cage hed
Long before I knew anything about new music I fell in love with sound. "Suppose I listened to the sounds around me as if they were music," I wondered 16 years ago, unaware that John Cage had ever thought anything similar. But Cage and I had opposite ideas. He wanted his music to be like the sounds around him, proceeding from one moment to the next without order or intention. I thought the sounds around me might be as coherent as the music I'd always known. One day I started to listen, and decided I was right. People talking in restaurants echoed the rhythm and intensity of conversations on the other side of the room, and filled in the pauses of the conversation at the next table. Sounds that reached my window from the street below seemed linked in a loose but unshakable web, no part of which could change without tugging, however slightly, on the rest. Sounds are music, I thought, but with a subtler rhythm, more changeable flow, and more profound counterpoint, in which -- like lovers whose thoughts are always of each other, even though they're far away -- two or more independent parts move forward together without ever marching in step.
Lately I've thought I wanted to hear these sounds again, and so on a sunny Sunday afternoon I went to Washington Square and started to listen. At first I thought I was drowning in soup; there were more strands of sound in the music of the park than I'd hear in a dozen orchestras. Soon, though, I noticed radios, rhythmic, insistent, and distinct. After a while other sounds detached themselves from the stew: whistles, honks, the screech of brakes, a baby’s cry. The radios moved from place to place; a crowd watching a comedian in the fountain cheered. Soon the sounds began to connect. A knock or a slap -- someone spinning on a skateboard -- provoked a whistle 50 feet away. Another knock introduced applause from the crowd around the fountain, which in turn was echoed in a lengthened vowel from someone speaking right behind me. Three emphatic words jumping separately from three nearby conversations rose in volume and in pitch, like hammer-blows reaching a climax, one-two-perfect three, in rhythm. A Swedish girl behind me fit her next remark between two cries from a distant child. Someone matched a peak of music on the radio with a squeal. "Over there someplace," said a girl in a bubblegum accent; she paused for two slaps from a skateboard and then happily resumed. The park had a rhythm, and everyone with anything to say found themselves joining in. Only the radios got in the way, imposing a rigid beat on the much freer flow of the collective improvisation. I thought of Cage, who once said that "everything becomes confused" in rock. "It's wonderful!…that regularity disappears if the amplification is sufficient. You no longer have a rhythmic object, shaken like a rattle. You are inside the object, and you realize that this object is a river.…" And when the amplification's not sufficient you do have a rhythmic object shaken like a rattle, which obscures those wonderful sounds around us.

little stone

Cage was on my mind because I'd been thinking of a piece of his called Roaratorio, subtitled An Irish Circus on Finnegans Wake. As part of his ongoing tribute to James Joyce he'd planned to record sounds at a random sampling of places mentioned in the book, and to combine these recordings with his own reading of passages from the book that refer to sounds, and with a "circus" of traditional Irish music. That's not a bad recipe for stew, I guess, even if it's weakened by a dispensable downtown piety, in this case the belief that sounds of birds and brooks necessarily take on special meaning when you know they were recorded in places mentioned in Finnegans Wake. But I digress. I thought of Roaratorio because on the final tape the sounds, readings, and music are combined more or less by chance. Cage, as I've said, wants to imitate the sounds he hears around him; he relies on chance to free his work from any conscious control. But to me the noise around us sounds coherent. Can a collage put together partly by chance produce the same effect?
So I listened again to Roaratorio, or rather to the half of it broadcast by RadioVisions, a public radio series of a few years ago, which I have on tape. It seemed lively enough, with more varied textures than the sounds in the park; at times the flow thinned to nothing more than Cage's voice and the persistent thunk of a recorded drum (a suspiciously "composed" effect, but let it pass). I kept thinking, though, that it sounded stiff. I know that, as Cage says, I shouldn't feel any "obligation to make a judgment." But when I hear shouts and banging garbage cans in the street they seem to merge; the sounds in Roaratorio seem to stand blankly alone. The drum persists, undisturbed by eruptions of church bells or factory noise. Cage's reading isn't disturbed either. The sounds in Roaratorio produce no reaction. They aren't linked; they seem to come from a world in which things don't affect each other.
Oddly enough, that doesn't seem to be what Cage has in mind. When we model music to the sounds around us, he says, we "get out of the clutches of the egomind and get into this larger mind that involves everyone else and everything else." That's my emphasis; if the sounds we hear really are linked by a larger mind. you'd never guess it from Roaratorio. You might deduce it, though, from conversations in the broadcast between Cage and his associate John Fullerman, accompanied by the sound of Sixth Avenue traffic. Cars go by, trucks go by, and Cage and Fullerman talk -- adapting their speech to the noise from the street. Fullerman pauses as a truck accelerates, then pauses as another truck goes by; Cage breaks the silence when the noise of the second truck is at its peak (cf. the squeal in the park, timed to the radio). Cage speaks faster when the street gets noisy. He pauses during what sounds like the screech of brakes, and pauses again as if he wanted to make room for a pair of high-pitched taps: "That," he says, "uh [tap tap] seemed to me…" The effect of this lies above all in a rhythm that's impossible to reproduce here, but which unmistakably melds Cage and the taps together into a single phrase. At one point Fullerman echoes the winding contour of a complicated traffic noise, not precisely -- which would make him sound like a puppet -- but with a freedom that shows he doesn't know he's doing it. Roaratorio is designed to imitate the sounds around. us, but it's in the unplanned conversation surrounding it that we hear these sounds as they actually behave.

(one of my columns from the Village Voice, sometime in the early '80s)