Sunday, March 3, 2013

"The music is all around us..."

"...all you have to do... is listen." —fictional character, August Rush

I haven't gotten to the point (yet) where I walk down the street and hear the noise of traffic as a sort of symphony of sounds (as August Rush does). However, I do realize that there is that potential. Music has that boundless, unlimited potential. We hear a symphony orchestra playing and easily identify it as music, but we could just the same hear a car's horn and call it music.

This gets into a musical philosophy reminiscent of John Cage's, who said, "The function of art is not to communicate one's personal ideas or feelings but rather to imitate nature in her manner of operation." Music for Cage is a sort of "purposeless play" and an "affirmation of life," which serves only to present sounds as they are in their natural form, rather than to manipulate sounds in order to portray something other than nature.

August Rush (fictional), John Cage (nonfictional)

For Cage, this philosophy resulted in music which challenged more traditional notions of music. For example, his famous composition 4'33" contains no notated music. In fact, at first glance, it would seem the piece calls for complete silence (three movements of tacet). However, Cage's intention was for the performer to refrain from making sound in order to allow the other sounds in the environment to be brought to the aural forefront (e.g. a cough from an audience member, or a squeak from a chair).

Calling a stifled cough "music" may be hard idea to swallow for some music listeners, but for Cage, he saw it like this: Self-expression is not the most beautiful, truest form of art. After all, what we deem self-expressive is largely only a reflection of our individual tastes and biases which we have picked up during our lifetimes. These tastes are developed through a series of judgments, by imperfect, fallible human beings. The most beautiful, truest form of art is that which is untainted by human manipulation or judgment. So, for Cage, the the only way to express truth in a musical manner was to remove the performer entirely from the creation of the music.

This all challenges our traditional views of aesthetic. It is natural for us to develop tastes for particular pieces of art and distastes for others. We see a painting, and we very quickly cross-check it against our likes and dislikes and form an opinion about it. But, as Cage posits, what may be more "natural" in the "Mother Nature" sense of the word, is a life free of judgment. If we remove judgment, we are left with beauty.

Cage summarizes:

"Every day is a beautiful day. Everything is pleasing, provided you haven't got the notion of pleasing and displeasing in you."

(Easier said than done, Mr. Cage.)

But it is an important idea, I think. There are certain realms of life where judgments (well-informed) are necessary (e.g. dietary discretion at the dinner table to ensure a healthy, functioning body), certainly. But in our aesthetic lives, I think it's important to challenge ourselves to "turn off" judgments occasionally and try to see a painting with fresh eyes or listen to a new type of music, free of any pre-conceived bias. If we adopt some of Cage's ideas, we can work to broaden our aesthetic sensibilities and more easily appreciate the beauty of our natural world.

So, after all this talk of John Cage, here's a clip of 4'33" performed by David Tudor. Your task is to notice the beauty in the performance, whatever that may mean to you.

And if you haven't got the time for Cage, take a quick stroll down the nearest street and listen for some beautiful, musical car horns, in the spirit of August Rush.

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