Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘John Cage

The chance operation

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If you were looking for insights into leading the life of an artist at a time of political turmoil, it would be hard to find a more intriguing example than Judith Malina, who spent five decades wrestling with the problem in public as the head of the Living Theatre. Beginning in the early fifties, Malina and her husband, Julian Beck, staged a series of shows in New York and Paris that appear to have been equal parts innovative, radical, and unbearable. In 1952, for example, their production of Paul Goodman’s Faustina seems to have strained the audience’s patience to the breaking point. As Erika Munk writes in a chapter of the book Restaging the Sixties:

Goodman—a great influence as anarchist thinker, Malina’s therapist, and gay-but-married exemplar to Beck—wanted theater that provoked: “Either the audience is terribly offended…or in two hours the play effects a character-change in the audience, more than all the manifestoes can accomplish.” At the end of Faustina, which concerned Rome in the time of Marcus Aurelius, the actor playing the title character was supposed to address the spectators directly, telling them they were responsible for its murderous climax because they didn’t leap onstage and stop the action. The actor playing Faustina refused to address the audience, and Malina took her place. They still didn’t leap.

Munk concludes: “Faustina was a disaster. No surprise, when sophisticated playgoers were asked to feel real guilty for not taking steps to stop a purely fictive crime.” And I can’t say that I especially wish that I had been in the audience that night.

Yet I also respect Malina’s lifelong obsession with exploring the relationship between society and art, which she expressed in the only way that she could—by forcibly transferring it to the actors and the audience. In the program notes, she wrote: “We are the creators in an art where every night hundreds of people are ignored, a pretense is made that they do not exist; and then we wonder that the actor has grown apart from society; and then we wonder that the art itself staggers lamely behind its hope of being part of life.” Her tentative solution was to explicitly acknowledge the audience’s presence, which led to a stark contradiction in itself. She was still imposing her will on the spectators, not to mention her reluctant actors, and her response was elegant, if not entirely convincing:

The play is a ritual. Any play is a ritual, but in this play the ritual is overt and we speak out about it with real brazenness…The I Ching says, “It is the Creative that begets things but they are brought to birth by the receptive.” And it says of me further, “The person in question is not in an independent position, but is acting as an assistant. This means that he must achieve something.” I consulted this book of ancient Chinese oracle not only for myself but for my audience. To allow ourselves to be led, all of us assistants in the ritual, which hasn’t any power, but from which power is derived. The play does not take place in pagan Rome. Believe me, believe me that it takes place in the theatre. In this theatre and tonight.

In other words, the play itself was in control, and both the performers and the audience had to surrender to its logic in order to achieve a deeper form of liberation.

It’s also revealing that Malina turned to the I Ching, which is the ideal vehicle for this kind of process. A year earlier, Malina and Beck had served as performers—or “operators”—at the debut of Imaginary Landscape No. 4 by their friend John Cage, which was presented by randomly changing the station and volume on twenty-four radios according to the instructions derived from the oracle. For Cage, these mechanisms were intended to serve as a means of surrendering control, as he explained in a passage that I quoted here a few months ago:

Chance operations are not mysterious sources of “the right answers.” They are a means of locating a single one among a multiplicity of answers, and, at the same time, of freeing the ego from its taste and memory, its concerns for profit and power, of silencing the ego so that the rest of the world has a chance to enter into the ego’s own experience, whether that be outside or inside.

And Cage expressly saw the use of chance operations as an artistic reaction against political dogmatism and oppression. Elsewhere in the same talk, “Lecture on the Weather,” he explains: “Now our government thinks of us also as the policemen of the world…The desire for the best and the most effective in connection with the highest profits and the greatest power led to the fall of nations before us: Rome, Britain, Hitler’s Germany. Those were not chance operations. We would do well to give up the notion that we alone can keep the world in line, that only we can solve its problems.”

And out of all forms of divination, the I Ching might be the best one to use when enacting the relationship between the individual and authority, precisely because its tone is bureaucratic and vaguely dictatorial. As Joseph Needham writes in Science and Civilisation in China:

The Book of Changes was a system for pigeon-holing novelty and then doing nothing more about it. Its universal system of symbolism constituted a stupendous filing-system. It led to a stylization of concepts almost analogous to the stylizations which have in some ages occurred in art forms, and which finally prevented painters from looking at Nature at all…The Book of Changes might almost be said to have constituted an organization for “routing ideas through the right channels to the right departments.”

This rigidity is part of the reason why I’ve never much cared for the I Ching as a creative tool—but if you’re looking to simulate the surrender of agency to an impersonal system of power, it’s perfect. (It probably isn’t an accident that Philip K. Dick turned to the I Ching to make narrative decisions while writing The Man in the High Castle, which imagines an alternate history in which the United States was divided between Germany and Japan after World War II.) And at a moment when issues of authoritarianism seem more urgent then ever, it might be a good time to revisit such tools, which force the artist to abandon the insidious inclination toward control itself. As the priestess says in Faustina: “It’s a lot of shit, but that’s how we do it.”

Quote of the Day

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It may seem to some that through the use of chance operations I run counter to the spirit of Thoreau…The fifth paragraph of Walden speaks against blind obedience to a blundering oracle. However, chance operations are not mysterious sources of “the right answers.” They are a means of locating a single one among a multiplicity of answers, and, at the same time, of freeing the ego from its taste and memory, its concerns for profit and power, of silencing the ego so that the rest of the world has a chance to enter into the ego’s own experience, whether that be outside or inside.

John Cage, “Lecture on the Weather”

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June 15, 2018 at 7:30 am

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January 3, 2018 at 7:30 am

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May 18, 2017 at 7:30 am

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October 13, 2016 at 7:30 am

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John Cage

[John Cage] replies to the composer and editor R.I.P. Hayman, who had asked him, “Is politics to society what music is to sound?” The question, Cage remarks, is “a little too mathematical,” but he goes on to answer, “yes if music is thought of as a body of laws to protect musical sounds from noises, as government protects rich from poor.”

Alastair Macaulay, in a review of The Selected Letters of John Cage

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July 22, 2016 at 7:30 am

The Book of Changes

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The I Ching

If there’s a single theme to which I’ve repeatedly returned for the five years and more I’ve been writing this blog, it’s the importance of randomness in the creative process. I’ve always tried to systematically incorporate elements of chance into my work, in a large part because I’m temperamentally the opposite: I’m an architect, not a gardener, and nearly everything I’ve written—fiction and nonfiction alike—has been planned, outlined, and structured within an inch of its life. I adopted this approach as a kind of survival strategy: I figured out early in my career that I had a better chance of finishing a project, rather than abandoning it halfway through, if I had a blueprint to follow. And that’s still true. But the fact that I’ve always been a fundamentally rational writer has led me to think about creative randomness and serendipity to a greater extent, I suspect, than many of those who naturally take a more intuitive approach. An author who begins a story without a clear end point in mind, apart from a willingness to follow the narrative wherever it leads, doesn’t need to consciously worry about randomness: it’s baked into the process from the beginning. But because I’m predisposed to lay everything out before I type the first sentence, I’ve tried to be diligent about keeping that fertilizing aspect of chance alive.

As Gregory Bateson wrote: “Creative thought must always contain a random component. The exploratory process—the endless trial and error of mental progress—can achieve the new only by embarking upon pathways randomly presented, some of which when tried are somehow selected for survival.” Elsewhere, Bateson is reported to have said to his secretary: “I am going to build a church some day. It will have a holy of holies and a holy of holy of holies, and in that ultimate box will be a random number table.” And the search for productive forms of randomness has been one of the most absorbing parts of my writing life over the last ten years. I’ve written at length here about how I’ve tried most of the usual suspects, like Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies, and how the most useful repository of random connections I’ve found has been Ted Hughes’s anthology A Choice of Shakespeare’s Verse, which helpfully provides more than two hundred numbered quotations that I pick out of a virtual hat whenever I’m trying to crack a creative problem. I’ve also dabbled with methods associated with divination, which, as a sources of symbols for inspiring unexpected trains of thought, can be genuinely valuable tools. As I once wrote about the tarot:

It’s really a portable machine for generating patterns…It results in a temporary structure—in the form of the cards spread across the table—that can be scrutinized from various angles. At its best, it’s an externalization or extension of your own thoughts: instead of confronting the problem entirely in your own head, you’re putting a version of it down where you can see it, examine it, or even walk away from it.

The Tarot of Marseilles

But there’s one obvious resource that I’ve never been able to use to my own satisfaction: the I Ching. I’ve always been a little surprised by this, since it’s probably the most famous of all oracular texts. I’ve toyed with various translations, notably the Richard Wilhelm edition, and I had a reasonable amount of success with The Portable Dragon by R.G.H. Siu, which pairs the original hexagrams with illuminating quotations from both eastern and western sources. But the results have always left me cold, and it’s taken me a long time to figure out why. I found a helpful clue in a discussion of the subject in Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilisation in China, the legendary seven-volume masterpiece that I was recently delighted to find is available for download at Monoskop. In his section on the I Ching, which he thinks had a negative influence on the history of thought in China, Needham writes:

The elaborated symbolic system of the Book of Changes was almost from the start a mischievous handicap. It tempted those who were interested in Nature to rest in explanations which were no explanations at all. The Book of Changes was a system for pigeon-holing novelty and then doing nothing more about it. Its universal system of symbolism constituted a stupendous filing-system. It led to a stylization of concepts almost analogous to the stylizations which have in some ages occurred in art forms, and which finally prevented painters from looking at Nature at all.

And I think he’s onto something. The I Ching has a way of closing off pathways of thought—unlike the tarot, which opens them up—because it’s almost too comprehensive and organized. The tarot is a mess, but in the best possible way: the patterns it generates are necessarily incomplete, and they require a secondary act of consolidation in the user’s brain. The I Ching feels more like a card catalog. (Needham shrewdly compares it to the bureaucratic organization of much of classical Chinese society, and says: “The Book of Changes might almost be said to have constituted an organization for ‘routing ideas through the right channels to the right departments.'”) And after trying valiantly for years to incorporate it into my writing routine, I set it aside: it seemed to have some of the same freezing effect on my work that Needham identifies in Chinese culture as a whole. This is all very subjective, of course, and it clearly doesn’t apply to everyone: the I Ching played an important role in the careers of such artists as John Cage and Philip K. Dick, and I wouldn’t discourage any writer from at least trying it out. But when I relinquished it at last, it was with something like relief. The central principle of the I Ching is resonance, but for whatever reason, it just never resonated with me. And if a tool doesn’t work, it has to be put away. Because the search for randomness is too important to be left to chance.

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