A tale: Cage uncaged

"Soon the child's clear eye is clouded over by ideas and opinions, preconceptions and abstractions. Simple free being becomes encrusted with the burdensome armor of the ego. Not until years later does an instinct come that a vital sense of mystery has been withdrawn. The sun glints through the pines, and the heart is pierced in a moment of beauty and strange pain, like a memory of paradise. After that day . . . we become seekers."


This past week I've been writing a magazine article on American composer John Cage (1912-1992). Profoundly inspired by tenets of Zen Buddhism, Cage continues to influence such diverse artists as Jim O'Rourke, Meat Beat Manifesto, Brian Eno, and even Madonna's co-producer William Orbit.

Yet as Thurston Moore—a man responsible for no shortage of irritating music himself—observes, most of Cage's catalog isn't something you just throw on around the house. So in an effort to better understand the processes behind his art, I devised the following writing exercises, which apply key Cage principles to my own discipline. The first incorporates the notion that any sound can function musically; the second generates structure via elements of chance. I'm not suggesting either of these will replace worthwhile pastimes like Ally McBeal, but if you're feeling blocked creatively, they may help you come unstuck.

MEMORY PIECE—Go to the kitchen. Find a single chopstick. (If you don't have any, order Chinese, Japanese, or Thai take-out.) Strike the first two objects you spy with the chopstick. Continue rapidly tapping them, in the same order, until the repeated two-note motif reminds you of a melody. Sing or hum as much of the tune as you can recall. What memory does this song spark? Quickly write it down.

RESULTS (January 18th)—Objects struck: dishwashing detergent bottle, dirty pint glass. "The interval made triggered 'The Mexican Hat Dance,' which reminds me of the dreaded Dance unit of Mrs. Fink's P.E. class, held in that dusty, sunlit room on the ground floor of Kent Gardens Elementary. That room looked out on the neglected field behind the school, past which lay the beautiful woods dividing us from the surrounding suburbs. I envied Amy Polk, who lived nearby and got to walk through those dappled trees and over the creeks, while the rest of us GT kids rode buses all over Northern Virginia and got home at sundown. Perhaps my resentment for Amy prompted me to pass over her affections and appoint chunky Mindy McDuff my first—and only—girlfriend (before that horrible fight in the coat closet)."

DREAM PIECE—Jot down as much as you can recall from a recent dream. Using scissors, cut apart the written sentences, until you have a number of individual strips, each containing a single sentence. (Note: If you are busy—or married to your computer—simply assign a number to each sentence, and write those on scraps of paper instead. However, if you're that busy, it seems remarkable you're reading this column at all. Perhaps breaking from routine to execute the exercise exactly as written might create a chink in your psyche for the light to shine through.) Fold the pieces, and place them in a hat or bowl. Without looking, select one and read it. This is now the first line of your dream. Continue picking out sentences, one at a time, and reconstructing the narrative according to the randomly determined order.

RESULTS (January 17th)—"But when I flip it over, I realize it has a cushiony backing, and is flimsier than normal—this is a place mat! One that I want is My Fair Lady. I'm riding my bike through narrow, shady backyards, as between a row of townhouses. I don't want every one, but I want to be certain there's a playable copy of any LP I do wish to take. I'd like to have some musicals, especially since I covet my dad's collection of beloved faves from childhood. I'm digging through the multiple copies, in search of just one that's in good shape. They're Broadway shows! I'm examining a record and discover it's square, with rounded corners. Somebody in the house interrupts me. Wow, I've discovered a rare, wacky format! The weather is in between sunny and drizzling, as sometimes occurs in summer. I don't take any of the discarded items, records or place mats, as I can't carry them on my bike. Water and sun have warped the jackets, damaged the discs. This debris appears to have been exposed to the elements for several days. Upon closer inspection, I realize it's a pile of vinyl records, multiple copies of a few titles. In one backyard I spy a pile of garbage strewn under a low, leafy tree."

• Autobiographical statement by John Cage, posted on New Albion Records' Web site.

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