet) that chance will be the predominant concern in my comparison of Brown and Cage.
In closing let me just say that I see the subject of nondualism and nonintention as being a very dualistic subject and vice versa! I also love to pair opposites in ways that may at first seem to prefer one to the other because of the obvious fact that those opposites see themselves that way. But ultimately my own preference is the Janus face like nature of the world-where, as Cage so brilliantly put it, "something and nothing need each other to keep on going."
Anderson, Laurie. "Talks With John Cage." Tricycle. (Summer 1992).
Brown, Norman O. Apocalypse and/or Metamorphosis. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.
Boehmer, Konrad. "Chance As Ideology." October 82 (Fall 1997). p. 62-76.
Cage, John. Silence. Middletown, CT.: Wesleyan University Press, 1961.
Cage, John. Empty Words: Writings '73-'78. Middletown CT.: Wesleyan University Press, 1979.
Cage, John. "Mureau" in M: Writings '67-'82. Middletown, CT.: Wesleyan University Press, 1973.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "The American Scholar" in The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol. 1, p. 52-70. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971.
Howe, Susan. My Emily Dickinson. Berkeley, CA.: North Atlantic Books, c. 1985.
Ives, Charles. Essays Before a Sonata and Other Writings. Howard Boatwright, Editor. New York: Norton, 1964.
Nattiez, Jean Jacques. The Boulez-Cage Correspondence. R. Samuels, Editor. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
Perloff, Marjorie and Junkerman, Charles, eds. John Cage: Composed in America. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1994.
Shultis, Christopher. Silencing the Sounded Self: John Cage and the American Experimental Tradition. Boston, MA.: Northeastern University Press, 1998.
Thoreau, Henry David. Journals. B. Tovey and F.H. Allen, Editors. New York: Dover, 1962.
Weishaus, Joel. Oxherding-A Reworking of the Zen Text. San Francisco, CA.: Cranium Press, 1971.
 As cited in part two, I published an essay on Brown and Cage for Perspectives of New Music in 2006: "'A Living Oxymoron': Norman O. Brown's Criticism of John Cage." It does not yet fully address the issue of chance in the context of their relationship to the extent I plan to include when I complete work on my book, "The Dialectics of Experimentalism" (in process).