Bailey Trela

Notes on Chance: The Art of Cage and Kushner

ISSUE 92 | CREDIT | NOV 2018

Image description: a colored Georgian engraving on cream background showing a stylized image of the subject of the constellation Gemini (the twins) against the actual positions of the stars and the relative positions of neighboring constellations.

Image from Urania's Mirror, an 1824 set of popular astronomical star chart cards.

The liner notes for the avant-garde composer John Cage’s Etudes Australes feature a few uncharacteristically lucid quotes from the artist. “In my music,” he explains at one point, “there is no system of relations any more than there is of tonality. One finds all imaginative chords. There are chords that are completely classical, major or minor; but these are completely unexpected and unforeseeable. When they happen, they have extraordinary freshness, as if one heard them for the first time.”

The Etudes Australes are a later composition, though they fall squarely in line with, and are perhaps one of the best examples of, Cage’s interest in aleatory music—that is, music which relies to some extent on chance in its composition or execution. After gaining acclaim in the 1940s for experimental works like the Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano, Cage began to transition to chance-based composing. He started with timid innovations—circling the imperfections on an ordinary piece of paper, for instance, and laying a transparent sheet of notation paper over them to randomly generate notes. But after he received a copy of the I Ching as a gift in 1951, his experiments with chance took off.

Of course, Cage didn’t simply go about flipping coins and constructing elaborate musical arrangements from the barebones results. He might, for instance, choose the basic notes of his score by highlighting imperfections on his paper, and then determine their characteristics (accent, amplitude, duration, and so on) by referring to the I Ching’s divination tables, flipping a coin to find out if a note should be flat or sharp, loud or soft. Cage’s motives for turning to chance-based compositional techniques are often viewed as ascetic, and it’s true that he wanted to deny his own intentional desires, to compose music by removing his will from the equation. But his actions didn’t always have a blanket effect. Just as he spent much of his life obsessed with soft noises, the faint sounds that hovered just above silence, so too was he interested in the quiet regions of the will, in the soft acts that fell on the border between accident and intention, the willed and the random. As critics have pointed out, part of the reason Cage created the prepared piano—essentially an ordinary piano with bolts, screws, wooden wedges, and other minor impediments spread throughout the resonating chamber—was to reduce, but not eliminate, the player’s control over the tones being produced.

Cage’s experiments with aleatory music and the role of chance muddy the waters of authorial ascription. Who, after all, should get credit for the work? The artist, or the process? The tone-producing calculus, or the one who applies it? Should the star-chart that Cage used to compose the Etudes Australes receive a share of the credit? Or, as one ruminative European critic put it, should the copyright belong to God, who put the stars in the place?

Rachel Kushner’s second novel The Flamethrowers centers its plot around a handful of characters drifting in and out of New York City’s art scene in the 1970s, and though most everyone who features prominently in the plot is fictional, real-world figures slip in and out of the text, their names dropped by Kushner’s fame-grubbing creations. There’s the chromatic pioneer Yves Klein, Robert Smithson of Spiral Jetty fame, even a cameo from Cage’s fellow composer and friend Morton Feldman, who appears in a photograph described by the narrator, seated on a couch with her lover.

Many of the novel’s reflections on art are tinged with the discourse of minimalism, specifically the dictum that the art object should be nothing more nor less than itself—that it should symbolize nothing, refer to nothing, suggest nothing beyond its materiality and form. In the context of Kushner’s fictionalized art scene, these works are clean, somewhat antiseptic; Sandro Valera, the romantic partner of the novel’s protagonist, Reno, designs perfectly smooth aluminum boxes, burnished so strictly in the workshop where they’re produced that they must be carried about with cotton gloves.

The éminence grise of Reno’s circle, Stanley Kastle, made his fame crafting abstract sculptures out of neon tubes. The details of his rise in the art world aren’t given, nor is his process described, but by the time Reno encounters him, he’s managed to remove himself from the act of art-making entirely:

All Stanley had to do, at this point, to keep his art career going, was order neon tubes in various colors from a manufacturer, and his assistants arranged the tubes according to an algorithm he’d invented long ago, as if to subtract himself from the production of his own art. He was rich and well respected but he had forced his own obsolescence. The art made itself.

This retirement of the human element in favor of pure production has deleterious effects. Stanley is a hollow man. He gives chic dinner parties with his wife but mumbles through the exigencies of hosting; he delivers long and rambling monologues into a recording device and plays the reels back to his bored guests.

Reno’s work—fleeting, undefined—stands in stark contrast to Kastle’s. After arriving in New York City, she experiments with making flensed, cinéma vérité-style movies: images of cars in the street, of people walking past neon signs, of limousines and their chauffeurs, waiting patiently. Reno is obsessed with ephemeral phenomena, with images and experiences that can hardly be said to exist for more than a moment or two; her projects are united by an interest in recording all that is fugitive.

Whereas for Cage the disappearance of the artist allows chance to creep in and direct the art-making process, Kushner’s view of the artist in absentia is decidedly more fatalistic. The removal of Kastle in favor of his fabulous sculpture-producing algorithm leaves behind nothing but sheer determinism, without even the minor variations of serialism as consolation. In The Flamethrowers, the healthy artist, as embodied by Reno, is a fey figure, drifting about, touching on her subjects lightly—a phantasmal flâneuse. Her subjects are discovered by chance, chosen on a whim, and partake of a lightness and quickness that throughout the novel are associated with chance.

For money, Reno works part time at a film development lab, filling orders and posing occasionally as a “China girl”—a model used to demonstrate natural skin tone, so that projectionists can calibrate the color of the films they’re showing. She poses for a few feet of film, a handful of frames, which are sent off to theaters across the country, where they flicker past anonymous eyes, and disappear. These girls, remarkable mostly for the speed with which they disappear, exert a pull on Reno and the men who run the lab, some of whom collect the strips of film, admiring the complexions sealed inside. “The allure was partly about speed: run through a projector they flashed by so fast they had to be instantly reconstructed in the mind,” Reno explains. “Their ordinariness was part of their appeal: real but unreachable women who left no sense of who they were.”

The third ingredient in their appeal, which goes unmentioned, is obscurity. Circulated in private, meant to be discarded after a handful of uses, these segments of film depicting the China girls have a brief half-life. Whether or not one of these strips runs up against a proper admirer seems, more than with other works of art—which hang in galleries or museums, openly soliciting admiration—a product of chance.

The role of his art, as Cage saw it, was not so much to produce beauty as to get people to notice things. While an ordinary symphony might seek to evoke distinct images, settings, scenes, Cage’s sounds highlight nothing but themselves.

Writing about Cage on the centenary of his birth, Alex Ross describes how, listening to Cage’s music, we’re forced to “relinquish expectations that successive sounds will fall into familiar harmonic relationships, or indeed relationships of any kind, and instead treat each moment in isolation,” so that the listener ends up regarding sounds “as you would objects in a gallery.”

Cage was obsessed with emptiness, with holes and silences, but not for their own sake. For Cage, silence served two purposes. When reified into music—that is, notated—it both drew attention to environmental sounds and helped to isolate the actual notes of the score, thereby emphasizing their arbitrary nature. This strategy, coupled with the random production of the notes, makes the act of listening discontinuous. The ear isn’t led along a thread of melody, and receives no hints in the form of thematic development. Instead, listening becomes an assemblage of discrete instances of noticing.

Emptiness, for Cage, was essentially openness. He found it in the art scene around him: in the glass houses of Mies van der Rohe, which “reflect their environment, presenting to the eye images of clouds, trees, or grass,” and in the wire sculptures of his friend Richard Lippold, through which “it is inevitable that one will see other things, and people too, if they happen to be there at the same time.” The reflexive, devouring tendency of this amor vacui drew Cage to emptiness, to silence—it was a way of framing the world, of giving the quotidian score of reality its due.

Of course, it’s interesting that Cage’s praise of Mies van der Rohe is confined to the domestic sphere. Naturally, as the architect’s projects grow in scale, they lose some of the simple reflexivity that Cage found so intriguing—a skyscraper doesn’t offer to the pedestrian eye any such charming vignette as a bird flitting by in the glass. These slighter phenomena are lost in the glass’s immense dimensionless glare, a glare that speaks only of size, light, pure reflection—that signifies only the brute fact of reflection. Mies van der Rohe’s skyscrapers no longer simply turn the world back on itself. Instead, they act mainly as the crystallization of an idea—namely, the architect’s preferred apothegm, “less is more.”

Critics frequently discuss Cage’s works as acts of framing. His most famous piece, 4’33", specifies that its performer should sit at the piano and do nothing for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. The actual piece, at least initially, was thus a symphony of mass unease, authored by the audience—coughs, anxious whispers, the creaking of seats, the patter of feet heading towards the exit. Sanctified by the horizons of a performance, these sounds don’t assume a new meaning, but they are imbued with a new import. As if touched by a magic wand, the arbitrary eruptions of sound waves that occur in the performance space momentarily take on the mantle of order—they gain a certain head-turning, ear-inclining quality. In many of his works, Cage sought to encircle the mismanaged factory of noises that is the world; in others, to simulate its senseless onrush of sound.

It’s not surprising, then, that the Etudes Australes are a sprawling work. The first and perhaps best performance of the complete set, recorded by Cage’s close friend Grete Sultan between 1978 and 1982, runs for nearly three hours. The music is jittery, alternately crowded and sparse; the best one can do, sometimes, is sense a momentary upward trend in the tones, or a brief declension. In those rare moments when a harmonic plink surfaces from the endless parade of tones, you experience a curious rush—a desire to place the tone, to extrapolate the melody that might follow. But the notes rush on, burying you in sound.

The process Cage used to produce the Etudes Australes was baroque. Atlas Australis, a set of twenty-four star maps published by the Czech astronomer Antonín Bečvář, served as his foundational text. Laying transparent sheets of paper less than an inch in width over the charts, Cage then visualized the twelve tones of the octave, and applied operations from the I Ching to arrive at the score’s notes.

It’s tempting to imagine that the listener who notices these chords has some role in sanctifying them, that, like the proverbial tree falling in the woods, this chaotic jumble of notes only becomes art when there’s someone around to hear it. But that would be missing the point. Part of Cage’s goal in composing music without the involvement of the will was to produce an act of aesthetic appreciation that, precisely because it likewise relies on chance, does away with the ego as well.

The question of whether or not, because of this, the music is “art” at all is almost irrelevant. It’s art, and it isn’t. Because the author of the work is such a shadowy, indeterminate presence, funneled through a compositional procedure that acts as a singularity, it becomes exceedingly difficult to ascribe any meaning or significance to Cage’s music—which is precisely what Cage wanted. His notes hang in the silence, dispassionate as stars.

When Kushner’s novels are criticized, the animus tends to focus on their directionlessness—they sprawl, encompassing a wide range of characters, locales, and themes, many of which are never woven into anything greater. Her plots, critic complain, seem to gesture at a grand design without ever attaining it.

But that aimlessness is by design in The Flamethrowers. Reno is a wanderer, a motorcyclist obsessed with speed and motion. She spends the bulk of the novel trying to figure out what sort of art she should make. Like a humorless pícaro she jostles from point to point, meeting new artists, new vagrants, new personalities, slowly accreting experience. New York City is “a mecca of individual points, longings, all merging into one great light-pulsing mesh,” a breeding ground for unique encounters. The development of the artist is no longer a carefully structured apprenticeship but rather a process of trial and error—a process ruled by chance. “Chance, to me, had a kind of absolute logic to it,” Reno explains. “Chance shaped things in a way that words, desires, rationales could not. Chance came blowing in, like a gust of wind.”

Early in the novel Reno attends a gathering of speed enthusiasts at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, where professionals and hobbyists descend annually to break various land speed records. She plans to ride a motorcycle down the track and afterwards to photograph the trace its tires leave in the polished white salt of the race course—a sign of speed, a quiet scratch of presence in the landscape. But as she accelerates down the track she’s hit by a gust of wind. She crashes so fast that the blackness immediately takes her.

Part of Reno’s obsession with speed stems from a desire to heighten the power of chance. It’s only because of the incredible speed she’s traveling at that chance has so many opportunities to manifest—under those conditions, a pebble, a puddle, a gust of wind is enough to cause an accident. Chance becomes a physical thing—a matter of the body, an outgrowth of physical laws. A line uttered by a friend of Sandro’s grandfather early in the novel—“Speed…gives us, at last, divinity in the form of the straight line”—takes on new meaning in this context. In Reno’s racing down the course lies a conflation of chance, creation, and the divine, a potent stew that Reno searches out, surrenders to.

Later, after recovering, Reno returns to the site of her crash and takes a few pictures of the faint track she left in the salt. The pictures, however, turn out underwhelming; they precisely fail to capture the urgency of her speed, the fact of her passing. It is the accident, rather—that momentary, physical embodiment of chance—that turns out to have been the true experience, the actual performance, the real work of art.

In an overview of Cage’s life and career published in 2010, Ross describes Cage’s final years in New York, which the composer spent living in a loft in Chelsea with his longtime partner Merce Cunningham. Visiting that loft a few years after Cage’s death, Ross recounts a meeting with Cunningham, who he finds “gentle, taciturn, elusive.” As they speak, however, Ross finds himself more and more distracted by the noises of the busy street outside, which sound strange to him, altered by his location. “As I listened, the traffic, the honking, the beeping, the occasional irate curses and drunken shouts seemed somehow changed, enhanced, framed,” Ross writes. “I couldn’t shake the impression that Cage was still composing the sound of the city.”

During the final years of his life, Cage listened carefully to the daily sounds of Sixth Avenue that tumbled through his open windows. He found their lack of repetition, and the completely random mode of their appearance, captivating. Early in The Flamethrowers, Reno is alone in the city, with few connections, fewer friends. One evening she lies in her apartment and listens to the sounds of the city outside:

The trucks rumbling down Kenmare, the honking, an occasional breaking of glass, made me feel that I was not separate and alone in my solitude, because the city was flowing through my apartment and its sounds were a kind of companionship.

Cage had a favorite joke during his lifetime. Whenever a rude sound intruded—a siren, the screeching of tires, the simple clamor of human voices—he would look to his companions, acknowledge the noise, and deliver some variation of the line, “They’re playing my piece.” By appropriating everyday noises and framing the world’s inferno of sound, Cage managed to get his name associated with the cacophony of everyday life.

Perhaps it’s the evanescence of his chosen field—sound—that kept his work from devolving into something gruesome; Cage left us no soulless skyscrapers, idols of themselves. To describe the noise of the world as “Cagean” is only to redirect one’s attention to the noise itself, the acoustics being described. It doesn’t seem unlikely that part of the drive behind his adjuration to listen stems from the human comfort to be found in sheer noise—from the fact that there is something human in chance, something engendering, something alive.

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Next: Against the Artist as Brand

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