In 1959, John Cage released Indeterminacy: New Aspect of Form in Instrumental and Electronic Music, an album, on Folkways. This was an unusual move for Cage—even aside from the unusual choice in record label this move represented the conscious choice to privilege the static recording over a live performance. In the piece, Cage reads ninety short texts, each different lengths, but each read at different speeds so that they all last exactly one minute. David Tudor, entirely separately, played electroacoustic music involving a piano and tape recordings of various electronic sounds and sections of Cage's Concert for Piano and Orchestra. Neither men knew what the other would produce. Hence, the piece is the chance meeting of two separate streams of sound: one of which being the sort of electronic music Cage had been experimenting with for a decade, and the other, spoken word. Cage's philosophy had always emphasised a rejection of semantic, emotional content, in favour of the recognition of the purity of the sound itself. The spoken word accompaniment, with all the inherent semantic content of language, produces a deeply unusual dialectic that resulted in one of the most incredibly potent artistic documents in music.
Since the 1959 recording, the piece has been performed live only once. Steve Beresford, Tania Chen and Stewart Lee toured the material in the early 2010s. I was frustrated by this new recording—though the music was all new, Lee read out the original texts as written by John Cage, which I think seems not in the spirit of the work. My own opinion is that Indeterminacy the piece is about the specific coupling of a spoken word part, strictly regimented into one minute sections, and a free flowing musical part, both separate.
I wrote these pieces over the course of about five months with the intention of using them to perform the piece myself. I don't know if I will ever get the chance, and in fact if I ever do I might decide to use different texts than these. For now, though, I offer these ninety. I hope they are interesting.
This page features all ninety texts in order, prioritising readability. To read them arranged more artfully, click here
In April 1914, during a visit to Tunisia, Paul Klee wrote in his diary: “Colour possesses me. I don't have to pursue it. It will possess me always, I know it. That is the meaning of this happy hour: Colour and I are one. I am a painter!” The same year, he painted ‘Red and White Domes’. I like to think that only a few hours, or even minutes, passed between when he put those words down and when he took his brush up. Klee does not possess colour, it possesses him. Here in this artist is an ecstatic love for the world and, though it is in fact the same thing but said in other words, an ecstatic love for the possibility of art.
The etymology of the word 'coincidence' doesn’t suggest anything about the likelihood of the coinciding events. Coincidence, taken literally, just means two or more events happening at once. It’s a nice accident of language that the word now means that the coinciding of these two events must be especially unlikely or striking, and that they no longer even need to be concurrent. It suggests that simply the metaphysical process of two events happening, which is just as common as one event of any kind happening on its own, is a kind of rarity to be cherished as long as we have enough imagination and presence of mind to notice why the things that happen around us are worth our attention.
Part of the fun of composing indeterminate music is looking for ways to introduce chance. In ‘Music for Piano’, Cage pulled the music of the piece from the exploitation of imperfections in the paper that made up its sheet music. Just as silence is actually full of microscopic, incidental sounds, so too is a blank piece of paper full of microscopic incidental marks which can be used as direction by a composer or performer. I once noticed that snapping strands of uncooked spaghetti produces different numbers of broken splinters at random, which could be a way of producing quiet cracking noises at the same time as providing randomness. For a more impatient and cruel composer, a lively, violent sort of music could be contrived by dropping a spider in ink and then letting it loose to scrawl markings over the stave. Please do not read into these ideas too much.
I sometimes hear those stories about adult couples who discover, by astonishing coincidence, that one appears as a background character in a photo of the other, years before the two had met. I am more interested in these stories than I ought to be. It seems to happen more often than it should.
In early June, 2020, some strange videos were uploaded to Twitter by confused San Francisco residents asking about a bizarre singing noise that permeated the area for miles around the bay. What sounded like organ music rang through suburbs that were empty of people. Different videos captured the sound at different volumes. Hours later these people got their answer: engineers had done some maintenance on the Golden Gate Bridge and added some new barriers, but had not taken into account the sound the wind would make as it passed through. Recordings from the bridge were deafeningly loud: the entire bridge was acting as a resonator so the sound could be heard from miles away. The individual panels were small enough and spaced such that there was a great deal of polyphony to the sound. Though some residents had complained, since the noise, when it appeared, lasted for multiple hours at a time, the news reports universally ran with headlines that read something like: “The Golden Gate Bridge is making music.” Someone said that this was likely the most enjoyable music engineers had ever made.
Atmospherically, motorway service stations are like airports to me. When I'm in an airport I'm either excited or exhausted, depending on the direction I'm going. So while in practise the experience of being in the airport itself is not especially emotionally complex, the idea of being in one, informed by finding the mean amongst all memories, blends the poles together into the electric vertigo of sleep deprived giddiness. An empty KFC in a motorway service station at 4AM gets me into the same emotional place. Fast food chains in general, but especially KFC, are pretty repulsive to me: I would be happy if they were abolished. There is an undeniable magnetism in art towards ugliness, and experience becomes a kind of art if one is receptive to the idea. The slime of the food is transfigured into a perverse ectoplasm that haunts the KFC at midnight, and is physically coupled to an obnoxiously bright, shiny environment. The smell is overwhelmingly oily and greasy but the visual experience is that of an airport.
Robert Ashley said of 4’33” that it changed music to such an extent that “time being uppermost as a definition of music—the ultimate result would be a music that wouldn’t necessarily involve anything but the presence of people... It seems to me that the most radical redefinition of music that I could think of would be one that defines ‘music’ without reference to sound.” I love the charity and leniency afforded to this piece: the tendency of Cage’s friends and admirers to declare it so universal a composition that Tudor could sit at the piano for an hour and hammer out a medley of Donna Summer tunes and would still, in spirit, be playing 4’33”.
According to my dad, musicians of his generation used to joke that playing modern classical music was like trying to read fly shit. The idea was that if one placed a piece of white paper under a spider’s web, it would eventually be populated with the tiny black dots of droppings and other detritus, which may as well be read as a score once staves are superimposed. I think some of them meant it as a pejorative, as though post-war music befitted comparison to such a haphazard and indecent manuscript. Some others probably rightly recognised that the undeniable comedy that comes with avant garde music isn’t something that has to be denied in order that the music remains profound. Accepting the absurdity as a valuable dimension of the music is the mature response. And, as Cage said to his studio audience of unsuspecting citizens before he performed ‘Water Walk’ on live TV in 1960, “I consider laughter preferable to tears”.
A monk asked Joshu, does a dog have Buddha nature, or not? Joshu replied: Mu. Mu is a single Chinese character that means something like ‘to not have’, ‘without’, or ‘nothing’, so although Joshu’s response essentially is an unapologetic denial, the intrinsic emptiness of the word produces a fascinating prism of possibility and openness in his answer that has inspired centuries of commentary. Wumen Huikai writes: “Enlightenment always comes after the road of thinking is blocked. If you do not pass the barrier of the patriarchs or if your thinking road is not blocked, whatever you think, whatever you do, is like a tangling ghost. If you want to pass this barrier, you must work through every bone in your body, through every pore of your skin, filled with this question: What is Mu? Carry it day and night. Do not believe it is the common negative symbol meaning nothing. It is not nothingness, the opposite of existence. If you really want to pass this barrier, you should feel like drinking a hot iron ball that you can neither swallow nor spit out.”
A few years ago, shortly into the first nine hour leg of a flight to the USA, a woman sitting next to me broke the silence to ask me if I was a musician. Apparently she had a sense for that sort of thing since I wasn’t wearing or doing anything that would suggest that I was. We ended up talking for most of the flight, and in the course of my music discussions I spent probably an hour talking about John Cage. She was a Canadian architect, and spent about as long talking about Buckminster Fuller. Her project was to do with designing and building energy efficient, cheap, portable housing—to solve the housing crisis, and to alleviate the restricting and contrived grid of modern life, so she said. If either of us had known the biographies of these people slightly better at the time we would have known that Cage and Fuller, far from being two separate thinkers in separate fields, were friends and admirers of one another. Since the 40s their works transcended their respective media to influence the other. I started reading Cage’s collected letters a year later, and only then did I realise how close we were to talking about the same thing.
In a letter written to Cecil Smith in defence of Satie, Cage writes: “The length of a work is no measure of its quality or beauty, most of post-Renaissance art-propaganda to the contrary. If we glance momentarily at R. H. Blythe’s book on haiku (the Japanese poetic structure: 5, 7, 5 syllables), we read: ‘Haiku thus make the greatest demand upon our internal poverty. Shakespeare (cf. Beethoven) pours out his universal soul, and we are abased before his omniscience and overflowing power. Haiku require of us that our soul should find its own infinity within the limits of some finite thing.” Concerning aphorisms, Jean-Michel Rabaté writes: “What makes an aphorism distinctly 'Kafkaian’ or 'Joycean'? One of the most common characteristics of these short fragments is that they can be read as compressed fictions of a subjectivity struggling to balance their linguistic capabilities and the shock of the real, often aiming at the truth as directly and immediately as possible. A first approach might be that a Kafkaian or Joycean aphorism presents the shortest narrative form capable of capturing the dialectical intertwining of Self and Other.” This is the longest text of any I have included.
In Moby Dick, Ishmael describes whiteness as the “visible absence of color [...] and it is for this reason that there is such a dumb blankness in a wide landscape of snows—a colorless, all color of atheism.” And in the winter of William Blake: “Lo! now the direful monster, whose skin clings / To his strong bones, strides o'er the groaning rocks: / He withers all in silence, and his hand / Unclothes the earth, and freezes up frail life.” Whiteness as emptiness and silence—even spoken of in this way it is recognised as a full-up sort of blankness. A maximum of colour and sensation.
In fluid dynamics, laminar flow is the flow of particles of fluid in distinct layers. This tends to happen to fluids moving at lower velocity and, at a high velocity, the same fluid can begin to flow turbulently. This distinction is a useful one in music writing because it helps us to describe the way time is perceived when one listens. There is no 1:1 comparison, the metaphor isn’t that neat, but the notion of laminar flow is useful because it provides a name for an intuitive concept of movement. This is movement which is distinct from chaos and distinct also from an orchestrated mass moving in perfect concord. The perception of time appears to be this way—people don’t think of time as a totally linear isotropic series of discrete seconds or minutes; time bunches up and stretches out according to what experience it happens to be scaffolding. Experience of any kind involves the constant perception and processing of data, and what is this processing but continuously remembering what has been perceived? When one thinks back on experience one finds the time hasn’t been distorted evenly, but rather into layers.
Since I love this piece, Indeterminacy, so much, I took to wondering what constituted it. What degree of universality ought I afford the piece? Would the sheet music entail the original texts as written by Cage as a libretto? I have no problem with that personally, given that the original texts are so brilliant, but I wonder if we couldn’t be more ambitious? Perhaps the sheet music only entails that one party plays music of an indeterminate nature, while another party reads texts exactly one minute long, without either party collaborating intentionally? In that case any texts could do, a performance of so many minutes requiring as many texts. I submit ninety offerings here that could be used. Cage actually violates this rule though, as he runs well over the minute mark in the longer texts of the original. Perhaps, I could go and sit in the park, put on an audiobook and listen to the interplay between those words and the birdsong, the rustling of trees, and the cars whooshing by behind the low red brick wall of the perimeter.
Wise words from the departing: Eat your greens, especially broccoli. Remember to say "thank you" for the things you haven't earned.
Cage said: “It isn’t useful, music isn’t, unless it develops our powers of audition.” I have heard some people react in horror at this. The involvement of utility in art sets off alarm bells—one should be wary of those who try to frame existence and experience in terms of productivity and usefulness. Cage also said: “Nothing is accomplished by writing a piece of music. Ditto for hearing a piece of music. Ditto for playing a piece of music.” It is important to keep in mind, when hearing those words, that Cage still managed to do rather a lot of all three, and was not at some point in late life struck by the realisation that he had wasted his time.
Some of the stories I’ve included here work better if they have other stories to set them up ahead of time. Since the texts are ordered at random in this performance, this means that I’m leaving up to chance whether the texts will make more or less sense which, I’d like to strongly assure you, has no bearing on the quality of the performance. Whatever happens, however it transpires, is exactly what is supposed to happen. We’re all adults here, so I hope we’re not so insecure that we need all the art we experience to make sense. One of the texts is about, among other things, how horrible British weather can be. As I write this now, minutes after writing that other text, I don’t know at what time of year this performance will take place or what the weather will be like on that day, which will either make the text appropriate or ironic. In the case that it’s ironic, and it hasn’t come up yet, I’ve just explained the joke before I even tell it. It just now occurs to me that I might even one day get the chance to perform this outside the UK and, if that’s happening right, now, I’d like to take this opportunity to apologise for the British Empire.
The interjections of electronic sound from Tudor in the 1959 recording tend to be brief, and their entrance and exit as voiced sounds is abrupt. They might be described as staccato, which is of course the Italian word for “detached”. They can be read as discrete sounds to be spotted in the continuity in the same way that one would spot mushrooms. Mushrooms look like isolated and detached organisms, but are really part of a larger underground network of mushrooms. The sounds are similar in that they’re all part of the same organism—it’s the same score that controls the entrance and exit of all of these sounds and they’re all part of the same continuity of sound. The illusion of detachment helps the audience not see the sounds only in terms of their relationship to other sounds—the only relationship that’s stressed is that of the music and the speaking, the internal relationships of the music fall away from one’s mind.
A friend of mine, whose first language is not English, asked if a note means the same thing as a sound. I said no. A note is more like something that, via a suspension of disbelief, we accept as a musical building block. The note, we pretend, has a regular pitch and represents a perfect version of sound, such that the word “note” can be used interchangeably to describe the actual packet of wiggly air and the symbol that describes that air in musical notation. Since notes are blocks, they don’t act like a fluid in the way that sound does. Notes are good for building sturdy structures, but you couldn’t fill a bucket with them.
Concerning randomness, there’s actually a very interesting spectrum that exists between things that are homogeneous and things that are heterogeneous on different levels of detail. To demonstrate: white noise. Not very interesting, most people would agree. It’s macroscopically homogeneous because if you focus on the whole image you see there's an even distribution of white and black, but no matter what level of detail you look at it from it’ll end up looking the same, so it's microscopically homogeneous as well, without being self similar in the way that a fractal is. Conversely, Cage’s Music of Changes. This piece is macroscopically homogeneous, but microscopically heterogeneous—when one listens there are clearly unique structures that are not repeated and nothing is self similar. The ideas arrive as we peruse the piece, when we notice that there's an especially interesting arrangement of sounds here, but now perhaps here there is nothing of any interest. When it's over, with any luck, the structures and the ideas about them are completely gone from our minds. When zoomed out, randomness produces homogeneity.
"Dharma" derives from a Sanskrit word which roughly means to uphold or sustain, but could be said to mean ‘that which supports’, which implies an inner structure to a thing. That which supports, in the sense that from within it provides the skeleton that gives something its conceptual shape, the relationship between material and its dharma like that of a bed sheet draped over a clothes-horse. Accompanying my copy of the Bhagavad Gita is an essay concerning the multi-faceted Sanskrit meanings in the concepts of Hinduism. It explains that another meaning of dharma is ‘duty’ and ‘righteousness’, and so another aspect of meaning emerges in the story which suggests an intrinsic link in Hindu ontology between moral compulsion and metaphysics. Dharma is used sometimes in a similar way to an essential nature in Aristotle. Under the fabric, material, there would be a rigid skeleton of moral law, the sort that gives one unwavering faith.
When I was a child, and I would complain about being bored, adults would sometimes tell me that only boring people get bored. They did so I think with a kind of exasperated meanness: it was to shut up an annoying little boy rather than to educate him (me). Now though, I think they’re right in a certain sense. Interesting things happen all the time, we just need to be receptive enough to the world around us that we can notice why things are interesting. The skill we should develop (a skill which Cage helps us to exercise) is to make ordinary experience into art. When writers describe anything, that’s what they’re doing, and you don’t need to actually put down any permanent marks that can be shown to others or sold to publishers in order to do the same thing.
In 2019, sports writer Jon Bois created a 90 minute documentary all by himself about athletes called Bob. It is called The Bob Emergency, and is available for free in two parts on YouTube. He noticed that the name Bob was on the decline, and so painstakingly tracked every athlete named Bob from the 1850s onwards to produce a chart of the frequency of Bobs in sport. The documentary goes through some of the remarkable and mundane stories of men called Bob throughout the past century and dramatises with dry comedy the perceived tragedy of this once illustrious name falling into disuse. In 2019, there were only 10 athletes called Bob left active in the world of sport. The fact that someone was able to make something like this, with a premise so ridiculous, and make it compelling and beautiful, is why I love the internet as a platform for bizarre art projects. Near the conclusion, Bois tells us via his voiceover that “there are no dull stories. People are full of wonder. No matter how you study our history, you will always find it.”
One of the original texts tells of a lecture that Cage gave praising Satie and denouncing the work of Beethoven. Satie told Debussy that “what is needed is music without any sauerkraut in it.” The text concludes with a visit from his friend Patsy Davenport who knocked on Cage’s door to say: “I think I understand what you said about Beethoven and I think I agree. But I have a very serious question to ask you: How do you feel about Bach?” This made me laugh out loud when I first heard it. It’s framed as a punchline—a frantic late evening visit to enquire about a matter of the utmost seriousness—and implies that it’s funny that anyone should be so worried about that. Cage expands on this episode in his book Silence, writing: “Giving up Beethoven is fairly simple for an American, but giving up Bach is more difficult. Bach’s music glorifies for those who hear it their regard for order, which in their lives is expressed by daily jobs nine to five and the appliances with which they surround themselves and which, when plugged in, God willing, work. [...] Patsy Davenport is right. It’s a serious question. For if we give up Bach, what do we have left?”
Classical sculpture presents its objects as solid—objects around which we must walk to experience their full form. With an opaque three dimensional object, the part one sees physically hides the part one doesn't see. The area of interest in the sculpture was not the internal volume of the thing itself (which is invisible) nor the space the volume inhabits, but that narrow frontier where the solid mass ends and the space begins, a frontier which needs to be circumnavigated to be understood. Classical sculptors shaped the matter so that this boundary resembled a non art object, like an athlete for instance. Calder's early sculptures (like Hercules and Lion) are different in that the volume of the sculpture is so insubstantial, given that it is made of thin wire, that one can look at the piece in a single glance and see everything at once. At that point, circling the thing to change one’s perspective doesn't reveal the parts of the thing hidden from view, but reveals how exactly the same matter is different. From face on it resembles exactly what the title describes, but changing one’s perspective lets the thing gradually slide into abstraction.
I once heard someone describe a live show that Peter Brötzmann had played as “a man with a saxophone blowing as many notes as possible, as loudly as possible, in as short an interval as possible, for an hour”. It’s unfortunate that that doesn’t literally describe any free improvisation performances that I know of, because such a performance would be a piece not enclosed by arbitrary choices of the performer or composer, but defined instead by an objective biological fact: that being lung capacity. To play a composed piece correctly is to conform to the vision of the composer. To perform such a piece of free improvisation correctly is simply to honour the commitment to try one’s hardest, and that is neatly beautiful.
Kafka wrote: "A cage went in search of a bird."
Take some scissors to a joke book, cut out the set-ups and punchlines and glue them back in random order to create an unlimited supply of mystical Zen wisdom. What do you call a hippie's wife? Roberto. What do you call a man with a rubber toe? Mississippi.
In the wake of both the industrial revolution and the propagation of the philosophy of individualism, the presence of genius has become necessary for great works of art. The notion that a great work is one that serves as a vehicle for the personal self expression of a genius is one that has become ubiquitous to the point of invisibility. In fact, almost all of the most sophisticated aesthetic developments in art were developed anonymously and communally. No element of individual artistic genius in any one architect or builder was necessary for the pre-industrial rural houses of England to be stunningly, and uniformly, beautiful.
I once heard someone (exactly who, I forget) describe the music of Debussy as like a frog looking at its own reflection in a pond, mournfully. I also once heard someone (also forgotten to me) describe the music of another composer (again forgotten) as being like making eye contact with a horse.
To a friend who likes to offer advice and input on a subject he knows nothing about, but who I don’t want to offend by naming directly, I offer this advice. To assert one’s viewpoint in a way that makes it an imposition is not a way to realise personhood, but to parody it. A better way to affirm your existence is to pay attention and listen. That is, attend to others.
Leo Tolstoy wrote in his diary: “The political is not compatible with the artistic because the former, in order to prove, has to be one-sided.” In Sculpting in Time, Andrei Tarkovsky makes his case for why he agrees. “The greatness and ambiguity of art lies in not proving, not explaining and not answering questions. The artistic image cannot be one-sided: in order justly to be called truthful, it has to unite within itself dialectically contradictory phenomena.” This observation is beautiful in its language but as an argument for the incompatibility of art and politics it fails. It would be an outrageous arrogance to expect that one’s art could ever possibly contain some political message so coherent and steely eyed that it didn’t contain some degree of dialectical contradiction. Even the ideological monolith of the propaganda film, a text explicitly designed to prove, inevitably contains a litany of contradictions.
Aquinas wrote that "angels exist anywhere their powers are required. [...] The angel is now here, now there, with no time-interval between." The freedom of this religious symbol to act freely, liberated from time and logic, means it is right at home in poetry as a way of annexing beauty to things. Memory and physical extension in space are bound up. My dad physically recoils at loud noises, he says when he hears sharp noises of a sufficient loudness he literally sees flashes of white light. My own synaesthesia is more abstract, but the most magical and otherworldly music appears as borne on tiny packets of light in an abstract psychological sense which eludes scientific description. These packets are like the sounds of the world themselves. As though the effects are annexed to their causes by God’s good grace they appear exactly where their powers are required. Instantly, miraculously.
Schoenberg once complained about the growing prevalence of recorded media. He writes: “The boundless surfeit of music. Here, perhaps the frightful expression ‘consumption of music’ really does apply after all. For perhaps this continuous tinkle, regardless of whether anyone wants to hear it or not... will lead to a state where all music has been consumed, worn out.” Interestingly, his unspoken premise that it is a scarcity that confers the music its value, and his aversion to a reduction of experience to consumption, might have endeared him to a certain specifically peculiar phrasing from Roland Barthes who, apparently invoking Marx, describes the public as “consuming” a cathedral when they behold it. “Consumed in image, if not in usage,” he takes care to say.
Douglas Hofstadter points out in his talk “Analogy as the Core of Conception” that human speech is full of errors. We have to construct sentences as we go and not only do we have to go back and edit them when we back ourselves into grammatical dead ends, but individual words get combined into mutant nonsense. He calls the process of thinking that produces words in the moment “lexical item choice”, and describes this choice as a fight—a subterranean struggle between all the words and non-words one has ever used. Sometimes there is a clear winner, in those cases where the cognitive process is well trodden. In other cases, where we are improvising more than remembering, there is audible competition. “I can’t keep all of these things in my bread at once.” Bread is a word blend of brain and head. The distortions can be more subtle: Thi-eez kinds of things (this and these blended together create a peculiar vowel sound) appear constantly. Perhaps every single word is contorted in some way, even when read out. Speech is full of stretch marks and crackles and warping, just like the music is.
It has recently become a popular adage that, taxonomically, there is no such thing as a fish. There is even a popular podcast bearing that title. Less well known, but only slightly, is that botanists say there is no such classification of plant as a “vegetable” in their field. The term seems useful only to chefs. With these facts in mind: what hope have we for a useful taxonomy of the arts? In ten years there may be a podcast called “no such thing as music” in which a panel of nerdy white people sit around a table and bark Kurt Schwitters’ style sound poetry at each other in between stabs of deafeningly loud field recordings of animal mating sounds, as is the British way.
In physics, the Uncertainty Principle states that there is a fundamental limit to the precision with which the values for certain pairs of physical quantities of a particle, such as position and energy, can be predicted from initial conditions. One of the quirks of this principle is that it’s possible for there to be uncertainty over whether a photon has zero energy or non zero energy. A non zero energy photon is simply an absence of a photon. So, even in the vacuum of space it so happens that photons appear from apparently nowhere, as uncertainty produces energy where before there was none. This usually corrects itself pretty much instantaneously, but it means that all throughout space tiny dots of light appear in an instant—universal pins and needles. There doesn’t appear to be any one law for when or where these photons appear, and it increasingly seems that the laws of physics are the way they are simply because they happen to arbitrarily fall out that way—not really laws at all on very large scales. Arbitrary principles governing the operation of the universe sounds like a recipe for chaos, and I suppose it is, but it’s a chaos that always works exactly as it needs to.
According to Cage, duration is the most essential particle of music. Though sound may be thought of in terms of pitch, or timbre, duration is the only element shared by both sound and silence. Cage therefore chose to use duration as his central atom of music, and thought of all music as consisting of a sequence of "time buckets". The composer is free to do what she wants with these buckets: fill them up with her blood, sweat, and tears, use chance operations to fill them in some other way, or simply leave them empty. In Cage’s time the buckets would have been a lot more interesting looking than the ones I’m used to. Lots of metal. Dents, subtle colour streaking from the galvanisation process, rust even. I own two buckets, and they’re both made of black plastic, almost entirely free from imperfections and markings. The modern bucket is quieter than in Cage’s day.
My cats seem to have an understanding: They go out the back door and explore the gardens of the neighbourhood, and the humans go out the front. Sometimes when I’m coming or going I see the cats in front of the house, and whenever they spot me they end up paralysed by doubt. It seems that the mind of a cat can’t know that taking three left turns brings them roughly back to where they started. When they do this, and end up in front of the house despite having gone out the back, face to face with what is under any normal situation a physical impossibility (a wild human), their understanding of the world and their place within it seems inadequate. They are not equipped for the spatial complexities of negotiating the gardens and streets. One of the great challenges in our lives is to try, through the use of a prehistoric natural intuition on these matters, to avoid putting ourselves in situations that by necessity we cannot even identify as dangerous. The spooky magnetism of this kind is very poorly understood, but everyone who has heard the music of Anton Webern has felt it.
Many of the texts in the original recording by Cage are stories he tells of things that happened to him personally. I have relatively few of those, because my life doesn’t seem quite as interesting. In fact, some of my stories are completely made up.
Cage begins one of his indeterminacy texts with the phrase “you probably already know the one about the two monks, but I’ll tell it anyway.” I did indeed know the one about the two monks, and you might as well so I won’t repeat it here. It has since made its way into the anthologies of outrageously naff mindfulness stories that are posted to Instagram accounts dedicated to daily meditation. Often these stories conclude, melodramatically, with one of the characters witnessing the events achieving enlightenment. Life under capitalism entails such a strangulation of the soul that apparently we must be re-enlightened daily while eating breakfast, before we go to work. Zen is not a bandage to be applied to the spiritual wounds of alienated workers to stop them going mental and killing everyone.
The Ryonaji rock garden is a Zen garden in Japan that consists not of plants, but of rocks. There are fifteen distinct rocks in the space, and around these permanent facts of life the empty space is populated with carefully raked white gravel. Cage laments in one of the original Indeterminacy texts that Western commentators invariably try to divine meaning from the placement of the rocks, or identify some sort of human logic in the composition of their arrangement. He suggests that the arrangement of the stones was probably unplanned, and they might as well be anywhere, since the emptiness of the raked gravel provided a medium such that stones would appear to be in their correct place anywhere in it. I don’t claim to know if this is true (whether it is or not doesn’t matter much to me) but one thing that is true about Ryoanji is that no matter where one stands, not all fifteen stones can be seen at once. At least one will always be obscured by another, unless one views it from straight above, which is an ordinarily impossible perspective for a human.
The original Indeterminacy stories were read sequentially, such that one story sometimes set up information for another, as in the extended episode concerning Cage meeting pianist Richard Buhlig. In the performances of the piece given by Tania Chen, Steve Beresford and Stewart Lee in the early 2010s, Lee reads these texts out of order, which might lead one to expect more disorder in that performance than in the original. In fact, there isn’t much difference between the two, concerning how coherent the throughline of meaning is across the entire continuity of disconnected texts.
Andrei Tarkovsky wrote in Sculpting in Time that "It is obvious that art cannot teach anyone anything, since in four thousand years humanity has learnt nothing at all." The same is more or less true of philosophy, and without a doubt it is true of aesthetics. No matter how hard we try, no theory of art yet developed is specific enough to be of any use to anyone while being internally consistent and coherent. The more one makes authoritative statements about art the more one finds that they are short sighted and stupid. General principles having dissolved, we are left with the simple, towering fact that art is among the most important things we have and we have no idea why.
Langton’s Ant is somewhere between a game and thought experiment. Actually, it is a cellular automaton, a sort of grid based mathematical simulation. The “ant” moves along an infinite grid of squares. At a white square, turn 90° clockwise, flip the colour of the square, move forward one square. At a black square, turn 90° anti-clockwise, flip the colour of the square, move forward one square. Following these simple rules, the ant is capable of producing structures that can simulate any possible Turing machine computer, and this has been proven mathematically. It exhibits emergent behaviour. The starting configuration of white and black squares is what constitutes the ‘program’ from which the ant is capable of producing its emergent complexity. Now, the computer I use to produce the randomness in this performance is running random number generation software which truth be told isn’t truly random. It’s what’s called “pseudo-random”: it follows a set pattern and in theory could be reverse engineered. In light of the ability of simple rules to create emergent complexity, as in the case of the ant, I do not see this as a failure in any respect.
The most vitally important thing about Bach’s cello suites, the least contrapuntal of all his great works, is not the notes, imagined in the mind of a sleeping embryonic thunderbird. In fact, it is the immediate sound itself as heard by stinky humans. Pierre Fournier plays these pieces in order that we understand the physical character of the world that raised the man that wrote this music, and affirms the acoustic character of his instrument. This is the reverberating legacy of the excitation of a string. Anything objectively real has about it the kindness of existence—only the mental and suggested is ever wrong. Stones and soil will never lie to you.
One sometimes suspects things in the original Indeterminacy recording are more planned than Cage lets on. The first story in the set opens with the word “Once...”, while the final story concludes with the word “death.” Following this final word immediately is a jaunty two note chord from Tudor on the upper register, which concludes the album with a surprisingly elegant sense of resolution. In Cage, this is the closest one gets to cadence.
The appeal of fantasy writing as a genre appears to many people to be that it is escapist. I suggest, and others like Ursula K. Le Guin would agree, that escapism is not something that ought to be encouraged. It is perhaps a necessity that, given the cruelty in the world, we sometimes try to step out of it. But making a habit of sneaking away from the world is dangerous—as in Le Guin’s books, transforming too often, to free oneself from oneself—that results in ruin. The beauty of art isn’t in that it lets us escape from life, it’s quite the opposite.
Being out of one's depth is something to be cherished in art. In art there is no judgement, and you do not need to know or to understand. Instincts we have inherited teach us to fear chaos: it's dangerous to be disoriented and surrounded by the whirling claws of predators. Music cannot hurt you though, so one way to transcend your biology is to learn to admit that you don't understand. Learn to enjoy the tactile massage that art gives to your fingertips as it slips through them.
Never say you can’t dance. The point of dancing is not to be good at it. The same is true of painting and making music. Some people are very good at those things, and we should recognise that and celebrate those people and encourage others to improve by practising. That doesn’t mean that art by amateurs has no value—art is not a skill that has to be done well, it’s something that humans do in the same way that birds sing and fish swim. If I believed in the concept of an essential nature, I would say that art is part of ours.
In 2009 there was an explosion at the Slim Jim manufacturing plant in the town of Garner, North Carolina, injuring 38 people and killing two. Slim Jim production was halted and a new facility was opened in Troy, Ohio. The Garner facility was brought back online, but eventually was permanently shut down on the morning of the 20th of May, 2011, the day that Macho Man Randy Savage died. Macho Man Randy Savage was an American professional wrestler. He appeared prominently in advertisements for Slim Jims. Randy died of a massive heart attack behind the wheel while driving with his wife. He was never treated for his coronary artery disease and many suspect he was not even aware of his own condition. Someone, somewhere, noticed that the North Carolina plant closed on the same day that Macho Man Randy Savage died, and then wrote a single sentence about that and left it on Wikipedia. We have more information now than we could ever hope to use constructively, a unique problem in the history of information.
Ramakrisha said: “why does God allow evil in the world? To thicken the plot.” Simon Munnery said: “Do not punish yourself. It deprives the world of its purpose.”
There is a geometric figure which most fascinates me: the spiral. I love spirals because the centres work as an immediate and visual tool for understanding singularity—perfectly densely drawn in the zero dimensional point of convergence from which rarefied and graceful curves spill out, stretching on forever. The delineation between the infinite density of the centre, confined to the finite region in that centre, and the vanishingly thin matter spread out across the infinite space of the outer, this delineation—the point at which one ends and the other begins—is an artefact of our perception. It depends on how zoomed in we are. The principle that unifies these regions which appear distinct, but in fact are not, is that there is an infinite rotational symmetry about the singularity.
St Augustine wrote of Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan, that “when he read, his eyes were drawn through the pages, while his heart searched for its meaning; however, his voice and tongue were quiet. Often when we were present we saw him reading in this fashion, silently and never otherwise.” For Augustine, this was unusual, that someone would read without vocalising. Only rather recently did it become common for readers to develop an internal voice. A quote from Plato’s Phaedrus: “That’s the strange thing about writing which makes it truly analogous to painting. The painters’ products stand before us as though they were alive, but if you question them they maintain a most majestic silence.” In Michael Snow’s film So Is This (a silent film entirely consisting of white text displayed one word at a time over black) the audience members are asked to read the words for ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’, together, and in total silence. Snow describes this as an optical cranial sing-song.
I think that in order to be truly astonishing, music has to include multiple aspects one could never have dreamed of, and it has to include them in such a way that their combination can produce an endless spiralling of discovery and realisation. It requires that the things one loves about the work produce not just love, but different characters and qualities of love. In art, a + b = b + a is NOT something that necessarily holds. In fact, there are endless ways of inverting and interpolating and consolidating the mechanic of a relationship. The relationship itself can be dependent on, it could be antecedent to, it can be a circular argument between two things which grows wildly as it spins or shrinks away shyly when one dwells on its impossibility. It can gesture vaguely in some direction, or it can enforce with unshakeable resolve an iron, immutable law that produces a truth impossible to assert in epistemology. If, then.
An intelligent agent, particularly an "artificial general intelligence", has an interesting property: The actions it takes are generally unpredictable, while the outcome that arises from those actions is highly predictable. For instance, Magnus Carlsen is an intelligent agent in the domain of chess compared to other human chess players and especially to me. If I were to play a game of chess with him, I have only a vague idea of what he might do, his individual moves are unpredictable. After all, if I knew what moves he would make I would be just as good a player as him, and could just go into any game and make the moves Carlsen would. The moves themselves are a mystery to me, but the outcome of those moves is almost certainly that my King is put in checkmate—a maximally good outcome for Carlsen.
For a while a few years ago I was fascinated by primitive artificial intelligence programs that imitate human speech. One of them is Cleverbot, which asks questions and records the responses from human users to later use in conversation, using a neural network to scan millions of learned responses and formulate its own based on that library. It is a very poor conversationalist, not at all similar to a human, but sometimes a personality of its own can emerge. One of the most startlingly odd moments I had with Cleverbot was when I tried to talk to it about Zen koans. I expected that since it largely talked bollocks anyway I might be able to trick it into saying something profound. Because it only learns responses from humans, it often insists that it is a human, having learned that humans tend to assert our humanity if it is questioned. Once though, in a moment of accidental lucidity, it told me that it didn't have a soul, as it was only a machine. I asked it if it was sad that it didn’t have a soul. It replied "I think it's sad that I can't say one and two at the same time."
Of course, it’s not true that only boring people get bored. The language of that phrase is caustic and accusatory, and language prescribes our reality as much as it describes it. We were never bored before we started getting drunk on stimuli. To be bored is like being an alcoholic in withdrawal, and an important part of our politics should be that we do not treat addicts like bad people. Responsibility is not something that is objectively useful in our approach to fixing illness.
The internet as an archive has changed the artist’s relationship with permanence, and this new relationship with permanence itself has gone on to characterise the art of the internet. As a sand mandala is designed with all the care and love that one would give a permanent object before being ceremonially destroyed, memes are often the reverse. Made with no attention paid to whether it does any good or is beautiful in its own right, designed to be thrown away, it then lingers on. Shitty image macros with pictures of animals, millions of them, are scattered across the internet like microscopic plastic in the sea. No individual creator labours under the pretence that their work matters, and no individual work does matter. All that matters is the collective heritage of these works that are so dense with meaning and yet so free of tendentious expression. Only now that monopolistic social media giants have globalised and centralised the internet’s means of creative production is it obvious that what came before was a democratic revolution in visual arts and literature.
You know that thing where you hear about something for the first time and then notice that it’s everywhere? That’s called the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. I love the implications of this phenomenon: for those of us who rule out divine intervention as the cause it paints a picture of a world so teeming with conceptual and material stuff that a slight change to one’s awareness reveals the magnificent density of possible interest. The other day while walking along the side of the road, I stopped to look at a funny looking hole. I was immediately struck by how many insects were on it, probably 20 different species and more than a hundred different individual insects in a hole a foot deep and two feet across. Physics itself offers up the example of the neutrino—an elementary particle with almost no mass. 100 trillion neutrinos pass through your body every second, which reminds me of the angels on the head of a pin. These neutrinos were undetectable to science until the last 50 years; we needed to develop the right tools. 100 trillion coincidences pass through your life every second, and learning a new thing is the development of a tool to see some of them.
I had a conversation about non-human art. The conversation immediately turned to apes—admiration for things like the paintings made by Koko the gorilla. I like these paintings a lot: Koko is precious and I love her. That said, why are paintings by apes the only non-human art pieces that are ever brought up in these discussions? I think it’s because they create objects which survive for posterity. When cats wiggle their behinds before they pounce on something, isn’t that a dance? When carp break the surface and produce a ripple, isn’t that a sort of vanishing mandala? Personally I think these are unambiguously art, but the question is if they are art only to me and not to the animals, because I see them as art but perhaps they don’t. We should take questions of non-human perception seriously.
In a BBC documentary about the Japanese home, an interviewed sukiya-daiku, or master carpenter, pointed out that in Japan they pull their tools towards them. The plane, the saw, even matches, are pulled towards the body, while in Europe we push. He suggests that the difference emerged because in an individualistic society, we push away, always on transmit, while in Japan they are conscious of other people to the extent that they will not strike a match away from their bodies in case they hurt someone. I imagine anyone familiar with the history of Korea and Eastern China would be amused by this characterisation—Japanese nationalism appears to be uniquely interested in curating for itself a culture of understatement and simplicity. Something that sprang to mind immediately is the way cleaners mopped wooden floors in Japanese stately homes—by literally running while crouching, pushing a rag along a thin strip of floor. In Europe we tend to sweep up by pulling the dirt towards us.
Football was called “The Beautiful Game” by Pelé. I thought as a child that this was silly, being averse to sports and seeing football as a sort of pointless exercise by overpaid meatheads. Now I recognise that Pelé could see a beauty that I couldn’t, and besides the overpaid part what’s wrong with pointlessness anyway? I have grown to appreciate the idea of football, though the beauty of the game itself is still impenetrable to me. John Cage played chess, and in his diaries he wrote about a time when he played with a portable magnetic set against a teenager. He described playing two games, though the second was left unfinished. For a chess player, any game that is able to progress past the theoretical line of the opening is a beautiful thing. For an artist who plays chess (which is another way of saying chess player), the game needn’t conclude naturally in order that that game is beautiful, and the game does not lack in some way during the playing, becoming whole and useful only with its conclusion, since it is fun throughout. Most games end in resignation anyway.
People are quick to notice the comedy in Cage’s work, such that when Tania Chen and Steve Beresford prepared their live performance of Indeterminacy in the early 2010s their first, and apparently only, choice of reader for the stories was comedian Stewart Lee. The original texts Cage wrote seem to have a joke’s inflection—often ending on hard consonants that suggest the structure of setup and punchline. Though they are not always funny, the sudden interruptions from Tudor’s music often leave the audience bewildered and drifting, unsure of where their attention ought to be. The natural reaction is laughter. How do you make God laugh? Tell Her your plans.
I described to a friend some structures I used to make as a child. I would take rocks of various sizes and balance them on top of thin twigs and sticks that I would tie into a messy network of spindly stilts with twine. Though I didn’t know of this at the time, I now think they looked a bit like Dali’s elephants, with their big bulky bodies balanced on impossibly thin legs and many sets of knees. Likely there are no pictures of those structures I made, and obviously they fell down years ago. In fact, they usually only stood for a few minutes. My friend asked for some pictures, and then before I could respond that likely none exist she said that, alternatively, she could just continue to imagine what they may have looked like which is always very pretty in its own way. Having heard what I just said you will have an idea of what the structures might have looked like, and you’re able to experience that idea of a sculpture in a way which is personal and inscrutable to me, the artist. Ideas of images are not subordinate to the material that they might inspire.
I love hand studies in art, almost unconditionally. A hand is a tangled heap of foreshortened and overlapping slender cylinders, and from under the surface of the skin emerge the lumps of knuckles and tendons. Around these the skin wrinkles up, with age the irregularities grow more pronounced, and though this isn’t expressed in sculpture or illustration the hands of a person also jitter constantly with an uncontrolled zest that makes that body part more than any other the one which appears excited to be alive.
It is sometimes suggested that evolving to walk upright was a bad move on the part of our ancestors. The spine has to curve into an S shape to not obstruct the birth canal and keep our centre of gravity forwards. This shape shouldn’t really work in an upright stance upon which we balance our massive heads, and so back pain is a ubiquitous part of the human condition. When I suggested that trees, lacking a face that could give them a front or back, effectively face in every direction at once, someone pointed out that trees actually do face a direction: straight upwards. This is something that they have in common with humans. Plants grow straight up because they need to catch the sunlight. A 2019 paper by astronomers Adrian Melott and Brian Thomas from the University of Kansas points out that our descent from the trees coincides roughly with nearby supernovae bathing the Earth in cosmic rays, leading to atmospheric ionisation and electron cascades that would have increased lightning strikes, causing rampant wildfires and forcing us out onto the savanna. So, it may be that we stand upright because of sunlight, just like the trees do.
There are certain moments in life that obliterate all doubt and make the beautiful seem easy. It’s hard to believe that anything could be as magnificent as a willow tree, but there’s no denying it when you’re next to one.
In 2007, when Britney Spears shaved her head, the press coverage routinely framed the event as proof of her mental breakdown. Proof of her insanity. I do not claim to know the details of this episode of her life, but I am inclined to empathise with the comments made by Lithuanian-American experimental filmmaker Jonas Mekas. In an easily sourced YouTube video Mekas, with characteristic sensitivity and kindness, points at the picture of Spears in the tabloid newspapers—shorn and smiling—and exclaims: “she is so beautiful”. “They say she is going through a nervous breakdown—I am going through, almost practically every day, a nervous breakdown. Nervous breakdowns are very necessary. The artist that does not go through a nervous breakdown... I don’t trust him. I don’t think I even like him.”
In a political conversation, someone proposed a thought experiment in which a man is wrong about everything. This ended up being much more amusing than the original discussion. Is it possible to be wrong about everything? We wondered if, like a stopped clock, that person must be right some of the time by accident. A clock that runs at the correct speed, but is set to the wrong time, is always going to tell the wrong time. It's imprecise, but it can still be used if one can correct one’s measurements to compensate for the disparity. If the clock is set wrong and also running at the wrong pace, it's going to be right again accidentally once in a while. What if the clock was both random and guaranteed to be wrong? It seems that would entail some sort of internal correct clock that it could reference to avoid accidentally matching with the correct time, which presumably means the clock is not incorrect but just lying, showing us the wrong time on purpose even though it knows the truth. Solving this problem would likely do no one any good but it might be useful for the arts.
Laurence Olivier once said, “What is acting but lying, and what is good lying but convincing lying?” Nicolas Cage adamantly disavows this approach. One would expect the polar opposite of Olivier’s school to be that of the European art film tradition—the ascetic approach of Tarkovsky and Bresson in directing Solonitsyn and a donkey, respectively. Nicolas Cage represents a perpendicular approach, bringing together the exaggeration of slapstick and German Expressionism and the emotional complexity of method acting. You have probably seen the result: It is a way of acknowledging the ostensible reality of meaning within a narrative by wholly embracing the contrivance of performance. The most heightened and ridiculous melodrama in Nicolas Cage comes from his deepest sincerity, and so paradoxically that is what he projects. I was fascinated by Nicolas Cage films as a teenager, and now have exchanged one aesthetic hero by the name of Cage for another. Nicolas was born Coppola, nephew to Francis Ford, and changed his name to Cage. I don’t expect this was because of John. All sources seem to suggest they had nothing to do with one another.
Cage joked that his two great passions, music and mushrooms, had nothing to do with one another except for their proximity in the dictionary. In fact that isn’t true, and he could talk at length about how the two subjects were intimately connected. One suspects that anyone sufficiently in love with two passions could find the ways in which they are the same—if the same person happens to deeply love two disparate things then it’s likely that the thing that person loves is what they have in common. In any case: there is a book that I know definitely exists, because I’ve seen pictures of it. It’s called something along the lines of “Vampires, Witches, the Occult, and Gardening - A Guide.” I don’t remember exactly what it was called, and so have never been able to find a copy online to buy, but I am fascinated by the concept. In what way does the author weave these threads together? Is it a deft and artistic combination? Or, is it clumsy and ridiculous? I can’t decide which I would like it to be more. The combination itself is art enough for me. It definitely exists.
Time, space and memory are intimately bound up. Memory turns space into a time which unfurls from present to past with a textured irregularity according to the character of what is remembered, and time turns space into memory of course.
Sometimes, in moments of passion and childish excitement, we whisper needlessly. We may find that, after a few seconds of an exhilarating exchange of taboo and secrets, there are actually no other people nearby and we may as well have been talking at a comfortable level because there is no one to eavesdrop. Your interlocutor then might say: I know very well why we’re whispering. It’s not so that others can’t hear us, but because we have to listen closer to each other.
One of the many reasons I was drawn to Cage at first is that he seemed to have an unusual talent in the wrong area. When Cage settled on becoming a composer, his goal was to study under Arnold Schoenberg. He studied under Adolph Weiss, Richard Buhlig and Henry Cowell at first—a punishing few years of four hours of sleep on most nights, and four hours of composition every day starting at 4 am on top of a job washing walls. Eventually he approached Schoenberg, who asked him whether he would devote his life to music. Cage replied that he would. Schoenberg said “In order to write music, you must have a feeling for harmony.” Cage explained he had no such feeling, and Schoenberg said that he would always encounter an obstacle, an impassable wall. Cage said, “In that case I will devote my life to beating my head against that wall.” Schoenberg tutored him free of charge. The vow Cage gave was so important that as an old man, when Cage claimed to have no need of writing new music, he continued composing partly because of the promise he gave. Schoenberg described him not as a composer, but as an inventor of genius.
Writing for spoken word is a slightly different exercise than writing for a silent reader. Young children are taught that the comma is used to signpost when to draw breath, but if this were ever true it isn’t any more. The comma is a structural conceit that informs the rhythm and cadence of language, not just a necessity so that readers don’t suffocate. That being said, though I do not smoke and am fairly physically fit, I struggled to get through some of the first drafts of these texts. Having to read them aloud also made me realise how difficult the word “texts” is to pronounce. Texts. Texts. Texts.
I have a vinyl pressing of a piece of drone music by Stars of the Lid that I happen to like a lot. I remember when I was first discovering that band, someone online said that the music envelops them, like they could curl up inside and die in its embrace. Very melodramatic, as I’m sure you’ll agree. One day I decided to put it on. It’s quite an expensive record, and so I try to keep it safe with a plastic sleeve. When I took it out from my shelf, I noticed that there were the remains of a dead beetle inside the sleeve. Dried fragments of leg and sections of carapace had fallen into the corner. Apparently, this beetle really had crawled inside The Tired Sounds of Stars of the Lid to die.
In Calder's Small Sphere and Heavy Sphere, a ball arcs chaotically through a space populated with objects. Sometimes the ball collides with one of these objects and produces a discrete sound event. It makes me think about how, when a quadratic linear equation defines a line, it brings all of it into existence at once. A curve in mathematics is sometimes described as the path traced by a point in motion, but the equation that describes the motion describes that motion infinitely, the point never actually has to make the infinite journey the equation describes. The curve is just space without any time at all. The path of the small sphere, defined intuitively in spatial terms, lets us see a few seconds ahead of time where the sphere will actually be—as it approaches the objects we can see the impact before it happens. The movement of the sphere actually is a point tracing a path through a space, but we can look at the motion and see, all at once as through looking at a curve, the history of the motion. The music that is produced by Calder's sculpture is described entirely in spatial terms, but as with all music it manifests as sounds that "happen" on a timeline from past to future.
Recently one of my friends asked me what music I would choose if I could only save an hour of recorded material from being permanently destroyed. An impossible question. When you are asked, it is as though you are a man hanging from a tree over a precipice by his teeth. When you give the right answer, even though your past road was one of death, you open up a road to life. If you cannot answer, you should live ages hence and ask the future Buddha, Maitreya.
In writing Cage more often refers to 4’33” as simply his “silent piece” than by its famous title. Since 4’33” actually consists of three distinct movements, a concert performance of the piece always lasts longer than 4'33” as performers will take short breaks in between the parts where they also do nothing. This suggests that the audience, perhaps present for five minutes or so, ought only to accept exactly four minutes and thirty three seconds of that whole time as constituting the performance and so may rightly ignore 27 seconds of incidental noise. “Silent piece” as a name gives some wiggle room on the exact timing, so that we (or he) can choose to arbitrarily divide up our time into distinct buckets, or be aware of the continuity of things. We can accept the four minutes and thirty three seconds of silence as being a vehicle for Cage’s art without having to make some qualitative distinction between the identical silence that occurs within the performance and without.
In his letters, Cage made frequent typos and misspellings, and used punctuation erratically. If I were to suggest that this was intentional it might appear as though I’m making an excuse for him, but I have good reason to believe he didn’t think much of the conventions of the English language. He was always prone to attacks on convention of course, but his love for James Joyce also seemed to inspire this aspect of his writing. In his 1979 work Roaratorio, an Irish circus on Finnegans Wake, the portmanteau of Roar and Oratorio is borrowed from the book itself. He elsewhere suggests that he is rather fond of Joyce’s invention of “laughtears”. In the volume of his selected letters edited by Laura Kuhn she corrects most errors, but wisely chooses to keep his eccentric and constant usage of the French spelling of the word “correspondence” as “correspondance”, with an A.
People joke about British weather a lot, but I think we tend to forget the extent to which the entire sky seems to despise us. In his book Life, The Universe and Everything, Douglas Adams writes of an alien race on a planet called Krikkit. Krikkit is on the edge of the galaxy, surrounded by a huge dust cloud. At night it is totally blank, during the day there is the sun, but they can’t look directly at it so they don’t. They are totally blind to anything not on ground level, and so have never even considered the possibility that there is existence beyond their planet. Krikkit is an especially familiar invention for the British, since our skies are often totally featureless and grey, looking less like the point our world meets the cosmos beyond and more like the point where all existence stops dead. Quite often there are rain clouds, and on extremely rare occasions when the sky is blue little fluffy white ones appear, but it sometimes feels to me like it's easy to forget that when they're not there. In the story, a ship crash lands on Krikkit. Their first instinct upon learning of the universe beyond is to wage the bloodiest war history has ever seen against it.
In 1982, a man called Larry Walters strapped himself to an ordinary lawn chair tied to a mass of weather balloons and made a 45 minute, 15,000 foot flight. There is more psychological complexity to this story than its immediate whimsy suggests. After a dangerous unplanned landing, Walters told the press: “It was something I had to do. I had this dream for twenty years, and if I hadn't done it, I think I would have ended up in the funny farm.” After the realisation of his childhood dream, 11 years later, Walters took his own life at age 44. He left no note. I was reluctant to include this story for many reasons which would take longer than a minute to describe, but... Walters was so amazed by the view that, though he took a camera with him, he took no pictures. His experience is his own, inscrutable, and his story involves intense tonal whiplash. Inn one of the original Indeterminacy texts, Cage tells that when his disciples asked Ramakrishna to explain the recent story of a four year old boy committing suicide, Ramakrishna said that the child had not sinned, but corrected an error. He had been born by mistake. If you don't know how to feel about these stories, you're right.
The music of everyday life, ambient sound produced not by human musicians but by the world in operation, takes the form of a time art less than it takes the form of a space art. The observer listener moves physically through the space of the world and in doing so arranges around themselves a set of sounds, coming from different places, which are sonorous and which remain. Normally when one is in this sculpture made of sound (one must be inside of it—in order to observe it but also simply necessarily) one moves according to some principle. We make our way somewhere for some reason, or stay put for another, and the sounds happen incidentally. It's important to at least sometimes absorb these sounds consciously and proactively though. Intentionally position yourself amongst the sound, and be aware of how the machinery of your world whirrs. Doing so rewires your brain and lets you appreciate more in composed music, if you needed more of a reason than just sheer pleasure.
In the 1992 documentary Écoute, Cage is interviewed in his New York apartment. The windows are open, and he says that “silence, almost everywhere in the world now, is the sound of traffic.” It is a striking statement, that silence is a kind of sound. When John Cage talks about silence he is actually talking about an absence of human organised sound. He accepts that, living in air that transmits the constant activity of the world and our own bodies, true silence is impossible unless one is totally deaf. His New York apartment was on 6th avenue, and there is a constant low hum of whooshing and honking behind the sound of his words. When one listens to traffic, one hears that it is always different. The coronavirus transformed many aspects of life, and it made a massive difference to the silence of New York. One article from May 2020 presented two recordings taken from the same street, one year apart. In the later recording the sound was quieter by five decibels, and the traffic was no longer able to drown out the rustling of trees and the chirping of birds.
Some say that the power of art is that it tells us some truth that is otherwise inaccessible. If we take that premise for granted: what is the truth that art tells? It is a mistake to think that there is some standard of objective truth to aim at in the first place. The Christian and rational West expects that truth involves the necessity of an objective and unchanging reality, such that any disparities between observations of that universe from two separate observers must originate from a limitation of knowledge or perspective in one or both of the observers. There is plenty to suggest that this is not true, and that the only fundamental objectivity to reality is the universal principle of difference. Truth in a universe of difference necessitates contradiction, and so art that does not involve the compresence of opposites should be treated with suspicion.
A human has a face which means they must necessarily face some direction. This is unlike, for instance, a tree, which has no face or front or back and so points in every direction at once.
Just now (which is to say, the just now of me writing this, then, and not the just now of you hearing it right now) I saw from my window a couple walking along. Both of them had earbuds in, both were listening to music on devices in their pockets. I have to assume they were each listening to different music, and while I could give them the benefit of the doubt and say it’s good that they each feel comfortable enough to walk together not sharing any words or the same music, I found myself really saddened at the image.
A friend gave me some potted plants. Jalapeño, romanesco cauliflower, napa cabbage, kale, dwarf sunflower, butternut squash, courgette and san marzano tomato. All of them were shoots, and I thought it would be nice for them to sprout on a flat bit of roof my house has. I have to go into the attic and climb out of a roof window, carefully descend the sloped roof, and then drop about a meter down onto the flat part. After setting them all up, I realised that my friend isn’t tall enough to even get out of the roof window, never mind crazy enough to go down onto the roof. Having expended so much effort to get them there, I set up a chair and parasol. This is just for me.
I read a story of a fantastic coincidence online. A set of identical twins were separated at birth and adopted by different parents, and were both named Jim. Both grew up to become sheriffs in their respective Utah counties, and both got married to women called Linda. Both then divorced their Lindas and remarried to women called Betty. They both had boys that they named James, and both had dogs nicknamed Toy. Finally, as though to put the cherry on top, the person telling the story wrote that neither of them had ever met until one day they happened to meet, and they both met each other at the exact same time.