Experiments in sound

By Chris Creighton-Kelly, January 2013

“I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones.”—John Cage

The place is packed: it is a sold-out house. Theatre-goers, with nowhere to seat themselves, stand in the back, craning to get a peek at the celebrated composer. The set is bare bones—a wooden table, an old-fashioned round desk clock, a glass of water.

The theatre is all abuzz. Finally a tall man with an impish grin, 70-plus years old, walks out to sustained applause and sits at the table. He offers a short, yet complex, explanation about word fragments chosen from the bible using a strict methodology involving the I Ching. He looks up from his notes, grins again, and starts into it.

“Thddg ghat zooh frrrrrr dineeg wll nooi lask...” sound after sound after sound, sounding just like these sounds. 

It is 1983, and John Cage is giving a performance of his work. Of course, these word fragments do not make “sense” in any conventional way. I briefly imagine them as a language that is unfamiliar to me, and then realize that no one actually speaks this language.

After about half an hour, the symphony types, now aware that there will be no music-as-they-know-it tonight, start to trickle out. At an hour and a half, the alt-rock hipsters are getting fidgety, and then they start to leave. Only us diehards remain, about a hundred or so.

Pausing to sip water, Cage continues, “Lish paulle goiid nnt masht jamk ssssssf crad...” Time to make a quick decision: we whisper to each other, “Let’s stay.” His spoken words wash over us—heads back in the seats, eyes closed, states altered.

It is music, even if it does not sound exactly like music. It carries us away to another realm where time itself has drifted into a forgotten, faraway zone. Somewhere approaching three hours, Cage turns the last page and abruptly stops reading. A smattering of applause that does not really feel appropriate. He grins from ear to ear, having thoroughly enjoyed himself, and slyly announces, “Any questions?”

He answers them all—over an hour—from the musical to the theatrical; from the theoretical to the spiritual. And finally, genuine, heartfelt applause. We leave the theatre, glowing, overflowing, inspired. It is well after midnight.

 

It is 2012, almost 30 years later. Cage, who died in 1992, would have been 100 years old this past fall. In Victoria, four arts organizations decided to celebrate his centenary with a series of events called Cage 100. 

Acting as a “musical curator,” UVic Professor Christopher Butterfield approached the Victoria Symphony and the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. He credits the openness of directors Tania Miller (VS) and Jon Tupper (AGGV) as they both found a place in their programming for Cage events.

As Butterfield put it in our conversation about Cage’s work, “With John Cage, everything is useful, everything is possible.” The professor explained that Cage, although a trained musician and composer, is better considered as an multidisciplinary artist who also worked on the edges of visual art, dance, media art and performance. 

Butterfield continued, “Throughout Cage’s work, there is an impulse to be in the moment, not waiting for something to happen, rather realizing that something is already happening.”

Cage 100 renewed that spirit here in Victoria where a lively new music scene has percolated for over three decades. “Why here?” I ask. Butterfield pauses just an instant, then offers, “There is something about living on an island. On the edge of this continent. We want more fun as audience, as musicians, without censure on what we create. I think we can get away with things more, especially things experimental.” 

Now, that is a confident rebuttal to the idea that the arts in Victoria are stale, staid and ultimately stalled! Butterfield knew that people may have heard about Cage in an ephemeral way. Or maybe they were familiar with only one aspect of his work. With Cage 100, he wanted to deepen the prevailing knowledge in Victoria. 

Open Space Director Helen Marzolf interprets the Victoria art scene as “Interdisciplinary…lots of musicians live here and are interested in artistic expression other than music. UVic has fostered that approach for years. And working across artistic disciplines has always been a mandate of Open Space.”

We speak about how our city is small enough that the various scenes often overlap in order to create an artistic, critical mass. Unlike the metropolis where individual art niches can be so developed that they are populated only by devotees with very narrow aesthetic tastes. 

Open Space, as the fourth participant in Cage 100, presents—until January 12th—a sound installation entitled “Essay,” curated by Butterfield. He helped to build the 36 individual speakers that seem to hang from wires as part of this piece.

Marzolf describes how Cage saw links between visual art and music: “Sculpture is spacial, its very essence involves space. And Cage thought about music that way—he was unbothered by borders—and he invites us to think about the space created by sounds and our place within it. That space could contain music.”

Indeed, in Cage’s most famous work “4’33’’,” the musicians appear onstage, instruments ready to play but as the piece begins there is no sound—just silence, 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence. But it turns out that silence is not silent! A nervous, tapping foot, traffic going by, someone breathing, a machine whining, a gurgling stomach—these and more constitute sounds in the silence. But are those sounds music?

I hear Marcel Duchamp whispering across the 20th century, answering this question with another question. “What is art?” he asks. 

But the operative question for our 21st century is shifting. Yes, we are still struggling with “What is art”—with what object under what conditions will be designated for the gallery and what other object will be tossed in the dumpster. 

But, to me, thanks to Cage and others, the new question is, “When is art?” When will we give ourselves permission to really listen, to look, to feel? When will we take the time to be totally in the moment and live that passage of time as art? The work of art as object/image/experience, crackling with energy, that will spark across the passage of that gap, between who we are and what we hope to be. 

I find my mind overflowing with Cagian strategies: employing chance as an aesthetic choice; encouraging Eastern ways of knowing to influence Western art practice; altering pianos—or any other objects—to make a musically fresh ambiance; the rigourous ordering and reordering of sounds; allowing daily life events to infiltrate into an artwork. 

While doing research for this piece, I found an old reel-to-reel tape recording of an interview that I did with Cage 40 years ago. He would have been the same age I am now. I had the tape but no machine to play it on. More than ironic!

John Cage would have been delighted with my predicament. I imagine hearing him as he grins, “That tape is useless. Even with a machine, it probably will not play.” I nod gently, as he hands me a pair of scissors. 

Chris Creighton-Kelly is a Canadian artist and writer who lives in the Victoria area. Along with France Trépanier, he is the co-author of Understanding Aboriginal Arts in Canada Today.